20 years ago tomorrow, the website for the first IMC (Independent Media Centre) went live at www.indymedia.org, providing a globally accessible platform for independent media coverage of the protests against a WTO summit in the US city of Seattle. Appearing even before the creation of Wikipedia and its MediaWiki software, Indymedia.org was a pioneering example of the then-novel concept of the web as a read/write medium - where anyone could contribute using basic cut’n'paste skills - rather than just a collection of read-only pages made by geeks. Seven years before the founding of Wikileaks, the open-publishing newswire on indymedia.org was one of the earliest forerunners of “citizen journalism” platforms. It can also be seen as one of the earliest experiments in both the practices and technologies of “social media”, producing among other innovations, the technology that gave birth to Titter.

That drive to empower people to create and share was reflected in a commitment to using software that was open source (a newly coined term at the time for Free Software, or as I tend to call it free code) and this became one of the core Principles of Unity for the emerging IMC network. Indymedia.org started out running on a patchwork of webserver software known as Active, originally strapped together by a collective of hackers in Australia, for a local cluster of activist news and event announcement sites. As more IMCs started up to run open-publishing activist news sites for their city or country, this bleeding edge software was gradually replaced by a variety of CMS (Content Management Systems) written specifically for Indymedia, before these were in turn replaced by more general purpose free code CMS like Drupal.

I could into much more detail on all of this from an insiders perspective, and in some ways this would be the ideal time to finish writing up a detailed retrospective article I’ve been planning about the Indymedia network and my time as a founding volunteer for the Aotearoa IMC (which ironically seems to be down today - maybe because it’s already N30 there?). However, I’m currently busy preparing for a long international trip, home to Aotearoa to see family and friends, and then back to China via the FOSS Asia Summit in Singapore. Besides, I’m already seeing plenty of articles being published to mark the 20 year anniversary, so I think I’ll keep my powder dry, read a bunch of them, and focus my piece on any aspects of the Indymedia story that don’t get as much attention or fanfare as I think they deserve.

It has to be said that at 20, the Indymedia network is a shadow of its former self. Many of the sites that served the news gathering of local IMCs, as well as most of the servers that provided collaboration tools for global networking, are long shuttered and gathering digital dust. I haven’t been actively involved in the Aotearoa IMC I co-founded since about 2007, and although the site continued to operate (at least until very recently), I stopped publishing there altogether when the newswire became a flood of seemingly unmoderated noise, dominated by a handful of chronic spammers. But there are signs that a phoenix could rise from the ashes. Indymedia.org, which had until recently been frozen in time since 2013, now bears as promise that “Indymedia.org is being rebuilt”, along with links to a bunch of 20 year anniversary articles.

As with the CMS, so many of the technologies Indymedia activists wanted and needed during the first few years of the network have now been developed to greater maturity by open source communities.

When activists started publishing their videos on YouTube to get them to a larger audience, and to reduce the strain that streaming large media files placed on Indymedia servers, Indymedia geeks dreamed of having a decentralized, free code tool like PeerTube. One that can be used to run video-publishing sites that are independent, but federated into a larger network. Where videos can be found and viewed across the whole federation, not only on the one where it’s first published. Where sites can mirror each others’ videos to route around attempts at censorship. Where users contribute a little bit of their own bandwidth to help the servers if a video goes viral, avoiding the lose-lose scenario where every time you get a video out to a large audience you lose money, or risk having servers go down and sites go offline. Where video channels can be followed and videos commented on by users on other federated platforms like Mastodon. 

But technology was never at the core of Indymedia. The sites we ran were more than blog farms, they were always understood as  a means to a larger end. When we said “don’t hate the media, become the media”, Indymedia activists were articulating a vision of democratized media that could have a democratizing effect on a rapidly globalizing human world, one whose politics and everyday life was becoming increasingly ruled by corporations.

