20 years ago tomorrow, the website for the first IMC (Independent Media Centre) went live at www.indymedia.org, providing a globally accessible platform for independent media coverage of the protests against a WTO summit in the US city of Seattle. Appearing even before the creation of Wikipedia and its MediaWiki software, Indymedia.org was a pioneering example of the then-novel concept of the web as a read/write medium - where anyone could contribute using basic cut’n'paste skills - rather than just a collection of read-only pages made by geeks. Seven years before the founding of Wikileaks, the open-publishing newswire on indymedia.org was one of the earliest forerunners of “citizen journalism” platforms. It can also be seen as one of the earliest experiments in both the practices and technologies of “social media”, producing among other innovations, the technology that gave birth to Titter.

That drive to empower people to create and share was reflected in a commitment to using software that was open source (a newly coined term at the time for Free Software, or as I tend to call it free code) and this became one of the core Principles of Unity for the emerging IMC network. Indymedia.org started out running on a patchwork of webserver software known as Active, originally strapped together by a collective of hackers in Australia, for a local cluster of activist news and event announcement sites. As more IMCs started up to run open-publishing activist news sites for their city or country, this bleeding edge software was gradually replaced by a variety of CMS (Content Management Systems) written specifically for Indymedia, before these were in turn replaced by more general purpose free code CMS like Drupal.

I could into much more detail on all of this from an insiders perspective, and in some ways this would be the ideal time to finish writing up a detailed retrospective article I’ve been planning about the Indymedia network and my time as a founding volunteer for the Aotearoa IMC (which ironically seems to be down today - maybe because it’s already N30 there?). However, I’m currently busy preparing for a long international trip, home to Aotearoa to see family and friends, and then back to China via the FOSS Asia Summit in Singapore. Besides, I’m already seeing plenty of articles being published to mark the 20 year anniversary, so I think I’ll keep my powder dry, read a bunch of them, and focus my piece on any aspects of the Indymedia story that don’t get as much attention or fanfare as I think they deserve.

It has to be said that at 20, the Indymedia network is a shadow of its former self. Many of the sites that served the news gathering of local IMCs, as well as most of the servers that provided collaboration tools for global networking, are long shuttered and gathering digital dust. I haven’t been actively involved in the Aotearoa IMC I co-founded since about 2007, and although the site continued to operate (at least until very recently), I stopped publishing there altogether when the newswire became a flood of seemingly unmoderated noise, dominated by a handful of chronic spammers. But there are signs that a phoenix could rise from the ashes. Indymedia.org, which had until recently been frozen in time since 2013, now bears as promise that “Indymedia.org is being rebuilt”, along with links to a bunch of 20 year anniversary articles.

As with the CMS, so many of the technologies Indymedia activists wanted and needed during the first few years of the network have now been developed to greater maturity by open source communities.

When activists started publishing their videos on YouTube to get them to a larger audience, and to reduce the strain that streaming large media files placed on Indymedia servers, Indymedia geeks dreamed of having a decentralized, free code tool like PeerTube. One that can be used to run video-publishing sites that are independent, but federated into a larger network. Where videos can be found and viewed across the whole federation, not only on the one where it’s first published. Where sites can mirror each others’ videos to route around attempts at censorship. Where users contribute a little bit of their own bandwidth to help the servers if a video goes viral, avoiding the lose-lose scenario where every time you get a video out to a large audience you lose money, or risk having servers go down and sites go offline. Where video channels can be followed and videos commented on by users on other federated platforms like Mastodon. 

But technology was never at the core of Indymedia. The sites we ran were more than blog farms, they were always understood as  a means to a larger end. When we said “don’t hate the media, become the media”, Indymedia activists were articulating a vision of democratized media that could have a democratizing effect on a rapidly globalizing human world, one whose politics and everyday life was becoming increasingly ruled by corporations.

