The state of digital freedom in 2014

In 2013 we learned in detail how our digital freedoms were violated. That awareness holds promise for a brighter year ahead, and open source plays a crucial role

What a year we just went through concerning digital freedoms. After starting so sadly with the tragic death of a young digital polymath, 2013 saw the rise of a sequence of other heroic figures who risked their lives to defend our rights.

Aaron Swartz's suicide shook up the whole community. It awakened the feeling that we could no longer remain passive in the face of growing abuse by governments and big industries. It seemed each week was marked by travesties perpetrated either in the name of security or of "intellectual property" -- two of the most formidable obstacles to liberty in this early 21st century.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Patent trolls, tread carefully in 2014. | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

In June, the Snowden affair marked a turning point in digital rights. It created a sudden awareness that the World Wide Web we evolve in is aptly named and could easily become an imprisoning cocoon.

Aldous Huxley warned us of this as long ago as 1931 in his novel "Brave New World":

The perfect dictatorship would have the appearance of a democracy, a prison without walls in which the prisoners would not even dream of escaping; a system of slavery where, through entertainment and consumption, the slaves would love their servitude.

Such a system can succeed only when those enveloped in it remain unaware of its machinations. I believe the transparency of open source can play a key role in revealing how these manipulations occur.

"Software freedom" per se may not be a human right, but when it is absent it is far easier to abridge our rights. When the source code is accessible to you and a community of developers is constantly improving the reliability of the product, at any time you can check how your data is being processed. If instead you opt for proprietary software, there is no chance for you to figure out what happens to your data.

All you can do when there's no code and no community is trust the commercial supplier, the only party with access to the source. We discovered in 2013 that trust was widely misplaced. Proprietary software companies were found using that data, as we had expected, but they were also found -- beyond the wildest paranoia of the best-folded tin hat -- to have permitted access to the code to the NSA and other security services.

What can we expect from 2014? Undoubtedly more of the same when it comes to digital rights abuses. Neither the British nor the U.S. governments are showing much contrition, and public alarm is depressingly muted. But we can also expect the growing realization that open source is important. Control or be controlled. Stay free to use, study, improve, and share the product you legitimately acquired, or be monitored by it.

Equally we can expect open knowledge and open data to become more than just policy fashion statements as they were last year. Efforts still need to be made to advance open data, because so far, words and intentions have been followed by very few actions. Just as with the free software movement, the concept is deeper than just "free stuff." It aims to open up access to certain categories of resources for completely unrestricted use. The result will be to foster education, innovation, transparency, and competition.

Further on the horizon, open currency presents huge challenges to established policy by providing a substrate for low-friction and border-independent transactions. With the advent of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the alternative economy we've heard about for years is no longer a dream. In 2013, cryptocurrency was perhaps still a Wild West of marginally legal intents. But the closure of Silk Road together with increasing acknowledgement by governments and financial institutions means the road ahead is unfolding.

They year ahead could be the year in which what I term "the meshed society" takes hold. The meshed society is composed of individuals connected globally as peers without the need for intermediaries, empowered to be creators as well as consumers, repurposers as well as users. Open source, open knowledge, and open currency all empower the meshed society. In 2014 we will see emergent innovation as those concepts finally find one another. The new year holds so much promise.

[Thanks to Alexandra Combes for her extensive help with this essay.]

This article, "The state of digital freedom in 2014," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies