Aaron’s army

January 24, 2013 | Leave a comment

This speech, in honor of Aaron Swartz, pretty much sums up why I work on the web. This is why it’s worthwhile.

Aaron was part of an army of citizens that believes democracy only works when the citizenry are informed, when we know about our rights—and our obligations. An army that believes we must make justice and knowledge available to all—not just the well born or those that have grabbed the reigns of power—so that we may govern ourselves more wisely.

He was part of an army of citizens that rejects kings and generals and believes in rough consensus and running code.

[...] Aaron Swartz was not a criminal, he was a citizen, and he was a brave soldier in a war which continues today, a war in which corrupt and venal profiteers try to steal and hoard and starve our public domain for their own private gain.

Read the full text of the speech over here. It was given as part of a memorial for Aaron Swartz at the Internet Archive tonight.

Web, the people

April 15, 2012 | 2 comments

Armenian ParliamentIf there was any doubt that the Internet is radically changing democracy, check this out:

Spain’s new political party, the Partido de Internet, is a policy-agnostic political party that makes its decisions based on the will of a community based on Agora, a virtual parliament platform.

PDI is a policy-agnostic political party that does not have, nor will ever have, a political ideology. It has a single and radical proposal: PDI elected representatives will vote in congress according to what the people have previously voted through the internet using Agora.

[...] Agora is a software project with a clear aim to improve our democratic system. The project is well underway but still not complete, and is driven by voluntary work donated generously by members of our team. We welcome anyone, developers, researchers, security enthusiasts, designers, or anyone else who shares our vision, to collaborate and help bring this vision closer to reality.

Representative democracy as we know it today emerged because it was unfeasible for each citizen to participate directly. The Internet fundamentally changes that, and reveals political parties to be gatekeepers: unnecessary levels of organizational abstraction that are unduly influenced by capital rather than the will of the people they declare themselves to represent.

This is a sea change in how government works, and incumbents can see it coming. It’s worth examining the UK’s Internet surveillance plans in this light. David Cameron said that monitoring emails, web use and phone calls would protect against “terrorist threats that [...] that we still face in this country”. Could that include citizens peacefully organizing to push for greater democracy?

I don’t think it’s going out on a limb to also look at policies regarding anonymity and privacy online in this light. Tracking doesn’t just relate to advertising; it’s also always been used to monitor political dissent (alongside agent provocateurs). This is a subject that relates to how we are governed and – though it sounds almost insanely melodramatic to say it – the balance of world power. Owning and controlling your own data needs to be a democratic right.

I’ll be watching the PDI with interest; together with the Pirate Party, they represent a very interesting new phase in how technology and society interact. And just as news, publishing, entertainment and retail have been disrupted, the incumbent political parties had better take notice.

Photo of the Armenian Parliament by PanARMENIAN Photo, released under a Creative Commons license.

Otherwise Occupied: it’s hard to blog about app stores when police are beating people down the street

November 30, 2011 | 5 comments

Occupy San Francisco Oct-07-2011_32 Occupy Cal - OPD Officer

November was a hard blogging month for me. I managed two posts: a single embedded TEDx talk (albeit one by Kaliya, who I respect greatly), and one about Thanksgiving.

I just didn’t have it in me. You see, I don’t love tech on its own; I love what it can do for people. More specifically, I love the ways the web empowers ordinary people with information and the power to be heard. It levels playing fields, democratizes markets and removes bottlenecks. Nobody gets to decide which music is released, which books are published or what news stories are reported any more. If a musician wants their song to get out, it will. If a witness at a protest wants to broadcast their shaky video of police officers in riot gear beating students unprompted or nonchalantly spraying tear gas into a line of nonviolent protesters, they can make that happen.

And they did. And they are. And they will again.

The Occupy camps I’ve been to have been shining examples of how to run a protest: well organized, intelligent, completely passive and filled to the stars with positive energy. I’m by no means a video professional, but I felt compelled to take some footage of Occupy San Francisco (please feel free to add your own Occupy video to that space), to record how beautiful it was. Entirely the opposite of angry or undirected, they even gladly welcomed people against the movement to speak their mind at their microphone.


