Moglen vs History

King Canute famously failed to prevent the tide coming in.  I can’t help wondering if Eben Moglen is setting himself on a similarly futile course, when he calls for decentralisation of our information infrastructure.

The subject of Moglen’s opening keynote at FOSDEM was liberty, and how technology can work for or against it.  He spoke of current and recent topical events, from Wikileaks to the role of the ‘net in Egypt’s (so-far) peaceful revolution.  And of how technology can serve those who might threaten freedom: how much sensitive information could a heavy-handed government pick up from something as simple as a legal action on Facebook.  How Data Protection in Europe has merely served to outsource handling of personal data to countries like the US with no such protection of privacy.

His call to developers was to build decentralised networks, where we can publish, communicate, interact as we do on the ‘net without submitting all our data to any centralised database that might become the focus of malign attention.   Examples of tasks he spoke of ranged from Facebook-style networking to building a citizens cellphone network from $20 base stations in people’s homes.  Tasks which are at least technically feasible to prototype and develop.

Listening to this, my reaction was that he’s battling against history here.  History on the ‘net has shown different media and channels becoming more, not less, centralised.  The once-popular Usenet medium for public discussion has given way to web-based fora: a wholly inferior medium for the task, and one for which I must admit my small measure of guilt (though it seemed like an interesting thing to implement in 1995).  IRC discussion remains popular amongst geeks, but elsewhere there came chatrooms, and now we even have Twitter making a grab for that space.  Every time, the geek medium gives way to an inferior one because the latter gets the mindshare.  Non-technical journalists will routinely invite us to ‘tweet’ them, or mention a web forum relevant to a topic under discussion, so the public learn of these media.  Meanwhile the old, decentralised, shared, and in both these cases altogether superior, media are relegated to enclaves of geekdom (or, in the case of much of usenet, to wastelands of spam and other abuse).  My suggestion to him was, you need to concentrate your efforts not so much on legislators, but on communicators.  Journalists in mainstream media!

OK, ‘net history is short.  Why should a campaigner for freedom not call for trends to be reversed?

A wider perspective tells us that the online centralisation trends of which I have written are merely examples of similar trends backed by far more history.  The most striking parallel in English history is the Enclosure of the Commons.  The absurd valuations given to some websites (headed by Facebook) tell us a new aristocracy is profiting from enclosing an online commons, albeit an ephemeral and transient one.

And I plead guilty to hosting my blog at another aristocrat of web-land, WordPress.  Yep, my rantings are centralised as a matter of simple convenience.

Posted on February 14, 2011, in FOSDEM, free speech, freedom, FSF, internet. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hmmm. I’m not sure that “centralisation” is an adequate description for what goes on on the web.

    Usenet was decentralised. But is that what made it interesting/useful? It’s easier, today, for Jane Bloggs to set up her own web forum, under her own rules, than it would have been ten years ago for her to create a new Usenet group. Is that “centralisation”?

    It sounds to me as if Moglen’s dream is doomed from the get-go, because it relies on thousands of developers working with a common goal and speaking with a common voice, but without any central control, which is not only a practical impossiblity, but probably even a logical one. But maybe we’re both missing something.

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