Elevate Media and Technology

This is the eleventh in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!


Media and technology have always developed hand-in-hand, from the development of written language in Sumer five thousand years ago, through postal systems, the telegraph, the telephone, radio and television, to the successive innovations that have made today’s instant media possible over the internet. This marriage of media and technology is capable of astonishing feats, such as the democratisation and emancipation of knowledge on Wikipedia; but it also enables more sinister operations, like the total population surveillance uncovered by Edward Snowden and others last year. During this session, the panel explored all its aspects: the good, the bad and the future.

The Good: The Commons and Wikimedia

The first Elevate Festival took place in 2005, the same year YouTube launched. Facebook was still a student network, Twitter did not yet exist and the iPhone was two years from its debut. Wikipedia was a relative granddaddy at four years old, but had only half a million articles in its English language edition. Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, was a guest at that first Elevate.

Jimmy spoke of the difficulties of managing a collaborative project, where anyone can take part. “I continue to be amazed at the huge number of people who are good in the world,” he said. “It’s almost everybody.” However, he also warned that “there are some people who are just absolutely impossible”. He insisted on the importance of remaining open, without being naïve about the existence of contributors who become impossible to manage. “By not banning a troll, you effectively ban a lot of good people,” he said. “The biggest mistake we make right now is we’re too tolerant of trolls, because of the nature of Wikipedians being so friendly, we can’t believe that someone could be such an asshole!”

Nine years and about 720 million edits later, Claudia Garád, Executive Director of Wikimedia Österreich, tells us that, “in general, we can be quite happy”. She is proud that Wikipedia is one of the biggest community projects ever developed, predominantly built by volunteers. “Now we have paid staff,” she says, “but they mostly deal behind the scenes, not in the encyclopedia.” From those half a million articles in 2005, the English Wikipedia has grown to over four and a half million articles in 2014. Claudia is also proud that Wikipedia publishes in 287 languages, including Bavarian and Alemanic. “This is important to be reflected in our digital legacy,” she says.

Today, however, Wikimedia faces new challenges. The proportion of women editors is consistently low, around 7-10% (it’s difficult to say exactly because editors on Wikipedia are anonymous). There has also been a decrease in the number of volunteer editors from the industrialised nations. “We don’t have enough volunteers to maintain the status quo and continue building the world’s knowledge,” Claudia says. “We have to take action against that.”

Michel Bauwens puts this decrease down to a fundamental fault in the governance of Wikipedia: it is no longer a meritocracy. “In Wikipedia,” he explains, “there was a fight between inclusionists and deletionists.” Inclusionists wanted to include everything and anything in the encyclopedia, while the deletionists maintained that the subject matter should be of “significant interest”. “This creates a layer of administrators who know the rules, but not the subjects,” Michel says, giving the example of the radical deletion of a plethora of fake Barbies from China. “Adding something to Wikipedia has become political,” he says. “If you cannot mobilise ten or twenty people, you won’t get your article in Wikipedia.” Since the deletionists won that battle, Wikipedia has declined in terms of contributions.

One of the problems with dealing in knowledge is that there is never any end. There is no point at which you could describe an article as perfect. “There are different phases,” Claudia says. “The highest rating is Excellent, where the status quo is good enough, but there’s always something to add.”

Another challenge, brought to light in the 2010 Wikipedia documentary Truth in Numbers, is that new users have difficulty editing. According to Claudia, this is “a big challenge for new volunteers”. She attributes the challenge to two aspects of the maturation of Wikipedia: “On the one hand, we don’t have much low-hanging fruit,” she says. “It’s hard to find something you can contribute to easily.” The second difficulty for new volunteers is that the regulations concerning edits to Wikipedia have become very complex. In general, there are no locked articles, but Claudia tells us that, in Germany, articles do have to wait to be checked by someone more experienced. “It all depends on the first person who deals with the new volunteer,” she says, suggesting that a new editor can be easily put off by more experienced Wikipedians. “But you have to understand the frustrations of editors as well,” she adds. “They spend most of their time dealing with trolls. You lose patience after some time.”

Yet Wikipedia is still the first stop for anyone on the internet researching anything. This is an astonishing feat, considering the increasing totalisation of the web, coalescing around the major technology companies like Google and Facebook. Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website in the world, the greatest collection of human knowledge ever assembled and all of its content is free to distribute, modify and edit under the Creative Commons licence.

We should look after this unusual beast in our garden.

The Bad: Surveillance and Media Monopolies

Surveillance has been on the Elevate agenda from the very beginning when Phil Zimmermann, creator of encryption tool PGP, was a guest. Since that first festival, according to technology blogger Christian Payne, “there’s been an awakening” about what governments and corporations are doing, or could be doing, with our data. We know this thanks to the work of Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Julian Assange and many others.

