Eben Moglen: Software Freedom Law Center was created in 2005, and is a non-profit legal services company, which provides free legal advice to non-profit makers and distributors of free and open source software.
So, our job is to provide legal advice to the people who make and distribute free software, who don’t have a revenue stream to pay for legal services. We are supported almost entirely by the generous donations of businesses that make use of FOSS in their products and services. And they provide that support to us because good legal advice to the people who make the software in the non-profit sector ensures them fewer difficulties and easier business climate in the use of that software for their business purposes.
They pass that software on or deliver services over that software to their own customers, and having good legal assurance and good understanding of their relationship to the manufacturers and distributors of that free software is benefit to them. So, we are essentially people who explore a world of win-win solutions on behalf of the developers at FOSS.
Timothy Lord: And the supporters you mentioned, are any of those big names in the free software community now or is that businesses that people wouldn’t realize is supporting them?
Eben Moglen: Oh, that’s IBM and Hewlett Packard, and Oracle, and Qualcomm and others around the world who have very big businesses that make very big use of free and open source software, and the use they make is use which is on the basis of their understanding that everybody is following the rules and everybody using those rules in creative and productive ways is profitable to them.
Timothy Lord: Now, was there a gap that you were filling when you founded this a few years back?
Eben Moglen: One way of thinking about it is that I had been working for a very long time with Richard Stallman doing legal work primarily for the Free Software Foundation. And sometimes I did work that helped people in the commercial world, either in relation to the Free Software Foundation or in matters that had nothing to do with the Free Software Foundation, but I had been between 1993 and 2005 basically a law professor part time doing all of this work.
When the SCO lawsuit concentrated people’s attention in the industrial community on both the value of the software to them, and the amount of disruption, inconvenience caused, and difficulty that even one frivolous lawsuit could create, there was an opportunity to get people to concentrate on the value of supporting community organizations. And that’s really the gap that SFLC was created to fill.
I see it, as a law professor, also very much as a vehicle of training to provide lawyers, to business and to the community, alumni of SFLC, if you like, or counsel at Red Hat and Executive Director of the GNOME Foundation, and are in other ways, pillars of the community both on the commercial and on the non-profit side. I think of our helping to create a social community knowledgeable in the affairs of law, the affairs of business and the affairs of free software as a crucial gap also that SFLC fills.
Timothy Lord: You mentioned the SCO lawsuit, have you seen a change in the business world’s attitude about free software as a result of that software patents and disputed trademarks, things like that?
Eben Moglen: My view is that these are forces operating all out of the same fundamental reality which is the enormous commercial importance of sharing. It has been underestimated in the view that capitalism took of itself in the middle of the 20th century, and this is sort of a surprise because capitalism in the middle of the 20th century derived its growth from science which is organized sharing. But it came under the impression that ownership did everything and sharing did little. And there was a period in which under emphasis on the importance of the sharing economy was part of the sort of music of American capitalism.
The IT industry at the end of the 20th century began to experience once again the enormous importance of sharing. The importance of sharing transformed the IT software market by breaking forever Microsoft’s hold on the server side of IT, which is now a completely different world. And what made it a completely different world was free software. What made it a completely different world was thousands and then tens of thousands of people, two of them were Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds and that’s a very special kind of human being. But there were tens of thousands of human beings who shared their way into the creation of enormous value, which transformed the industry.
Of course, there was friction along with that, and the SCO lawsuit is a tiny example of a tiny kind of friction being amplified by some machinery we could call the monopoly trying to hang on. It didn’t work. It didn’t work because the friction was tiny, frivolous legal claims are not actually much friction, but they were backed by a lot of force, and the force didn’t work because sharing was better.
Now, we are in a world in which there are a small number of incumbents who need to stop time, a very small percentage, under 8% of all the mobile phones in the world, makes the majority of all the profit. And a company which has enormous stake in the existing world of server, and client, and PCs, and even servers still is confronting the cloud, which is made to the extent that clouds are made of anything of a kind of water vapor that consists of our work indefinitely repeated and virtualized, and without any marginal cost of friction of any kind.
Timothy Lord: On that front, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about Freedom Box which really seems to tie into the concept of protecting people’s work and people’s privacy on the cloud as opposed to what would have been conventional software distribution at least 10 years ago?
Eben Moglen: Yes, because the IT paradigm of our world is changing for everybody including us to a paradigm which can best be described as cloud to mobile, by which that means ServerIron having been basically virtualized out of physical existence, so that it embraces utility computing, load balancing concepts throughout the net as a whole. Thus meaning that, if you do your computing or storing outside computers of your own, you are doing them everywhere and nowhere at once subject to whatever rules the people running the utility system choose to impose.
