April 16, 2013 § Leave a Comment
As Tunisia deals with the legacy of the Ben Ali regime, the framework of transitional justice is being used by many within the government and in civil society to guide the transformation. This includes the creation of a Tunisian Ministry of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, the involvement of international groups such as the ICTJ, and a plethora of local groups which have begun to work under the umbrella of transitional justice. There is considerable debate surrounding the transitional justice process in Tunisia, especially around the specific form the process should take.
One of my friends, Dr. Christalla Yakinthou, has considerable experience working in the practice and theory of transitional justice, and while we were in Tunisia we were interested in looking more closely at the process. In order to connect our interests, we focused specifically on the shifts in Internet governance which have happened since the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Internet governance is not traditionally seen as being a part of transitional justice, but it’s a vital part of the process of rebuilding and dealing with past human rights abuses.
As Tunisians struggle to deal with the ongoing challenges of reconfiguring the state, including dealing with ongoing police violence and IMF ‘reforms‘ that are unlikely to help the Tunisian people, Internet governance seems to be one area in which definite progress has been made. We talked to a range of people, including activists, bureaucrats, and those working within the Tunisian Internet Agency: most were very pleased with the changes made so far, and the way in which the legacy of online surveillance and censorship had been dealt with.
This doesn’t mean that the Internet freedom is secure, of course, just as it isn’t secure in Australia or other nominal democracies.. While the previous mechanisms of censorship and surveillance have been largely dismantled, Tunisian courts continue to attempt censorship or other coercive measures to silence dissent, as well as ‘objectionable content’ such as pornography. Concerns also exist about the potential affects of the intellectual property provisions slated for the new Tunisian constitution, and the creation of a new ‘cybercrime‘ unit.
As we wind up the final interviews in the first phase of the research, I’ll be hoping for the best for those in Tunisia working on these issues. Everyone we spoke to was very generous with their time, especially given what a busy period it is there. We have some great material, and I’m looking forward to putting it together for publication. It’ll be interesting: it’s the first time I’ve focused on such a state-centric process. I think that there are important critiques to be made of the transitional justice process, and particularly of the top-down nature of much of the work in the area. While there are great hopes for the transitional justice framework, it’s important to understand it as part of broader structures, including the coercive mechanisms of the state and the international system. At the same time, many Tunisians are attempting to mould existing frameworks to meet their own needs, including by questioning existing models for transitional justice.
April 14, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I’ve recently completed a couple of research projects in Tunisia, which was, on the whole a very good experience. Tunisians are currently in the process of trying to change the direction of their country, which is of course a huge task, and I really appreciate the time and energy that people gave to help us and to talk to us about their work. However, the constant harassment that my friend/colleague/collaborator and I faced really wore me down after a while.
The harassment ranges from cars honking as they drive past to men walking behind me and whispering in my ear, “hey, beautiful!” to casual “ca va?”s to shouts of “hey, wanna fuck me?” to very obvious leering to ‘friendly’ attempts to talk us by men who wouldn’t leave when we politely (and then less politely) told them we weren’t interested to cars that slowed and followed us when we were walking down the street at night. And this is constant. In the space of a few metres in a busy area, we might have four or five groups of men shout at us.
I want to be clear here: this is not limited to Tunisia. It happens plenty in Perth, although most of the time when I’m walking or cycling around there I’m wearing headphones so I miss it. I got far more harassment in Tunisia than I get in Australia, partly because I’m obviously foreign. But then, the situation is reversed in Australia: Aboriginal Australians face constant racist harassment in Australia (including from the police), and many others (including Australian citizens who aren’t Anglo-Saxon or who speak a language other than English) face outright racist abuse or more subtle racism. And this is not to mention the sexism that even relatively privileged women in Australia face.
I don’t often write about this aspect of my work, and perhaps I should. As I get more confident as a researcher, I want to write more about the process, to be more present within the final published piece. For now, this is a start. The work is not only the interviews that will make it into the final publication, but also this context that surrounds them: trying different strategies for dealing with the harassment (ignoring it, shouting back, wondering if shouting back will lead to trouble). Not wanting to leave the hotel, some days, because I was just too sick of dealing with it.
And, at the same time, being very aware of my privilege, being aware that I am lucky enough to have access to international travel, and that I have a voice (however small) within the authority of academia. Knowing that however unpleasant I may find street harassment, my work is temporary and soon I will be elsewhere, and trying to present an analysis that will somehow be useful in dealing with all this.