As the public - and especially activists - become increasingly aware of the downsides of Surveillance Capitalism, we have a unique opportunity to remind them of this vision. It’s also worth reflecting on the Achilles Heel of the Indymedia project; it’s lack of a sustainable economic base, and the resulting dependence on donations and volunteer time to keep its growing infrastructure running. For the grander vision that animated Indymedia to be realized, sharing economic solidarity strategies like forming Platform Cooperatives will be just as important as promoting the potential of decentralized technologies like PeerTube and other fediverse tools like PixelFed and Mastodon, perhaps even more important.

Here’s the report for our fourth voice chat testing session. So far we’ve been publishing these reports on write.as, which theoretically allows them to be seen from the fediverse, although I haven’t yet figured out how that’s supposed to work. One of our members has set up a Hubzilla group, which we intend to start using for organizing ourselves and publishing our reports in a way that will be easier to find and search through. More details once I’ve figured out how to join and use it myself ;)

Despite growing the number of people lurking in the Matrix room, we only managed to get two of us together for this test. Three people is enough to determine whether an app can do group chat at all, but to really stress test group chat functionality, we need groups of 5 to7 people, if not more. Hopefully we can get some larger groups together for testing sessions after the holiday season is over, and folks aren’t so busy.

Sunday 9 November, 2019, 12:00 UTC

Candidate: Linphone

Previous Session: Test Session #3

Comments by: @strypey@mastodon.nzoss.nz

VOICE (VOICE Organized Investigation of Chat Engines) is an informal app testing group, trialing free code apps to see how well they handle voice chat, especially with groups. We aim to have a group chat testing session at least once a month, usually during the weekend, although other times can be set up if anyone is keen. We currently use a Matrix room to confirm the timing of testing sessions, as well as for discussion about available apps and related topics: #voicechat:matrix.org

For our fourth testing session we had only two testers, one in Europe, and one in China. Both testing with desktop GNU/Linux and an Android/Linux mobile device. We had decided to test Linphone, which began as a desktop voice calling app for GNU/Linux (thus the name; Lin[ux]phone) that works by connecting to a SIP server. As the project evolved, it has developed mobile versions, added video chat, and more recently text-based instant messaging too, all using the SIP protocol.

As far as I understand how SIP works, we would have been able to chat to each other using accounts on different SIP servers. But for the purposes of this test, we used SIP accounts provided by linphone.org, to ensure that unusual compatibility issues between Linphone and a third-party server didn’t prejudice the results of the test. Because only two testers were available, we weren’t able to test group chat, so this report focuses on the overall UX and the performance of the one-to-one group chat.

The first thing that became very clear is that the GNU/Linux version of Linphone doesn’t get the same level of developer priority as the other versions. I have been unable to get GNU/Linux Linphone to connect to linphone.org at all. Whatever I tried, it would say it couldn’t open the port it was trying to connect through. In my case, that may have been because I was using an outdated 3.6.1 release, installed from the Trisquel 8.0 repos (based on Ubuntu 16.04). But Naughtylus was also unable to get Linphone working on GNU/Linux, using the 3.12 version available on Nix. In the end, he resorted to using WINE to run the Windows version (4.1.1, using Qt 5.9.0 and “Core” 3.12.0).

After I gave up trying to get the GNU/Linux app connecting, I switched to the Android app, which I installed from F-Droid. I had an odd issue where it wouldn’t install the latest version (4.0.1), so I installed the last version before that, hoping I could then upgrade. Nope. A few days later I refreshed my F-Droid app (long story) and was able to upgrade, no idea why it wouldn’t work before that. Anyway, for this test, I was using Linphone 3.3.2 for Android.

I found the Linphone app to be very demanding of permissions that I’m not sure it needed. It’s totally understandable that it asked for access to the microphone when I actually started a call. But as soon as I opened the app it wanted permission to use my camera, and asked twice. As soon as I tried to add Naugtylus as a contact so I could try calling him, the app wanted permission to access the device’s default contacts app. This is the first chat app I’ve installed from F-Droid that seems unable to handle its own contacts without demanding contacts permissions.

