Innovation Under Austerity: Eben Moglen's call to arms from the Freedom to Connect conference

Last week saw the latest installment of David Isenberg's Freedom to Connect conference in Washington, DC. One of the keynotes came from Eben Moglen, formerly chief counsel of the Free Software Foundation, now the principle agitator behind the Software Freedom Law Center. Eben's keynote is one of the most provocative, intelligent, outrageous and outraged pieces of technology criticism I've heard. It's a 45 minute lecture with a 45 minute Q&A. I ripped the audio and listened to it while walking around town today and kept having to stop and take out my headphones and think for a while.

I found out about it via a message forwarded to me by the Open University's Marian Petre from the ACM's SIGCSE mailing list, where Adelphi's Stephen Bloch cherry-picked some of the best quotes from the talk, which I've pasted in below to give you a taste of what awaits you, should you be willing to give Eben such a generous chunk of your time. I think it was a very good use of my time.

Innovation under austerity is not produced by collecting lots of money and paying it to innovation intermediaries. [Several examples of disintermediation: TV, encyclopedias, book publishing, music recording, magazine publishing] Disintermediation -- the movement of power out of the middle of the net -- is a crucial fact about 21st century political economy.

Intermediaries that did well in the past ten years are limited to two categories: health insurers in the U.S., owing to political pathology, and the financial industry. Health insurers in the U.S. may be able to capitalize on continuing political pathology to remain failing and expensive intermediaries for a while longer, but the financial industry crapped in its own nest and is shrinking now and will continue to do so.

The reality that disintermediation happens and you can't stop it becomes a guiding light in the formation of national industrial policy. The greatest technological innovation of the 20th century is the thing we now call the World Wide Web. That innovation both fuels disintermediation by allowing all sorts of human contact to take place without agents, and is itself a result of disintermediated innovation.

The browser made the Web very easy to read. We did not make the Web easy to write. So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write, and created a man-in-the-middle attack on human civilization. That's the intermediary innovation that we should be concerned about. We made everything possible... and then intermediaries to innovation turned it into the horror that is Facebook. It's intermediated innovation serving the needs of financiers, not the needs of people.

What do we know about how to achieve innovation under austerity? We created the Cloud. We created the idea that we could share operating systems and all the rest of the commoditizable stack on top of them. We did this using the curiosity of young people, not venture capital. Venture capital came towards us not because innovation needed to happen, but because innovation had already happened.

That curiosity of young people could be harnessed because all of the computing devices in ordinary day-to-day use were hackable, and so young people could actually hack on what everybody used. That made it possible for innovation to occur where it can occur without friction, which is at the bottom of the pyramid of capital. Hundreds of thousands of young people around the world hacking on laptops, hacking on servers, hacking on general purpose hardware available to allow them to scratch their individual itches -- technical, career, and just plain ludic itches ("I wanna do this; it would be neat") -- which is the primary source of the innovation which drove all of the world's great economic expansion in the past ten years. The way innovation really happens is that you provide young people with opportunities to create on an infrastructure which allows them to hack the real world and share the results.

All of that innovation comes from the simple process of letting the kids play and getting out of the way. Which, as you are aware, we are working as hard as we can to prevent, now, completely. Increasingly, around the world, the actual computing artifacts of daily life for individual human beings are being locked so you can't hack them. The individual computing laboratory in every 12-year-old's pocket is being locked down. If you prevent people from hacking on what they own themselves, you will destroy the engine of innovation from which everybody is profiting. The goal of the network operators is to attach every young human being to a proprietary network platform with closed terminal equipment that she can't learn from, can't study, can't understand, can't whet her teeth on, can't do anything with except send text messages that cost a million times more than they ought to.

Disintermediation is beginning to come to higher education. [Coursera vs. MITx] Every society currently trying to restart innovation needs more education, delivered more widely at lower cost. Free software is the world's most advanced technical education system. It allows anybody, anywhere in the world, to get to the state of the art in anything computers can be made to do, by reading what is fully available, by experimenting with it and by sharing the consequences freely. True computer science: experimentation, hypothesis formation, more experimentation, more knowledge for the human race. We needed to expand that to other areas. The universalization of access to knowledge is the single most important force available for increasing innovation and human welfare on the planet.

