New Internationalist

Re-thinking resistance in the age of the cloud

Activist organizations are getting bitten by storing their data in "the cloud" and there is a lot that can be done about it.  Over the years, I’ve seen this happen, more than a few times, to organizations that I’ve worked with. Heck, it’s happened twice in the last year just to New Internationalist. But the question is: as Web services used by these organizations shut-down, or — worse — when they willingly hand out data to any repressive regime that asks for it, are there enough alternatives being developed to provide, well, alternatives? 

This concern was brought back to life for me recently with the news that the micro-blogging service Twitter allegedly assisted authorities in locating an activist during the G-20 Protest in Pittsburgh, resulting in his arrest.. The possible collusion of services like Twitter is a relatively new activist security concern, historically concerns focused on the all-too-frequent seizure of Internet servers and hardware used by activists and organizations like Indymedia. But now that people’s data is moving "into the cloud," there are a lot more issues to be concerned about. 

(The "cloud" I’m talking about here just refers to putting data online somewhere, not specifically "Cloud Computing.")

From Yahoo!’s alleged collusion with the government of China, to Skype’s "accidental" data leak that may have compromised the security of Chinese dissidents, we see that the Internet is no longer the land of the free. It’s increasingly the land of the very rich and powerful, and can be used against those working for positive social change. 

Pondering this, my burning question is: In the age of "the cloud," is there not a new opportunity to re-think the needs of resistance culture in the face of changing times and technology?

I’m constantly inspired by the work of organizations like Resist, Riseup, Tao, InterActivist Network and the many other activist technology collectives that exist around the world, who are working tirelessly to train activists to secure their communications and providing the necessary technical infrastructure to work toward a more just world. But are their efforts, alone, enough? 

For example, would it be possible today to re-invent the idea of a radical communications infrastructure, but one that is built in the cloud — literally — removing the ability to pin-down a Web service down to one physical server, or location, and making it possible to quickly scale up and down as needed. (And freeing up valuable closet space in the process!)

Or, for those situations where putting data in the cloud creates more risk than opportunity, would it be possible to work toward not just free and open-source alternatives, but more radical alternatives (like Crabgrass)? Perhaps alternatives that are rooted in activist organizations — organizations like New Internationalist — that have been around for 30 years already, and will likely be around for 30 more (in one form or another). Why do we put our valuable communication infrastructure (coughTwittercough) into the slippery hands of the hi-tech start-up so often? 

So the question is: Given the critical role that technology plays in the work of today’s activists and campaigning organizations, is there a need for a more radical communications infrastructure? From the large-scale outbound e-mail delivery required to drive online campaigns, to the micro-notification systems that help activists on the street, right on down to the provisioning of secure ways for activists to do their organizing — all of this, currently, is all too often put into the hands of those that, all too often, do little to defend it when the time comes. 

What do you think? Are alternatives needed? What services are needed most?

The comments are open.

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  1. #1 phillip_at_newint 26 Oct 09

    More relevant today than ever: ’[a href=’’]Chamber Of Commerce Strong-Arms Service Provider Into Shutting Down Spoof Site.’

  2. #2 CheckOutDiaspora 16 Sep 10

    Diaspora as one of the ways that activists could respond

    Diaspora just got released a few days ago; very interesting in the context of Phillip's article. Worth a look?

  3. #3 placid 11 Jan 11

    The real issue is that the way our communication infrastructure is built fundamentally limits how much we can distance ourselves from corporate power. While building secure social networking systems, email servers, and microblogging platforms can protect activists online, it doesn't address the problem that we are still beholden to ISPs and the companies that control the internet backbone infrastructure. These are things that simply can't be circumvented by small scale efforts: we're taking satellite links and thousands of km of optical fibre. Like it or not, at some point you have to have your connection to the internet, and that means paying The Man.

    At some point I believe we are going to have to address that. How is a different matter: maybe our society will change enough that communications are genuinely managed by and for the public good. Or maybe we'll have to hack our WIFI routers to create some kind of grid network, or be permanently connected to private darknets.

    Or maybe the physicists will find out that quantum entanglement can be used for instant communication after all, and all the centralized infrastructure will be come instantly irrelevant :D

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