Another Internet is Possible! The Internet provides an amazing community for organizing - with a strong commitment to open standards, free software and radical democracy. Will that survive the corporate profit-mongering of global capital? These posts are about ways the Internet might not only survive, but grow and develop in a way that further develops the politically radical ideals of freedom and democracy.

We had another amazing Internet Rights workshop - this one at the 2008 Grassroots Use of Technology Conference.

We had four groups of about four people each - a much smaller gathering than in the past. We also started the session 15 minutes late and old had an hour and 15 minutes to start with. Unfortunately we had to cut the discussion at the end.

On the positive side, we partnered with the Boston Action Tank. They ran the session immediately after ours. Taking the number one right (we ended up with two rights tied for first place - we chose the right to govern) we did a power analysis to determine what pre-conditions we need to achieve the right and who are our allies in the struggle. We didn't have enough time to come out a publishable consensus - however, it was a useful and enlightening step to take with the rights.

And the rights are ...

  1. First Amendment Rights shall extend to all online communications. [4]

  2. All users have the right to govern the Internet as a commons that allows participation and access for all. [4]

  3. Keep the information as private as we want. Levels of privacy should be dictated by the users. [3]

  4. Transparency about web site and network ownership. [3]

  5. Universal availability of relevant tools and training for full participation in the digital environment [3]

  6. Universal, free access to the Internet for everyone. [2]

  7. Information sent from a "sending" machine should not be edited or obstructed in their transit to the intended "receiving" machine. [2]

  8. All users have the right to form and self-govern online communities. [2]

  9. Right to accountable name-anonymous access to the Internet. [2]

  10. All users have the right to protect their data and transmissions from spying or editing. All users have the right to refuse to surrender their protection methods to individuals, organizations or governments. [1]

[The numbers in brackets are the number of groups that endorsed the right. 4 groups total.]

Posted Sat 28 Jun 2008 07:37:20 PM EDT Tags: another-internet

To use the People's Production House slogan: The Internet is Yours ... If you want it.

PPH started Part 1 of the workshop by exploring the Digital Expansion Initiative. They shared both the results and the methods they use to learn about how people use the Internet and how we want it to develop (see some of their testimony).

I really appreciated their transparency: we went through the various methods for collecting research (via interviews, drawing pictures, etc) - for each method we all did it and discussed the effectiveness of the strategy.

Part II was May First/People Link - and the Internet Rights workshop.

And the results are in. The number in brackets is the number of groups that endorsed the right. We had 5 groups total.

  1. Free Speech and peacable assembly without permit for anyone, everywhere. A right including the right to dialogue. [4]

  2. Right to internet and technology public education. [4]

  3. All people have the right to be involved in a public global democratic process to manage the full spectrum of communications resources: [3]

  4. Right to transparency about government and corporate activity, surveillance, activities. [2]

  5. Right to personal privacy; Control and consent over your personal information; transparency of information collection practices. [2]

  6. Airwaves/spectrum are a public resource controlled and managed by the people for public, not private, gain. [2]

  7. Community ownership of internet infrastructure (domain name system, hardware, last mile connection, software source, bandwidth) [1]

  8. Network managers and/or Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate against content of any type. [1]

  9. all people have the right to contribute content; Rights of the common over intellectual property rights [1]

  10. Peoples throughout the world have free access to ubiquitous broadband and computing resources through public institutions such as schools and libraries or any local resource center if they want it. [0]

Posted Fri 20 Jun 2008 11:53:00 AM EDT Tags: another-internet

We have a lot of work to do on the left to develop our political understanding of the dangers of relying on corporate Internet services for our political organizing work. However, the corporate part of the equation is only half the problem. The other half is centralization - a problem that affects even the most politically radical hosting providers.

A group of people recently began working together on the monkeysphere - a project to broaden the use of OpenPGP in our Internet work. Although progress on the project goals has been slow going, we've done a lot of thinking about how to collaborate in a way that avoids centralization.

(These ideas for organizing are based on a transparent organizing model - in other words, there is no space for private communication.)

