Verso Agorà 99 – [eng] Contributo al workshop TECHNOPOLITICS, NETWORKS & DEMOCRACY

agoràThe relationship between movements and the Internet is in continuous mutation since the rise of the latter. New places of aggregation, sociality and conflict are always built by social organizations in real life, and since the Internet has become an important and diffuse mean of communication, this tendency has affirmed also in this new field. We would like to consider this phenomenon and analyze it in some of its aspects, beginning with some considerations about the different possibilities we have while using the Internet for social purposes.The traditional purpose for which movements use the Net is to create counter-information and idea-exchanging points. This of course eased and helped the spreading of social fights during the years, and induced a research for still new and more efficient ways to take advantage of the net itself. Recently we assisted to a further step in this direction, that is the use of services found on the Internet to enhace the real-life form of conflicts, those which take place on the streets and the squares. Experiences like this took place in Spain during 15M, when Twitter and other social networks had an important role in the organzation and promulgation of the event, and again in Turkey, where the position of the police forces during the clashes in various cities was pointed out on GoogleMaps in real time. In Italy a similar event occured during the national manifestation of October 19th: while thousands of people gathered in Rome to protest against the austerity of the governement, physically assaulting the ministries of economy and infrastructures, a group of hackers attacked their websites, blocking and defacing them.This cooperation brought the interaction between the hacktivism and the activism to a different level, evolving from the former situation, where the contribute given from the hacker community was to take down, deface and leaking websites important for the institution in ordinary days, usually unlinked from protests called from the movements.

These examples show a new way to act inside the Web, and indicate the offensive potential of merging real and virtual acts of contrast. So we can start thinking of the Internet as another space of conflict. Just as social movements perform actions that consist in blocking streets, stations or offices, we can block directly the physical structure used by nations or companies to mantain their power and to organize themselves. For instance, an attack to the servers that administrate the transportation in a given place can cause much more damage compared to the same act made by a group of people. Of course this kind of action requires some specific abilities, but its advantages are clear, such as avoiding physical fight, and the more difficult legal persecution of those who performed the hack. There are many other circumstances where this concept is applicable since all the mechanisms that regulate the production and the exchange of money operate using the Internet. Another factor that made us consider the possibility of such a collaboration between these two ways of strengthening social activism, is the change occuring in the hacker world. The hacktivism phenomenon is another way to give a political and social feature to hacking acts, giving up the usual tendency of hackers to act more individually and to strike tars not always related to a real fight. The best example of this is the Anonymous organization whose characteristics are the ability to reach many people exploiting the Internet and the application of their computer skills to achieve collective victories over the system.

Although the social networks may help movements in the task of the diffusion of social instances, we have to keep in mind that the Internet is not a neutral space. Millions of people use such services constantly and in doing so they produce a huge amount of data about personal preferences, trends, movements of people and money. Also if the majority of those services are usable for free, the data are used by the big companies of the Web to improve the services, or to earn selling them. So the collective production is exploited to make profit, it no longer belongs to the community. This kind of abuse does not affect just the single user, it hits a very large number of people and the whole common creation loses its power, being controlled, censored and capitalized on.

Our aim is to examine this mechanism and find some form of solution, as well as asking the whole community if there are ways unknown to us to bypass the problem. A good option is to start using alternative forms of social networks, that are made so that contents shared by their users do not become property of the same social network’s owners or developers. Another solution could be to communicate and share with each other using methods that allow secure exchange of informations, like cryptography protocols. This is also a useful weapon against the constant control we are all normally subjected to, and can be very helpful for social movements to organize themselves.

Social control is a very vast problem always present on the Internet in various forms, and in Pisa we started to think about it, understand its implications and see how we can avoid it. In our experience we found some good technical ways to do so; one of them is a secure decentralized communication platform named Retroshare. It consists in a software that allows its user to chat, share files, have video-chat, mail each other and post on forums, all this while being protected by a PGP key algorithm. PGP (pretty good privacy) is a system based on cryptography where the user has a public and a private key: the first serves for others as instructions to build a “padlock” to secure the data they want to send, and the second is a personal key one used to open the “padlocks” protecting incoming data. In this way only two individuals can know the content of what they’re exchanging: the sender and the receiver; and even if the data are intercepted, they are encrypted and so not readable by anyone else.

Another consideration we made in our analysis of the world wide web, and it’s linked to the topic of the control, concerning its physical structure. All the connections we have access to are possible because of a very large and complex system made of cables, servers, antennas and optic fibers. Every time one visits a website a signal departs from his computer and travels through all these steps until it reaches the server that hosts that website, and the same goes for the other services available on the Internet. So the control on the structure implies the control on the data. Since all the physical components of the Net belong to agencies, companies or institutions, it is impossible to avoid control and censorship, even using non-mainstream media.

In Pisa, the group eigenLab noticed this criticality, and reacted by constructing an alternative physical system to communicate, using basically the same technology, but refusing to take the same principles and laws that govern today’s Internet.

Initiatives like this are already a reality in other parts of Italy and Europe. This project, named eigenNet, consists in a mesh net – that is a network which nodes are all on the same level, differently from the main structure of the Internet. While in the pyramidal arrangement the traffic goes from central servers, owned by the big companies, from one’s PC, in eigenNet the transmission of signals is managed by the antennas and the servers, provided by eigenLab, with equal priority and importance between them. The revolutionary feature of this kind of net is that it expands together with the community it serves. It has started by eigenLab but now it has spread among private citizens along with the ideas that lead to its birth. The role of the group of people sustaining the mesh is to spread the awareness about what happens while one’s connected to the Web and underline what social and political consequences it leads to. In this way more and more people will get in touch with the philosophy of peer-to-peer open network, the community will grow and the net itself will improve, due to increasing contributions of community members such as internet bandwith sharing, new services or technical support. EigenNet is free of control, censorship and restrictions due to its own structure, as there is no surveillance on what its users do. It is also open to everyone who need it (one can use the wireless signal), also if they are not really part of the community. An important fact is that eigenLab has developed this system using open and free software (the one that effectively let the antennas communicate) together with the self-production concept (the servers are all recovered from dismissed hardware) so that this kind of net is easily repeatable by everyone. We want to emphasize the good results we experienced during this process, and to propose this model of cooperation as a way to connect and improve social movements, increasing their insight in the technical and theoretical aspects of the net.

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