I’m not going anywhere in particular with this. I’m sick, and very tired, and in a new country with new challenges. So it’s best to finish by letting the last words go to introducing awesome Tunisian feminists, who like all Tunisian women deal with this every day and are both in a better position to understand the situation there and to work out what to do about it: check out Feminism Attack!
[If you know of any feminist groups working on street harassment in Tunisia who need a signal boost, feel free to mention them in the comments and I'll add them in here.]
February 5, 2013 § 6 Comments
Joseph Reagle’s recent paper on sexism within the free and open source software (FOSS) movement, ‘Free as in sexist?’: Free culture and the gender gap, makes an important contribution to our understanding of FOSS, and particularly to those who want to build a movement which is more diverse and welcoming. However, I do feel that at least one aspect of his argument needs further development. Reagle sees the movement’s ‘anarchist-libertarian ethic’ as playing a significant role in sustaining a hostile environment, outlining this ethic as follows:
This personal-freedom ethic is not only intact in the free culture movement, the movement is now its most vital and popular manifestation. For example, Richard Stallman, geek exemplar, has “campaigned for freedom since 1983” (Stallman, 2010). Eric Raymond, famous for a number of technical and cultural contributions (e.g., fetchmail and as a progenitor of “open source”), is a self–described anarchist and libertarian (Raymond, 2003; 1999). Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which lauds the autonomy of self–interested behavior and laissez–faire capitalism, had a significant influence on American libertarianism and early Internet culture. At Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is reported to have named his daughter after a character in one of Rand’s fictions; Larry Sanger, too, was fond of Rand’s The Fountainhead and is a self–described libertarian (Deutschman, 2007; Schneider and Sanger, 2011). Mark Shuttleworth (millionaire entrepreneur, self–funded astronaut, and Ubuntu founder) was a “fan of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and great admirer of Ayn Rand’s vision” though he now identifies as a more tempered “fan of regulated capitalism” (Shuttleworth, 2008). In short, while there are significant differences in the political philosophies of these men — and each would be adept articulating their differences — they are creatures of the Internet’s ethos of freedom.
There are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, while key figures within the movement such as Torvalds, Raymond, and RMS certainly do play a role in shaping the movement’s politics, they don’t fully determine them. Neither their politics nor those of participants in the movement more broadly are as simply encapsulated as Reagle makes out here (as I’ve discussed elsewhere). The second problem with this is that ‘anarchism’ and ‘libertarianism’, while sharing a concern with individual freedom, are quite distinct political philosophies, and are associated with very different community ethics. Libertarians tends to privilege an extreme individualism, failing to acknowledge the role of structural oppression in creating inequality, and seeking to diminish (or extinguish) the role of the state in favour of more freedom for the market. Anarchists, on the other hand, tend to place individual freedom within the context of community, acknowledging the role of structural oppression, and critiquing both the state and the market as systems for allocating resources.
Reagle’s conflation of anarchism and libertarianism is more than a minor niggle for political scientists (and anarchists) – it also influences his discussion of potential solutions to the problem. Reagle argues, drawing on Herring’s work, that the alternative to the current open, ‘anarchic’ system is a more structured form of community, including a ‘group leader’:
the anarchic–libertarian ethic requires a significant tolerance for adversariality that may be alienating to some participants. Such participants may actually feel freer to participate under a more structured form of community governance, including community leadership or conduct guidelines. As Herring (2003) writes: “While this result may appear initially puzzling — how can women be ‘freer’ to participate when they are ‘controlled’ by a group leader? — it makes sense if the leader’s role is seen as one of ensuring a civil environment, free from threats of disruption and harassment”. (And a preference for a friendly and civil environment is not limited to women.)
This binary between ‘openness’ and governance is problematic. It’s quite possible for a non-hierarchical community to develop codes of conduct: many anarchist communities do just that, often in the form of safe spaces guidelines. It’s also not necessary for structure to imply hierarchy. Not only is it possible to build non-hierarchical structures, but some form of structure is often necessary in order to sustain non-hierarchical organisation. Anarchist communities, as well as many other communities that oppose hierarchy (including many feminist groups), have long experience with building spaces and organisational forms that are non-hierarchical (or at least, less hierarchical).
This is not to say that these experiences have gone smoothly. There are plenty of critiques of anarchist, feminist, and other supposedly non-hierarchical collectives which end up with invisible hierarchies based on race, gender, class, or even just more dominant personalities. Many groups on the left have acted to marginalise already marginalised groups: women had to (and still have to) push hard for equal inclusion within left-wing communities; women of colour have challenged mainstream white feminism; lesbians have challenged the primacy of gay men within ‘gay and lesbian’ communities.
