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Freedom Boxes, Freedom Voices

An excerpt from the e-book "On Internet Freedom."
January 17, 2013 |
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In early 2011, a group of developers and lawyers raised $86,000 from one thousand people on Kickstarter to develop a device they called the FreedomBox. Its purpose is to help users protect their freedom to speak, read, and create through technology even my grandmother could use. The developers proposed mass-producing a device the size of a matchbook for users to plug into their wall sockets and store computer files, at home, encrypted securely to prevent hackers or governments from accessing them. Once available, this FreedomBox will also frustrate marketers trying to track what websites you visit and what products you buy online. It will even make your online activities invisible to spy agencies sifting through data, to telecom or cable companies perhaps tempted to block particular sites and software, and also to the Hollywood lawyers who can plausibly sue you for hundreds of thousands of dollars for illegally downloading a handful of songs.

The creators of the FreedomBox have a very specific idea of what users should be able to do on the Internet—without needing the permission or forgiveness of government agencies, phone companies, Hollywood execs, or software gatekeepers. Sure, some people might use their newfound liberty to engage in unethical (or illegal) acts. But without the FreedomBox’s technical protections, law enforcement and espionage agencies around the world would be more likely to engage in unethical (or illegal) monitoring and censorship. One of the effects of the FreedomBox is to make tools widely available to devolve speech power into the hands of each individual—the very many—rather than the powerful few.

The FreedomBox is just one example of technology fighting back against perceived threats to our online freedom. Tor software prevents governments that are monitoring your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, and also prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location. Cryptocat provides secure, private chat software. The Guardian Project creates tools for sharing smartphone videos of protestors while masking their faces. More technologies are on the horizon: Commotion Wireless, a project funded by the State Department and described by the New York Times as an “Internet in a suitcase,” is software that lets any laptop, tablet, or smartphone connect wirelessly with other nearby devices. Once available, it will enable users to connect with other users through private networks, much like the separate computer network you might log into at work. If a local government shuts off Internet access to an entire country—as the governments of Iran, Syria, Libya, and Egypt have all done in recent years—these Commotion-enabled networks could still connect to the global Internet through alternative pathways, like one American satellite connection.

But there are other, very different technologies that might be just as necessary for protecting our freedoms. They do not enable technical hacks but legal ones. As the readers of this book likely remember, on January 18, 2012, Wikipedia, Reddit, and Boing Boing blacked out their sites, and Google, WordPress.com, and Tumblr symbolically self-censored theirs as well, to protest a pair of controversial copyright bills. These bills were known as SOPA (for the Stop Online Piracy Act, the bill’s name in the House of Representatives) and PIPA (the PROTECT IP Act, short for the long, not-so-clever name of Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act—its name in the Senate). Many nonprofit advocacy groups dedicated to fighting for a free and open Internet played a key role in planning the blackout, including Fight for the Future, Demand Progress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, the Open Technology Institute (which leads development on Commotion), Public Knowledge, the Center for Democracy & Technology, Tech Freedom, and Engine Advocacy, among others.

The most important freedom-preserving technology of the blackout, perhaps, was simple software that enabled anyone to click a link and place a call directly to his or her US senator or district representative. Eight million calls were attempted through Wikipedia alone, and many more were completed through other means. January 18 was essentially a denial-of-service attack on all of Congress; with phones ringing constantly, interns and staff in each office interrupted their work to pick up phones, all day long, to hear why Congress should not censor the Internet just to stop a few people from downloading movies and shows.

According to the newspapers read by people who work in politics—such as Politico and The Hill—members of Congress have remained “shell-shocked” by the response for the past year. The number of calls—surely a record number—shocked them, as did the topic. After all, people usually call Congress to complain about health care, war, taxes, guns, climate change, or voter suppression. Internet freedom was a new addition to the list.

