[Top][All Lists]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

[Fsuk-manchester] Digital freedom

From: Bob Ham
Subject: [Fsuk-manchester] Digital freedom
Date: Mon, 18 Nov 2013 12:48:02 +0000
User-agent: Roundcube Webmail/0.7.2

Hi all,

At our birthday celebration last week, we discussed the future of the
group and whether we could improve our approach to promoting software
freedom.  I recently wrote a document about "digital freedom groups"
and I thought it might be good to post it here in order to provoke
thoughts and possibly further discussion.  The document is pasted



As computers take on increasingly prominent roles in society, the
potential for their abuse grows.  Digital technology can be used to
oppress people by restricting their ability to compute, or to
communicate, or to conduct commerce, or even to travel.  It can be
used to encroach on people's privacy by spying on their communication
and tracking their online activity or their physical movements.  As
digital technology becomes further integrated into human life and
dependence on technology grows, the potential for its abuse will also

Computers are a relatively new phenomenon in human history.  We are in
a time of change when old social institutions are giving way to new
forms of organisation and co-operation, fueled in no small part by
widespread computing and communication technology.  We are undergoing
a shift in human civilisation, what has been called the "second
renaissance", comparing the effects of the invention of the Internet
to that of invention of the printing press.

At this time it is critical that our future and the future of digital
technology be set on a good path.  We must ensure that technology is
used to support human freedom, not curtail it.  We must work hard to
make sure this happens.

We need "digital freedom" groups, enthusiasts working to create
computer systems that support freedom.  Specifically, groups that work
toward three primary goals: computers that

(1) are 100% free hardware,
(2) run 100% free software and
(3) connect to free networks.

Free hardware

Free hardware refers to hardware whose design can be freely copied,
shared, modified and manufactured.  Users of free hardware have the
freedom to learn from a design, to modify it to better suit their
needs, and to share their modifications so that everyone can benefit.
Free hardware fosters a community based on sharing and co-operation
where designs are co-created by members of a community rather than
produced and restricted by a single controlling entity.  Free hardware
encourages commerce through the free exchange of designs and

Free hardware projects that digital freedom groups support include:

* OpenRISC http://opencores.org/or1k
* OpenCores http://opencores.org/
* OLinuXino https://www.olimex.com/Products/OLinuXino/
* Freeduino http://www.freeduino.org/
* Milkymist http://milkymist.org/

As computer architectures become increasingly complex, access to
information about the design becomes more important.  Modern computers
include sub-systems which contain microprocessors that are independent
of the main CPU.  For example, power and a great deal of hardware
control in laptop computers are done using an auxilliary processor.
These processors often run proprietary software.  Without having
access to the proprietary software's source code, we cannot know what
an auxilliary processor is doing.  Often, such processors have access
to data storage and to network interfaces.  It is possible for a
hardware manufacturer to implement spying routines and so this
hardware presents a threat to the security of information in the
computer.  Access to hardware designs mitigate this threat by allowing
users to implement their own software to run on auxilliary

The techniques employed in a hardware design is part of its value. A
design is in part, an expression of knowledge about designing and so
any design can be used to teach others about designing a particular
type of hardware.  For example, a design for a table can be used to
teach others about how tables can be designed safely and also about
furniture design in general.  This educational value is important but
proprietary designs prevent taking advantage of it and a large benefit
of the knowledge that goes into the design is lost.  Free hardware
combats this loss and ensures that designs can be used optimally.

Chip manufacturing
At present, it is unfortunately not possible to create a computer
using 100% free hardware.  There are no chip manufacturers that freely
license the designs for their silicon.  It is also impractical for
enthusiasts to produce free hardware chips because of the enormous
costs of manufacturing silicon designs.  A lower-bound cost for the
tape-out of an ASIC is around 150000 US dollars.  While there is at
least one free hardware project with the goal of raising such funds,
none have yet achieved it.

It is possible to create free designs and implement them in
reconfigurable digital circuits in the form of FPGA chips.  However,
patents protect the fundamental technologies that FPGAs are based on
and holders of these patents choose to offer only proprietary
licenses.  Hence, while it is possible to create free hardware chip
designs, it is only possible to implement and test them using
proprietary FPGA hardware.  This is akin to the need to use
proprietary operating systems to build free software alternatives when
the free software movement was in its infancy.

So, in the field of free chip design, the focus is on creating free designs
now which can be manufactured later.  There are a number of circumstances
which may give rise to the manufacturing of free hardware chips:

(1) Existing silicon manufacturers creating chips based on free
designs.  This could be a manufacturer who realises the value of free
hardware and changes their practices to license their designs freely,
or it could be a manufacturer who takes advantage of existing free
designs and creates chips using them.

(2) When fabrication technology, for example 3D printing, advances to the
point where it becomes practical to manufacture processor circuits without
the enormous costs required at present.  This may take many years.

