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#PDF12: The Radical Power of the Internet Public

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, June 13 2012

Chris Soghoian at Personal Democracy Forum 2012. Photo: Esty Stein / PDM

Tuesday morning at PDF12, there were five quick keynote talks in a row that could serve as a 50-minute primer on the radical power of the Internet public to change the world, why it's so important to nurture that public, where some of the threats to the Internet are coming from, and how people are routing around them to build a future "intranet" that might well stand free from governmental and corporate control.

They were, in order, from Chris Soghoian, Dave Parry, Peter Fein, Sascha Meinrath and Deanna Zandt. You can watch them in order below.

Soghoian kicked things off by explaining why the apparent use of powerful malware by the United States government was as troubling as the CIA's use of a vaccination program in Pakistan to attempt to get information on the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. "Immunization saves lives," he argued, and doctors groups have complained to the CIA that using doctors as spooks will cause people to distrust medical workers and thus reduce the effectiveness of vaccination programs. And that can not only harm people we say we're trying to help, the effects can blow back on all of us, as the world's population grows more interconnected. In the same way, he argued that the new FLAME supervirus, which appears to be targeting computers in the Arab world and which takes advantage of security flaws in web browser update tools, could have the effect of causing fewer people to trust the auto-updates that they receive from companies like Microsoft and Google. Which would make it easier for their computers to be turned into zombies used by bot-nets for all kinds of malicious activity.

Then Dave Parry offered a rousing defense of the "internet public," a term that he coined during the Arab Spring. "It's not about the internet," he said, "it's about the social effects of the internet" and the effects it has on people and what it means to be a "public." Channeling Marshall McLuhan, he explained how the medium through which we communicate changes social relations between people and thus changes the society we live in. Ten years ago, he noted, If the Komen Foundation had changed its policy on funding Planned Parenthood breast-cancer screening, little would have happened. Now, anger gets expressed visibly, socially, and publicly, in ways that can have political impact. "The internet public is the best form of media public we have ever had, but increasingly corporations and governments are trying to return us to a broadcast public." He called for fighting back aggressively to defend the internet public, and pointed to two examples: raising money to punish bad politicians or elect better ones, and EnemyGraph, a Facebook app that undermines Facebook's social graph--meant to give you positive relationships with products and companies--and enables people to show what they "dislike" on that site.

Parry was followed by Peter Fein, an agent with Telecomix, a hacker collective that among other things, helped do tech support for the Arab Spring. His provocative talk argued that representative democracy was out of date because "we've found better ways of doing something that are cheaper, faster and scale to larger numbers of people." Adhocracy empowered by networked, he said, is that better way, and he used his own experiences with Telecomix to illustrate that point.

"Telecomix is an adhoc activist cluster of a few hundred humans and machines- programmers, network admins, students, punks, politicians, pirates, parents and others….We have no formal members, we have no leaders, we have no permanent subgroups. We're all volunteers - we take no money at all, we have no mailing address, there's nowhere you can send a package. We certainly have no official spokespeople. If Telecomix exists anywhere, it's in our chat networks and the relationships of the people who participate. We operate on a simple principle: you show up, find collaborators, and just go do.

After that, Sascha Meinrath of the Open Technology Institute took the stage to talk about the "rise of the Intranet era." He gave a capsule history of the rise of mesh networking, from something the FCC didn't even believe existed, to something that is now spreading in metro areas all over the world. It was a mind-blowing illustration of a future that already exists--an internet that will exist beyond the control of governments and corporations. From the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, which is supplying free connectivity to people in one neighborhood there, to Guifi Net in Catalonia and FreiFunk in Austria, which are covering huge areas and thousands of users, Meinrath showed the "Borg-like" expansion of local mesh networking, most of which is completely free. "This is a global movement transforming how people are thinking about communications, and it's happening today," he declared.

Batting clean-up was Deanna Zandt, media technologist and author of the book Share This!, who used her recent experience setting up the Tumblr blog "Planned Parenthood Saved Me" to illustrate the differences between ad-hoc power, networked power and hierarchical power. In the first case, people rapidly come together around a common concern, express themselves, and disperse. In the second case, people have prior shared connections and beliefs and use the trust they have built together to self-consciously move with some coordination. And in the third, resources like money and command-and-control systems allow people at the top to get others to do their bidding. Her talk offers a subtle analysis of how all three of these kinds of power matter, and expanded our understanding of how ad-hoc networks can be highly useful in reaching people who aren't already linked in. Planned Parenthood, in this case, used its top-down power to get the alarm out about the Komen Foundation change in policy regarding funding breast cancer screenings, but then it got out of the way, allowing networks like Deanna's and the larger informal reaction of thousands of outraged women sharing their stories to challenge Komen's decision. For Deanna, the episode illustrated how, thanks to the Internet, ad-hoc and bottom-up networks are starting to take on and defeat hierarchies, a vision of the future many in the audience found compelling.

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