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The Scarlet & Black

The five freedoms of a networked world

Even as you read this, a battle rages in our midst. It is a battle for freedom, for sovereignty, and for our collective future. The fundamental dialectic of our struggle is this: will we be enslaved by our technology, or liberated by it?
The question is as old as civilization itself, and speaks directly to the trajectory of history’s arc. Still, as the pace of innovation accelerates, it becomes clear that something new and still unnerving approaches. Take a long view of the processes that surround us, and you’ll recognize the singular gravity of the here-and-now. This moment is the dawn of a new age—information moves the world now, and there’s no going back.

It was in cognizance of this notion, and in service to our collective freedom that Richard Stallman started the Free Software Foundation. The Free Network Foundation continues that tradition, and seeks to intensify the struggle for our freedom as we enter this most critical hour.

The free software movement has thrived because they have made it easy to differentiate between free and unfree code. They have done so through the definition of free software embodied in the GNU project’s ‘four freedoms.’ It is in this spirit that we aim here to define exactly what it means to say that a network is free. We hope that the existence of such a definition will highlight the ways in which our current network, the Internet, is unfree, and help illuminate the path to a freer world.

We specify five freedoms. In a word each, they are access, transmission, storage, authentication, and consignment. Let’s go through them now, understand what they mean, and measure the ways in which they do or do not exist today.

Freedom 0) The freedom to access the network without tariff.

Tariff here means price above cost. In today’s world, Internet service providers charge heavy fees for access to the network. Your right to peaceably assemble in cyberspace is being restricted—you must not allow this erosion. The Free Network Foundation aims to combat this practice by assisting in the formation of network access cooperatives on the local and regional level. Envision a world where the only cost that one pays to access the network is that of operating a network node.

Freedom 1) The freedom to transmit bits from peer to peer without the prospect of interference, interception or censorship.

Today’s Internet exhibits an architecture of centralized command and control. This makes the network far too susceptible to breakdowns, both accidental and intentional. The truth of this sentiment is manifest, from the recent outage of Amazon Web Services to the network shutdown during the Egyptian uprising. Moreover, choke points make it too easy for bit movers to look inside the packets they are transporting. So called ‘traffic shaping’ is already an accepted practice, even in the United States. The ability of governments and powerful corporations to look at the messages we send to one another and determine their fitness for transmission is nothing less than censorship. Demand your right to free speech—participate in the cooperative construction of mesh networks as an avenue to the restoration of that freedom.

Freedom 2) The freedom to determine where one’s bits are stored.

If you are like most, and you most likely are, then the most comprehensive collection of bits pertaining to you is stored in a nondescript building in Prineville, Oregon. That is the location of Facebook’s primary data facility, and the site where more than 25 Terabytes of data per day are harvested and stored. Facebook has become a 50 Billion dollar behemoth by selling this data to the highest bidder. It has also been known to hand over these logs to government agents without so much as a subpoena. At this point, you might say that they don’t care, that you’ve got nothing to hide, and don’t mind industrial-strength marketing. We are here to say this: you should. You should care where your data is stored, even if you have nothing to hide. Not to do so does a deep disservice to freedom fighters, to whistleblowers, to those that put their lives on the line for humanity. To demand this freedom is to demand your right to property. Not to do so is to allow the outright theft of what rightfully belongs to you.

Freedom 3) The freedom to maintain anonymity, or to present a unique, trusted identity.

Of all of the freedoms, this is the one most realized in today’s world, but that does not make it any less essential. The free network must allow for anonymity, but it must also sometimes function as a trust network. The cryptographic community has established mechanisms for building trust networks, where people are who they say they are. The mechanism established by the GNU Privacy Guard is called keysigning, and it amounts to the practice of people vouching for one another. Authentication is important, and the freedom not to authenticate as much so – the essential thing is the ability to determine between a known entity and a shadow figure. Only on a trust network is this possible.

Freedom 4) The freedom to determine the parties to whom one’s bits are consigned.

It is important to understand that the transmission of bits to others necessarily entails a loss of exclusive ownership. This is the very nature of digital reproduction. Whichever party receives those bits will gain the ability to reproduce and transmit them anew. This makes it all the more important to maintain complete control over who is granted access to your bits. Your right to privacy is contingent upon an ability to determine exactly who can see your data.

Do not accede to the corporate hegemony. Do not remain complacent while your freedom erodes. The fundamental dialectic of our struggle is this: will we be enslaved by our technology, or liberated by it? It is up to us.

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