Digital freedom: don't get angry, be open

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Digital freedom: don’t get angry, be open.

How can we keep human rights in a digital world? Hazel Healy talked to the tech freedom fighters to find out.

In September, I went to a conference about Bitcoin in London. Amir Taaki organised the conference. He said that the people who came are “explorers of a new world”. They were 99 per cent male: business people, computer programmers, anarchists who use codes, and others.

Bitcoin is a digital currency that allows people to spend money on the internet without giving their name. The software is complicated, and has a lot of other possibilities. One possibility is creating a money market which makes banks unnecessary.

The conference speakers talked about a lot of new technology which could cause problems. The people listening were from all political groups. Cody Wilson, for example, wants everyone to be able to download and 3D-print guns; Eli Sklar wanted a society with no money. Technology has always been interesting for people with all kinds of ideas for the future, good and bad. But I was more interested in power – government and big business – and how power affects this digital space. I wanted to meet some hackers. Not hackers who break into security systems, but hackers who build things: inventors who fight against authority. I wanted to meet the free software hackers. Their movement could be one of the most important movements of this century. They are trying to work out who controls technology; and with this, the keys to freedom, access and openness.

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Freedom software

First, I met one of the greatest hackers ever, Richard Stallman. He is the leader of the movement for free software. They work on programs that are free to use, share and change, with no problem with copyright. Stallman travels the world saying that software is public knowledge. Stallman and the FSF (Free Software Foundation) help and encourage the development of new free alternative versions of private software. The private software, owned by companies like Microsoft and Apple, is secret and controlled.

I met Stallman at a Chinese restaurant near Russell Square – he loves Chinese food. He is small and not thin, has a beard and long hair and carries a net book. He doesn’t look important and sits between smart, bald Sveinn Vafells, an Icelandic tech businessman, and young Bitcoin developers Stefan Thomas and Pieter Wuille. But Stallman’s programming work is so amazing – he wrote a large part of the free operating system GNU/Linux, which is used on tens of millions of computers. People respect him a lot nearly 30 years later.

As we eat, Stallman talks about what he believes. “Practical things should be free to use and change,” he explains. “That’s how an ethical society should be. This should include everything: the design, educational work, fonts, recipes and programs.”

Open source spreading

Stallman made his programming free, for ever, with a very clever “copyleft” licence. This means people who use it can read the source code and improve it (the source code is version of the code that people can read, that runs the software). They can only improve it if they pass on the same free rights to everyone else. So the knowledge and learning will always be public.

Free software is very successful. Write Glyn Moody said it “holds up half the world”. It supports most of the web and competes with private, closed software. The ethical idea of being free and open-source has had a big influence on hardware, design and electronics. And it was probably Stallman’s ideas that made Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the internet, decide to give it away, not charge a licence fee or have a patent.

It’s great to see a productive model where making money is not the most important thing. I ask Bitcoin developer Pieter Wuille why he writes code. “I don’t want to make money from it”, he says. “It gives me satisfaction to be part of this community.” He says coding is like learning to play a musical instrument – you have to master it to do it alone. And when you are good at it, others see this. Wuille has got a good reputation through Bitcoin, so Google have offered him a job with them.

At the end of the Chinese meal, Sveinn Vafell pays the bill. He says wants to pay because Stallman, Wuille and Thomas gave us so many things.

Hearing aids that talk

Stallman sells FSF badges at the conference, and talks about how harmful the private software can be. “When people don’t know about this problem, they lose their freedom without knowing. Because the software has good features and there is pressure from companies to use it. Now, people who use private software are almost certainly using malware.” Malware – malicious software – can be spyware that can record information secretly from your phone or your laptop. For example, people have caught parents and colleges in the US spying on children in this way.

But the most common malware is DRM (Digital Rights Management). This restricts what you can do with the data in your own computer.

Cory Doctorow, sci-fi writer and activist, gives the example of a Nintendo console that doesn’t let you install software that is not authorized. DRM allows a publisher to cancel an e-book you have bought if the distributer’s licence agreement changes. Or it can stop you transferring music files from iPhone or iPod to your computer.

The private companies say they are protecting copyright to help get money for research and development. But computers and software are now designed to be more powerful than the decisions of the owner. This, according to Doctorow, is making the power of big business more important than human rights.

Doctorow warns that entertainment is the first area. Computing is coming into all areas of life: cars, planes, radios and even DNA sequencers. And many industries with very strong powers and influence will be trying to control what computers are allowed to do, and the users will pay for this. Monsanto and the oil industry are sure to get involved too.

“I want to be sure my hearing aid is really letting me hear,” says Doctorow. And the first step to making sure that your hearing aid doesn’t whisper adverts in your ear, or that your rented pacemaker doesn’t stop working if you stop paying for it, is to know how it works.

This brings us back to the code. If we use free systems with an open code that everyone can see, Stallman says, “no-one has that power over you”.

Copyright forever

DRM is not happening alone. In the last 25 years, there have been many many intellectual property rights. This is not good for the industry of developing countries.