“There are potentially huge databases of our every move, with whoever, wherever, whenever,” Christian Payne says. “It’s definitely changed my behaviour,” he adds, “especially working in difficult situations where I’m risking my life and other people’s if I accidentally share my location.” But he is optimistic that, thanks to this awakening, our “lethargy will pass” and we will start to act against this surveillance, on both personal and corporate levels.

Micah Lee, wearing a Tor t-shirt, is “digital bodyguard” to Glenn Greenwald and the man first contacted about the NSA leaks by Edward Snowden. Micah says that cryptographic tools have historically been almost unusable. “It’s still pretty terrible to use in a lot of cases,” he adds. As he is quick to point out, his own work is no exception. The whistleblowing platform that Micah helped to develop, SecureDrop, while pretty easy for sources to use, is very complicated for journalists. “Journalists have to go through a lot of training,” he says, “and learn how to use air-gapped computers and how to boot to TAILS USBs and you do two vector authentication and download a bunch of randomly named files and decrypt them somewhere else and burn CDs and…” “When I see secure communication going on,” Christian Payne says, only half-joking, “it’s like peering into the Matrix!” The room laughs.

Despite this interminable list of hoop-jumping, “things are getting a lot better than they used to be”, according to Micah. “It’s possible for me to take my phone, download an app and then have an encrypted phone call with somebody for free,” he points out. “And anyone in the world with a smartphone can do this.” So while PGP is still complicated, Micah does see reasons to be optimistic; there has been a “huge renaissance of alternative messaging systems” that aim to solve the problem of combining good security with good usability.

Of course, we could have secure solutions soon, if only the big technology companies threw their enormous resources at the problem. And Christian Payne sees the first glimmerings of hopeability in this area. He reports that senior sources at Apple are now saying that the reason they sell very expensive technology is because “data is not their business model”. Christian Payne is hopeful that Apple will aim to compete with Google on the privacy concerns of their uses, by making beautifully designed and easy to use products and services that come with built-in secure data protection. If we’re willing to pay a premium for it, of course.

One of the negative developments in internet security since 2005 is that, back then, traffic was more decentralised. Today, most internet traffic, on its way to its final destination, passes through the servers of a handful of large corporations, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon Web Services. Miriam Rasch calls these “media monopolies”. The problem is that most people don’t understand why it’s such a problem to have these monopolies.

“The majority of the people have no clue why they should not be using Facebook,” she says. “Or why they should not only use Google when they search something and what the problem even could be that they have Gmail and search every location they go to on Google Maps.” Without educating people about the possible dangers of these media monopolies, as Miriam says, “they won’t use the alternatives, even if they are easy to come by”.

In Europe, Google has a near monopoly on search, around 95% of the market, according to Miriam. On the plus side, compared to switching social networks, it is relatively easy to switch your search engine; as Miriam points out, “you don’t need all your friends to get on there”. However, it is almost impossible for competitors to do search better than Google because they have almost limitless resources to put into their hardware. “If you want alternative search engines,” Miriam says, “then you need an alternative index of the web.”

Google have indexed 40 billion pages; their biggest competitor, Microsoft’s Bing, have indexed only 13.5 billion. Some people have suggested that we build a pan-European alternative search engine, but Miriam wants to know who would be the keeper of that search engine – politicians? “After the Snowden revelations, we don’t trust politics any more,” she says.

Daniel Erlacher’s solution is publicly funded media, democratically controlled with public oversight. But Miriam argues that even this wouldn’t be the end of the problem. “You shouldn’t have one thing other than Facebook,” she says. We need more than one alternative to really have an alternative; either / or is not much of a choice. And that is an enormous undertaking. “The only way to fight Google is to have a lot of money,” she says. “I’m always really charmed by all the small projects, but if you really want to make the fist, you need this huge amount of cash from somewhere.” Christian Payne steps in again: “Does anybody have more money than Google? Please put your hand up.” We laugh knowingly: most countries on Earth don’t have as much money as Google.

As our laughter trickles down the drains of despair, Micah raises another threat posed by these media monopolies that I had not previously run into: their threat to open internet standards.

“Email has been around for a very long time and it’s an open standard,” Micah explains. “And anyone can run their own email server. There are lots of different ones to choose from and a lot of people could choose to run their own or organisations can run their own.”