Disintermediation means there will be more service providers throughout the economy with whom we are directly in touch. That means more jobs outside hierarchies and fewer jobs inside hierarchies.

We use the word "privacy" to mean several distinct things. [Secrecy, anonymity], autonomy: the ability to live a life in which the decisions you make are unaffected by others' access to secret or anonymous communication.

March 21, 2012, after close of business, press release announcing "minor changes to the Ashcroft Rules": government information about individuals of whom nothing is suspected will no longer be retained for a maximum of 180 days, but rather for a maximum of five years. In other words, infinity. We are moving from the society we've always known, which we quaintly call a "free" society, to a society in which the U.S. government keeps a list of everybody every American knows. What should be the Constitutional procedure for doing this? Should there be, for example, a law? They didn't need a law; they did it with a press release, on a rainy Wednesday after everybody had gone home. Very rapidly, and with no apparent remorse, the two largest governments on Earth (the U.S. and China) have adopted essentially identical points of view: a robust social graph connecting government to everybody and the exhaustive data-mining of society is both government's fundamental policy with respect to their different forms of stability maintenance.

It isn't just our civil liberties that are at stake. The other part of what that costs us is the very vitality and vibrancy of invention, culture and discourse, that freedom to tinker, to invent, to be different, to be nonconformist. This is what sustains social vitality and economic growth in the 21st century. There is no tension between the civil liberty policy of assuring the right to be let alone and the economic policy of securing innovation under austerity. They require the same thing. Free software, free hardware we can hack on, free spectrum we can use to communicate with one another without let or hindrance, free access to educational resources to every person on earth without regard to ability to pay."

(Thanks, Marian!)


  1. Added the link to audio file to F2C video page: – Thanks Cory!

  2. I couldn’t hear much he was saying — the chamber was too echoey. All I got was “blah blah Facebook sucks blah blah free software rules”. This is a better use of my time than reading through random Hacker News comment threads?

    1. “If you are not moved by this talk your frog is boiled.”

      Either that, or your hearing needs enhancement.

    2. There was nothing wrong with the chamber.  The “echo” was a result of the emptiness in your head.  Maybe your heart too.  One thing for sure, the pride you show in your own ignorance makes you look about as dumb as a bag of hammers.

  3. “So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write, and created a man-in-the-middle attack on human civilization.”

    What’s with the hoodie hate?

      1.  I don’t think so.

        “So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write, and created a man-in-the-middle attack on human civilization. That’s the intermediary innovation that we should be concerned about. We made everything possible… and then intermediaries to innovation turned it into the horror that is Facebook. It’s intermediated innovation serving the needs of financiers, not the needs of people.”

    1. i agree, porkchop. the repeated invocation of “thug in a hooded sweatshirt”/”thug in a hoodie” eerily evoked the description of trevon  martin for me. i totally dug eben’s talk, otherwise, but the ad hominem metaphor had some unpleasant overtones (and yes, i especially agree with the dark implications he raised about facebook).

  4. Eben says: “the Web is less than 8000 days old.” Much less, for anybody who didn’t have a UNIX box with X-windows. Version 0.6b, the first publicly available beta version of Mosaic that supported Windows, was released September 28, 1993. It didn’t work very well.

    The first browser version that was fairly usable on common operating systems was Mosaic version 1.0, released 11/11/1993,  6,773 days ago. I think that should be regarded as the real birthday of the web.

    The Web turns 20 next year, but we can celebrate 10M minutes Nov. 15 of this year, and 7000 days on January 10th of next year.

  5. I see the browser and browser-based programming as the end-run around the kind of lockdown he describes.

    Disclaimer: I’m helping to make a framework for hackable web apps.

  6. A full transcript of this talk is available at: 

    Thanks to Ben Asselstine for the translation.

  7. Cool, thank you! I am typing before listening but: are lawyers and lobbyists also thriving intermediaries, in this sense? …I wonder how historians could innovate, in a good way.

  8. Thanks. That was very interesting.  A lot of growing industries are like Mr. Moglen describes.  They attract innovators and inventors who are able to tinker and create.  Then, changes in regulation, economics, and technological complexity seem to  make entry into industries less and less accessible, decreasing innovation over time.   

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