An early but devastating consequence of the shift in that direction can be the destruction of human privacy, because data stored on servers whose logs can be data mined and where the storage can be subpoenaed by governments using force or fraud or mere displays of power, when there’s all the stuff that comprises our digital personality in the 21st century vulnerable, vulnerable to data mining and prediction, and vulnerable to government appropriation and misuse.
So, we need to do something which is also not the world we came from, not the store-it-all in your own thing, in your pocket world, not the PC world, but instead a cloud to mobile world that belongs to us.
Freedom Box is an approach to building software that says, there is a lot of software in the average hacker’s free software laptop that protects her privacy. She has SSH and she proxies with it, she has TINC and OpenVPN and other ways of laying an encrypted end-to-end network on top of the untrusted network. She has Privoxy and Adblock Plus and HTTPS everywhere and TrackMeNot and lots of other tools for restoring the balance of power in the web.
We could talk about putting all that free software in everybody’s computers, but they have fewer and fewer computers and they use more and more lock down devices that don’t let you change or rebalance the software to suit your own needs, because the robot you are carrying around with you really works for someone else. On the other hand, we’re also going to have billions of tiny little cheap server boxes that are the size of AC chargers for cell phones.
Now, if we put the free software that protects privacy, not in the laptop people aren’t carrying, and not in the mobile phone that we can’t trust and that they’re allowed to change, but if we put it in a box that can sit in their apartment or their office or a safe deposit box in a bank, and communicate with the rest of the network for them and securely communicate to what they’re actually carrying, then we can have a cloud which has privacy and security in it. And we can have a cloud to mobile world that actually does all the wonderful things that the big boys also want to do, but doesn’t risk human beings’ privacy.
So, Freedom Box is an effort to use free software pro-privacy tools we already have, and pro-privacy tools we can make easily out of tools we already have, and put them together in ways which allow them to run in the kind of devices that are going to be everywhere, partly plugged service, but partially also dishwashers, and refrigerators, and coffee pots, and all sorts of other things that people are going to spread around the world, and that we can turn into a cloud that makes privacy.
Timothy Lord: I know there was recently a, basically a developer-oriented release of Freedom Box. We actually had a reader who wrote in to ask what will it take to put that technology into the hands of more people, some of whom are really very technologically savvy and some of whom aren’t, what is the next step in sort of making that happen as a marketing or a knowledge campaign?
Eben Moglen: The next step in making it happen is to go from the initial developers release that we just made, to a release which contains that functionality and the beginning of a flexible and robust user interface that makes configuring and deploying that software in the boxes that are our little model organisms possible for people who aren’t hackers accustomed to configuring systems by modifying ASCII files in ETSI. The developers release is a developers release that deals with people who understand how to edit things in ETSI and change the behavior of computers accordingly.
Later, something else needs to be there. We have a something else under development. We regard it too as a transitional organism not the final user experience structure for anything, but a way to do precisely what your reader expects us to do, which is to make that functionality at approximately its current level of completeness or incompleteness, available to a broader bunch of users. After which, we can go after both the target of improving functionality and the target of improving user experience based not only on what we think, but on what a much larger community of users thinks.
Timothy Lord: Where do you find design experts to help you create something that’s going to appeal that way?
Eben Moglen: Where you find people is where you find people in community production of software too, you let them come to you. There are a couple of core of graduate students in digital industrial design around the world who want to make things, and there are people who want to make hardware and want to make systems that embrace Freedom Box functional elements.
And there are people who are committed, both amateurs and professionals of design, who care about Freedom Box as users and community members, and who want to put their shoulders to the wheel. But all of this is happening in precisely the same emergent fashion that all free software activities really come from even when they are inside Google or some other very large pro-free software organization letting engineers do things, the answer is, it still comes from letting people do things.
And so that’s where all our stuff is going to come from. It comes from letting people do things, which is why it doesn’t roll out in smooth waves of corporately engineered product structure, because we don’t make things that way and we don’t want to. I think that what’s going to happen is people are going to say “Boy, that’s really weak, I can improve that.” That’s how it’s going to happen. And designers are people too. They’re not only captives of the Apple penitentiary, they are people too.
And they get to the point where they want to do a new thing and it’s hard to do a new thing if the box won’t let you. So, there are people out there already beginning to wonder whether they should immigrate from the world of the hyper-refined Apple universe into the world of “I’m living on the frontier and I can do it however I want to do it.” And that’s really the great value of free software in the end.
Even if the big heavy weight powerful companies were all pro-freedom, which they’re not, some of them are and some of them aren’t, still that’s not where the primary source of innovation would come from. The primary source of innovation would still come from people saying that’s really not as good as I can do.