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Free Software Free Culture: After the dotCommunist Manifesto

Eben Moglen speaks about Digital Right Policies, free information and the role of internet bandwith in todays society. Open Cultures – Free Flows of Information and the Politics of the Commons Conference, Vienna, June 05, 2003

There is a specter hunting multinational capitalism. The specter of free information. All the powers of "globalism" have joined together to exorcize this spectre: The European Commission, Microsoft and Disney and the United States Congress. And for those of us who have been advocates of free information: have any of us not been decried as communists, anarchists, socialists? It's high time that we bend it together in the face of the world. But no, I'm not doing the Manifesto today. It's after the dotCommunist Manifesto, my friends. We have moved on from there. Those who want the dotCommunist Manifesto, I'm sure can find it. But I want to do something else today, which is to talk a little bit about what comes after. How the program of the Manifesto of freedom is actually to be implemented in the coming years.

The fundamental assertion of the work we do, all of us, tens of thousands, ultimately millions of people around the world, who make the best software on earth and give it away, the fundamental premise of what we do is that coercive patterns for the production and distribution of information goods are failing in the 21st century. Bitstreams are how all art, all knowledge, all music, all culture, all generally useful information are packaged and transmitted in the 21st century and bitstreams have zero marginal cost. You can give to everyone at the same prize that you give to anyone. And so the 21st century faces a moral question: if everything can be given to everyone, if it can be given to anyone, than why is it ever moral to exclude anyone from anything? If you could make enough food to feed everyone on earth by baking one loaf and pressing a button, what would be the moral case for denying anyone the food? This is the fundamental difficulty faced by the logic of ownership, which from Thomas Edison forward experienced the ability to commoditize culture, to turn music and art and all of the human experience of coexistence into commodities that could be sold and from which people could be excluded, if they could not pay. The so-called free market, we have often recognized, if only for milliseconds, is a coercive system which denies to those who do not have what they can not afford. The economy of information in the 21st century however needs to conform to a different morality which we have been creating for the past decade.

Free software is an attempt to prove two propositions of cardinal importance to the 21st century. One, that certain classes of goods are better when they are manufactured without ownership relations in the way. Two, the network can be made free. We have proven the first proposition beyond all question. Software is becoming a public utility in the 21st century. We did that already. Everywhere on earth it is now possible to require at normal cost all the software necessary that people need computers to do. We have done that together as a human race. I was in Redmond last week talking to people who have the hard job of maintaining the richest monopoly in the history of the world in competition with the human race. They are in a bad humor. But everyone in this room knows that we are going to win. That's not even very interesting anymore, to my enormous amusement. But that's only one of the tools of our trade of constructing freedom by deconstructing ownership. Another tool of the trade, which we are going to have to fight to continue to have, is free hardware. Now here I need to be very careful. My client Mr. Stallman spent a decade and a half explaining to people that free software was free as in freedom, not free as in beer. And if he got that point across at all, then we are ready to talk about free hardware. Because hardware of course isn't free, it's just really cheap, almost ubiquitous in the developed societies. And what he has been up until now is not free as in beer but free as in freedom. That is to say if you bought it, you were allowed to use it. The problem in the network is that the owners of culture have recognized that software is free, that is to say the owners of culture recognized that the network's internal rules of behavior are not going to be determined by the makers of proprietary software. If the operating layer of the network is going to be free, then for content to remain owned they have to control all the hardware on earth. That's the purpose that lies behind the Digital Millennium Copyrights Act, the European Copyright Directive, its implementing legislation and so forth. To make technology control law under the guise of copyright, so that the end point devices in the network – the ones close to your eye balls and your ear drums – are not free. That is to say, not under your control. The phrase which has been chosen for this purpose is "trusted computing", which means computers nobody can trust. Hardware that is controlled not by its owner, not by its operator, but by the points of power over content in the network. Bitstreams will not be free because hardware will not behave as if the bitstreams were free.

