Debate: Will Americans Ever Own Their Own Servers?

eben moglen Debate: Will Americans Ever Own Their Own Servers?What has Egypt taught us? A story in this morning’s New York Times about Columbia professor and fierce internet privacy advocate Eben Moglen describes Mr. Moglen’s ideal world, where every netizen household runs its own encrypted server that no government or corporation could touch:

Social networking has changed the balance of political power, he said, “but everything we know about technology tells us that the current forms of social network communication, despite their enormous current value for politics, are also intensely dangerous to use. They are too centralized; they are too vulnerable to state retaliation and control.”

“It is not hard, when everybody is just in one big database controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg, to decapitate a revolution by sending an order to Mr. Zuckerberg that he cannot afford to refuse,” Mr. Moglen said.

You may remember Mr. Moglen as the professor who inspired four New York University students to create a distributed, private, open source version of Facebook called Diaspora. Mr. Moglen started a project called the FreedomBox Foundation (incorporated in Delaware! subversive and savvy) to build free software that can run on an inexpensive, household appliance of a server.

“This guy sounds like a dreamer,” The Observer’s own tech reporter Ben Popper said this morning. “No average Joe is going to buy their owner server and install open source software all in the interest of privacy.”

Okay, we can stop pretending this wasn’t in Skype:

adrianne:   the trend is heavily in the other direction right now
adrianne:   but some major privacy violations and i could see it turning around
adrianne:   i mean there was a time that people thought computers were too complicated to have in every home
adrianne:   you could even ship a server inside a desktop
ben.popper:   yeah – but if people start storing all their own data
ben.popper:   and there is a server problem
ben.popper:   they will freak
ben.popper:   they prefer to have other folks worry about that
adrianne:   but if the other folks screw up
adrianne:   you might reconsider
adrianne:   if the decision had been made early on to go with distributed networks instead of centralized networks
adrianne:   i bet owning your own server would be supereasy by now
adrianne:   all usable interfaces and such
adrianne:   it’s only because corporations decided it would be profitable to own networks that the system evolved that way
ben.popper:   I don’t see any good examples of mainstream adoption of distributed networks
adrianne:   but i don’t think it’s so unlikely that at some point a server could be a household item
adrianne:   god they should be teaching us so much more about computers in school

Diaspora is a prominent example of an attempt to put servers in the hands of the people. The project had a lot of love from open source and privacy advocates and raised many times over what they asked for on Kickstarter. Supposedly, Diaspora will be a federated network with some percentage of its members running their own servers. But Diaspora’s consumer-facing site is only available to a small number of alpha users and we’ve heard only reports of frustration from techies who tried to run their own Diaspora servers. And only the rarest peeps from the company, although they appear to be actively coding.

Are people too complacent to want to truly control their own data, or could we one day see a FreedomBox or some other kind of server in every home?

ajeffries [at] observer.com | @adrjeffries