We’re already living a future where our desire to use technology to share and interact freely with others has been perverted, according to a privacy expert. Increasingly, the devices and software we use listen to and watch us, potentially for nefarious purposes. The worst of it is that we allow it. This is the future Eben Moglen, Columbia University law professor and Software Freedom Law Centre chairman, foresees. By OSIAME MOLEFE.
It’s 2112 or so. A near-perfect copy of every human being exists and has been cached and copied to servers all around the world. The copy is perfect in every way, mirroring not only people’s thoughts and actions, but behaviour too. Like the real-life versions, this copy is alive and refreshes with every minuscule update to the real-life self.
It has, for example, a binary-coded heartbeat thanks to an app on one of the many devices that have proliferated and become a necessary part of human existence. That app monitors the heartbeat and sends each cardiac cycle into the worldwide web because people have invited it to. The culture of sharing has reached maturity.
Billions of people – the entire planet, in fact – live like this because technology has allowed mankind to make the leap from the digital to the digitised age, where information flows between people in ways never before possible.
This is the future Eben Moglen, Columbia University law professor and Software Freedom Law Centre chairman, foresees.
Photo: Eben Moglen in Berlin. DAILY MAVERICK/Osiame Molefe.
“Humanity will become a super organism, each person a neuron,” he told the audience of bloggers and digital activists at re:publica, held last week in Berlin. In its sixth year, the event is billed as Europe’s biggest digital conference. Given the influence of those gathered, Moglen could find no better audience for the warning he issued to temper this prediction of a gloriously networked future.
“Media that spies on and data-mines the public is destroying freedom of thought and only this generation, the last to grow up remembering the ‘old way’, is positioned to save this, humanity’s most precious freedom,” he said.
Moglen believes it was a mistake not to create the internet with anonymity built-in.
“We’ve taken the web and made Facebook out of it. We’ve put one man in the middle of everything. Through the net, we are creating media that consumes us, governments that can read us. Governments no longer need to torture people to get them to inform on each other,” Moglen said, likening social networks like Facebook to soft-power versions employed by the German SS to get people to snitch on each other.
If you look at Moglen’s picture of the future, it’s not that different to today, except that it’s today on steroids. The heartbeat app is real, by the way. It’s used by anybody from athletes to “self-quantifiers”, who record metrics of their physical selves – heartbeat, blood pressure and such – and use the data to determine what they should eat, drink and do to optimise their physical selves. Increasingly, every aspect of our lives finds its way on to the internet thanks to the deluge of sharing tools made available for our smartphones, laptops and other devices.
It may be tempting to dismiss Moglen’s thoughts as conspiracy theories, but he makes a compelling argument. Companies like Amazon, Facebook and Apple are among the worst threats to freedom of thought, he said.
In 2009, after discovering that a digital publisher used the Kindle store to sell George Orwell’s classic novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm without a licence to do so in the United States, Amazon deleted the books from customer’s Kindles without consent following a complaint from the books’ American publisher. Amazon refunded the customers, but that’s not the point, contends Moglen.
“This is censorship. This is the book burning we fought against throughout history,” he said. If it’s copyright infringement today, tomorrow it could be taste or national security in future or anything that could be reasonably construed as a threat.
In the offline world, a retailer would have neither the right nor the power to barge into customer’s homes to take back any product sold, regardless of how erroneously it may have wound up on the retailer’s shelves. Amazon, too, seemingly acknowledged it had no right to delete the book when it promised to never repeat the act. But that it has such power, even when its service agreement promises customers a permanent copy of the content they buy, is what Moglen believes to be a threat to freedom of thought.
Ironically, Nineteen Eighty-Four popularised the concepts of Big Brother and the “memory hole”, a system to delete or otherwise do away with information thought to be inconvenient or embarrassing.
Moglen said governments around the world are falling in love with data mining their population, because this gives them access to a snapshot of the psyche of their population and the power to exercise control over them. Networks like Facebook are dangerous because the company’s lack of business ethics has it collecting user information and analysing that behaviour to sell to the highest bidder, be it advertisers or governments. Data mining in the United States is a thriving industry, he said.
Moglen readily admits that the average user’s holiday pictures to Acapulco probably won’t be of interest to governments, but there is a principle to these things.
“Free thought requires free media. Free media requires free technology. We need free software, free hardware and free bandwidth. Free in the sense that users have the power to change it.
“The death of Steve Jobs was a positive event. I’m sorry to break it to you like that. Jobs was a great artist and a moral monster,” Moglen said. He noted that during Jobs’ speeches in darkened auditoriums, only backlit keyboards and the frosty glow of a white apple, beaming from the back of laptops, illuminated the audience.
Because Jobs was such a great artist, he believed he created everything and thus hated to share. He barely obeyed licences and screwed users at every opportunity he got by creating products that controlled them more and more. Users happily accepted it because he gave them convenience, Moglen said.
Moglen’s solution to the problem is to go cold turkey on products produced by companies whose media survey us. He believes we need to do it now, and quickly.
“It will cost us a little bit. Not much, but a little bit. We will have to forego and make a few sacrifices in our lives to enforce ethics on media, but that’s our role. Along with making free technology, that’s our role. We are the last generation capable of understanding directly what the changes are because we have lived on both sides. We have a responsibility. You understand that?” DM
- Rise of the Facebook killers, in The Village Voice.