At first glance, it seems impossible that such a lovely gathering could be attracting so much anger and violence. But Naomi Wolf gets it perfectly:

The mainstream media was declaring continually “OWS has no message”. Frustrated, I simply asked them. [...]

The No 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process. No 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation [... and] correct the conditions for the recent crisis, as investment banks could not take risks for profit that create kale derivatives out of thin air, and wipe out the commercial and savings banks.

No 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.

When I saw this list – and especially the last agenda item – the scales fell from my eyes. Of course, these unarmed people would be having the shit kicked out of them.

Make no mistake: this has everything to do with the web, and the democratization of information. More than the startups, platforms, ubiquitous connectivity and access to incredible amounts of information, as a community we were disrupting the way people think about information and democratic power. Having disrupted publishing, the music industry and countless other incumbent models, the flow is finally reaching political power structures.

And it’s war.

The Stop Online Piracy Act ostensibly exists to help battle piracy – a serious problem, for sure, albeit one that in large part is of the content owners’ making. Unfortunately, the legislation allows websites to be removed without due process, restricts secure communications, and undermines whistleblowers. There’s understandably been a huge response against the Act from across the web – this site also ran a call to action – but it’s not dead yet.

More worrying still, the National Defense Authorization Act (which is renewed every year to maintain defense budgets) passed in the Senate yesterday with a new clause that allows suspected “domestic terrorists” – including US citizens – to be detained indefinitely without trial. In a world where someone can be investigated for terrorism and banned from airports for life over a tweet or added to the no-fly list for writing a book criticizing the President, this is deeply concerning. In a nation that prides itself on democracy and freedom, you can now be made to simply disappear.

As developers and evangelists, we have to make a decision. We all want to empower our users and make the world a better place, and usually we try to do this by making great products. But our success as an industry, and as individuals, has been a result of the context in which we’ve thrived. That context is being both directly and indirectly challenged, and we have to decide: are we going to carry on as before, or are we going to do something about it, ideologically stand with the people who are arguing for a more equal system, and build systems that truly, overtly empower?

Hopefully you’ll forgive me if I haven’t been as excited about the next big thing of late.

Citizen lawmakers: is Iceland the future of politics?

August 26, 2011 | 2 comments

Iceland's open-door government

Note: it’s been pointed out in the comments (and elsewhere) that the source article is full of inaccuracies. Here’s the rebuttal. Nonetheless, I think there’s strong interest in a new kind of democracy that takes its inspiration from the hierarchy flattening we’ve seen on the web. It’s an issue I’m still keen to explore.

My original post follows.

I’m intrigued by this opinion piece by the The South African Civil Society Information Service. It’s certainly true that Iceland hasn’t been making headline news despite its role in the current economic downturn. The governmental change they’ve been experiencing there has been off the radar for a lot of people, myself included – but it’s incredible, and deserves much more attention.

Background: Iceland moves away from the global financial system

Following deregulation of its banking system, Iceland’s foreign debt was around 900% of its Gross National Product, and when the financial crisis in 2008 killed off its three main banks, the IMF and the EU offered to take on the debt.

Elections were brought forward to April 2009, resulting in a left-wing coalition which condemned the neoliberal economic system, but immediately gave in to its demands that Iceland pay off a total of three and a half million Euros. This required each Icelandic citizen to pay 100 Euros a month (or about $130) for fifteen years, at 5.5% interest, to pay off a debt incurred by private parties vis a vis other private parties. It was the straw that broke the reindeer’s back.

The Icelandic Head of State refused to ratify this into law, and instead held a referendum, in which 93% of the population voted against repaying the debt.

A new constitution for the people, by the people, written in full view of the people

Defiant stuff already, but the best was yet to come: they also decided to write a new constitution, in a way that had never before been possible:

To write the new constitution, the people of Iceland elected twenty-five citizens from among 522 adults not belonging to any political party but recommended by at least thirty citizens. This document was not the work of a handful of politicians, but was written on the internet. The constituent’s meetings are streamed on-line, and citizens can send their comments and suggestions, witnessing the document as it takes shape. The constitution that eventually emerges from this

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