What this history means, however, is that there’s a wide range of experience and practices to draw on when it comes to building decentralised, relatively-open communities in which there are structures in place to deal with ‘difficult’ people and behaviours, and with existing structural oppression. The problems which Reagle describes are by no means limited to the FOSS community, and in characterising them as such he neglects to draw on some of the solutions already available.
He also passes rather lightly over existing attempts within FOSS to challenge misogyny and other forms of structural oppression. Just as marginalised groups within other communities have pushed for greater inclusion, cultural change, and better processes, people of all genders within the FOSS community are pushing to create a safer and more welcoming environment. LCA 2013 was just one example of a FOSS space which had a code of conduct and a diversity officer, as well as providing childcare and taking other steps to ensure a safe and accessible space. Debian woman was founded in 2005 and was wholeheartedly embraced by the predominately male project. Python has for years an incredible diversity project and list in existence for years, and the CCC, one of the largest hacker groups also has an anti-harassment policy for their events. This is not to say that misogyny doesn’t still exist – it does, just as it does in most communities. But the answer is not more top-down control; initiatives that come out of the community and are lead by those who have previously been marginalised are far more likely to provide sustainable long-term solutions.
[Edits: I'm well aware that historically 'anarchism' and 'libertarianism' have been used interchangeably, and that people sometimes use terms like 'socialist libertarian' to mean more or less the same thing as 'anarchist'. This is a rather simplified version of a more in-depth discussion which would require more space than a blog post.
Joseph Reagle has replied here.]
February 2, 2013 § 9 Comments
Thursday was my final day at Linux Conference, sadly, as I needed to get back to other work. It’s a pity, as there were quite a few talks on Friday that I would have liked to see, including the keynote by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Denise Paolucci’s talk on accessibility, Asheesh Laroia on quantitative community management, and Joh Pirie-Clark on what scans of the .au and .nz domains have turned up. Quite a few of the lightning talks also looked good.
On Thursday I went to a few of the more technical talks, including Bunnie Huang’s keynote: while much of this went over my head, there were some interesting points about the model of startup development and the difficulties involved in hacking hardware.
The most relevant talk for me was, of course, Pia Waugh’s, distributed democracy: geeks rule over king [edit: now available on the LCA talks site, here] Pia began by arguing that the Internet has facilitated the decentralisation of many previously-centralised power structures, including publishing, communication, and monitoring. As we share more on the Internet, we’re going to have to finally accept that noone is normal, and revelations of (for example) drug use or other common-but-socially-risky behaviour will be more widely accepted. Similarly, the wide availability of 3D printing devices is likely to challenge our current system of property, eradicating poverty.
While the Internet has enabled these shifts, Pia argued, we’re also seeing problems emerging from the attempts to use geographically-bounded entities (states) to regulate a system which crosses borders. While there’s still a role for states today, Pia suggested that perhaps we need to think about an organisation which will more effectively represent the interests of Internet users. This needs to go beyond the existing organisations which engage in lobbying (like the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and Electronic Frontiers Australia): perhaps we need something more like a government for, and composed of, Internet users.
While I have a lot of respect for the work Pia’s doing and think her talk was very thought-provoking, I disagree with much of her argument. While the Internet has certainly helped to change many of the structures mentioned (and will do so further), existing power structures have responded to the challenge and acted to further consolidate power where possible. For example, although it’s theoretically possible for people to get news from a wide range of sources, we’ve seen a massive concentration of media ownership over recent decades, and a look through the top sites visited in Australia shows that the most-visited sites are still predominantly controlled by large corporations. The idea that technology will solve poverty is also quite problematic, given that poverty is mostly an issue of distribution rather than limited resources: we have enough food to feed everyone, but we don’t.
My disagreement with the second part of Pia’s argument largely centres on the issue of where we put the focus of our political struggle. There are issues with how we regulate the Internet, and it’s worth thinking about how to resist attempts by elites (including economic elites) to control it (I’ve addressed this further in much of my academic writing). However, I think we need to put this in the perspective of other struggles. That means acknowledging that while the digital divide is lessening, Internet access is still linked to privilege, and a “government for the Internet” is likely to disproportionately represent the interests of those who are already relatively empowered. Instead, we need to think about Internet regulation in a way which centres the needs of those who are most marginalised, locally, nationally, and globally.
