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Practically Nonideological: A Chat with Ethan Zuckerman

When diplomats from nearly 200 countries descend upon Dubai this December to renegotiate the International Telecommunications Regulations, the onerous United Nations treaty that lords over telephone, radio and T.V. networks and that ""may be extended...

by Brian Anderson
Apr 2 2012, 1:00pm

When diplomats from nearly 200 countries descend upon Dubai this December to renegotiate the International Telecommunications Regulations, the onerous United Nations treaty that lords over telephone, radio and T.V. networks and that “may be extended to cover the Internet”, it’s almost guaranteed that activists and assorted open-Internet folk will in some form or another occupy the debates over who should control the Internet once and for all.

The stakes – for all of us – couldn’t be higher. But the thing is, even if by the first light of 2013 we’re living networked in a much different (or not), more monitored and easily censorable world, it’s absolutely guaranteed that that same open-source cohort of hackers and tinkerers will be carrying on, anyway, in their quest to lay a truly peer-to-peer communications infrastructure on a global scale. It’s the dream of a cooperatively owned shadow Internet, a so-called mesh network that would allow activists and underserviced civilians alike to bypass traditional ISP middlemen, that keeps Isaac Wilder, the co-founder of the Free Network Foundation featured in our latest documentary Free the Network, ticking and psyched on the prospect of a global revolution beyond just Occupy Wall Street.

But not Ethan Zuckerman. Well, maybe not.

Zuckerman spent almost a decade at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where he helped found the international citizen media news network Global Voices. He now serves as director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media. I recently had a chance to catch up with Zuckerman, who offered his thoughts on what excited him about Occupy’s initial citizen-spurred virality, why mesh may not be the way, the coming showdown in Dubai, and why we shouldn’t be so quick to root all current forms of popular dissent back to the Occupy movement.

A lot of folks affiliated with Occupy tell me they're citizen journalists. What coming out of Occupy by way of citizen journalism – people generating their own stories, and then disseminating them using Twitter or Facebook, or whatever – has interested you?

This act of documentation has become such a common part of movements, and moving media. The first thing people do when they go out and protest is they document the protest, and then they go through this next step which is essentially demanding attention for it.

One of the things that I thought was very interesting with Occupy early on was not just the desire to occupy physical spaces, but the desire to occupy media. And so essentially this demand that people take the movement seriously – not just because it had people physically manifesting in cities, but then trying to create this media to claim space within broadcast and mainstream media – they said, ‘Look, we want people to take this seriously. We want people to pay attention to how many people are out there.’

I think what's happening is that there's a real shift in what's difficult about making media.

Traditionally, what's been difficult about making media is getting the eyewitness account. Being on the ground, having a sufficiently powerful camera, getting the footage – all of that has changed. Now, in developed nations, you have more of less everybody walking around with fairly powerful computers in their pockets that usually have pretty good cameras. Even in the developing world we're seeing the rise of the mobile phone as this media-offering device.

Now, instead of it being difficult to get footage, what's really difficult is to edit it down into a narrative in one fashion or another. So you can sort of imagine a future where everyone is recording video either at will, or possibly all the time. I think it's quite possible you're going to end up with a future where people simply just record video as a matter of course – certainly for activists, which is already happening. And then the question becomes: Can we somehow turn that into narrative of one fashion or another?

I would say that Occupy has done a great job saying, ‘We're going to get the media. We're going to get the footage out there. And if something goes wrong, we'll be able to comb through it and find the imagery.’ For the most part, a lot of that imagery isn't particularly helpful. The idea of everybody Ustreaming different Occupy's is kind of fascinating. It's saying, ‘Let's create an enormous amount of content that probably no one is ever going to watch.’

But I think it's useful in that it's trying to create the raw material in case there's an incident with the police. Suddenly there's the ability of getting that documentation, as for instance what happened at the UC-Davis campus.

Certainly to do any of this you need quick access to the Internet. Should demonstrators resist from the inside, turning a corporatized Web and its tools – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – against itself? Or should they build their own network outside the existing confines of the Web as we know it?

If you want to engage in this practice of [protest] documentation, yes, it makes a lot of sense to have the Internet there, just in practical terms. It's cheaper to shoot a lot of footage on mobile phones and then upload through GSM [Global System for Mobile Communications].

As it happens, those GSM networks are also much more centrally controlled, much more easily monitored. So I think activists are sort of disposed to look at Wi-Fi as a more open, less central, less censorable, less monitorable technology. I think there are ways in which that's probably true.

GSM networks are very difficult for activists to use securely, because they require an open device with a SIM card that has a signature to it. In many countries you're required to register your phone and SIM card, so it's pretty easy to associate it with an individual.

So there's good reason to being skeptical of using GSM or CDMA [Code division multiple access] as the backbone for your activist technology. And there's a lot of things that we know how to do over Wi-Fi that give us a lot more privacy and a lot more anonymity. We can do things like run Tor, which does a pretty good job of anonymizing a client from accessing a service. So, getting widespread Wi-Fi seems like a really smart thing to do.

The trick is that mesh may or may not be the right way to get widespread Wi-Fi. Why mesh is really appealing to people is that it's something you can tinker with. You can get a fairly inexpensive router that you can flash with Linux, and put a mesh stack on top of it. You can set them up, and theoretically if enough people participate in it you can put a pretty good Wi-Fi cloud over an area.

Now, the trick is that it doesn't give you Internet the way you traditionally think of it. Which is to say, it's kind of like the old days where we have LANs within offices. You could transfer files from one machine to another, but you weren't necessarily linked to the Internet.

One thing I'm fairly well known for in my work is trying to be critical about whether we're adopting technologies because they're practical, or because they're ideological.
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And that's how mesh works. You need somebody to link the Internet somewhere to have access to all the cloud-based services. So until you get to super huge meshes that start crossing state or national boundaries, and trying to put a mesh over Cairo that could somehow go over to Jordan in case the Egyptian government shuts down the Internet… That's way, way, way bigger than anyone can practically build mesh so far.

The reason I push back against this and say, 'There's some pretty good tech in Wimax, which probably is an easier way to put a pretty big cloud over an Occupy encampment, and then connect it into the Internet,’ is that I think it's the Utopian technological politics that have people pursuing a very ground-up, very ad-hoc solution that may or may be the right technological solution.

One thing I'm fairly well known for in my work is trying to be critical about whether we're adopting technologies because they're practical, or whether they're ideological.

Speaking of ideology, what impact can Occupy have on the way the Internet functions? Or can fixing an internet that has some fairly critical flaws only exist outside something like OWS?

It's a very odd question you're asking. Like, why would you ask Occupy Wall Street to fix the Internet? It just seems like a really weird connection being made, right?

There are two groups right now that are fighting for influence over the Internet. One groups is the guys who've run the Internet for a very long time. And I do mean guys. It's mostly engineers – some with major tech companies, some with major telecom companies – who dominate meetings of things like the IETF, who are representatives of organizations like ICANN. These are people who've been putting in their civic service on the Internet in the course of their professional lives. It's a very engineering-centered culture. It's a rough, consensus-based culture. It may not be quite as democratic as people would like. It tends to be North American and European dominated. And there's been a lot of push from the global South saying 'Hey, this isn't fair. This isn't representative.'

There's a second camp in all this that is represented by governments, particularly governments of China, Russia, some governments from the global South, that are essentially saying 'Look, this needs to be run through something closer to the UN system. It needs to be multi-national. It needs to be more representative.'

And while on paper that sounds great, many of the countries that are pushing for this are pretty aggressive Internet censors. So there's this big battle that's been lined up between the engineers and the ITU crowd, which is where a lot of these state actors are trying to work through. This is a really well established battle between these two camps. There's been a lot going on in that space.

It's interesting to think about how popular movements might insert themselves in that space. The truth is that with SOPA/PIPA, the traditional tech guys were on one side fighting more or less against Hollywood. And they pulled in support from millions of Internet users who signed up and said 'We're with you on this. We're going to participate.'

I don't see that popular movement [OWS] as the main actor in this space. I see companies like Tumblr, and Twitter, and Google doing a pretty good job of motivating their users. But whether that group of motivated Internet users actually maps onto Occupy… I feel there are a lot of people working in that space. I haven't seen Occupy emerge in a major way in that space, and it may just be that I'm ignorant to what's going on there.

But it kind of feels like there's this tendency right now to map any form of popular protest onto Occupy. I'm just not sure that's correct.

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