As the public - and especially activists - become increasingly aware of the downsides of Surveillance Capitalism, we have a unique opportunity to remind them of this vision. It’s also worth reflecting on the Achilles Heel of the Indymedia project; it’s lack of a sustainable economic base, and the resulting dependence on donations and volunteer time to keep its growing infrastructure running. For the grander vision that animated Indymedia to be realized, sharing economic solidarity strategies like forming Platform Cooperatives will be just as important as promoting the potential of decentralized technologies like PeerTube and other fediverse tools like PixelFed and Mastodon, perhaps even more important.

Update 2019-11-29: I did some live-posting from Netizen21 on the fediverse, as net connection and battery life allowed.

——————————

I had the pleasure recently of being invited to attend Netizen 21: Beyond Personal Account, the fourth annual conference of The Institute of Network Society, based at the Chinese Academy of the Arts in Hangzhou, China. It starts this Friday, 22 November, and winds up on the evening of Sunday 24, after three days of what looks to be a fantastic program of talks, panel discussions, and workshops. Hangzhou is a beautiful city, and while I probably won’t get much time for soaking in the sites this time, It’s a pleasure to be visiting.

I’ve managed to get to a couple of conferences since relocating to live in China - Open 2018 in London and the Platform Cooperative Consortium annual conference in Hong Kong - but this is the first one I’ve attended on the mainland itself. I’m embarrassed to say that due to the challenges and culture shock of adjusting to life in a new country where I don’t speak the lingua franca, I still haven’t organized myself to write anything about the previous conferences. So given that all three of these conferences have a lot of common threads weaving through them (pun intended), especially the growing interest in platform cooperatives, I will take copious notes over the weekend, aiming to write up a piece that covers all three. Third time lucky?

Filed November 19th, 2019 under News

Just a short message to let folks know I’m back in the studio. If anyone dropped in over the past few days, you will have noticed we had some issues with our hosts CoActivate. Touch wood, these seem to have been resolved.

Filed October 22nd, 2019 under News

I’m going to be taking the rest of the month off, and since Disintermedia remains a one-man-band, that means it will be dormant until then. When I return, I need to give some serious thought to the future of the project.

When I originally registered the domain name, I was intending to build an organization of kiwis interested in tech politics. That didn’t work out, so it’s ended up being a tech politics blog and research wiki written and curated by lonely old me. The team behind CoActivate have been fantastic hosts for more than a decade, but mucking about with my used Androids has revealed just how far behind the times the platform is falling. CoActivate projects are hard to read on a mobile device, and pretty much impossible to edit or interact with, so unless and until we can bring the platform up to date, continuing to host Disintermedia means being unavailable to the majority of potential readers.

The other major change that’s happened over the last few years is that I’ve got more and more involved in the development of the fediverse, The growing federated social media network that includes projects like Mastodon and PeerTube. The fediverse also includes a number of federated blogging tools like Plume, write.as, and WriteFreely, which allow people to follow blogs and comment on them from within their preferred social media app. A good example is We Distribute, a blog about federated networks, which uses the Pterotype plug-in for Wordpress, Without an update to the software under the hood of CoActivate, the only way I can make Disintermedia blog posts available on the fediverse is posting links using my Mastodon account, hosted by the NZOSS.

I’ve thought a lot about moving to self-hosting a blog, wiki, and other services for Disintermedia (perhaps email and Jabber too). Maybe using a self-hosting tools like YUNOhost or FreedomBone. I know it would involve some serious upskilling, and probably some headaches and unexpected outages, “best laid plans of mice and men” and all that. On the other hand, it would also give me a lot more practical knowledge about the software I research and blog about and allow me to make more informed suggestions about what software to use for the needs to different communities.

Another thing I’ve seriously considered is just closing the doors. Maybe merging the work I do with Disintermedia into a larger organisation, like the Free Software Foundation, or the Peer-to-Peer Foundation. Or even completely rethinking how I’m using all the unpaid time I put into Disintermedia and the movements I research and write about under this umbrella. If anyone has any feedback or suggestions on these possibilities, and I’d really appreciate you sharing them

Filed August 8th, 2019 under open social networks, News

This is just a note to inform my three readers, and any other visitors that pop by, that I will be offline until the end of February, 2019. Until then, there will be no new blog posts, and I will not be answering any email, or interacting on any other platforms like the fediverse or Loomio. Basically, the plan is to unplug the router, and not plug in back in until I’m ready to go back online.

The most important reason for this is just to give myself a break from the net, and spend some time doing other things like going for walks and reading books. But I also intend to use this time to get some work done on the Email Ate My Life book project, which has been languishing on the backburner for far too long. I’ve been tossing around the idea of doing some kind of podcast, and I’m seriously thinking about podcasting draft versions of some parts of the book, as a way of both dipping my toe into the waters of podcasting, and getting some feedback to help me with the final spit and polish on the book text. Watch this space.

If anyone reading this happens to be a publishing agent or boutique publisher who could help get a book published about one geek’s experience of a year without the net, or if you know one who might be, please get in touch (after February). 

Filed January 22nd, 2019 under News

My apologies to my three readers, and to the hard working organizers from The Open Coop, for not getting around to a write-up on Open 2018 yet. One positive outcome from that event is that attendees who are working on ‘Open App Ecosystems’ of various kinds were able to compare notes, and as a result, there has been a wave of new members and activity on the OAE Loomio group. Open 2018 was a fantastic event, and I encourage anyone interested in potential collaborations between the software freedom movement and the cooperative movement to attend in 2019.

I will soon be heading to Hong Kong for another platform cooperativism conference, ‘Sowing the Seeds‘, taking place from 28-29 September at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). This event is a collaboration between a number of cooperatives from around Asia, and the Platform Cooperativism Consortium, based at The New School at NYU (New York University). I’m also hoping to attend the cooperative hackathon taking place over two days before the conference (watch this space!).

A number of the speakers and participants at this conference were contributors to ‘Ours to Hack and Own‘, a book of essays that attempt to map out the transition from data farms that benefit corporations and investors, to digital cafes that benefits their members and workers. It’s a great book, and while I encourage you to buy a copy if you can afford to, I’m aware of at least one place you can download a gratis digital copy (see our Notable Books library).

It’s a privilege to be able to attend these events, and learn more about the fantastic work being done by cooperative organizers and free code hackers around the world. At the same time, it’s taking some effort to get my head around this new social movement, and how it relates to the pre-existing economic democracy and digital freedom movements that I’ve been involved in for decades. Expect to see more writing on this blog about both the organization and technical aspects of platform cooperatives over the next year or so. It may be that some of this writing will provide the ending I’ve been looking for to complete the story I want to tell in ‘Email At My Life‘. Again, watch this space!

Filed September 23rd, 2018 under News, open source

According to a piece on left-leaning kiwi blog site The Daily Blog, there’s more bad news looming for basic democratic rights. Both the Australian and New Zealand governments are considering passing new laws that would force people to hand over the keys to their encrypted communications. NZ already has some stupidly strict laws on “exporting” anything encryption-related from the country, and even publishing articles about it in academic journals requires special permission. A coalition of digital liberties groups, including InternetNZ and the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, has been defending the right to encrypt since at least 2016. A time when the debate over the technology was heating up around the world, thanks to the work of groups like Access Now. Back then, the Obama administration were saying that the US federal government would not be doing anything that weakened the digital security provided by encryption.

The problem is, encrypted communication is such an obscure thing for most people, and so far from their everyday concerns about paying the rent, keep dinner on the table, keeping the shop open, or whatever. There’s a risk that too many people will only understand why this matters too late, and start trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. So here’s a simple way to explain it.

You have a lock box in your house. In it, you might keep some cash for emergencies. You might keep important documents like your passport when you’re not travelling, or copies of your will, or a copy of your research on your family history. You might keep something harmless but embarrassing, like some saucy Polaroid photos you took with your lover, or something weird and sentimental, like a lace doily, or half a doughnut. It’s nobody else’s business what’s in that box. You have a fundamental right to keep it private. It’s a right that’s asserted in a bunch of other human rights conventions, including Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

You don’t want anyone to see what’s in your lock box, but let’s say law enforcement officers want the key to it, because they believe it contains evidence of a crime. Traditionally, in democratic countries, the officers have to appear before a neutral third-party (like a judge) and the onus is on them to convince that person that they have a very good reason to be allowed to violate your privacy, not on you to prove that they don’t (”nothing to hide …”).