Making links and further reading
I’ve had some great conversations throughout LCA, and I’m happy to see that in addition to having learned a lot myself and plenty of directions for further reading, some of the ideas I’ve suggested are already being built on and expanded. During the Free Software Activism BoF on Wednesday, I raised the possibility of using a simplified version of a progressive speaking stack: Brianna Laugher’s mocked-up an implementation in Python, and Russell Coker has a longer discussion suggesting how a progressive speaking list might be implemented at LCA and other events. Brianna also has some reflections on my talk from Wednesday, and plenty of other posts worth reading. I particularly like her ‘RTFM’ cards for feminism. Mary’s site is also worth looking through: I had somehow managed to miss it previously, possibly because I tend to by quite bad at visiting blogs (I really need to work out a RSS reader that I can feel enthusiastic about).
Did you write something about either of my talks, critical or otherwise? Do you have some recommended reading? Let me know! I’m really hoping that the excellent conversations I had at LCA can continue, and that I’ll stay in touch with people, particularly as I never get enough time to talk to everyone I want to in all the excitement of conferences.
January 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment
I began the day with a couple of talks looking at FOSS projects for disaster support. Paul Gardner-Stephen started off talking about The Serval Project, which aims to provide secure communications for those in need. Mostly, “in need” means “affected by a disaster”, which was defined broadly as a situation where a community’s ability to respond is overwhelmed. The project allows the set-up of mobile-phone mesh networks that allow encrypted voice telephony, encrypted short messaging, file/data dissemination, and crowd-sourced mapping. Using mesh networks, rather than piggy-backing on existing infrastructure, is useful in situations where mobile networks or other communications services have been taken down by accident, or by the government or other forces. Theoretically, it will be possible to drop a single phone into an area and use it to copy the software onto other phones around the place to create the mesh. It should also be possible to transfer data by moving the phones around, even by bicycle or on foot. They’re also thinking about ways to develop mesh-based social networks which would be able to tie in to existing social networks like Twitter.
Kate Chapman talked next, about open source and open data for humanitarian responses with OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap aims to provide a worldwide map produced and available openly – the analogy she gave was ‘like Wikipedia but for maps’. She was talking particularly about the use of OpenStreetMap in humanitarian responses to disaster: mapping data is helpful for marking hazards (including violence), as well as for other tasks like coordinating clean-ups. Open data also helps communities to manage some of these processes themselves. A lot of this work is done with university graduates, particularly in geography, but more skilled volunteers and interns are still needed.
After lunch I spoke on Free and Open Source Software and Activism, to an encouragingly-full room (with, I found out later, more people who wanted to get in but couldn’t because the room was full): there were also plenty of questions. There was also a request for some ‘anarchism 101′ reading. I’ve been meaning to put this together for a while (and failing), but here’s a few starting-points:
- Bob Black’s Anarchism 101 gives a useful overview, from the quick look I’ve had at it.
- We are everywhere, put out by the Notes from Nowhere collective, is great to dip into for more detail. The introductory stories at the beginning of each chapter are particularly useful.
- “Introduction to Anarchism”, parts 1 and 2, in Avenue 1 and 2, give a more in-depth discussion.
- Refusing to wait: anarchism and intersectionality is a good look at feminism and anarchism.
If you’re interested in anything I raised in my talk, please feel free to contact me on here, Twitter, or elsewhere.
After me, ironically, there was a talk by the DSD guy, which apparently LCA wasn’t allowed to film. From the looks of it (on Twitter), I probably should have snuck over to the other room and seen Geoff Huston’s talk on the IPocalypse. Ben Powell also covered copyright issues in the final session, looking at how recent changes to legislation will affect the future of cloud-based and streaming services.
The day will end with Birds of a Feather meetups. We already snuck in one BoF, looking at FOSS and humanitarian responses, over afternoon tea. While there wasn’t much time available, Tim McNamara had some useful things to say about ‘hfoss’: there’s a lot of need for good documentation and bug reporting, and for venues with wifi to provide support for teams on the ground. For those interested, there’s a list of helpful links on the lca2013 wiki. I’ll probably end up at the free software activism meetup for the BoFs, surprising no-one.
January 29, 2013 § 5 Comments
After Radia Perlman’s keynote talk, I spent today at the Haecksen miniconference, which focuses on women in open source. It was great to see a mixed audience, rather than an all-woman audience.
