The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘People love spying on one another’: A Q&A with Facebook critic Eben Moglen

Eben Moglen has dedicated himself to convincing people to resist Facebook's siren song. The bushy-bearded Columbia Law School professor and founder of the Software Freedom Law Center is a central figure in the new book "More Awesome Than Money," by Jim Dwyer of the New York Times. It's the story of how four New York University students who, filled with the spirit after hearing a 2010 on-campus speech by Moglen, would go on to launch Diaspora -- a different sort of social network where users stay in full control over what they post and what the network gleans about them. But Diaspora has sputtered, and the pull of Facebook remains so strong that there's a pretty good chance you'll click over to it at least once before getting to the bottom of this Q&A. We talked about the democratization of technology, the folly of trying to be ourselves online and why "trillions of dollars depend upon our learned helplessness."

Nancy Scola: What keeps you up at night?

Eben Moglen: We are building an exoskeletal nervous system that ties the entire species together, which we call the 'Net. It changes the basic fabric of human society. What keeps me up at night is the possibility that the human race is not in control of the network that ties us together.

But even if we're at the point where the public might not be totally comfortable with this exoskeleton being out of their control, do people have a lot of options?

They'll come. Thanks to Mr. Snowden, the world knows they need those options. If you want to turn money into software, you can try. But if what you want to do is turn the commitments and thoughts of human beings into what they want to have, you have to let them do it for themselves. What Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the writer of "The Little Prince," said once is that if you want people to build a boat, do not teach them naval architecture or to gather wood. Teach them to long for the immensity of the sea.

Still, it's difficult to be a journalist without Twitter or Facebook; those are so much the drivers of attention in the modern media environment.

Maybe that's correct, and maybe it isn't. There was a period of time in your lifetime and mine when if we had talked about eliminating [the news services] UPI and AP, people would have said: "You can't do that. They're fully integrated into our workflow." When I was a young man, the New York Times would have found it difficult to get up in the morning without the Hearst Press Syndicate.

So let's ask what we really mean. Do we mean that the process of individual self-promotion is crucial to journalism, because egos in need of stroking produce sources? So, Twitter is the system of individual self-promotion industrialized in return for an ability to surveil the Web.

People love spying on one another. They have since the beginning of human time. And Facebook allows them to spy on their friends in return for giving everything up to the boy with the peephole in the middle.

Speaking of that "boy," a.k.a. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, a few years ago there was a debate between him and Christopher Poole of 4chan over whether using our actual names on the Internet would make us act like our better selves. Zuckerberg's real names won. We don't seem better.

That was total rubbish in the first place. We cannot maintain identity in any form without secrecy and anonymity. Facebook is the source of more false identity than anything else on earth because it gives all these poor young people who do not understand identity management a constant identity-management crisis. They are compelled to carry the weight of this enormous performative identity -- the Facebook self. They are constantly engaged in staring at the mirror and wondering if their nose is too large.

Technology is at the point where we can build amazing, powerful things with very little money. Does that put tools in the hands of people before they can develop the judgment and wisdom to use that power? I'm thinking of both Diaspora and Facebook.

The democratization of technology has allowed a lot of things to happen before people understood them very well. But if Mr. Zuckerberg wanted to create an honorable Facebook, in which there was no super-friend, he could have done so. It was a dark machine by design from the beginning.

Along those lines, this summer there was a back-and-forth where Ev Williams, the co-founder of Twitter, argued that allowing for third-party services to piggyback on a platform like Twitter can lead to "more user confusion, crappier experience and inability to innovate." What would you say to him?

The problem with this attitude is that you're building the network that ties the human species together, and you have a preference for centralization -- then you really have come out against freedom, and you just don't know it. Unless we're serious about peerage, we have ceased to be serious about equality.

So, say I'm a normal person who likes Facebook, likes Twitter, but worries about what both those services and the government might know about me. What's my tiny act of resistance?

You don't need a tiny act. You can go firm and full. The first thing that you could do is to place your Facebook profile on a Web site where all the logs aren't in Mr. Zuckerberg's hands. You could do that by running a Diaspora pod to putting up an old-fashioned Web site.

The second thing you could do is to have a mail server of your own, or a mail server with a few friends. The third thing you could do is to use the Firefox Web browser and to make sure that you're using the no-ad and no-script add-ons. If you do that, you're then 60 percent better.

If you want to go 100 percent better, you can have a shell account somewhere -- for example, on a server at The Washington Post -- and you use a proxy to browse online so your browsing stream is mixed with the browsing stream of a thousand other people. You have ceased to be trackable in any meaningful way. We did very little meaningful to your way of life, but we changed your privacy phenomenally.

And what if, as I journalist, I want to go all-in on protecting my communications? That seems like a much bigger hurdle.

That's where I tell you you'll need a weekend. I don't personally consider that too much to ask.