When FPGA patents expire, as many are now in the 2010s, it will change
the landscape in the FPGA industry, generally increasing freedom there
but also specifically decreasing the costs involved in developing free
chip designs.  Free FPGA designs would also become possible and it
could be argued that an FPGA design is more likely to attract funding
for a manufacturing run than a specific processor design whose appeal
is less broad.

Board designs
While it is not yet practical to create free chips, it is possible to
create free motherboards.  Free PCB designs can be created and
manufactured now and indeed, many are.  Today, a computer with free
PCBs is the closest we can get to a free hardware computer.

Free software

Free software is software whose users are free to share it, learn from
it, modify it and share their modifications.  Computer users should be
free to do their computing however they wish and should have control
over their own computer.  Free software respects users' freedom and
enables them to do this.  The Free Software Foundation gives four
freedoms that free software ensures:

* The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
* The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does
 your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is
 a precondition for this.
* The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
 (freedom 2).
* The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others
 (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance
 to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a
 precondition for this.

Free software projects that digital freedom groups support include:

* GNU http://www.gnu.org/
* Linux-libre http://www.fsfla.org/ikiwiki/selibre/linux-libre/
* Trisquel http://trisquel.info/

Open source
The phrase "open source" refers to a development methodology where the
source code for software is available to users.  The phrase was coined
to provide a means of promoting free software to organisations like
businesses who were less concerned, or even uncomfortable with the
issue of human freedom.  Open source misses the point of free

Open does not necessarily mean free.  For example, the Sybase Open
Watcom Public License under which the Watcom C/C++ compiler is
released, requires that users publish source code whenever they
"Deploy" software and "Deploy" includes many kinds of private use.
The freedom to use and modify software without notifying anyone is an
important freedom.  The requirement to publish source code even when
using the software privately, is a violation of this freedom. This is
one example of how "open source" does not mean "free software".

More generally, "open" never refers to freedom.

Free networks

Free networks are computer networks that provide users with some
guarantee of freedom.  Users must be free to say what they want,
without restrictions.  They must be free to say it to whoever they
want.  Users must also be able to express themselves anonymously,
protecting their identity.  These freedoms are recognised as
fundamental to a healthy, free society.  Free networks guarantee that
these freedoms cannot be subverted using the network itself.  The
guarantees are made through technology such as encryption and
decentralised protocols.

Free networks that digital freedom groups consider themselves aligned
with include:

* Hyperboria http://hyperboria.net/
* Project Meshnet http://www.projectmeshnet.org/

Free-network technology projects that digital freedom groups support

* FreedomBox http://www.freedomboxfoundation.org/
* B.A.T.M.A.N. http://www.open-mesh.org/projects/open-mesh/wiki
* cjdns http://cjdns.info/
* GNU Privacy Guard http://www.gnupg.org/
* Tor https://www.torproject.org/
* Libertree http://libertreeproject.org/
* Bitcoin http://bitcoin.org/

The Internet
The Internet is a network that has changed the world.  However, the
technologies which underlie the network are interwoven with a legacy
of trust, a holdover from the network's origins and development
history.  For example, FTP transmits passwords in the clear.
Unfortunately, much of the trust inherent in Internet technologies has
been abused by criminals, both those who operate independently and
those who are employed by governments.  Defensive technologies were
developed to protect against independent criminals, for example SSL,
but those technologies were later undermined by criminals employed by
governments.  The Internet is not a network that can guarantee freedom
to its users.

Free network technologies
There are a variety of technologies that promise to enable free

(1) Community-based mesh networks are wireless networks operated in a
decentralised manner by comunities.  They offer network services to
members of the community and provide a means of communication that is
independent of compromised Internet service providers.

(2) Ad-hoc mobile networks are networks based on opportunistic
wireless communication between mobile devices.  They offer a means of
communication that subverts the need for a centralised network and can
also extend the reach of other types of network.

(3) Federated social networks are social networks where services are
offered by many independent nodes that communicate between themselves,
as opposed to services being provided by a central controlling
entity. They offer social networking facilities without the danger of
the abuse of user's data by a central, all-powerful entity.  Users can
join servers run by people they trust or set up their own servers.

(4) Digital currencies are monetary systems in the digital domain and
based on technologies like public key cryptography.  Digital
currencies enable commerce to be conducted between network users
without restrictions.

Digital Freedom Projects

Ideas for specific projects that digital freedom groups could
undertake include:

* Build a local wireless mesh network
 * Free software wireless node database, like nodedb.com but (a)
   under AGPL, (b) using OpenStreetMap and (c) better
 * Standardised mesh network node design, based on OLinuXino
* OpenRISC desktop computer using FPGA dev board like Terasic SoCKit
* Desktop computer using OLinuXino
* Trisquel bug-squashing parties
* GPG key-signing parties

Bob Ham, October 2013

reply via email to

[Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread]