A Politics for Open Networks

Loz Kaye's picture

Networks – Connections

The essence of a network is its connections and, indeed, the multiplicity of those connections. While there are many ways of networking (putting up a card in the newsagent’s window still works fine!) we can not avoid at this point of the 21st century that the network of networks is the Internet.

The joy of the world wide web is its very… webbyness.

Instead of straight lines many co-joining and splitting filaments, this is inherent in not only its architecture but also in the way we use it.

To me, this is inherently political because this idea of openness and the re-routing round the gatekeepers flattens hierarchies, promotes the exchange of ideas and culture without a specific elite to tell us whether it is good for us or not, or how much to pay for it.

These connections can dissolve space, can turn conventional relationships on their head. The potential is there for a 10 year old girl in Paraguay with a 10 dollar laptop to be the next thought leader, political inciter or business innovator.

But these connections are under threat.

My campaigns officer tells me off for saying too often that the Internet is under siege. But it bears repeating. Many forces want to undo the strands of the web, often for seemingly “good” reasons. The Internet has become so embedded in our society and culture that this is no longer just an issue for technologists and lawyers. I would like to look today at how these threats to open networks are political and look forward to democratic action that uses these networks.


One of the fundamental battlegrounds of the connected world this decade has been between the big entertainment lobbies and ISPs, along with the digital rights movement. We have seen so-called “3 strikes” legislation and agreements rolled out throughout the the world in the name of protecting copyright.

The essence of all these measures is this: ultimate sanctions of disconnecting entire households from the Internet.

It is striking that similar formats have been proposed or enacted in very different countries following pressure in particular from the big 4 of EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner.

These companies have been behind such an arrangement here in Ireland in 2009 whereby ISP Eircom would track file-sharing use at the request of rights holders. Under the “graduated response” process, after 3 violations a customer (not to mention all using that connection for whatever purpose) would see their Internet connection cut off.

We in the UK have had a similar law foisted upon us (the Digital Economy Act) through a highly questionable process during in the dying few days of the Gordon Brown government. It remains in limbo, but is slated to finally creak in to action in 2014 under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government we have now.

As it happens, Ireland is right at the centre of controversy about such disconnections laws right now. Despite being warned about this possibility, in October 2010 Eircom sent out 300 threatening letters to completely innocent subscribers. This lead to the Data Protection Commissioner halting the process on privacy grounds. The big 4 have challenged this in court and in a recent ruling the DPC’s decision has been annulled.

While this is a court ruling, it is a political issue. The commissioner represents civil society and yet the decision was short circuited. Oddly, key grounds were that it was not clear how it impacted upon privacy – even though entirely blameless people had been surveilled.

We will watch developments here with interest.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of this approach is that we now have legislation that forces one company to get rid of its customers at the order of another company. We can argue the toss about IP law and strategies to support culture, artists and attendant corporate fat cats, but this approach unquestionably attacks the very principle of a connected nation and spreading access to the Internet.

This is not the only strategy for disrupting communications being adopted. If “3-strikes” is breaking the strands of the web at the user end, the entertainment lobby has also been pressing for the power to strike down certain sites, breaking the strands at the information end. No one has been able to demonstrate the necessity or the efficacy of this in concrete terms further that ”OMG teh Piratz”.

We have been told, this week in the UK, that the provisions for site blocking in the Digital Economy act will be repealed… precisely because the media regulator has pointed out the uselessness of such actions. Nevertheless, the major labels have once again dodged the democratic process through injunctions, forcing ISPs to block certain sites using a different act. We have ended up in the same place anyway, despite the promises of the government, most recently with the disappearing of piratebay.se in the UK.

It was these kind of measures in the SOPA bill that proved so controversial, and that the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned that would lead to the ”balkanisation” of the Internet. This is why we in the Pirate Party UK are currently running a proxy to the Pirate Bay as a protest.

We hand these powers to courts at our peril. What they do in effect is to turn our ISPs from communications providers in to communications preventers.

It is not just in the area of Intellectual property that the very idea of networks are being deemed a problem by politicians. Scarcely a day goes by in Britain without an article about “Internet Trolls” at the moment. While social media’s role in the Arab Spring has been praised it is now being cast as a source of danger at home.

During last year’s riots, the media was casting around for explanations and ended up blaming social media for fuelling the situation… even dubbing them the “Twitter riots”. Politicians also jumped on the bandwagon; for example, Louise Mensch MP suggested that Twitter could be turned off for an hour or two. That of course begs the question of how and who gets to decide – let alone whether such blanket censorship would be justified. As it turned out, there was no concrete evidence to support the notion that the riots were somehow created by networks. Indeed, the Guardian found the most used hash-tag in the period was #riotcleanup emphasising power of social media for grass-roots positive action. But now we know: when pushed, all too many of our representatives turn to clamping down rather than opening up.

In fact, it seems our representatives expect ISPs to be copyright cops, intelligence services and moral guardians. This is absurd, even on the level of how little responsibility governments want to take for difficult issues.


However, a fundamental shift has happened – a recognition that if political action is closing
our networks, political action is needed to open them. There have been many great NGOs like the EFF for some time, but what has happened is the broadening of what I would term a digital rights movement. The end of 2011 and in to 2012 has seen something of a turning of the tide. The huge world wide protest against the draconian SOPA bill marked a significant victory.

The day of site blackout action certainly helped to concentrate the mind on what a blacked out Internet would look like… and of course it helped to have Wikipedia on board. In the Pirate Party movement we ran a day where each of the scores of web pages of parties in different countries were blacked out as the day progressed.

But what for me has the been the key element, is the engagement in the political process and insisting on our part within it. Protest without goals for real change is just a fun day out. People used the net to pour over bills, take apart the debates as they happened on social media and contact their representatives.

It is this element of participation that democracy is all about, and the participation of people in networks to defend them is, in itself, creating a new kind of politics.

In Germany, the Pirate Party has had notable electoral success in the very period I have just been talking about. One of the key elements in how they operate is the ”liquid feedback” system where issues can be instantly responded to and debated online to establish positions. Here the network allows all to have a voice in making of policy. Now the Friesland district of Germany is trialling using it for all citizens as a decision making tool.

Often the German Pirate Party is rather unfairly characterised by the mainstream media as having no views on key issues. Actually the problem is the reverse, there can be too many, but that seems to me to be a good problem to have.

In the UK we have run policy consultations online where anyone contribute, not just members, and vote ideas up and down. We are currently in the process of putting the result of the overwhelming response together.

Essentially for us it is about getting rid of the gatekeepers, a politics of open networks if you like. To my mind one of the fundamental ways our democratic system has become broken is that policy is something that is done to people not with people.

It is in that spirit that Iceland’s Modern Media Initiative was launched, to make that country the world haven for free speech. This law guaranteeing press freedom, protection for whistleblowers, sources and freedom of information is remarkable for how it was created. It is maybe the world’s first “cut and paste” legislation drawing on good practice from round the globe. It was set up in an Etherpad, an online document editing and discussion tool for refinement. It turns out that the Internet is an excellent second revising chamber, something we would do well to remember in the UK.

We have our own version of that tool- the PiratePad , this is something that we use constantly to create press releases, reports and share ideas.

Perhaps the most striking example of open network politics is another Icelandic project- to crowd-source on the Internet a new constitution in the wake of the financial chaos that hit the country. It is certainly more readable and relevant than most. It is notable that their response was not to accept imposed solutions from the IMF, but to appeal to the whole network, the whole country and indeed beyond.

New Connections

So the potentials are huge, as significant as a whole country changing its constitution. But we have to ask ourselves, if we are fighting legislation that stops people taking part, what about the other factors that stop engagement in digital networks? To return to our 10 year old girl in Paraguay, maybe she can get her 10 dollar laptop through an NGO, but its not much good if she can’t get clean drinking water or that she grows up thinking she is second class because she is female.

For me, the Pirate Party’s mission- and that of the digital rights movement as a whole- has to be as much about bridging the digital divide. A national statistics from 2011 show that in the UK people in the poorest fifth of the population are over four times as likely to have no Internet connection at home – that soars to over 80% in the over 70s in the poorest segment.

Often this is characterised as a luxury or ”first world problem”. But it is already significantly impacting the education outcomes and work prospects of that poorest group. During the local election in Manchester this year I talked to plenty of people for who that was so – one woman unable to finish a job application as her hour on the library computer was up. In education we must be thinking about preparing a new generation that can build and participate in open networks. This is why Pirate Party UK has been supporting a major change to IT teaching, we need to encourage a generation of innovators (a polite word for hackers) rather than passive consumers. Like politics, technology must be something that is done with people not to them.

The infrastructure needs to match the vision. In this year’s British budget £100 million was set aside to upgrade urban broadband. This will not help business with the kind of connectivity they need- recently I was at a meeting on the digital economy in Manchester where SME owners complained that they received broadband only fit for someone’s front room. Nor will it be enough to help that poorest fifth and rural areas. The figure dwindles in to insignificance next to the estimated £2 billion cost of a proposed blanket surveillance programme.

Without addressing power, access and income, it doesn’t matter how many cool apps there are. Without seeing networks as a way to defeat poverty and inequality, it won’t matter whether we defeat “3-strikes” legislation or not. Networks will still be closed to the most disadvantaged, indeed, they will be left further behind.

At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves what kind of networks we want to pass on. A fragmented system where censorship and suspicion are default? Or an a open system where everyone can truly participate? The decisions we make in the next couple of years will have profound consequences for the net.

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