Monday, December 14, 2020

Agenda for community control of the internet

The Internet is an odd industry. On one hand, there is often a low cost of entry for service providers which favors small firms, but there is also immense efficiencies of scale that favor legacy firms (e.g. network effects) -- and to top it off, there is immense value added by internet-focused activities. At the moment, most of this added value is being captured by a few big tech terms, who have become so powerful that they are even upending our political systems (at least in the USA).

With all this going on, there is negligible and ineffective regulation, and I see little promise that the state will establish a sustainable status quo like they did for the early 20th century utilities (water, electricity, etc). So this realm is my favorite target industry for a bottom-up revolution. 

I've been trying to figure out how I can contribute, recently being inspired by Bookchin's 'libertarian municipalism', even though I don't buy into the full package. But it does seem to be onto something in emphasizing the local community/municipality as the natural unit of political organization, with larger-scale organization being handled by confederation -- and that Internet services are the most tractable industry to organize according to these principles.

While I've been thinking along these lines, I discovered that the Tech Learning Collective is moving in these same directions -- with the focus of taking control of our broken communication systems as a defensive move against the new wave of despotism in America. (h/t C4SS).

I've excerpted the core items from their agenda below, with my own thoughts after that:

One: Become your own Google (Contacts, Calendar, Docs, etcetera).

Most of the common services that most people use for many of their day-to-day needs, such as keeping phone numbers synchronized across multiple devices, planning their days with a digital calendar, or drafting documents can be easily accomplished without involving large companies or sums of money. Abandon the search for “a more trustworthy alternative” to Google by providing the services you need for yourself. Just as one might learn to grow a small portion of one’s own food in a garden or greenhouse, commit to increasing your digital self-reliance over time as you hone your digital green thumb.

Be prepared for this to take some time. If you’re unsure where to start, join us for any workshops that sound fun to you! There’s no need to change all your habits at once. Instead, take note of the many daily activities that don’t require an Internet connection or even a Web browser to accomplish at all. Then simply, well, simplify.

In some cases, such as intra-office file sharing, streaming music from a personal library, or loading your favorite e-books to read at night, a local network rather than a connection to the global Internet is very often sufficient. Install a home-brew server to fill this simple role. It’s like the digital equivalent of potting a clipping of your favorite herb on your windowsill. The more you care for it, the more it will reward you.

In those situations where the Internet is truly necessary or dramatically more practical, Free, Libre, and Open Source Software is capable of providing many more features than those offered to you by the data-mining corporations, and more privately. There’s no need to code new apps or even to learn much if anything about how to code at all. Since there is so much existing software available already, nearly every imaginable need is accounted for. In fact, internally, Tech Learning Collective operates on self-hosted Free Software tools, like a CalDAV server for meeting schedules and reminders (replacing our need for Google Calendar), and an XMPP server for group chats (replacing our need for Slack).

Very soon, you will have taken your first step into a larger world.

Two: Gather others and practice connecting and communicating securely with them.

Once you can provide for even some of your own digital needs, you will find that you have surplus capacity (extra disk space, compute power, and/or bandwidth) that you can provide to others. (At Tech Learning Collective, we use old models of the cheapest computers available, such as the single-board Raspberry Pi, and we still have plenty of room to grow.) Use this excess as an opportunity to bring others you care about along in this journey with you. If they’re like you, pay it forward by showing them how to set up their own home-brew server as you did. Otherwise, share the excess by inviting them to make use of the services you once provided solely for yourself. The more you share, the more you’ll be continuing to hone your skills as a system administrator, becoming an ever more practiced and experienced “digital farmer” or tradesperson.

Things change dramatically when you begin to involve others, so you’ll have to start considering inter-user protections in a way you haven’t had to before. Security becomes (even more) important. You’ll have responsibilities not only for your own data, but someone else’s, too. This should feel new and different to you, because it is. Practice communicating about what, when, and why you’re taking certain actions that may affect other people, and do it using secure and private communications channels, like Signal Private Messenger groups or, of course, a self-hosted chat or federated microblogging service.

Three: Embrace physical proximity by interconnecting individually-owned infrastructure.

The Internet collapses the experience of distance because every location in cyberspace appears to be no further than any other location. Resist the temptation to abandon the physical realm, and thereby the Earth, by focusing instead on interconnecting your home-brew server or local network with the home-brew servers or local networks of those around you. This enables local coordination on local infrastructure, rather than on Facebook’s, which is a key step towards a community-owned and surveillance-resistant network.

Making such connections can start as simply as sharing your Wi-Fi password with a neighbor in exchange for splitting the monthly Internet bill, but soon you’ll want to go faster and reach farther. Replace weak wireless signals by running physical Ethernet cable across apartments (an easy task in older multi-family houses) or practice “roof-hopping” over longer distances in your neighborhood with more specialized radio equipment. In Detroit, for example, you can work with the Detroit Community Technology Project to gain hands-on experience doing exactly this. Many other cities have similar opportunities, and in those that don’t you can start your own more modest internetworking projects.

Once you reach your physical limits, use Virtual Private Networking (VPN) or Tor (Onion service) routing to connect your fledgling network with a more geographically distant friend’s, creating a proper (lowercase-i) internet among yourselves. You may need to piggyback on the existing (capital-I) Internet for this, or you may not, but in either case you’ll be building physical and digital power above and beyond merely electoral and representational power.

At this stage, you will likely benefit from installing Internet-like infrastructure, such as Domain Name System (DNS) servers. Since these are your own, you need not adhere to the familiar “dot-com” or “dot-org” domain names, nor must you register with and pay an external company for permission to be known by a given name. On your internet with your friends, everything is free.

Four: Grow communities by extending infrastructure and strengthen community power by building coalitions.

Reject the idea that successful mobilizations must be large, or that to do anything meaningful you must first do it “at scale.” Instead, build coalitions with neighbors and others in your locality by building on relationships already established through earlier work building physical infrastructure together. You can coordinate public actions that are small at first and scale over time as you gain experience working on and solving problems collectively. Coalition means scaling out, not scaling up.

When Trump lost last weekend, he didn’t just lose one election. He lost many individual State elections. What we witnessed this past week was only possible because of a cooperating coalition of individual actors and institutions moving in concert. That cooperation is what every lowercase-d democratic institution is in its essence. The same principle holds for the Internet, and that principle is the reason the Internet still has the potential to serve as a foundational platform on which we can continually choose to refute fascism. But not if we do so only on Twitter. Not if we limit our toolkit only to ballot boxes.

The actions I was thinking of are not quite so 'ground-up' and these, but are more about at least bringing Internet-based services (especially social media) under the control of distributed (and possibly, local) administrators.
  • City level ISP; wireless networks
  • City level email services
  • Decentralized/federated discussion boards (like NextDoor perhaps, but more focused options are available too)
  • Face to face file sharing (via SD cards and flash drives) -- copy entire digital libraries at once.
  • Local ID/certificate servers (OpenID?).



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