If they get permission - in the form of a judicial warrant - it only applies in this specific case, to you, to the private property they’re asking the judge for access to, in this case your lock box, and for a specific period of time. They can’t get a warrant to search anyone’s lock box. They can’t get a warrant to search anything you choose to keep private. They can’t get a warrant to violate your privacy any time they like from now on. A warrant is a temporary, specific exemption to the laws that normally protect your privacy. If law enforcement officers can just ask you for the key to your lock box, and threaten to arrest you and charge with obstruction if you say no, that’s “arbitrary interference” in your “privacy, home or correspondence”, and Article 12 says that’s something governments that respect human rights protect their people from.

An encryption key is like a digital version of the key to your lock box. Like your email or social media passphrase, it protects things you have reasons to want to keep private. In a tiny minority of cases, that might be communications about committing a crime. But in the majority of cases, they will be things you want to keep private because they are embarrassing (dick pics), or personal (love letters), or financially sensitive (online banking), or its your professional duty  (a doctor’s database of their patients’ medical records). Things that are harmless. Things that could even be harmful to people if their privacy is violated, like medical insurance companies getting access to people’s medical records, and charging higher premiums to people with unusual health problems, even though the whole point of insurance is to collect money off lots of people, so it can be paid out to those who need it.

The problem with the laws being discussed about encryption is not that they let law enforcement violate a specific person’s privacy, in specific ways, when they have good reason to think they will find evidence of a crime. The law already allows them to apply for a warrant for that. The problem is, these laws would let them search through anything that anyone chose to encrypt, any time they like. It would let them do so in secret, with no effective way for the public to hold them accountable for how they use those powers.

This is how policing works in a police state, not a democracy. Please contact your political representatives and urge them to do everything in their power to protect our privacy, by protecting our right to encrypt.

Filed September 7th, 2018 under News, security

Update 2018-11-29: Rich Bartlett wrote an excellent piece on his experiences with trying to get paid for contributing to the commons. Rich is an activist, writer, and hacker, associated with Enspiral, Loomio, and The Hum.

——–

A couple of years back, I decided to see if I could actually get funded by the communities who I created Disintermedia to inform and support. I started gathering information about different ways people could pay me over the internet, and adding it to a page called Help Disintermedia, which was initially created to publicly thank services like CoActivate that help us in non-monetary ways. First, I experimented with setting up the software to receive BitCoins, and put up a wallet address (is that right?), and over the next year that was followed by a link to a Patreon page, and then a Liberapay page. These “micro-patronage” sites allow people to give small, regular amounts, and in theory, like newspaper subscriptions, many people’s small payments can add up. I’m embarrassed to admit that so far, these efforts have been a dismal failure.

For a start, the BitCoin address I published was: 19KER7hfqXhZnHnnJ3VcGRr2w3i1v6e44e

But I have no idea now where this directs BitCoins to, or if anyone actually donated any, how to retrieve them. I just haven’t had the time to do all the reading required to fully understand how to use BitCoin; how to back up my wallet, how to accept payments to the same wallet from multiple devices, whether I can do this using the same address, so many questions! The same is even more true for other crypto-tokens (FairCoin, FreiCoin, SolarCoin, NameCoin, FileCoin etc). If you can help me get to grips with any of this, especially if you are keen to donate to Disintermedia  please feel free to contact me.

I’m also considering figuring out how to use Brave, Minds, SteemIt, Earn.io, and a bunch of other new systems that claim to offer ways of paying creators who contribute to the weaving of the free web. But seriously, figuring out which of these are honest, and viable, is a high-stakes research project in and of itself. With real money involved, there’s no kind of software more attractive to bad actors, idealistic incompetents, and venture capitalists. They all take time to set up and learn to use well, and you can’t get any benefit out of them without giving them real personal details and banking information. On top of that, there’s a risk involved in implicitly endorsing them if they end up being dodgy.