So I got Naughtylus to call me instead. We were able to have a sustained voice chat for more than half an hour at a time, with me on Android, and him calling from both the Android version of Linphone and the Windows version running in WINE. I’d be curious to test Linphone again with a group, after we’ve done some investigation on how to get the latest versions installed and working, and maybe set up SIP accounts on different servers, so we can test SIP federation.

Overall, I’d rate my first voice chat experience on Linphone as about equivalent to using Jami or Tox. On all three, audio quality and call reliability is pretty good, but the UX has room for improvement. I wouldn’t recommend any of them to a non-geek average user at this point in time. But in the case of the Linphone team, that probably wouldn’t cause many tears, as it seems like their main target users are businesses paying for support contracts.

Filed November 27th, 2019 under free software, open source

 There’s been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the last few months, about how to deal with an infamous, far right social network site. Before I say anything else, I want to make it clear that my politics have been staunchly leftist and anti-racist since my childhood. I find the politics of the site in question appalling, and I have no intention of promoting their toxic brand, even when criticizing them, so I will refer to it here as Cess.pit.

 A little background. As my three regular readers will know, I’m an excitable champion of the federated social web, the fediverse to its fedizens. Unlike users in centralized platforms like FaceBook or Titter, users of the fediverse join an “instance” - a server running web software compatible with fediverse protocols like ActivityPub - but they can follow and communicate with users on other instances, run by completely different people. A few months ago, Cess.pit moved its users to a fork of Mastodon, one of the most popular of the various software projects that use ActivityPub, potentially allowing them to recruit from and harass users on other instances.

 The admins of many instances responded to news of this by adding cess.pit to their blocklists. This isn’t unusual. The servers that host our email use blocklists all the time against mailservers that send lots of spam or virus attachments. I believe that the power to block users and instances ultimately belongs in the hands of the users of social network software, but given the current state of federated network software, I’m fine with instance blocks. So long as they’re being used by admins to prevent things like spamming, flooding, and harassment, for the benefit of their users, not to police who their users can communicate with, for ideological reasons those users may not agree with.

  I think it’s worth pointing out that treating all Cess.pit users as if they were all committed fascist organizers does have downsides. A lot of young or politically naive people wander into online spaces like Cess.pit without really understanding how deep those particular rabbit holes go, and these are the “prospects” the actual fascists hope to indoctrinate and recruit. If Cess.pit is federated with at least some instances that aren’t full of fascists and sympathizers, prospects will be much more likely to get access to other perspectives, making it more likely that they will broaden their minds, realize who they’re hanging out with, and get out. If the only people users on Cess.pit can talk to is each other, chances are that actual fascists will find indoctrination and recruitment much easier.

 The other thing that happened is that the developers of Tusky, one of the mobile apps that can be used to connect to instances of Mastodon (and other fediverse software that uses the same system for communication between apps and servers), decided to add a blocklist to their code and add Cess.pit to it. I wasn’t the only person who was sympathetic to their reasons for doing this, but concerned about the possible unintended consequences. Let’s unpack that a bit.

 Let’s say a Bad Actor wants to shut down queer leftist GroupX and stop them communicating online. They publicly smear them as “terrorists” or “spreading kiddy porn” or whatever, and start approaching hosting platforms and software developers, demanding they take action to stop GroupX using their tools.

 Let’s say they approach Mozilla about building anti-GroupX blocks into Firefox, during the time when Brendon Eich was CEO. Brendan is going to say “no”. Because even though he’s right-leaning and may well disagree strongly with the politics of GroupX (which is why he was forced out of the CEO role at Mozilla), there is a longstanding principle in internet tech that we don’t implement political blocks at the level of code and network protocols. Those are decisions to be made autonomously by users (network or “bottom up” decision-making), not centrally by engineers or system administrators (pyramid or “top-down” decision-making).

