Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

Dreaming of a Snoop-Proof Net

All of a sudden, Internet freedom is in vogue.

  • February 16, 2011

The past two days have seen attempts at making the Internet a place where speech is free and governments can’t interfere from very different quarters.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday warned governments worldwide that that the demise of the Egyptian regime was proof that attempts to suppress online speech and organization are doomed. She also unveiled $25m of funding for entrepreneurs to invent tools that can help web users sidestep “thugs, hackers and censors.”

Today, Columbia law professor Eben Moglen told the New York Times of his plans to distribute tiny web servers that web users can install at home to build a parallel, and truly free internet. Encrypted social networks and other communication networks would run on those mini servers in the homes, instead of on centralized corporate servers like those of the social networks and other web services people use today.

Unfortunately, the ideas of both visionaries aren’t as straightforward as they might seem. Clinton’s call for internet freedom and new censor-dodging ideas was tempered by a reminder that the US government will continue to pursue WikiLeaks over the release of confidential diplomatic cables. She didn’t mention that the new tools she announced funding for could aid future distribution of government secrets.

As for the Freedom Box, Moglen’s plan faces many hurdles. He imagines them being a combination of cheap “power plug” computers like the SheevaPlug and open source web server software that uses a person’s broadband connection to link with other plugs and create new forms of, for example, an encrypted and government-proof clone of Twitter. Unfortunately, while power plug servers exist the all important software remains a twinkle in Moglen’s eye. A less kind commentator might even call the Freedom Box vaporware.

In fact, one project already exists that web users can already join to help meet some of both Clinton’s and Moglen’s ideals: the Tor anonymity network. Used by people from Middle East activists to WikiLeaks and the US Navy to encrypt and hide the trail of web traffic, Tor relies on volunteers installing software that makes their computer one of many relays around the world that help anonymize traffic. The project’s developers are even working on a freedom box of their own: a home router with Tor installed.

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