I’ve thought about experimenting with the newly relaunched Flattr 2.0, since unlike most micro-patronage sites, it’s pretty set-and-forget. Creators can get paid through it without needing to constantly self-promote (”click here to subscribe!”). There have been some hard questions asked about the privacy implications of the Flattr browser extension, but the developers do sound like they take privacy seriously, and it’s encouraging that all their apps are free code (not sure about the javascript on the site itself though). Another critical question is about how much money creators can realistically get out in payments. Even if they took 50% of whatever Flattr payout I got, that’s still potentially more than I’d get by not using it at all, but the new fees scheme for Flattr does seem to take a lot of bites out of my sandwich before I get to eat it.

Really, if the developers of any of these community funding platforms really think they are viable, they should be eating their own dogfood, and funding themselves using their own platform. Gratipay did this (RIP), and Liberapay still do, which is why I tried them first. Any platform skimming their users’ donations with fees, or heaven forbid, sucking up to venture capitalists, isn’t showing much confidence in their own funding platform. After all, you don’t see GitHub developing the code for GitHub on another code forge (they might have a backup there but that’s different).

For example, Ko-fi fund themselves using their own platform, instead of taking fees. I can’t find any source code though, and their use of a proprietary mail missile called SendGrid to send out emails isn’t encouraging. Ko-fi is designed to give the original Flattr model another go; buttons creators can stick on their web page, that users can click to “buy me a coffee”.

A Flattr developer posting on HackerNews claimed that model failed, because:

  • a) people using the web don’t want to click buttons (?!?)
  • b) publishers didn’t want another private company’s branded buttons all over their site

None of this seems to affect PaylPal / Stripe or social media buttons. I suspect it was more like:

  • a) people are used to having to enter their credit card details (or deal with PayPal shudder) when they click a donate button, which is a painful and scary user experience
  • b) when Flattr launched you couldn’t get paid anything without first setting up a monthly contribution to Flattr so most people didn’t bother (that’s why I didn’t), and nobody wanted buttons all over their site promoting a thing that smelt like a pointless ponzi scheme
  • c) Flattr funded themselves by skimming off 10% every time credit moved across their platform, and as mentioned above, Flattr 2.0 has even more ways to charge everyone.

I’ve set up a Ko-Fi account, just to try it out. Is it really going to help to add yet another layer of management between me, PayPal, the bank, and the person trying to give me money? I’m sceptical about whether it was worth the time, or the indignity of having to deal with PayPal or some other toll collector on the information superhighway (again, shudder). Frankly, I’m not convinced that Ko-Fi is an improvement on just having a button for PayPal or Stripe, although it is nice to not have their garish corporate branding all over an activist website. But hey, prove me wrong, buy me a coffee!

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

I suspect that for the contribute button thing to really take off, it needs to become a neutral web standard, so the buttons are all over the web, they always look the same, and its a standard icon on them, not one company’s logo. The person clicking them can set up a payment system that gets activated when they click the contribute button, and website creators can decide which payment gateway processes the money when they get clicked. I’m hoping GNU Taler takes off, and we can eventually use that. If anyone reading this is involved in a credit union, or cooperatively owned bank, who might be willing to get involved in a pilot scheme, I encourage you to contact the Taler team.

For now, if anyone can recommend any other sites for collecting one-off donations for struggling web writers, that would be much appreciated. If you want to donate, and you don’t mind the banking system knowing it, please contact me, and I can give you bank account details privately.

————————————

Update 2018-10-01: it just occurred to me that I could be missing out on potential donations by deleting emails from PayPal (which I presume to be spam), and emails offering me money (which I presume to be variants on 419 fraud). If you’ve ever tried to donate to Disintermedia, please reach out via the fediverse (where scam messages haven’t appeared yet), and let me know, so we can figure out if the money left your account, and where it went. 

Filed April 19th, 2018 under free culture, independent media, News, open source

Dear friends, and anyone else who happens to read this blog,

For as long as I can remember I have weathered the storms of chronic depression and anxiety. In the last couple of weeks, I have been forced to admit to myself that I’m currently experiencing a severe bout of depression, one that’s been going on for at least a few months. I’m hopeful that realizing just how serious it is means I’ve turned a corner, but I have no idea how long it will take to get well, which is incredibly frustrating.