While much of Radia Perlman‘s talk on networks was focused on technical systems that are beyond me, it was still interesting because she talked a bit about the reasoning behind the adoption of different network protocols. She emphasised that the protocols which are widely adopted are not always those that are best, and made it clear that the development of network technology doesn’t always follow a ‘rational’ path of development. I also liked that she illustrated her talk with references to her children: it’s good to have people talk about their work in ways that acknowledge that it’s just one part of their lives.
I gave the first talk at Haecksen, critiquing ‘open-source politics’: you can find my slides and the abstract here.
- Watch your language: don’t reinforce the problem, for example by saying that you’re “just” or “only” a beginner (or a researcher, or whatever it is you are); avoid “I think” – this is implied by what you’re saying; avoid saying that you “should have…” done things a certain way; you could try a ‘self-deprecating language’ jar.
- Teach what you know, even if you think you don’t know it. Explaining something will help you to realise what you know.
- Question corrections (especially nitpicking about small details, but also larger criticisms). Have faith in your own work, and remember that not all criticisms are legitimate.
- Ask questions.
- Ask for perspective checks from a friend.
- Keep a list of your accomplishments.
- Get background information for comparison: if your boss or colleague is being very critical, for example, there’s a chance that it’s not you. Talking to other people who have worked with this person might give you more of an idea of what’s going on.
- Remember that you are awesome.
Denise also talked briefly about how helping other people overcome their imposter syndrome: by providing appropriate support and encouragement, Dreamwidth has ended up with contributions from a much more diverse range of people than most other projects.
Next up, Joh Pirie-Clark gave an excellent critique of ‘cyberwar’ rhetoric, Cyberwar: Mo’ Metaphor, Mo’ Money, Mo’ problems? She argued that the analogies we use to describe the world shape how we respond, and the language of ‘cyberwar’ is problematic because it applies terms that refer to massive damage and loss of life to digital attacks which, for the most part, don’t. For example, NZ laws around “making, selling, or possessing software for committing crime” are clearly modelled around drug and gun laws, whereas it would be far more appropriate to base them on dual-use tools (like crowbars) that have legal uses. The cyberwar narrative is building a million-dollar industry, particularly in the use, and contributing to a sense of states under siege by vague and shadowy sources.
After lunch, there were a couple of talks looking at cool geeky craft stuff: Kathy Reid talked about integrating the Arduino Lilypad with knitting projects, and Ruth Ellison spoke on laser-cut jewellery (including some cool climate data visualisation jewellery).
Fee Plumley‘s talk on Open Source Cities raised some interesting points about how we think about cities, diasporas, and nomadic living. I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the term gypsy throughout the talk (more about this here). I’m always nervous about raising issues with problematic language at conferences, but happily Fee was open and asked for more resources to read up on: always a good way of responding if you get a call-out, even if you ultimately don’t end up agreeing with what’s said. We all make mistakes, including me, and I’ve had some great moments of learning when people have pulled me up.
Katie Miller spoke on programs for teaching school-aged girls how to use FOSS, using FOSS programs. She had some good suggestions on specific lessons learned, including the need to break up large chunks of text and to include examples. Jacinta Richardson’s suggestions on getting your conference talk accepted had helpful tips, especially for those starting out: think about how difficult it is to get accepted to a particular conference; make sure that you write well, because organisers are likely to use this is a shortcut to guessing whether you’re a good speaker (including using clear language good paragraph structure); skip titles like “x for fun and profit” and “making x sexy”; consider asking for help from people who know the area, including people from the papers committee.
While the technical content of Mary Gardiner and Breanna Laugher’s demonstration of py.test didn’t make much sense to me, I liked the format of the talk. Breanna gave instructions to Mary (who hadn’t used py.test before) on how to use it for various tasks and Mary typed up her work on the screen. This seems like a useful way to make discussions less abstract, as well as to ensure that issues an experienced user might forget to cover are made visible.
Finally, Samantha Cheah and Lauren Hassall talked about the Robogals project, which uses university volunteers to run robotics workshops for highschool students. These workshops are designed to introduce girls to engineering in a fun way, with positive and relatable role models. The project’s been very successful, with several chapters in the Asia-Pacific (including Perth), UK, and North America.
Despite some initial worries that my knowledge base is too far away from the focus of Linux Conference, it’s been great so far. Even talks where I didn’t get all the technical detail were useful in other ways, and of course it’s lovely to meet new people, as well as meeting people in person who I usually only see online.