Don’t invite me to the square

It makes me feel a mixture of surprise and tedium to keep finding gmail addresses on mailing lists of alternative projects that claim to be fighting against the big megacorporations.

Years ago I wrote this article for indymedia colleagues who invited me to a telegram group, and for others who started communicating via twitter in preparation for indymedia’s 20th anniversary celebration.

This is an update.

Indymedia was a large, almost global project born in Seattle, Virginia, USA, in 1999. It was the first “place”, the first Internet portal where anyone with a computer and an Internet connection could publish their own news: their own text and multimedia content.

With much relevance lost now that we use other tools that feed our egos more, and better, and more addictively, indymedia has maintained its appeal by allowing what large corporations do not do: publish anonymously. Other tools have also emerged using the ‘blog’ format: noblogs and network23 for example.

The people behind indymedia were and remain committed to this myth of human rights, including freedom of expression and privacy of communications.

As we grow older, many of the people who were there are still behind other projects in the same spirit, namely that in order to defend human rights we cannot use the tools that are in the hands of those who are destroying those human rights.

Or that we cannot “fight the master with the master’s tools”.

It reminds us, more than we would like, of how old we are, to think that some twenty years ago now we brought our passion projects to life through face-to-face meetings and then grew them through mailing lists. At indymedia, for example, this mailing list system organised over a thousand volunteers, more or less effectively, for at least a decade.

Then Capital developed much cooler, ego-oriented and addiction-oriented tools, and then came mobile applications that allowed the use of these cool tools without the need for a computer – a mobile phone will do. A simple look around shows that most people born during the last twenty years don’t even need a computer; some have only learned to use the internet in terms of facebook and whatsapp. I see a similar picture when I work with people over sixty.

So even for those of us aware of the importance of the privacy of our personal conversations, smartphones and what you can do with them became so cool, that we moved most of our communications – now called our online social lives, or our “digital presence” – to our mobile phones, leaving archaic things like email to a fraction of those communications, if it was used at all.

It’s not just that smartphones and what you can do with them are so much cooler than what you can do with email. You have to go to that public square because that’s where people are willing to move. You can’t take them into the back alley to inspire them on human rights. Capital has made that public square so brutally attractive to both the masses and activists that you can’t lure them back into that seemingly dead-end, very private alley of the world of private communications and on the fringes of the big corporations. Capital, with all its attractions, has distanced us from the tools of privacy, security and obscure concepts such as communications sovereignty.

Encryption, or cipher (specifically, and without getting too bogged down in acronyms, the kind of technology that Thunderbird’s Enigmail uses) has proven to be indecipherable in terms of human lifespans. Capital, or perhaps more accurately the System on which it is based, has admitted that it has not been able to break that encryption. So the next step has been to make it irrelevant by removing us from its use.

At the same time and place as the birth of indymedia, riseup was born as an email provider. In these twenty plus years, the number of collectives providing secure communications has multiplied on at least two continents.

For this reason, because the alternatives already exist, although we have become accustomed to having to organise our actions and open chats on whatsapp and announce them on facebook, it hurts us especially to arrive at a mailing list of an organisation that is supposedly opposed to the big megacorporations, and find it full of email addresses from one of those megacorporations.

And the security of communications provided by some of these groups has improved to the point that emails between them, even if they are not encrypted with Enigmail technology, are encrypted “en route”, without the sender and receiver having to do any extra work.

And it’s not just encryption, or enciphering. It’s about using the tools embedded in The Capital, or using tools created by collectives and friends of ours. Even without using encryption/cipher, your communications with your friends, and the project you are creating with them, will work better using our own tools. Capital’s tools may be more reliable and stable and, of course, cooler than ours, but they will only be available as long as Capital grants them to us. With about ten groups per week on average being shut down on facebook, and twitter also routinely shutting down politically oriented accounts, it is the survival of our communications and networks that is at stake.

Yes, our donation-based servers go offline from time to time. But we know where to report and where to ask for help. There is no communication with technical support, if there is any at all, from services that claim to be free – which are charged because “you are the product”, your data, and mine too, when I write an email that you receive even if I don’t use gmail – or any of the GAFAMs. A whole separate article could be written about the hours that the administration teams of the alternative mail servers have to spend filling out forms for gmail, hotmail, yahoo, etc., to get off their automated ‘spammer lists’ so that we can continue to communicate, sending emails from an or that are received in the mailboxes of these mega-corporations.

So, between us veteran activists, please, let’s continue to use the secure email services that our ageing comrades continue to maintain. And when we are in the public square, let’s continue to invite people to learn about the tools they are using and could be using.

(Older port: So, you are using a corporate email provider)