Yesterday I’ve been asked by a good friend of mine why I am investing so much time in the FSFE (Free Software¹ Foundation Europe) instead of putting more energy in other organisations with more focus on privacy issues. The background of his question is that I’m quite concerned about governmental and commercial surveillance and the lack of really private ways to communicate with each other and the impact this has on our online and offline behaviour. With Laura Poitras‘ recent movie „Citizenfour“ awarded with an Oscar, I use the media attention as an icebreaker to talk with my friends about these topics if the situation allows it.
Back to question which can also be read as „Why are you investing your time in Free Software instead of privacy which seems to touch you more?“. To be honest I had to think about this a bit. But then I remembered Jacob Appelbaum saying “[…] what people used to call liberty and freedom we now call privacy”. And I think that’s the reason why I stick with putting my energy as activist in FSFE rather than in other (very good!) organisations: Because I think that freedom is the foundation of everything we call privacy today and in the future. I’ll explain that in the following paragraphs. It already has been said in many blog posts, articles, press releases, and interviews from people in- and outside the Free Software movement that Free Software (sometimes also called Open Source) is the key to privacy, mostly because only Free Software is the only sane way how to publish serious encryption methods. Of course the very basis for encryption is trust, and trust is only gained by transparency and the possibility to look behind the scenes.
But for me, it goes much further than just the rational reason why Free Software is the basis for privacy programs. I invest my time in the FSFE because it’s about freedom. We can have as good privacy-enhancing tools as possible, without freedom they are worth nothing. I’m not (only) talking about physical freedom, but more about the freedom to interact with the society in a way one can determine. Imagine following – not unrealistic – situation: You can communicate with your friends anonymously over perfectly encrypted channels and this is good. But now your country’s financial office urges you to give information about your tax situation in an electronical way – which is only possible by using a proprietary (and therefore insecure) operating system. And inside the tax administration all your sensitive files reside on proprietary servers, are opened on insecure systems, and with zero transparency.
Or another example: You are oblidged by your internet provider to use their router and you’re not allowed to replace it by an alternative device. Even your country’s net agency or economical ministry allows it, which is the current state in many European countries. You may use Tor or VPN but you still don’t know if they track metadata like your connection times and volume, MAC addresses, number of connected devices, preferred anonymisation techniques, or phone call destinations. Or they just throttle all communication which they cannot read or which is directed to services like Tor.
In these cases software privacy is of little use. It’s about regulations, it’s about changing the toughts of political actors, it’s about dirty politics and dust-dry laws – and it’s about freedom. About our freedom of choice, not only which software we want to use, but also the ways we want to communicate, which devices and file format we want to choose, and the things we want to say publicly and not only encrypted in the dark. Privacy is necessary for situations in which we cannot speak or act freely, but freedom is the only way how to improve the world we’re living in so that we won’t have to fight for the right of privacy anymore. And freedom in all ways is what the FSFE stands for, not only by improving software but by informing the public and politicians, and by putting political pressure on decision makers. Because freedom is the foundation for a society in which someday privacy can be the most normal thing.
This, dear friend, is the reason why I volunteer for the FSFE – and therefore also for privacy.
¹ Means software which you are allowed to use for every purpose, which everybody can inspect, modify and redistribute