Archive for November, 2013

◓ MozFest Keynote – Freedom in our Information Society


On Oct. 26th, I gave a keynote at the 2013 edition of Mozilla Festival, in London – Mark Surman, Mozilla’s wonderful Executive Director, had invited me to talk about Privacy.

The video is available here (and there on YouTube, but original link is always better :’)), and my preparatory notes for the keynotes are there:



It’s always great to hear Internet pioneers talk about the web they initially built, and how it evolved. I can’t do that. I’m not an Internet pioneer. I’m more part of this generation that has been labelled “Digital Natives”. It’s an odd situation to be in, notably because two things are often said about digital natives:

1 – It’s a generation of people who grew up with the Web – the assumption that comes with this is: they must know how it works.

2 – The Web for them is some sort of very stable environment – it has always been there for them, they will always be able to count on it. For younger people today it’s even more so – the Web now relates to their first girlfriend, and also they’ve probably never done homework without the Web.

So it is true that I am part of one of the first generations to truly live in the Web. I think of the amount of personal information that has transited there – all my emails, my searches, and all of the things I rely on the Web for.

The rest though, the two assumptions, is bullshit.

The whole “Digital Natives must know how it works” thing is an illusion – the Web comes more and more pre-packaged and people see less and less incentives to look inside the box. That’s not good. That’s the path towards being increasingly dependent of mechanisms we don’t understand. That’s not the path towards freedom. That’s one of the many reasons why I admire the Mozillians’ constant efforts to open the box, and show how the Web works to enable people to keep on building it.

The whole “The Web has and will always be there for you as it is” thing doesn’t make much sense either. It changes too much. It evolves too much. For most people, today’s Web has little in common with what Tim Berners Lee built in the 90’s, and even has little in common with what it looked like 5 years ago – it’s what Anil Dash was describing this morning with the idea of “The Web we lost”.

To talk about this Web that has been lost, I would like us to read some 1996 political poetry. In 1996, John Perry Barlow, lyricist for the grateful dead and co-founder of the EFF, was writing “The Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”. It’s a beautiful text opposing the users to the States and to Industry’s giants, and it goes: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not

welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” And then Barlow goes: “I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

How does this text feels like today? The least we can say is “optimistic”, “hopeful”, and “not exactly accurate”. Today, “Cyberspace” does look more like a power struggle, that very much so implies both the States and the Industry. Somehow, we can understand why, as it’s also not the same “Cyberspace”. Today on the Web there is more to protect, more to steal, more to sell – more at stake.


Sometimes, we wish we could get a glimpse at the future to see how that power struggle is going to play out. A couple months ago, in June, when Edward Snowden leaked the NSA documents, we got better than a glimpse at the future. We got a glimpse at the present. So what did we see?

We saw a Web in which the power was very, very centralized. We see that people are handling more and more of their online lives to less and less actors.

To illustrate that, let’s play a little mind game together. If we manage to make a sentence that only refers to three actors and that dramatically affects billions of citizens and create a global crisis, then we can say we have an over centralization problem. So how about: “The NSA has been collecting and storing quite a lot of data from Google and Facebook”?

The other thing we saw is that the legal framework supposed to set the democratic boundaries to the collection and analysis of all this data – for instance the law that gave the US Government an obligation to justify the means it employed in that domain – was formulated in very broad terms – and was secretly interpreted. That seemed to have create quite a bit of confusion.

Of course, we don’t see a malicious intent behind these programs. But is this a reason not to worry? Of course not. This has never been a democratic criteria – we don’t judge by intent only, we care about the means.

Our plan cannot be: “We will technically, legally and politically allow the creation of a massive, stored, durable and searchable database of everything all these people have ever said on the Web – – and then hope no one comes to use this weapon against our freedoms.”

Instead of malicious intents and scary political projects, we see confusion. Confusion gives us this important opportunity to have a dialogue about freedom in the information society. There are many signs of the confusion, in the US and internationally, and I could start with two of them:

When the leaks broke in June 2013 and when the NSA programs began being discussed in the press, a couple of the US Senators who voted from the laws providing legal legitimacy for these programs stood up and said: “I never voted for such a system!”. That’s

worrisome. That speaks to their inability – and truly, our inability as a society – to consider the whole puzzle. As we say here: these people need a view source on democracy.

What has been revealed about Tor also is an interesting example of that confusion. Tor is a software that people can use to anonymize they traffic on Internet. For that reason, it is used by many peace activists within dictatorships that monitor and censor the use of Internet – this is the main reason why 60% of Tor’s funding come from the US Department of State. Yet on the other hand, in the meantime as we have learned from the Guardian, the NSA circulated presentations nicely called “Tor Stinks”, and spends a lot of effort trying to find vulnerabilities to break into that system. (And then complain about Mozilla effortlessly fixing the vulnerabilities they found in software updates. Fun story). This is confusing.


