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FOSS and activism


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Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement have made the need for user-controlled digital technologies clear, as activists have used the Internet and mobile phones to organise and to …

Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement have made the need for user-controlled digital technologies clear, as activists have used the Internet and mobile phones to organise and to communicate with each other and with potential supporters. The consequences of failures in these systems, particularly security breaches, can be extreme: activists may face fines, jail time, or even death. Free and open source software (FOSS) provides one potential solution to these problems, as it is focused on users' needs. FOSS communities also already overlap significantly with many other activist communities, and are working to develop cross-movement connections as well as useful tools. However, many FOSS communities, and particularly those defined by a commitment to open source, rather than than free, software, are reluctant to take overt political stands. Similarly, many activists on both the left and the right have an aversion to digital technologies for both ideological and practical reasons. This means that there are frequently significant barriers to increasing the links between FOSS and progressive political movements. This presentation explores the connections between FOSS communities and the broader activist landscape. It looks at the politics of FOSS, the ways in which global movements and FOSS communities are building links, and the potential benefits of actively seeking cross-fertilisation of ideas and politics between FOSS and progressive movements.

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  • 1. Free and Open Source Software and Activism Dr. Sky Croeser Curtin University Bluestocking Institute @scroeser
  • 2. Introduction● Part One: in which the narrator makes apologies in advance; a field guide to spotting activists; activists needs are briefly outlined; we hear tales of woe.● Part Two: in which we discuss relations between FOSS communities and activists and many broad generalisations are made; in which a not-entirely uncritical eye is turned on each community.● Part Three: in which some tentative suggestions are offered, with further caveats.
  • 3. Caveats and limitations● Technical details wrong? Let me know! (During the question session, or afterwards.)● Theres be some very broad brush-strokes here. Talk to me later for fine detail.
  • 4. Who am I talking about?● Likeable movements.● Looser organisational forms that tend towards horizontal power structures.● Activists open to a diversity of tactics.● Those calling for structural change.
  • 5. What do activists need?● Secure communications: internally (day-to-day and on the ground during actions), and for outreach.● Secure data storage.● Word processing, media, and design software.● Software that suits their organisational forms.
  • 6. Security: not just a problem over there.● US: extensive surveillance of Occupy, among other groups.● Australia: reports that anti-coal activists are under surveillance (unconfirmed); surveillance at events like 2012s anti-uranium Lizards Revenge action.● New Zealand: anti-terrorist raids in 2007 after twelve months of surveillance.
  • 7. Tales of woe: Haystack, 2009Ed Felten, BBC News: "One implication ofclosing the project is that you are stuck with theexpertise in the group. If you get somethingwrong, it is difficult to tell."
  • 8. Tales of woe: Skype● Initially developed with a relatively secure architecture, and considered to be safe by activists throughout the 2000s.● 2006: admitted to filtering keywords from IM conversations in China.● 2008: reports of surveillance by Chinese government.● 2010: reports of spyware distributed through Skype contact lists (Libya), reports that Egyptian police were listening to Skype conversations.● 2013: calls for more transparency from Skype on privacy policy.
  • 9. Tales of woe: viruses targeting anti- China activists● 2012: reports of a Trojan targeting Tibetan activists.● 2012: reports of a Mac- and Windows-based Trojan targeting Uyghur activists.
  • 10. Everyday hassles● Non-targeted viruses, financial costs, lack of support and training.
  • 11. Ideological awkwardness
  • 12. ConnectionsVandana Shiva: FOSS is “a way of spreadingprosperity and knowledge in society in thesame way as saving and swapping seeds.”Organisations are emerging to provide FOSSsupport, including Janastu (Bangalore),Tactical Technology Collective, and Riseup.
  • 13. OccupyAccording to Justine Tunney, who continues tohelp run, “There is leadershipin the sense of deference, just as people defer toLinus Torvalds. But the moment people stoprespecting Torvalds, they can fork it” - Schwartz, M. (2011, Nov 28). Pre-Occupied. The New Yorker.
  • 14. The politics of FOSS: Open SourcePerhaps in the end the open-source culture willtriumph not because cooperation is morally right orsoftware “hoarding” is morally wrong (assumingyou believe the latter, which neither Linus[Torvalds] nor I do), but simply because the closed-source world cannot win an evolutionary arms racewith open-source communities that can put ordersof magnitude more skilled time into a problem. - Eric Raymond
  • 15. The politics of FOSS: Free as in freedomThe word “free” is ... about a way of life. Thefolks who write the code throw around the wordin much the same way the Founding Fathers ofthe United States used it. To many of them, thefree software revolution was also conceived inliberty and dedicated to certain principles like thefact that all men and women have certaininalienable rights to change, modify, and dowhatever they please with their software in thepursuit of happiness. - Peter Wayner (2000), Free for all, p. 78
  • 16. Some tentative suggestions● Acknowledge and confront structural inequality with awesome steps like Codes of Conduct and childcare provision.● Accept that FOSS is political.● Make connections that go both ways.● Dont believe everything you see on the news.