Last week (Oct 25-26, to be precise) I went to Stockholm for two great events around the topic of hacktivism and how ICT can shape the dynamics of social changes.
The first of those – Power of Adhocracy – was an activist-organised meet-up, an “inofficial warm-up” before the next day conference. Activists (including Jacob Appelbaum, of TOR Project fame) from the USA, through Europe to Kenya were talking in a casual manner about their ideas and projects. Unfortunately I was only able to get there for the last two talks, but nonetheless that meant a fun and interesting evening with the speakers and the great people of Telecomix.
The second one – Internet and Democratic Change – was a much more official conference. Organized by the Julia Group in co-operation with SIDA, an agency of the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with participation of media and activists from around the world, but focused mainly on the Arab Spring.
The Agenda was full of great talks, unfortunately one had to choose their track. I am very happy with my choice, though.
Scott Lucas of EA World View described how new methods of contacting sources (like social networks) and new media (blogs, internet sites) allow for following and commenting on global situation from any corner of the world, provided Internet access is available.
Stephen Urbach, a Telecomix hacktivist, provided an insider perspective on “revolutions from the couch”, or how hacktivists, IT proffesionals, programmers and other volunteers co-operating with Telecomix helped Egiptians circumvent government-mandated Internet blockades during anti-Mubarack protests.
Mahnaz Afkhami, founder of Women’s Learning Partnership, talked about tools that help change situation of women in the MENA region and deliberated on new ways of fighting gender discrimination globally.
Maryam Al-Khawaja reflected on role of social media in social change in Bahrain, and that new technologies are being actively used there bo both sides, which was well exemplified in the twitter feed of the conference (where the presence of negative comments posted from newly created accounts was very visible).
Hamza Fakhr – by an audio/video link, as he was unable to come personally due to unforseen difficulties – described changes in the way ICT was being used in the Syrian revolution.
Dima Khatib and Sultan al-Quassemi, in a panel discussion moderated by Yasmine El Rafie, pondered on how they received first information on the beginning of the protests in Northern Africa, where did they get further info from and how they became important sources for others. Of course, they continued to use their social network accounts while on-stage.
A very interesting talk, as usually, was given by Jacob Appelbaum: on surveillance and invigilation we all endure – being aware of that, or not; with our consent, or not – all the time, and how network censorship (under the guise of fighting the bogeyman of the day like “terrorism” or “child porn”; or without any guise at all, like in Syria or Egipt) is just a logical extension to such surveillance, simply putting the infrastructure and technology to work. The only way out is using effective mechanisms of ensuring anonimity and privacy in the Net – and those must be trivial to use so that they are used universally (so that the mere fact of using encryption does not automatically tip off the government agencies that “this somebody has something to hide”). Anonimity, privacy and using strong cryptography must become the default, not optional! Two interesting examples of projects striving to go this way were called:
- TAILS, or a Linux distribution crafted for anonymous use, by default removing all the logs and using as strong cryptography as possible in each given situation;
- TORouter, or a physical device that just needs power and Internet connection to provide a properly configured TOR node.
Of course a question arises why the software vendors and service providers do not make the right decisions on user privacy, anonimity, offer strong encryption by default – and the answer, according to Jacob, is simple:
Do you know why vendors don’t make good privacy decisions for users? It’s because you are their product.
Jacob’s talk got an interesting emphasis after the conference, when en route to the USA he was detained on Keflaviku airport (that did not stop him from commenting the whole situation in his usual manner).
However, the biggest sensation of the conference (and that’s a general consensus) was Salma Said dismantling the popular myth of how peaceful and “Internet-fueled” Egyptian revolution was – and the myth of its success.
The revolution became peaceful once we burned 90% of police stations during the first 6 hours. Then we could act like hippies. (…) This revolution needs weapons; if we had weapons we would use them. (…) When the thugs came we didn’t defend Tahrir with twitter and facebook; we defended it wih our own bodies.
That does not mean that Internet wasn’t relevant to the Egyptian uprising; however, it was not – according to Salma – even close to being as important as the Western world was led to believe.
It was all the more interesting considering the fact that at the same time in the second room Slim Amamou praised the way Internet enabled and helped the Tunisian peaceful social and political change. The apparent contradiction was especially evident on the (unfortunately) twitter feed of the #net4change tag, where Salma’s remarks on how Internet was much less important than what is generally thought and Slim’s praises on its importance went head-to-head. A nice summary of that came spontaneously from Salma:
Internet is important in revolution, but it depends on where you are and what you can do.
Finally, Hanna Hellquist (State secretary, Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs) summarized the conference saying, among other things, that Sweden must send clear signals, unequivocal signals of support for human rights and personal freedoms towards foreign nations. It’s not always easy (it’s very difficult to do with China, for example), but it’s crucial.
I had the pleasure of asking Mrs Hellquist about that afterwards – she admitted that it’s a difficult topic, not only due to Internet censorship debate and actions against filesharing in Sweden. However, she cannot, for obvious reasons, be held accountable for the whole Swedish government and is just playing her part and doing her job.
…Or a joint beer excursion was one of the most interesting beer excursion I have ever had the pleasure of participating in. The sheer fact that I wa able to discuss with activists from around the globe, doing their parts in a multitude of different ways – direct actions in Egypt; getting the info out and finding sources; keeping the infrastructure up and running, and acquiring proof of government foul play – was fantastic.
The discussions themselves, obviously related to the topic of the conference, social change and Internet (and more!) where very stimulating and will have my mind going for a long time.
Thanks: I would like to thank Marcin de Kaminski for inviting me as a participant to the Net4Change conference; and Telecomix agent Lejonet for extending his hospitality towards me and offering a place to stay for the two nights in Stockholm.