Consider your typical project (a tech project or even a non-tech focused political project): First you get a web site (centralized), then you get an email list (centralized on a single list server, which sends email to people via their centralized mail provider). If you are particularly tech savvy you might also throw in a (centralized) wiki for collaboration or a project management site (like trac or basecamp). If you are working on a software project, you may want to use a centralized revision control system (like subversion). In other words, just about every aspect of the collaboration relies on a technologically centralized system.

What's right with this model? For one, joining the project is technically easy - you look at a web site (piece of cake) or join a list (easy for most people comfortable with the Internet).

What's wrong with this model? The people who control the central resources control the project. Often, joining a list requires moderator approval. Accessing a password-protected web site requires that someone create your account. Usually, the people who are responsible for these duties are responsible because they happened to be the ones who set the technology up - not because a political decision in the group was made to empower them with this decision-making responsibility.

In addition - what happens when the web server breaks or is seized? Or when the email list goes down? Or when any of the central resources get hit so hard with traffic (legitimate or not) that they can't cope?

And finally - what if the politics of the group is decidedly anarchistic or otherwise politically committed to decentralization?

With the monkeysphere project we decided to experiment with collaborating using tools that were de-centralized. We started by using a tool called git. Git is a de-centralized revision control system, which is a fancy way of saying: it's a tool that keeps track of text files - saving all revisions and changes made by all participants (like a wiki). One way git is special is that it does not rely on a centralized server for people to collaborate. Instead, each participant publishes their own copy of their files, and every other participant can choose to merge their repository with everyone else's repository. All changes are kept track of and can be identified by author, undone, or accepted.

In the monkeysphere project, git is about as far as we've gone with this theory. Below, I've hashed out some ways to take it even further.

Web site: it is useful to have a single web site for people to go to in order to learn about your project. If you are using git, then you can publish your web site files via git. That way, every member of the project has a copy of the site in their git repository and has the capacity to publish it as a web site. Most groups would want to choose a single individual to take responsibility for this duty - however, if the group decides the chosen individual is not doing it reliably, or the chosen individual's public web server goes down or is seized, it is technically simple for any other individual in the group to re-publish it somewhere else.

What about communication? If every member has a published blog capable of tags - we could communicate with each other by publishing blog posts with the agreed upon tag. Each project member would be responsible for pulling in everyone else's RSS feed of their blog on a regular basis. Sending an "email" to the group would simply be a matter of posting a new item to your blog with the appropriate tag. New members join the communication by subscribing to the other members RSS feeds. A list of participants RSS feeds could be stored in the git repository.

At the moment - these ideas are barely within the reach of a fairly sophisticated group of technologists. To expect the left to adopt these strategies now is unrealistic. However, this model of organizing suggests some new core competencies that we may want to consider developing - including the use of revision control systems, RSS and blogging so we can plan for a future when de-centralized organizing can happen on the Internet.

Posted Fri 23 May 2008 10:20:46 AM EDT Tags: another-internet

The World Social Forum says: "Another world is possible." How is this world shaping up? What role will the US play? What role will technology and the Internet play? How can we prepare?

It's impossible to know what the world will look like in the future, but there are some unmistakable trends visible today. While the US has experienced recessions in the past, the current financial state of the country is bleaker than we've seen it in a long time. Meanwhile, China is economically growing and taking on super power stature in the world previously dominated by the United States. Increasingly, the most important role that US is making to the global economy is that of consumer, based largely on credit.

Similarly, the left in the US, once a significant force in the world, is increasingly overshadowed by revolutionary movements in Latin America, ranging from the World Social Forum movement itself (born in Brazil) to the Zapatistas novel creation of a local/world movement to leaders like Hugo Chavez re-writing US/Latin American relations.

These movements have had a powerful impact on the politics and culture of the region. For the first time in contemporary history, almost all the countries of Latin America elect their governments. Dictatorship, once the "norm" in the Spanish-speaking Americas, is not only not prominent but it has become a kind of atrocity in the popular political culture. Furthermore, the moves being made "from the top" (like Chavez in Venuzuala and Morales in Bolivia) have enormous and broad poliical support. In the case of Morales, his presidency was the culmination of years of grassroots mobilization and organizing.

There's no mistake: the US is losing its central role in the world. Furthermore, the new world is increasingly based on international relationships and, from the left, the most powerful moves are being made in Latin America.

Without knowing anything else, these trends give us a lot to work with. For US activists, it means examining our own center-of-the-universe perspectives. Nobody is immune from the environments in which they are raised. How does the increasing irrelevence of the US change our political priorities? What does this mean for locally-focused projects when the policies and trends in our country are increasingly determined by other countries? How relevant are political projects that are not looking beyond our borders?

In many ways, former empire countries like the US and England are perfectly situated to build international movements. There's a much higher percentage of bi-lingual and bi-cultural activists with close ties to other countries than any where else. However, growing up in an empire country has its draw backs as well. These global trends require US activists to adjust to being in a movement in which we're no longer the center.

It also involves a change in scale. The left in the US is tiny compared to the global left. Our strategies, honed to work with memberships numbered in the hundreds or thousands, need to now accomodate tens of thousdands and hundreds of thousands.

While other countries may have more experience with scale, nobody has experience with the scale international movements can offer. How do we organize mass movements? Due to limits in communication, previous mass movements have often been based on top-down, undemocratic processes. Now, with remarkable advances in communications and the Internet, what options do we have to democratize these processes?

One unique asset that the US has is a relatively well developed liberal technology community. If nothing else, the nonprofit industrial complex has created enough opportunities for left-leaning technologits to make a living while developing extremely valuable Internet-related skills. It's based on this community that projects like May First/People Link, Riseup (and in Canada, Tao and Resist) have been able to flourish.

As these projects have developed, a politics has developed with them as well, a politics that, while rooted in technology, has broad implications well beyond computers and the Internet.

Technologists, even liberal ones, have much more exposure to very radical ideas around openness, transparency, and freedom. These ideas come from some broad Internet-based movements (the free software movement being one of the most prominent) - but also from a deeper understanding of and experience with many technology experiments that are rooted in these ideas (like Wikipedia or the Debian Linux development team).

In addition, while the US still dominates most free software projects, the degree of internationalization in the free software world is astounding. Free software technologists have made an enormous contribution to understanding how we can build systems that operate transparently in multiple languages and with multiple cultures. This contribution is valuable in and of itself, but additionally gives US technologists, unlike our non-technological counterparts, some concrete experience in what it means to collaborate across borders.

These ideas, taken to their radical roots, are well suited for democratic, mass movements. These ideas, as they exist in the minds of technologists and non-technologists on the left today, however, are still very under-developed, particularly in the broader political context of building democratic mass movements.

How do we prepare and develop technologists for a more political role? How do we develop and prepare non-technologists for this role?

Politicizing technology

One strategy is to politicize our technology work. This strategy pertains as much to technologists as it does to non-technologists. One step in this direction is to consider common technology goals in a political light.

For example, consider these goals common to technology projects in a broader political context:

  • Redundancy: no person or server should ever occupy a role so central that if they were to be removed, the entire project would fall apart

  • Scaleability: we should start with a strategy that not only works with 50, but with 500 and 5,000 and even 5 million as well. Similarly, our strategy must scale culturally - it must function with people of all backgrounds, races, nationalities, social groups and sexes.

  • Transparency: all decisions, meeting notes, discussions should be in the open, publicy available for review. No information should be proprietary or horded.

  • Trust: new people should be able to join the campaign with enough responsibility to productively contribute and demonstrate their trustability, but without the ability to do great harm to the campaign.

How many of our political organizing campaigns adhere to these goals?

Certainly not all technology projects adhere to these goals. However, based on experience with the free software movement, many technologists do adhere to these goals and, in some political organizing campaigns, the technologists are the ones pressuring the political leaders on these goals.

These goals transcend technology - they shatter the distinction between the organizing and the tech work - demonstrating that building a global movement means that tech work is political work and must be full incorporated into the political thinking and development of the movement. Building from this model means that there are no non-techies: we are all techies of different skill levels, just as we are all organizers at different levels of political development.

