Free and Open Source

Why Free Thought Requires Free Technology

In his usual elegant prose, Columbia Law Professor Eben Moglen deems the Internet Society “a new phase in the history of the human race,” where “we are building a single nervous system which will embrace every human mind.” And the “fate of human freedom,” Moglen warns, “will depend upon the neural anatomy of that network.” A centuries-old struggle for freedom of thought now culminates in the twenty-first-century struggle for free media, which can only exist if the people directly own and control the digital ecosystem. If that system—what we call “the internet”—is controlled by powerful state and corporate actors, then they will design it to serve the interests of power. “We have been brought up to be consumers of media,” Moglen observes, “but now, media is consuming us.”

Speaking before the phrase “surveillance capitalism” was introduced and Edward Snowden entered the world stage, Moglen raised the alarm: “The things we read watch us read them. The things we listen to, listen to us listen to them. We are tracked, we are monitored, we are predicted by the media we use… our media consume us and spit in the government’s cup.” Back in 2004, Moglen articulated his thesis that software, hardware, and network connectivity intersect to shape the flow of data across the Net. To fix the media, Moglen argued, we need three things: Free Software, Free Hardware, and Free Bandwidth:

  • Free Software “means software you can copy, modify, and redistribute.” With that freedom, network software “becomes modifiable by the people the network embraces.”
  • Free Hardware means we are “free to change” the devices we own, including safeguarding against Tivoization.
  • Free Bandwidth (network connectivity) means net neutrality and spectrum that the people own and control as equals on the internet.

Meanwhile, however, the threat of centralized cloud computing, which typically nullifies the freedoms granted by traditional Free Software licenses, has only grown. In 2010, Moglen launched FreedomBox: personal cloud software designed to decentralize the storage and routing of data. He and others saw that internet re-decentralization was central to a free media. Taken together, the socialization of the three core pillars would form the bedrock of a libertarian socialist digital commons and undermine the digital capitalism currently imposed on users by a network of private owners that design the media for surveillance, profit, and manipulation.

Digital capitalism is, of course, a product of US empire – meaning, it grew out of US efforts to maintain global economic, political, and social power. Over the past two decades, the Free Software movement spread throughout the Global South to fight the power of digital colonialism. Countless figures, from Eben Moglen and Mishi Choudhary to Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi and Nhlanhla Mabaso, have contributed to the movement. Today, digital capitalism is exacerbating global inequality at a time when inequality is driving us towards ecosystem collapse. It is high time to launch a People’s Tech movement, to free our media and redistribute wealth and power, before it is too late.

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