The US is leading this. In the US, the length of copyright has increased from 14 years, to the lifetime of the author plus 70. Washington is under a lot of pressure from the software, technology and entertainment industries, and has included this in trade agreements too.

The internet is the most recent area to fight over. It is almost impossible to prove that an illegal download means a lost sale. But the entertainment industry is blaming all their lost money on “pirates” who share files. It is difficult for artists in this new digital world. But it would be better to help artists to develop new business models than to punish people who share. It is so easy to copy now that trade agreements and laws are useless, according to the Social Science Research Council’s independent study, Media piracy in emerging economies.

The disagreements about piracy are important to everyone at the Bitcoin conference, whether they share files or not. This is because if copyright is controlled on the internet, like on our personal phones and computers, this means an unacceptable level of control.

“Your phone company can’t cut you off because they don’t like what you say,” says Stallman. “We need that kind of support in the internet.”

Getting round censorship

Caleb James Delisle is trying to provide that support. He is a hacker and he has been coding since the age of 10, “programming the world I want to live in”. A world where the government doesn’t “listen and block”. He lives with no car in the woods in Massachusetts. He came to London to show his project to get round censorship using a mesh-network called cjdns. This would create an open-source internet, owned by the community.

“All internet companies are dictators – good or bad”, he says. He is making the connections and power so they are not controlled by one centre. That means the government cannot force an ISP (Internet Service Provider) to close a website that the government doesn’t like such as Wikileaks.

Delisle’s network would also stop governments spying on information and communications without permission. Journalist Heather Brooke has written about how the internet has made it easy to share ideas, but it has made it just as easy to take the ideas of others. So governments want information. Britain, for example, is discussing a new law of Communications Data. This would mean internet companies would need to follow and keep records of everyone’s web use for a year.

And a lot of IT companies are selling complicated technology to watch and control to all countries, dictatorships and democracies. And hackers are writing software to make people anonymous and protect identities. The government say they are protecting us by controlling our communication – for example, threats to national security and stopping child pornography. But information activists do not agree with this. They believe the restrictions are mainly to keep control.

Some states have the power to close down websites and track criminals. And law courts are finding it difficult to protect civil rights in all the new technology (it was 40 years before police needed special permission to listen to a phone call).

With more development, Delisle’s network might help to protect privacy and freedom. But we will need more people – from the law and society in general – to fight to stop governments getting all our information.

You are the product

Daniel Reusche, 22, a student from Berlin, is worried about who owns information. He is helping to build a secure free-software social network (Secushare.org) because “it’s not a good idea to have other people controlling your data”. Secushare would let us control all the personal information – a billion of us trust Facebook with this.

Volunteers are working on this project, and they understand that if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. Facebook admits that they make money from your data. A simple example of this is adverts that are targeted at particular people. But there are worse things, for example making it public that teenagers are gay in the US, which was reported in The Wall Street Journal.

Google runs over a million data services around the world, and does a billion search requests every day. Governments want to look at this – and Google gives them information on thousands of daily data requests.The US made over 6,000 requests between July and December 2011. China hacked into Gmail to get passwords for the accounts of anti-government dissidents. Brooke says that the US Supreme Court is trying to do the same thing in a legal way: different ways of getting into Facebook, Google and Blackberry.

Reusche is worried that all our information, when it is kept in one central place, might be used by the wrong people. This could be bad for minority groups.

Stallman agrees. He says Facebook is a way of watching people, and it provides more information than Stalin dreamt of. “People with more power will have more profit from data”, says Reusche. Secushare is a way to fight for social justice. “We need equal sharing of power and rights.”

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Power to the people: Megni and others from Wales have developed the Open Energy Monitor (above). Made from open-source hardware and software, it's a smart device that lets you see how much energy you use in the home – and the data is not controlled by energy companies. Trystan Lea

I came out of the Bitcoin conference that Saturday feeling more responsible. I liked Stallman’s vision of independent, skilled people who do not depend on closed systems.

This doesn’t mean that there are no problems with the new software in this article. The same software that makes people anonymous can save people who speak against their government and can also be used by criminals for evil.

But it is clear that it should not just be governments and big business that control our information. We can have new complicated technology that is controlled by – and works for – a few. Or, with open-knowledge, we can choose new technology that many people can use and control.

We need this technology. In this new digital age, we have a lot of opportunity. We can see exactly what our leaders are doing, share knowledge, get people together and show others if people do wrong. But there are new threats to freedom. New software can keep dissidents safe from police. But if we want to protect our privacy and data, we need to do more than simply change the code. It is good that the programmers are not alone. There are many groups developing around the world who are fighting for the same ideas: the Philippines’ Internet Freedom Alliance, Brazil’s internet rights group Movimento Mega Nao, and the Pirate Parties of Germany and Sweden.

The computer experts (geeks) who understand the complicated codes, are so important to keeping technology about the free communication of ideas. Open systems and the people who design them deserve our support.

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: http://www.newint.org/features/2012/12/01/open-source-digital-freedom-keynote/