 The principle does mean, in theory, that free code developed by leftist anarchists could end up getting used in some way by fascists. But unless you empower the state to maintain a register of fascists and stop them using the net at all, it’s unavoidable that they are indirectly using all sorts of free code, developed by people from all sorts of backgrounds, who have all sorts of reasons to be horrified by the idea of fascists using their code.

 When you stop and think about it though, its obvious that the opposite is going to happen much more often. Radical leftists do not develop the majority of free code software. Every day we are directly and indirectly using all sorts of free code, developed by people from all sorts of backgrounds, who have all sorts of reasons to be horrified by the idea of us using their code. But they don’t try to stop us, for the same reason I believe Brendan Eich would have said “no” in the hypothetical example above. They understand that the whole purpose of defending software freedoms is to prevent powerful groups from using their monopoly on the money and infrastructure that funds most software development, to enforce their politics on its users.

 So what happens when developers start implementing political blocks at the code level, as Tusky did? Do the ends justify the means?

 In the short term, even if every fediverse app followed the Tusky example, life becomes mildly inconvenient for the Cess.pit folks, who can just start distributing their own forks of their preferred apps from their own websites. In fact, they’ve now set up their own app store. No real harm been done to their operations. But in the long term, it starts to normalize the idea that its OK to use the roles of developer, engineer, or hosting provider, to police other people’s politics.

 Imagine if all the technical folks who disagree with radical left views started doing the same things to us, that some of us have done to the users of Cess.pit. Imagine centrist liberal CEOs at Mozilla, Goggle, Apple, and Microsoft, building blocklists of radical left websites and media outlets into Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Edge. Imagine we had to develop all our own software and host all our own infrastructure, and try to convince other users to only use fringe apps and hosting platforms that don’t have built in censorship of our politics. This is incredibly threatening to the radical left - far more threatening than Cess.pit itself.

 This is why a lot of people in the ethical tech community disagreed with the Tusky dev’s decisions, even though we respected their right to make it, while the developers of other apps decided instead to respect the longstanding principle of political neutrality discussed above. This is why many of us were horrified when developers who chose not to hardcode blocks into their apps became the target of coercion by some radical leftists, like those who tried to get Fedilab removed from app stores by claiming its developers “explicitly chose to enable hatred and violence through their app”.

 These smear campaigns and false accusations are appalling in themselves, exactly the tactics of the Bad Actors I described above. But even worse, to the degree that they are successful in the short term, they risk massive damage to the prospects of the radical left in the longer term, for reasons described above. They also do massive damage to the sense of goodwill and common cause that convinces people who could earn massive salaries in the corporate tech industry, to spend their spare time - or take more precarious jobs - to write free code that benefits all human beings. Including radical leftists.

… and yes, sometimes including fascists. But for the reasons discussed above, I think the benefits of that far outweigh the costs.

Filed November 20th, 2019 under open social networks, free software, open source

Update 2019-11-29: I did some live-posting from Netizen21 on the fediverse, as net connection and battery life allowed.

——————————

I had the pleasure recently of being invited to attend Netizen 21: Beyond Personal Account, the fourth annual conference of The Institute of Network Society, based at the Chinese Academy of the Arts in Hangzhou, China. It starts this Friday, 22 November, and winds up on the evening of Sunday 24, after three days of what looks to be a fantastic program of talks, panel discussions, and workshops. Hangzhou is a beautiful city, and while I probably won’t get much time for soaking in the sites this time, It’s a pleasure to be visiting.

I’ve managed to get to a couple of conferences since relocating to live in China - Open 2018 in London and the Platform Cooperative Consortium annual conference in Hong Kong - but this is the first one I’ve attended on the mainland itself. I’m embarrassed to say that due to the challenges and culture shock of adjusting to life in a new country where I don’t speak the lingua franca, I still haven’t organized myself to write anything about the previous conferences. So given that all three of these conferences have a lot of common threads weaving through them (pun intended), especially the growing interest in platform cooperatives, I will take copious notes over the weekend, aiming to write up a piece that covers all three. Third time lucky?

Filed November 19th, 2019 under News
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