GNU's novel proposal: A cloud that puts privacy first

As Richard Stallman's GNU Project turns 30, the Free Software Foundation aims for a cloud that foils state-sponsored snooping

At Open World Forum in Paris last week, I had the opportunity to spend time with John Sullivan, executive director of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). John leads a surprisingly large staff promoting software freedom in the United States and globally. We discussed the recent 30th anniversary of the GNU project announcement by FSF founder Richard Stallman, together with the organization's new vision to address the challenges that cloud computing presents to our individual and collective liberties.

Originally envisioned as a complete platform with licensing guaranteeing the liberties of its users, GNU has grown to hundreds of packages over its 30-year life. Even so, the original vision of a finished platform is incomplete, awaiting a release-quality kernel to be created within the project. That kernel -- from the Hurd project within GNU -- is now built out enough for there to be an experimental GNU platform built within the Debian community. Until that is finished, the GNU platform relies on the Linux kernel to deliver a whole operating system.

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Meanwhile, the 30th anniversary has offered the FSF a timely opportunity to turn its sites on the cloud. Going beyond simply promoting free software, the FSF is now committed to achieving an Internet-based computing environment designed to protect the liberties of its users. Particular emphasis is being placed on federated publishing and communication services, along with tools to protect privacy and anonymity.

The FSF organized celebratory hackathons for several projects to advance the GNU platform in these areas. The events embraced both official GNU projects such as GNU MediaGoblin and GNU Social, as well as compatible non-GNU projects Commotion, Tahoe-LAFS, and Tor. The FSF has been critical of much that goes under the cloud computing banner, with Stallman famously deriding the idea as "careless computing." These projects embody a different vision:

  • Commotion is described as an open source communication tool that uses mobile phones, computers, and other wireless devices to create decentralized mesh networks. By creating a mesh, there's no single point of failure and no place for the NSA to wiretap.
  • MediaGoblin is a free software media publishing platform designed as an alternative to Flickr, YouTube, SoundCloud, and the like. It empowers individuals to run their own service rather than relying on a centralized provider.
  • Tahoe-LAFS is a free and open cloud storage system that distributes its data as encrypted, multiredundant fragments across numerous servers. Even if some of the servers fail or are taken over by an attacker, the entire filesystem continues to function correctly, preserving your privacy and security.
  • Tor is perhaps the best-known of all the projects involved. It's free software and an open network that helps defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.

These distributed projects represent a different vision for the cloud, one where there's no place to eavesdrop, where the only person worth subpoenaing is the data owner, and where the liberty of the individual takes priority over the profit of the service provider. Cloud doesn't mean a remote rack of servers under someone else's control; rather, it means a truly distributed service.

As revelations about the out-of-control behaviors of security services at home and abroad continue to emerge, the FSF has offered a timely new vision in the spirit of Stallman's original "free Unix" announcement back in 1983. Happy birthday GNU!

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