These are the goals of a global movement, one that hasn't been possible before now.

Posted Sun 13 Apr 2008 07:10:53 PM EDT Tags: another-internet

The results are in.

On March 2, 2008, May First/People Link organized a session to collaboratively develop a series of Internet Rights at the Grassroots Media Conference.

We ran the same workshop at the 2007 US Social Forum with different, but similar results.

At the GMC, we had less time, which seems to be reflected in the more raw wording. Also of note - none of the rights were endorsed by all groups (the number of endorsers are in brackets). We had a total of seven groups. And, of course, due to the nature of the project, there was some last minute back and forth - as you might imagine the last right was rather contentious!

  1. Freedom of expression. [5]

  2. The right to space, hardware, software, and non-restricted use of existing and future internet technology, including the right to not use a technology. [4]

  3. Labor rights for internet workers and technology produced with priorities of ecological sustainability, labor justice and respect of community land (production and disposal). [3]

  4. The right to a participatory governance process of the internet, including those who are not yet online. [3]

  5. Free, equitable, and open access to the internet. As well as the codified right to not participate. [3]

  6. Moderation against libel, slander, and defamation through the right to rebuttal. [2]

  7. Right to privacy, and anonymity in all network based activity. [2]

  8. The right to a domain name that is short descriptive and memorable, including equal-opportunity indexing. Non-fee-based promotion and searchability. Freedom from commercialization and speculation. [1]

  9. Internet service provided by multiple, independent providers who compete vigorously and offer access to the entire internet over a broadband connection, with freedom to attach within the home any legal device to the net connection and run any legal application. [1]

  10. The right for communities to enforce standards/values via censorship. [1]

Posted Wed 26 Mar 2008 08:10:13 AM EDT Tags: another-internet

Every day we post content on web sites run by people that we trust, or know a little, or don't know at all, or in many cases explicitly don't trust, or really, just about every variation within these categories of trust. Even with people we know and trust, we often have no idea how secure their systems are or how reliable their backups are.

OpenID directly addresses this concern, by asking: why would you entrust your password and identity to all of these websites run by people that we don't know? With OpenID, the answer is: you shouldn't! Instead, pick a single trusted provider to store your password and verify your identity. Then, any web site, trusted or not, directs you to your trusted identity provider to verify your identity and, provided the response is positive, lets you in without every needing to touch your password.

Then, satisfied and feeling secure, we proceed to pour hours and hours into writing posts, comments, how-to's; uploading music, artwork, and and photos; and engaging in critical dialogues all of which could disappear permanently with the flip of one switch, the exploit of a single vulnerability, the sale of a corporation, or the disappearance of a collective.

What if we had a different model for content on the web?

What if, like with OpenID, we chose a trusted content publisher and published all of our content there? What if web applications allowed you the option: publish your blog, comment, photo, etc. on our servers - or publish on your open content enabled provider and leave a link on our server? The web application would display the content exactly the same - whether it was stored on their server or stored on your trusted provider's server.

This setup in no way ensures that an untrusted web site won't change your content before displaying it, or delete the post by deleting the link back to you, or do any number of devious and evil things. However, they won't be able to delete or change the actual content that you wrote. The content is under your control.

A somewhat obvious criticism comes to mind: this approach means that if your trusted provider has a disaster, you could lose everything you've ever published on the Internet. Well, yes, that's a problem. With the current paradigm, if a web site goes down, you've lost everything you've contributed to that web site, but not everything you've ever contributed anywhere.

On the other hand - wouldn't you like a system that could allow you to download to your own computer everything you've written online with the click of a single button? While you are increasing the liklihood that a single mess-up could do very significant damage, you are at the same time giving yourself a degree of control over your data that is impossible in today. While your provider should certainly make their own backups, you could easily make an extra backup whenever you wanted. And, with the ability to easily backup your own data, you could also easily move to any provider you want at any time.

After re-reading what I've written - this idea seems really un-original. Isn't this what http was designed to do?

Posted Sun 09 Mar 2008 10:11:29 PM EDT Tags: another-internet