So we are going to have to win that war. We are actually going to have less trouble with that one than we had making free software. It's an essentially conservative movement, our side of that war. In order to make free software, we had to invent everything that already existed and a whole lot of things that did not exist and we had to do it all by ourselves without any help and without any venture capital financing. That was hard, but it worked. In order to win the war over "trusted computing" we just have to hang on to what we have got which is boxes that obey their owners. We can do that. The alternative – the content company side of this one – is the complete military occupation of the internet. In the end it requires actual coercion for using devices that obey you instead of them. That's too much to buy it off – even for Mr Eisner. It means, as a young man for whom I did some legal work in 1999 and 2000, Jon Johansen, showed, imprisoning the world's teenagers for figuring out how stuff works. It means, as Dimitri Skylarov showed, putting people in jail for talking about their PhD dissertations. It means, as some college students in the United States have recently discovered, being threatened with jail if you don't agree to stop sharing music. But there is a limit to how much you can do this. And there is particularly a limit to how much you can do this, if what you are trying to do is to collect every computer and cell phone on earth and replace it with something that behaves in the interests of the remote mysterious Mr Berlusconi-Eisner-Murdoch-Gates. So I don't think the occupation of the Internet will succeed – save your old motherboards, they will be useful. Don't throw that apparently dead copper on Pentium 3, run free software on it by all means and keep it around. Don't send that cell phone to the landfill yet, we are going to need them. But keep your eyes out for all the creative engineering you can do with the potato chip can, of which we will hear more, I'm sure. We also gonna have to build some alternate hardware infrastructure from time to time, don't worry you can do this at home, it will be inexpensive. Those are two of the required tools of the trade: free hardware and free software. Now comes the one that is really tricky: we need free bandwidth.

We have to take back the electromagnetic spectrum, which they tell us belongs to us. But they don't mean it. I'm the one who means it, they are the ones that don't. The electromagnetic spectrum belongs to us. They all say it, they said it all throughout the 20th century, they carried that information into the 21st – what they mean is Mr Murdoch, Berlusconi, Eisner will manage it for us, under government license, or in the trivial, degenerate case of "L'Etat c'est moi". Mr Murdoch-Berlusconi-Eisner will become the state and manage it for us, which is an unsatisfactory outcome, as I think everybody will agree.

What we actually need to do is route all our traffic for one another, sharing the spectrum in an intelligent way, which the cell phone modeled for us as a proprietary device and which the WiFi revolution is modeling for us in a free form. We need to take various pieces of the corpses of the dead telecommunications oligopolies around the world and some of the spectrum that belongs up to the broadcasters of data memory. We need to host them some pieces of our property for a while until we have functionally implemented the proposition that everybody has an equal right to speak. We need to explain to our colleagues in society that they shouldn't pay telephone bills anymore because talking to one another should be just as much a right as clean breathable air or adequate drinking water; and that it is technologically feasible for us to provide them with an environment of equal speech rights. For the lawyers this means of course self-help destruction of spectrum regulation, which is a pretty tall order, given the people on the other side, who are in fact far more powerful than Mr Gates was. They are Murdoch, Berlusconi, Eisner and in addition Deutsche Telekom and all the United States telecommunications oligopolists, and so forth. Their interaction with the state is very strong. The states consider themselves to be in the midst of some spectrum regulation for the public good. The elected politicians know that they depend upon on the broadcasters for survival. This one is actually a revolution, but we have to do it because free bandwidth is the tool of the trade. It's the tool of the freedom of the mind. Without it, free hardware and free software are two legs of the stool and we come down on the third. We have to be able to talk to one another freely, without exclusion, or we leave most of the planet's mind behind as we pick up the little bit that is rich enough to talk.

So that is the program: keep free software, keep it healthy, learn about programming, become children, learn, write, improve, share. Keep free hardware. Win the war against "trusted computing" and the other forms of occupation of the network. That's not all that hard, we have the conservative side of that one, we'll be okay. Now we attend to the bigger question, which is the fate of the spectrum.

That's where it will get difficult. So my first principle is: revolution grows out of the barrel of monkeys. We have to be tricky, we have to fool around, we have to hack the system. Free software is not made by destroying copyright, free software is made by fooling copyright. I'm very fond of the GPL (General Public License) for that reason. It's a big joke and it works beautifully for freedom. We are going to have to do the same thing with the telecommunications understandings that everybody has. But we are helped in this by the fact that the world's twelve-year-olds already get the joke. They know what we are trying to accomplish and they know why. When they grow up, even just a little bit, they will help us. So we just have to keep the thing warm until they get here. The Indians look pretty strong but the cavalry is coming, I can feel that. So what we have to do is find a way to make fun of the existing power in the spectrum. WiFi is a big joke. WiFi with programmable software controlled radios is an even bigger joke. The cell phone companies are beginning to like free software. I get phone calls from – you know who the names are. "Well", they say, "we are thinking of using" – what they call – "Linux in our phones, so we are going to make a Linux-architecture board. Would you give us any advice?". And I say, "Well, you do have two chips in the phone, right?". "Yeah, we have two chips in the phone: one is the general purpose computer on which we want to run free software, it deals with the keyboard and the display and all the little nice stuff. And then there is the other chip, the proprietary chip with the proprietary software that runs the radio. Because we have to do that or all the regulators in the world are going to get mad at us." "Yes", I say, "I understand". Then they say, all of them, after a pause that varies from one second and a quarter of one second to three-eighths – "That's really expensive". "Yes", I say, "which is why ten years from now you are going to be helping me destroy spectrum regulation all over the world so you can save 15 dollars on that second chip". But when they save those 15 dollars on that second chip, when the logic of capitalism compels them to use general software controlled radio, we win. Because at that point we get to choose what to do with the spectrum – all of it. I love these 802.11g routers, they are beautiful. The only problem with them is they are on the wrong place of the spectrum. I think we'll use Channel 7 next. In the United States there is a statute that says on December 31, 2006, we get back analog television frequencies because we gave all those guys a freebie, a second television station for nothing, to put digital television on under the condition that when they are done they'd give it back to us. They are not planning to give it back to us. Mr Bush is going to say sometime between now and then that national security compels him to give Mr Murdoch all those television stations. We are just going have to take it, you see, it's ours. We should be able to move in. It's Berlin. We are going to squat in the spectrum. Well, we should. It's ours. And when we do that the world is going to get very complicated very shortly. Because in addition to all those businesses which now have the hard business model of sueing and jailing the customer, there will be many more businesses that have the same business model and that want the state to come in and help them – force everybody to use the telephone system they have to pay for, instead of the one they don't have to pay for. And I think this is going to work really badly. So our job is to make it really funny, really quickly or else…

Adam Michnik is one of the great political philosophers of the Western history. He figured out of what to do about certain kinds of orders of rule not quite willing to go to the mad oppressionism: You just declare yourself free and lead a self-respecting revolutionary life as a free person in an unfree society. Our technology makes that possible. And it's our moral responsibility to do it. It is our moral responsibility to the future, it is our moral responsibility to those of us who know less and understand less about what is going on, and it is even our moral responsibility to ourselves because it gives dignity and worth to the lives we lead. We have done very nicely in the past decade and a half, we have made some artifacts of human ingenuity that are beautiful and useful and enlighten our days. I'm very proud of the work that so many tens of thousands of people have done, and that I had a little bit to do with helping, but we've got more to do. It is really important that we give ourselves to this revolution. We are going to succeed, we are going to free the human mind and we are going to have a revolution not quite like any we have ever seen before. Amongst other things, because we are going to win this time.

Content type
Projects Non Stop Future
World-Information Institute
Open Cultures
Public Netbase
Date 05.06.2003
Location Vienna


free bandwith technology copyright capitalism dotCommunist Manifesto DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) free information eletromagnetic spectrum potato chip can European Copyright Directive Free Market General Public License (GPL) free software proprietary software Trusted Computing TC copyright WiFi Linux Pentium 3 cell phone bitstreams Redmond United States Berlin George Bush Dimitri Skylarov Adam Michnik Thomas Edison Richard Stallman Eisner Channel 7 Deutsche Telekom European Commission Bill Gates Rupert Murdoch US Congress Silvio Berlusconi Microsoft Disney Jon Johansen Eben Moglen
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