Paul Fawkesley

The Internet Freedom Festival 2017 (Friday)

Liberating Free Knowledge - Countering Government Censorship on Wikipedia

I went to this session and learned a bit about how Wikipedia detects and responds to censorship.

There was some confusing pre-amble about confidentiality so I didn’t make detailed notes on this one.

Main take aways were:

There are lots of different censorship approaches:

And there two approaches to counter it. Both are essential:

  1. Technical - circumvention tools. This is always a game of cat-and-mouse.
  2. Non-technical - legal action, dialogue, public pressure and so on. lets you see if a website is censored in China.

Some governments don’t seem to understand what’s going on, don’t have another way of contacting the website in question, so they just block the website.

I didn’t know Wikipedia had native applications, but there was some suggestion that they could build circumvention technology (pluggable transports) into those.

To Serve and Protect: The role of technology in the fight against abuse by law enforcement

This sobering panel discussion discussed the use of technology and tactics for citizens to protect themselves against abuse by police in the U.S.

Specifically, this was about police violence against minorities, too often resulting in their death and subsequent cover up.

These groups use cameras to film police (which is their constitutional right) in order to achieve the following:

This can be a dangerous activity where good training and good tools help. Controlling the release of footage is a critical: if it’s released without anonymisation, it can lead to persecution of the creator. If it’s released too early, it allows the police to bend their statement around the available evidence.

Smartphone camera apps like CameraV help you prove the footage was taken when and where you claim it was.

I’ve seen a bit of this make it across into our UK news, but I didn’t realise how poor the relationship between police and citizens is in parts of the U.S.

Here in the UK we’re in a relatively privileged position that our regular police don’t carry guns, and my experience of them has only been positive.

(Writing from another privileged position of being white and well educated I realise I don’t know the first thing about police abuse in the UK)

While we’re on the topic of privilege, a tip from a white male cop-watcher was to use your privilege to help those without. In other words, it’s easier to film police without getting shot if you’re white.

We’ve seen that in other ways too: people from democracies building tools for those without that privilege. (From what I’ve seen it’s mostly United States, Canada and Germany: I haven’t seen anything from the UK).

Bookkeeping for activist projects

This was a session for people running small projects and how to deal with money.

For a certain size of project, the money is enough that it’s annoying that it comes out of the founders pocket each month, but not enough to be worth incorporating or spending a lot of time fundraising.

I have this exact problem myself with Thinking Liverpool, which I’ve considered stopping many times, even though it provides a lot of value to its (small) user base.

This is something the Awesome Foundation is set up to help with, though that’s more for one-off projects rather than running costs.

Someone else in the group has the opposite problem: she runs cryptoparties and people try to donate money, but as an individual, she doesn’t want to deal with the bureacracy of having to do a tax return, so she tries to redirect it to other groups (even though she’s personally sponsoring the food at the event).

Cryptoparty logo Cryptoparty logo courtesy of HacDC

That’s nuts: people doing good things in the community find it so awkward to deal with the bureaucracy of taking money, that they decline it, and pay out of their own pocket! In my mind that’s not a recipe for sustainable projects.

We heard about a new Germany organisation called the Center for the Cultivation of Technology. It’s a new non-profit (and a charity) and its mission is to promote open things like open source, arts, culture etc.

It’s aimed at projects which need “fiscal sponsorship”, meaning you need to collect & spend money. The non-profit can hold the money.

Right now they’re working on an accounting platform that will actually handle the money in and out, as well as creating an tax-office-compatible report in the financial year. They’ve done work to make it legally compatible with other EU countries too.

We also talked about Open Collective, a platform Ian and I are trialling for our collective.

We’ll have to see where it goes, but at the moment money we spend is in my name, then I get “refunded” by Open Collective. That means it’s coming out of my taxable income, and presumably needs declaring on my tax return. So it’s solving the payment problem (it’s quite good at collecting monthly payments from people) but not the bureacracy one, potentially.

I learned a lot about running small organisations from the experience in the session. It sounds like incorporation can corrupt organisations by setting a formal governance structure. This can lose the flexibility that is central to the success of small, passionate community groups.

What seems to work well in small groups is “rough consensus” - you openly communicate plans, then if no-one is freaking out it’s probably OK.

What doesn’t work well is “you have two weeks to respond” type communication.

The feeling was that the model (co-operative, CIC, limited company) is just a vehicle, not a solution. That feels important.

I’ve got two recommendations in my notes: Toni Prug’s thesis and the The Art of Community by Jono Bacon.

In Germany it’s very easy to start Members Associations: it costs very little and you just have to do an AGM. They have to do filings at 1 year and 4 years, and that’s when a lot of them find they can’t produce the right records, and ultimately fold. In theory you have to go back in time and return any money you’ve received, but in practice it sounds like the government just lets them forget about it.

There’s also a funny taboo in some communities that money = capitalism = bad.

Kill the messenger

I was a bit knackered for this session, but I did take away that the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) might make it less appealing for Google and friends to resist “right to be forgotten” requests, which would be bad for journalism.

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