FreedomBox is Vaporware. Maybe. Maybe Not.

Wired’s Threat Level reported on the threat that Eben Moglen’s FreedomBox will never actually exist in any meaningful way.

They got $85K in funding from a Kickstarter campaign and set up an organization to develop the concept, but it’s been like a year since then and, you know, it’s not like they haven’t done anything…but there’s nothing they can really show to the community as a milestone.

From the Wired post, “In an e-mail, Daly told Threat Level that setting the end of the year as the goal for the initial beta-release is intentionally ambitious. He hopes that “people will see the fact that we probably won’t make it without additional developers as an excuse to join the project.”…“FreedomBox is not going to be saved by the enthusiasm of those who care about freedom,” he said, while pacing in his office at the Software Freedom Law Center in Manhattan. “It’s going to be saved from that fate because that software stack is going to be useful to all kinds of people for all kinds of purposes.”

That seems like a reasonably solid argument. Open source projects are particularly successful when they are flexible tools. The sort of person who can develop a technology is the same sort of person who wants more and better tools for developing technology. The best people tend to focus on projects that are useful in a general sense. However, I suspect that the FreedomBox idea might be fundamentally flawed.


FreedomBox is supposed to be a little plug computer that allows you to jack in anywhere and access or provide all sorts of anonymous services. Well, there’s already something that does that (minus the plug part). It’s called any computer running Tor. You see, Tor is a piece of software and a network of nodes that allow highly encrypted communication from one arbitrary computer to another. The thing is that encrypted communication is HARDER than clear-text communication. The only way you can pass a message that your “enemies” can’t read is when you have first established an encryption scheme with the message recipient. That means you have to have communicated without encryption at some point in the past. You also have to physically be somewhere, so even if someone can’t read the message they can still find out where it originated and where it terminated, which might be all they really needed to know.

Tor is pretty flexible in that anyone at all can run the software, but it is centrally managed, that’s how it works. You need that central repository of information so that all the arbitrary communicators can find and understand each other. FreedomBox wants to do the same sort of thing, but without any central, long-lasting source of information. The reason I think their concept is fundamentally flawed is that now FreedomBox is talking about piggybacking on the Tor infrastructure.

There is a problem we have been referring to as the “magic routing problem”. It is the question of how two FreedomBoxes find each other on the internet and establish communication, even if one or both boxes are firewalled and neither is findable via DNS. We called it “magic routing” because we hadn’t started to design the routing system and so we had to assume it happened by magic. Our solution to this problem is to piggyback on the Tor network. Hidden services rely on Tor for routing and discoverability. The system works quite well and the Tor project does excellent work at maintaining that system and strengthening it against attack. Nick Daly and Ian Sullivan built a simple server that listens on a local port and is reachable from the outside world by a Tor hidden service. It accepts authenticated queries and responds with information. For example, it can give your IP address to friends you trust.

Even after more than a year of development they can’t figure out a way to avoid centralized control. The best they can do is entrust centralized control to an organization that is designed to provide anonymous communication. Anywho, we’ll see how that ends up working…if it ends up working.

It is starting to look like the fundamental problems with the concept (my speculation of course) are killing the interest of the project’s leadership. From the Wired article,

Two years since its conception, the future of FreedomBox is still a question mark. Slow development aside, there are issues of leadership as well. Vasile, who’s led the effort since the beginning, has been named the new director for the New America Foundation Open Internet Tools Project and will split his time between D.C. and New York; Moglen himself will gradually “step away,” as he told Threat Level.

And there will be changes in the management, but those “will indicate that the project is doing what all free software projects do, which is beginning to raise its own leadership internally,” he said.

Despite the skepticism and talks of vaporware, Moglen believes the project has already been a success. “I think we’ve passed the point where no matter what happens, we will leave good technology behind,” he said.

When the conceptual founder of a project starts to talk about how it doesn’t really matter if the project ends because it did totally manage to do some useful stuff, well, the project is probably dying. The problem with that assertion that projects raise their own leadership internally is that projects only do that after something has been demonstrated. Until people can see a real practical result the only people working on it are the founders and a few interested volunteers. If the FreedomBox core wants to be sure the project will remain alive after they move on to other things they’ll need to at least get that first beta out the door.

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