Sharing my doubts about the FreedomBox presentation

Okay this is one of the things that I was supposed to write about right after FOSDEM. Too bad that I left Brussels for the wrong country, and I couldn’t find the time to write until I was back home — hopefully this won’t happen during my next trip, either because I get the Efika to run as I need it to, or because I’ll write from the iPad like I’ve done a couple of time recently; I followed Jb’s suggestion and got a Bluetooth keyboard, or to be precise, I got Belkin’s keyboard cover that, while bulky, makes it a perfect choice for writing on the train, or at a customer’s while I’m waiting.

The closing speech at FOSDEM this year was about FreedomBox a project I already knew from Matija and that I didn’t care much about. If anything, I was quite upset with the idea of a similar project due to the results coming from the Diaspora debacle and the pretence to just set something up and expect it never to require update and maintenance.

I was honestly hoping for some reassurance on the maturity of the project’s goal with that speech, but instead I found it the same as before: a bit too vague, a bit too concerned with how things appear rather than how they work. While the idea of working within the constraints of Debian has its advantages, just saying that “All Free Software will be packaged by Debian” is not going to make it true. Debian has had its share of issues with projects that are by all count Free Software, but not in the way they want them to be; think Schilling. I am generally in agreement with their choices on when not to package something, but that still does not make space for such a blanket statement.

They spent quite a bit of time talking about the DreamPlug computer they are using; while interesting, I haven’t read much about it n the past few months, as most of the excitement seems to have gone when more issues with overheating came through.. I haven’t worked with the hardware and thus I can’t make much of a review for that, but having heard a few of the issues with it while in the room, but not coming from the speaker at all, it seems like they have been sugar-coating the truth about the hardware a bit. Knowing one project’s limitations is generally a good idea.

But I think the main issue I got with the whole charade has been in the original presentation. With the name “FreedomBox” I was thinking that the whole spirit of the project would be sparked by the “usual” anti-corporatism that you find thriving in the Free, Open Source Software community, and which I don’t like to partake to most of the time. That’s what usually get people to complain if you host your blog with blogspot, or you use GMail for email, and so on so forth.

For those wondering: I host my own blog because I like being able to customize it, and while I no longer use the domain, my email is handled through Google Apps for Business… I find it more efficient than running my own mail infrastructure given that I only need two mailboxes: work and everything else.

Instead, what the speech went to talk about is … something much more iffy: from one point it would be much more serious than the anti-corporatism I already noted, but from the other I think it opens up a Pandora’s vase much more complex than it solves. Because what Bdale Garbee started talking about was how Facebook and other companies allow the US Government to scan for facial recognition the photos you upload on them.

Interestingly, he started with admitting that there are good uses for such an access, and then moved to say that it’s also a technology open to abuse on human rights. It’s hard to debate against this, but that’s also true of most of the possible technologies you have out there. That’s because no technology is, by itself, ethical or unethical: it’s the way you use it that make it one or the other. So I don’t think anybody would be arguing that there is no way that any government would abuse a technology that would allow them to identify a person by looking through the gigabytes of photos people upload to Facebook and other similar services. At the same time I guess it is hard to argue that such a technology would never be used for good, which I guess is the reason Mr. Garbee admitted right away that it has positive uses.

But that brings me to the issue that most irked me with the whole speech: he didn’t consider that the FreedomBox’s technology has the same capability to be abused. And this is one thing that really upsets me in most of the talks around software and services that allow you to “disappear”, they expect that being Free or Open Source software means they are by default intrinsically ethical. No way.

Americans seem to be used to the “terrorist cell” example; in Italy I’d probably use the Mafia example; but I think we can find everywhere in the world an example of some group of people who’d like to be invisible to the government, against everyday’s people interest, even where the government itself is against the people’s. Yes I know the famous Benjamin Franklin quote about freedom, but honestly even if a great person said something, doesn’t make it true by default any more than making software Free makes it ethical by default.

Anyway all of this is just my opinion, of course. You can agree or not, but honestly if Bdale Garbee is the best speaker on the topic, I’m not sold at all about the FreedomBox as it is.