We do a quick straw poll of the room: “Who here has Gmail? Hotmail?” About half the room laughs, guiltily. “This open, decentralised standard is getting centralised, largely into Gmail and a couple of other big email providers,” Micah says. “Most companies these days [use Gmail] because it’s a lot cheaper than running your own infrastructure.” Even Guardian News posts their email with Google. Yes, the newsroom that was courageous enough to publish Glenn Greenwald’s stories on Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks send all their communication through Google’s servers, where the security agencies can browse with apparent impunity.

So what?

This isn’t (just) about surveillance. At the moment, Gmail is email, an open web standard. Anyone with an email address can contact anyone else with an email address. It doesn’t matter who provides you with your email address – Hotmail, Gmail, Riseup, whoever – you can still read and send email between providers. It’s so simple that we don’t even think about the open architecture underpinning the whole system. But what if Gmail moved away from the email web standard? What if Gmail became more like Facebook’s messaging service? If you’re outside Facebook, you can’t contact someone inside, and vice versa. You’re cut off. There’s nothing to stop Google one day deciding to do the same with Gmail.

If you think this sounds unlikely, then Micah warns us that Google has already done this with one of their products. Google Talk (now Hangouts) used to run on the Jabber/XMPP open messaging standard. “Anyone with a Jabber account on any Jabber server could talk to Google Talk people,” Micah explains. “This was great until Google decided to change Hangouts. Suddenly everyone who’s locked into Google just gets cut off from the rest of the people using the standards.” Now consider the fact that Gmail has been installed over a billion times on Android smartphones. At what point will Google decide that they have a critical mass of users and can afford to cut everyone else out, leading to a stampede to their services and a total media monopoly? “They could do this, it’s possible,” Micah says. “They did this with their chat.”

The kicker to all this is that Google are only in this position of power because, well, they offer really good services. “It’s always up, it works well, they have really nice design and a really nice web interface,” Micah says, with an awed mix of respect and fear. In fact, Google’s products and services are so simple, so reliable and so damn useful that people are choosing monopoly. “But it’s important that if you’re using open standards, like Jabber or like email, to make sure that they stay open,” Micah adds. “And that’s the danger.”

Christian Payne’s response to the media monopoly trap is fun and games, something that Google’s robots and algorithms aren’t too good at. “I take great pleasure in emailing a friend who has given me their PGP key,” he says, “knowing that there is a robot scraping all of the Google content going What the hell does all this mean? How am I going to sell anything to him, it doesn’t make any sense!” If everyone used encryption, even for the most banal of messages, then the everyday surveillance of our email would become impossible. “We all need to cause trouble,” Christian Payne says. “We need to get badges for it: You’ve caused twenty percent trouble in your email this week!” The room applauds. “If we could only use game mechanics to encourage people,” he adds, “then maybe we could make it work.”

Miriam nods in agreement and introduces us to a web browser extension called ScareMail, which makes email “scary” in order to disrupt NSA surveillance. According to the website, ScareMail “adds to every new email’s signature an algorithmically generated narrative containing a collection of probable NSA search terms”, which then “acts as a trap for NSA programs like PRISM and XKeyscore, forcing them to look at nonsense”.
Automated trouble-making. I love it.

The Future? Distributed Networks and Secure Data

The problems of surveillance and the problems of media monopolies are problems of concentrations of data. Knowledge has always been power; today, in our networked world, data is knowledge is power. As the internet matures, that data-power is being concentrated into the hands of the big players. Google, Amazon and Wikipedia all have power because they hold data on their servers. Whether that power is used for good or evil is entirely down to who has control over the servers. At Wikipedia, the control is with the community, motivated by the growth of the commons. At Google and Amazon, the control is with the board of directors and, indirectly, the shareholders, motivated by their annual return on investment. Taking back power and alleviating the threat of surveillance and media monopolies means distributing control of the network and taking back our data.

At the Elevate Festival in 2007, Sascha Meinrath, founder of the Open Technology Institute and community internet pioneer, spoke about the importance of networks to independent media production. “We realised, in indie media, even though we were covering stories nobody else in town was covering, we didn’t have a way to distribute it,” Sascha told Elevate. “It wasn’t enough to own the means of media production,” he explained. “If we didn’t have a distribution system in place, we still couldn’t get the word out.” So they started to create a local distribution network in the mid-1990s, “literally stringing up ethernet cables between houses”. For Sascha, building networks was “the natural extension of radical media activism”.

FunkFeuer is a local, volunteer-run and non-commercial network, such as Sascha described, with chapters in cities around Austria. Christian Pointner helps run the FunkFeuer network here in Graz. “Normally people have an Internet Service Provider,” he explains. “Most people do not know how it really works, they simply switch the computer on. The idea of FunkFeuer is to build our own network in cities.” We watch a video of Aaron Kaplan, from FunkFeuer Vienna, clambering around on rooftops, setting up wireless repeaters, throwing the network a little wider over the city.

This is all very interesting, but why would you bother?

Aside from Sascha’s argument about owning the means of media distribution, aside from concerns over surveillance and aside from doomsday scenarios where fibre optic lines or telecommunication towers are sabotaged and we’re all relying on these volunteer networks to deliver emergency aid, there is one clear and present threat to the internet as we currently know it: network neutrality.

At the moment, every bit and byte of internet traffic is treated equally. There is no way to jump to the head of the queue and download that episode of Tenko faster, no matter how much money you have. This is what we mean by “network neutrality”. But it is under threat. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the people who own the pipes down which your data flows, are getting a bit ornery about the demands put on them by government and by business. They feel like they should be getting a bigger slice of the commercial pie and they are threatening to break network neutrality by charging for premium services. This could mean Google paying for priority when you watch a YouTube video and Vimeo or Netflix users can, in the words of John Holloway, get out of the way.

You can be sure that independent media outlets will not be able to afford to pay these premiums; this will mean more and more traffic, more and more eyeballs, will be drawn towards those that are able to pay. At the moment, independent media sites like Democracy Now! are able to compete for attention with Fox News and The Mail Online. When network neutrality is gone, will that still be so? Or will they become part of a second class internet, dragging its feet with slower and slower delivery? Many people believe that this is a fundamental threat to the internet’s founding philosophy of equality (including Barack Obama). But, of course, if you build your own network infrastructure, like FunkFeuer, you can maintain neutrality. It’s your network; you decide. Or, as FunkFeuer’s slogan would have it: Don’t log into the net – be the net!

Unfortunately, since 2007, the growth of FunkFeuer in Austria has been stalled by the rapid spread of 3G networks. Until then, FunkFeuer had been getting a lot of support as a city-wide wireless network. Now, with the rise of smartphones, that kind of network is no longer needed by most people. However, Christian Pointner reports that non-commercial volunteer networks in other countries are seeing better progress. “Catalonia is more successful and it’s really big in Athens too,” he says. “Athens Wireless has a lot of content in the network as well; it’s not just the internet.” This could be file-sharing, documents, videos, music. What we think of as “the internet” could be so much more than just the internet if we had control of the network servers. Christian Pointner dreams of connecting all the independent networks, from Berlin to Athens. “We can cover short distances,” he says with pride, “such as from Graz to Maribor.” That’s about 60km. There certainly is a long way to go.

Where FunkFeuer decentralises networks, FreedomBox, first introduced at Elevate in 2011, decentralises data. “FreedomBox is a small personal server,” Markus Sabadello, one of the developers, explains. “The idea is to own part of the system.”

Since Edward Snowden’s revelations last year, we know how insecure our personal data is on the internet. Currently, all our personal data goes through the servers of corporations and we basically have no control over who uses it and how. “We know Facebook and Google are doing these things with our data,” Markus points out, “but we’re still using them!” He would like to see FreedomBox become the alternative to corporate control of your personal information, where you can store all of your personal data on your own personal server and you decide who can use it and how.

FreedomBox is a software project, designed to deliver a secure server for your data. “You could load it onto a ten year old server in your basement,” Markus says. “It could even be conceivable on mobile devices.” But it is still in an experimental phase. “It’s not defined what the FreedomBox does,” Markus says. “It’s like when the first PCs were sold. People at that time were asking what does the computer do? Does it write letters? Does it play chess?” FreedomBox faces the same problem with definition: it’s a home server, it’s for file sharing, emails, encrypted data exchange, blog hosting… “No one knows what it will do when it reaches maturity,” Markus says.

It is clear that there are many passionate, hard-working developers working on potential solutions to the myriad problems we face in this brave new networked world. But I fear for the forces driving technology. The built-in distributed power of Wikimedia seems to be an exception, uniquely protected by its early adoption and now seemingly unassailable position as the first place we go to for knowledge online. On the planet, there are more than enough resources to build secure and easy-to-use encryption, a publicly-funded search engine, distributed and anonymous networks and secure personal data storage with adequate legal protection.

Unfortunately, unlike Wikimedia and the technology of knowledge, the momentum behind these technologies is not distributing power to the people, but centralising power in the hands of a small number of super-giants. Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Apple are all now producing devices that we carry in our pockets; they control the entire communication chain, from the top level of the internet, through the software we use, right down to the hardware we hold.

I wouldn’t say we have lost the race – after all, we are only at the very beginning of this new digital epoch – but we have a lot of catching up to do if we are to even understand these new challenges, let alone solve them.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.


Elevate Media and Technology >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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