So, where does all of that that put us? At a crossroads.

We got a glimpse of the present and it is our duty to say: “That does not look like the future we want!”. This does not look like a Net respectful of the principles we hold as sacred.

Often people say that democracy is like plumbing. You only care about plumbing where there are bad smells. Democracy in our information society doesn’t smell so good right now, and we need some plumbing.

Mozillians, we are the great and heroic plumbers of the Information Society, (and the architects, and the painters, and the evangelists, and the priests, if plumber sounds bad to you) – what I mean is that this community in good shape to solve these problems, well equipped with our knowledge, our motivation and our values.

Which problems? We talk about Privacy, but truly, it’s about freedom, about democracy. What’s this thing we call “Privacy”?

Privacy is a fundamental right. It is in many constitutions, its in our Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the European Convention on Human Rights. We, citizens of the 21st century, inherited the idea that humanity needed to hold privacy as sacred for peace to be ensured. Why, how, when, are all fascinating questions that I encourage us to pursue.

But today, in 2013, in the Information Society, privacy gains a new kind of importance. Privacy is what enables a lot of other fundamental freedoms: in the Information Society, there is no Freedom of Press, no Freedom of Association, of assembly, no freedom to protest, without Privacy.

It’s though to think about Privacy, it seem very abstract.


I like Eben Moglen’s definition of Privacy because it makes the stakes more clear. Moglen says: “There are three components to privacy”.

It’s secrecy, anonymity, autonomy. And when we consider each of them individually, we understand better why we care, and better better what we fear.

Secrecy is simply the ability for two people to communicate without others being party to their communications.
That’s part of what creeps us (and Angela Merkel) when we hear about the NSA programs and we say: “Stop watching us!”.

Anonymity is the ability to communicate without the source or the recipient being known. It’s not abstract at all for journalists and activists, who say they can’t do their work without such a possiblity.

Autonomy is the ability to control who knows what about you and holds data about you. This morning, someone said to me: “I am alarmed when I think someone has all this data on me, they might know more about myself than I do, I don’t want anyone to use this data to change my behavior, and it creeps me out to think they might.” That’s an autonomy issue. Autonomy is also what ensures free will and self determination in our societies.

So these are the pipes we need to fix.


Fixing the pipes takes a constructive debate, and also takes many people taking small steps in the right direction. All these steps, we are taking them together by engaging with at least three types of actions. We build technological solutions. These solutions can be plugins that reveal what’s in the box and that teaches us about what is going on, they can be encryption tools made easier, they can be anything.

Technological fixes preserve our own freedoms, and that of those who need them the most – the journalists, the activists, for instance. This is why they are so crucially important. This is also why they are not sufficient: this would leave behind all those who lack incentive or knowledge to use them to protect themselves.

To achieve “freedom for all” rather than “freedom for those who care”, we will need to engage in the policy dialogue. In doing so, we should oppose the idea that we are facing “new technologies” bringing “new problems” upon this world, and feel empowered by the old wisdoms and age-old principles of the peace builders to whom we owe the freedoms we now stand to protect. An example: in the past, people and their Governments have successfully stood up to say “It’s not because the States and the Industry have new technical abilities that the armies of this world should weaponize them”, “because we can” is not a sufficient rationale to authorize Governments to engage with the full powers of the technologies – that’s somewhat how we achieved nuclear non-proliferation. Phrasing what

peace feels like and designing a framework enabling it is the debate we must engage with – again.

The last piece I want to talk about today is a crucially important one – it’s education. It’s our duty to explain and frame all these issues for the generations to come. This morning, someone told me: “I have a nine years old using Facebook and Gmail. What do I tell her for her to understand the stakes behind what she does on a daily basis?” Providing answers to that question is fundamental.

People rightly fear that it will be complicated. Privacy is technical, is legal, is political, and operated on so many scales: it’s an everyday life matter, it’s a State matter, it’s even an international matter! But framing, teaching, explaining these types of challenges are things we have proved to be able to tackle!

Today, very few nine years old can talk about the international legal framework for sustainable development.

But almost all of them know about pollution. They know “it’s bad”, and they know some sort of personal fixes: maybe they even recycle. We can achieve an understanding of how freedom need to be protected in the information society, even if it is abstract, we can achieve it because it is crucially important.

Let’s make some plumbing, let’s build and teach the web we want, let’s build Cyberpeace. I was part of the first generation to live in the Web and I would like to be part of the first generation to see it at peace. 

◒ Moving Blogs


Chers amis, I recognize that I’m terrible at blogging and have decided to make an effort to at least gather the updates about what I am doing at the Berkman at the same place. Bienvenue sur le nouveau blog ! I will move stuff from there to here, and keep on writing here as things come.

PS: Not ready to do a Twitter effort yet, but that may come later (or never).

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