The symptoms include the obvious; general despair, lack of enthusiasm for life and work, loss of enjoyment, bursting into tears without reason, difficulty communicating, withdrawal from social interaction, and occasionally, suicidal thoughts. But I am also suffering a number of not-so-obvious symptoms, including constant fatigue, mental confusion and unreliable memory, loss of focus and attention span, and difficulty making and carrying out plans. Perhaps most frustrating of all, I’m struggling to write. Just getting this blog piece completed has taken me about a week from planning to posting. I’m definitely not in any condition to get work done reliably at this time.

If I have been doing work for a project you’re involved in, or we’ve discussed starting to work together, I need to let you know that I won’t be able to continue with that work in the foreseeable future. I’m really sorry about this, but I’ve resisted making this call for too long, to the point where my underpowered involvement is doing more harm than good in some cases. Please don’t take my departure as a withdrawal of support for any cause or project, nor as a criticism of any person involved in them. This is about me doing what I need to do to get well.

If my recent correspondence has been uncharacteristically grim or argumentative, I apologise to anyone this has affected. Because I wasn’t aware just how bad my depression was and is, I’ve continued to participate in far more online conversations than I can really handle, and the usefulness of my contributions has been questionable at best. I will be unsubscribing from all email lists and, as much as possible, avoiding Loomio or any other online communication channel other than essential email.

In the coming weeks and months I will focus my remaining energy on following a wellness plan that includes re-establishing healthy daily routines, regular counselling sessions, and spending more time with people in face-to-face activities that aren’t about work (paid or unpaid). If you are in Ōtepoti/ Dunedin, please feel free to get in touch about meeting up for a cuppa and a chat, and let me know about things going on in town. Wherever you are in the world, I’d love to hear from you by phone or email.

Finally, I also hope do some writing about my experience of depression. I will post these on my new personal blog on DreamWidth, if and when I feel up to it. I’m also determined to get back into doing little bits of work on the first draft of ‘Email Ate My Life‘, which I hope will help me rebuild my confidence in my ability to get work done. Watch this space.

————————————————————- 

EDIT 10/08/2016: Huge thanks for all the heartfelt messages of understanding and support I’ve received since I made this announcement. In contrast, I did get one email from some random who had this to say:

“sort your selfish shit out CITY BOY.

there are bigger welcoming aspects out there…

..still working with networks

and learning as well

or kill ya self

If you’d like to tell this person what you think of this as a response to a person being open and honest about a mental health challenge, you can email them at: sond at ihug.co.nz

Filed August 3rd, 2016 under News

For some time now, there has been a copyright statement at the top of the index page for the Disintermedia wiki. The last time I amended it, the license I chose was CC-BY-SA 3.0 (NZ). Since then, version 4.0 of the CreativeCommons license suite has been released, and I’ve upgraded the default license for Disintermedia content to CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Despite a number of radical proposals being made during the consultation process, Version 4 of CC keeps the same framework and terminology we’ve become familiar with (Attribution, Non-Commercial, No-Derivatives, Share-Alike etc), with a number of improvements. Most of those relate to the wording in the lawyer-friendly text that most of us don’t read, and only affect risk-averse institutions that employ lawyers. Bbut there is one major change that is of interest to all CC users; the abolition of localized “ports” of the licenses, like the Aotearoa/ NZ versions I’ve been using since they were released.

Country-specific versions of CC never really made much sense considering the cross-border nature of the internet. They were created to hack around the fact that the original CC license were written with USA copyright law in mind, which works differently to the copyright law in other countries. Since then, there has been a lot of work done to harmonize copyright law across jurisdictions (with both positive and negative implications). Also, the “porting” of the CC licenses to other jurisdictions has improved the understanding by CC lawyers of the differences between the various copyright regimes. The combination of these two things allowed the version 4.0 licenses to be drafted using language that is legally robust, regardless of what country they’re enforced in.

Filed April 25th, 2016 under free culture, News
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