A year later, the Congressional shock remains. It may eventually wear off as memories fade, but someday, with the prodding of industry organizations or government offices, the US Congress will again turn to dangerous legislation that will threaten existing freedoms online in the US and provide a model for restriction in other countries. This legislation may again aim to protect copyright—or it may aim to protect “security” or “law enforcement.” These are all noble goals that can be used to justify ignoble laws. If the bad ideas aren’t written into legislation, they may be implemented through a White House program or introduced by an overzealous prosecutor claiming that downloading academic articles on a university network, to take one recent example, is the crime of wire fraud.

Acknowledging that the “next SOPA” could look very different, Fight for the Future and other groups created a tool in July 2012 (a few months after the blackout) called the “Cat Signal.” Anyone can download the Cat Signal, a short piece of code, and display it on her website or blog. When (not if) the Internet is under threat again, Fight for the Future and other groups will alert the Cat Signal legion. The legion will then turn on the signals on their sites in a call to action to alert their communities of readers. This way, through decentralized, widespread collective action, Internet users would know quickly that our right to share political videos or cute cat photos is under threat and that Gotham needs a dark knight. Like the Bat Signal, it is only as strong as the people who respond to it.
But the Cat Signal is just today’s tool; tomorrow, there will be others. The FreedomBox, Tor, and Commotion Wireless are part of an arms race, and new technologies are being developed to track us better, to break our encryption, and to bias our Internet use (including Blue Coat). In the long run, today’s technologies alone won’t protect us. Innovation is necessary, but threats to our freedoms are not merely technological. Nor are the means for protecting them. They are also legal and political.


As the Internet has evolved throughout its history, several authors have written lengthy books at the Internet’s key moments of transition. Some books, including Larry Lessig’s classic book Code, discussed the transition that took place around 1995 from a hobbyist Internet to today’s commercial Internet. Others discussed the transition, around 2000 to 2005, from an Internet accessed over dial-up phone lines to one accessed over always-on, higher-speed cable lines. Again, Lessig wrote the best of them, The Future of Ideas. Later books, particularly Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It and Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, discussed the transition beginning around 2007 from home connections, programmable computers, and downloadable software to mobile connections, locked-down devices (like the iPhone), and software on the cloud (like Google Docs) and in controlled app stores (like the Apple App Store). Finally, several books, particularly Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks in 2005, explored the emerging economics of open-source technologies and of the sharing economy, helping to make sense of the economics of sites from Wikipedia to Airbnb.

Many of the books written at these moments of transition warned of a potentially dark future for the Internet, one without user control and with less user-driven innovation and increasing restrictions on users’ speech. And it’s not just law professors making the call: often you might read stories in Reddit, TechCrunch, Ars Technica, or Boing Boing covering new efforts to “destroy the Internet as we know it.” Depending on your email inbox, once a month, perhaps, you receive alerts from digital rights groups about yet another potential legal threat to the Internet, whether from courts or from Congress.

And these books, pages, and emails agree that what’s at stake is important: Internet freedom. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared that Internet freedom “can help transform societies” and is “critically important to individuals.” In his obituary for Demand Progress cofounder and Creative Commons contributor Aaron Swartz, Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald called it simply a cause of “supreme importance to people and movements around the world.” Internet freedom matters because the Internet is the modern printing press, distributed to all of us. It is the infrastructure for us to exercise our freedom to speak, read, and connect with others. These freedoms are basic to democracy and for individuals to control their own lives and reach their full potential.

Restrictions on the freedom of speech online limit our ability to debate, protest, and propose the laws that govern our lives. They limit our ability to influence environmental policy, gun control, warfare, or economic questions and empower the insiders to make decisions without consulting us. Internet freedom is foundational. It matters for every other cause each of us cares about, as did the right to distribute pamphlets years ago or the right to vote throughout our history. It is, simply, an enabler and protector of all our other rights in society. And, we are told, it is often at risk. Every time the Internet evolves in a new direction, through leaps in devices, software, as the laws written for the past become unclear or outdated and our rights are up for grabs, there is a tussle for our freedom.
None of these authors, websites, or organizations is crying wolf.
So long as the Internet remains an open platform controlled primarily by users, there will be no rest for the virtuous.

More: Marvin Ammori explores the legacy of the SOPA and PIPA Internet blackout in Zócalo Public Square.


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