Monthly Archives: February 2011

UK Census and Data Protection – unanswered questions

The UK census is beginning, and so is the protest movement against it.  Organizations like No2ID, as well as peace organizations are arguing for a boycott of the census for various reasons, including its processing by Lockheed Martin, which also does defense contracting, and the potential of census questions to violate civil liberties.  No2ID has a list of their concerns here.

This boycott movement is a little odd for me, because in Canada academics have been lobbying against the government’s decision to CUT the long-form census.  The Canadian census creates publicly available data which is widely used in social science research (and its perceived as being relatively reliable). It’s seen as the only way of getting unbiased data about some things, like household internet use, or real levels of immigration. Now that the long form has been eliminated, ostensibly because it was intrusive and cost too much money, researchers are scrambling to try and reproduce the data it collected.

So this raises some questions for me about the British census, that I hope someone can shed some light on. I don’t know about how useful the British data is, and I don’t know whether the census here is more or less intrusive. It sounds like it is more intrusive, and it sounds like there is a history linking census with persecution, where I don’t have this association of the Canadian census. Also, does everyone fill in the same census or are there random ‘long forms’ where more information is solicited? It also sounds to me like questions about religion and employment are perceived as being more intrusive than they might be seen elsewhere.

Do you know who holds census data? Do you know how it’s used? Is there baseline data on population demographics that isn’t collected any other way? Is there a way to get this data without breaching privacy? Is this publicly accessible afterwards, or only available under license? And finally – how are we supposed to understand who is living in Britain if we don’t have a census?

I’m not sure if I’ve missed a trick, and the census is really not useful here, or whether there is some cultural understanding of what census (the verb, French recensement) means.  Any thoughts?

Is it finally time for P2P infrastructure? On Facebook and Freedom Box

Is the dream of alternative, peer to peer infrastructure getting closer to reality? This week Eben Moglen, the lawyer for the Free Software Foundation launched a new project called Freedom Box, which is based on the idea that small, low-power plug servers, running free software, could provide a latent, autonomous communication network that could also be used to securely store files and personal information.  In the context of Internet outages in Egypt and the increasing amount of personal information stored on social networking sites like Facebook, this suggestion seems radical and timely.   For those who have been following the peer to peer infrastructure movement over the past several years, this is nothing new. 

The hardware and software for creating meshed networks of individual computers is decades old.  The organizing principle that it’s associated with is, as I noted before, older still.  Regardless, we tend to associate the rise of peer to peer communication (and a related notion of “mass self-communication” developed by Castells) with the expansion of digital media that lower the cost (of time, or energy) required to transmit our message to the world. 

Now, as our mass self-communication is taking place on platforms owned and controlled by a small number of companies (Facebook, Google, and independent but up-for-sale Twitter), we are facing a new set of problems.  It’s not just that the Internet has a “kill switch” – it’s also that the platforms that make distributed social media powerful are collecting lots of private information and storing it centrally.  This makes it easy for the sites to profit from the data, but it creates a serious limit on the power of coordination and horizontal organization that peer to peer communication offers.  Social media is changing the balance of power because more people have the opportunity to communicate with each other.  This opportunity is constrained not only by the ability of a government or ISP to shut off the means of that communication, but also by the ability of an SNS provider to reveal, sell, trade, or profit from personal information.  This reminds us to consider the emphasis on the “mass” in the “mass-self communication”.

Here’s where the Freedom Box comes in, conceptually.  The idea is that in a small, inexpensive box that’s linked into an alternative NON-internet, you have everything that you hold dear.  It’s on your server, and/or its on the network that everyone’s freedom box makes.  Sounds great, in theory.

But as important as autonomous infrastructure can be for providing a decentralized alternative to the centralized social networks and communication systems upon which we rely, we also have to consider why and how social media has changed the balance of power in these past, eventful few weeks.  As I noted above, the distributed, peer to peer method of communication has been around for as long as computer-mediated communication.  What has made it important at the moment is the scale at which this form of communication can now operate.  This massive scale has been the result of the very centralized service that Moglen and others rightly identify as problematic.  But it’s also what makes the transformations so important.  Geeks and hackers have been trying to make peer to peer networks for a very long time.  They haven’t succeeded, but Facebook has.  Now, we need to confront the challenge of that success.  A new box with free software won’t automatically do this, no matter how fantastic the software or clever the networking protocols.  Dozens of projects have proven that something like the Freedom Box can work, technically.  What is required to transform our communication and extend the transformative potential that we are now experiencing, is a distributed network of communication that locates private information with the end-user.  We’re not there yet – but we have lots of examples of networks that have tried and failed to do this.  Maybe we should start looking more closely at them.


I’ve just returned from Berlin and Transmediale, where I was lucky enough to get to host a panel called Democratic:Ability, in which Garnet Hertz, Tapio Makela, Juergen Neumann and Nancy Mauro-Flude discussed the various ways that DIY and hacker culture promise, and constrain, political transformations.

We wanted to get away from a technocentric perspective on the relationship between technological tools and political subjectivities.   As such we discussed the way that DIY culture influences individual agency and challenges market ideology, as well as the difficulties of confronting institutions (like city governments) when scaling up P2P projects like community wireless.  In addition to examining these structures of political relations, we also considered identity politics, examining how projects like the GenderChangers Academy politicize our essentialist perspectives on gender and technology, and the significance of “boundary objects” in negotiating when things are political (for example, a piece of media art in an art gallery) and when they are not (a piece of media used uncritically in everyday life).  The presentations explored this work at the boundaries in various ways, including Nancy’s silent photo essay on processes of developing autonomy and agency and Garnet’s reference to several DIY citizenship projects that use DIY to reveal broader political issues.  Tapio focused on our imaginations of technology, and the way that our oppositional imaginings of technology also provide us with new ways of consuming technology – this connected with the observation that DIY practices are an emerging market for producers of certain electronic components.

One of our strongest lines of questioning was about how much had changed in terms of radical politics due to our interconnected and interactive media, our ability to DIY.  We struggled with this question quite a bit, which I see as being partly a reflection of the difficulty in reconciling the marginal with the hegemonic, the dominant paradigm with the emergent.  We noted that DIY technology can become political and can become radical.  Technologies can be boundary objects embedded in struggles that have been unfolding for a long time.  But how does this happen, when, and where?  We didn’t arrive at a fully-worked out answer in the discussion, but I reflected on this later:

The middle space, in between the new modes of production, is the space in which change happens – when the the capactiy of a certain tool or mode of working outstrips the constraints.  This allows it to transcend the breach between emergent, collective grassroots practices, and more entrenched power structures.  We can think about the emergent middle space in several ways:  we have boundary objects that mark it, we can think about the relationships that it structures between people and their fellows (who might be other humans, or technologies, or non-humans).  But we also have the middle space of social and organizational coordination.  Adjoining this middle space are institutions which might include the market or (perhaps most strikingly in Egypt) the political system, education or the patriarchy.  These are not completely fixed, as they are composed of our social relationships.  So how do they change?  And, more fundamentally, how do the ideas that we can work out about P2P technologies, DIY and hacker subjectivites, help us to understand them?