This is just a note to inform my three readers, and any other visitors that pop by, that I will be offline until the end of February, 2019. Until then, there will be no new blog posts, and I will not be answering any email, or interacting on any other platforms like the fediverse or Loomio. Basically, the plan is to unplug the router, and not plug in back in until I’m ready to go back online.

The most important reason for this is just to give myself a break from the net, and spend some time doing other things like going for walks and reading books. But I also intend to use this time to get some work done on the Email Ate My Life book project, which has been languishing on the backburner for far too long. I’ve been tossing around the idea of doing some kind of podcast, and I’m seriously thinking about podcasting draft versions of some parts of the book, as a way of both dipping my toe into the waters of podcasting, and getting some feedback to help me with the final spit and polish on the book text. Watch this space.

If anyone reading this happens to be a publishing agent or boutique publisher who could help get a book published about one geek’s experience of a year without the net, or if you know one who might be, please get in touch (after February). 

Filed January 22nd, 2019 under News

The NZGOAL (New Zealand Government Open Access and Licensing) framework officially advises the public service in New Zealand to release publicly-funded works under a CreativeCommons license. In NZGOAL-SE (Software Extension), which came a few years later, the public service is encouraged to use and release software under free code licenses. Getting the NZGOAL frameworks approved by an extreme right-wing National government was an amazing achievement.

When any work is created at public expense, its public service maintainers ought to be allowed improve it by incorporating any fixes or additions made in derivative versions, especially commercial derivatives. So when NZGOAL was being drafted, I argued that the appropriate default license for it to recommend would be CC BY-SA (Attribution-ShareAlike). For the same reason, during the pioneering NZGOAL-SE consultation process, conducted using Loomio and GitHub, I argued for the GNU GPL (General Public License) as the default license recommendation. As did my friend Dave Lane, the Open Source Technologist at the OERu (Open Educational Resources Universitas) and long-time President of NZOSS (NZ Open Source Society).

Sadly, and perhaps because of the political circumstances, the default suggested in NZGOAL was CC BY (Attribution). This laissez-faire license means, for example, that map companies can sell corrected maps based on the publicly-funded NZ map data shared under CC BY by LINZ (Land Information New Zealand), but LINZ would need to ask permission to incorporate those map corrections back into the public dataset.

This is still a big improvement on the kinds of privatization that might otherwise have happened. For example, the CC BY license allows the LINZ map data to be used in the Open Street Map. Without NZGOAL, that map data could have been spun off into an SOE (State-Owned Enterprise) to “open” it to the private sector, and made available only to purchasers of proprietary, commercial licenses. Worst-case scenario, the copyright on that public map data could have been sold into private ownership, a fate that has befallen many publicly-funded commons in Aotearoa since the 1980s, including the Government Printing Office.

But although the use of CC BY was a good start, I’d still like to see the default changed to CC BY-SA if there is a Version 3.0 of NZGOAL. Failing that, I’d like to see it recommended side-by-side with CC BY, so that public agencies choosing CC BY-SA are more likely to consider the pros and cons of a ShareAlike license for the data they steward, while still following the default advice in NZGOAL.

The situation in the Software Edition of NZGOAL is somewhat better. Public service agencies are advised to license any modifications to an existing codebase under the license the upstream codebase uses, even when they’re not legally obliged to (eg by a copyleft license). When licensing new software, they’re advised to use either the laissez-faire license that the OSI (Open Source Initiative) calls the “MIT“, or the GPL (version 3 or later). They’re also invited to consider AGPL for server software, or LGPL for software libraries, as appropriate.

While I’m glad that “MIT” did not end up being the sole recommended license, as suggested in the original draft, I don’t see why we ought to allow companies to build proprietary software on top of publicly-funded free code at all. Why not oblige them to make their source code available to their users, and allow their fixes and addition to be incorporated back into the upstream versions maintained by public service agencies or open source communities?

One argument raised for recommending a laissez-faire license as the default was that this would be equivalent to the CC BY recommendation in NZGOAL itself. But as I pointed out  during the consultation process, they’re not really equivalent. The laissez-faire licenses lack the strong “attribution” requirement that is fundamental to CC BY, obliging redistributors of a work to give credit to the original creators. All they require is that a copy of the copyright statement and the license are included when the code is published, which end users might never see.

If there is a revision of NZGOAL-SE, I’d really like to see a copyleft license like GPL become the default recommendation, with a laissez-faire license downgraded to an alternative to be considered along with AGPL or LGPL for special circumstances. In either case, I’d like to see Apache 2.0 replace “MIT” as the recommended laissez-faire license. NGGOAL-SE quite rightly points out that NZ patent law doesn’t recognize software patents, and that public service agencies are not patent trolls anyway. But that doesn’t stop outside contributors to publicly-funded free code, licensed under the “MIT” license, from enforcing software patents on anyone using that code in other jurisdictions. Apache 2.0 explicitly prevents this.

In summary, it was an honour and a privilege to be part of the efforts by CreativeCommons Aotearoa/ NZ (now Tohatoha) and NZOSS to help bring NZGOAL and NZGOAL-SE into existence, and to contribute to the consultations on them. But now that we have a new, more public-spirited government, it’s time to start campaigning for revised versions that maximize public access not only to publicly-funded works, but also their derivatives.

Filed January 14th, 2019 under free culture

Happy solstice everyone. As I start doing a few bits and pieces of administrivia to get myself organized for the new calendar year, I find myself increasingly frustrated by some of the policies and practices I find on official websites. For example, take this compulsory password policy from a NZ government web service that allows users to access sensitive, private financial information, and send secure correspondence to officials. I won’t name names (yet), you know who you are:

” Your new password must be between 5 and 10 characters long, and include at least 3 letters and at least 2 numbers and may contain A-Z, a-z, 0-9 and any of the following characters #, +, -, _, @.”

For reasons explained in XKCD #936 “Password Strength”, adding numbers and other non-letter symbols to passphrases doesn’t make them much harder for computers to guess, but it does make them much harder for humans to remember (making them more likely to write them down or otherwise compromise them). This isn’t even very helpful as a suggestion, let alone as a compulsory requirement.

Secondly, why limit the length to 5-10 characters? That same XKCD comic shows that as a passphrase gets longer, it gets exponentially more difficult for a computer to guess it correctly (all else being equal). According to Troy Hunt, creator of haveibeenpwned.com, the Digital Identity Guidelines released in 2017 by NIST (US National Institute of Standards and Technology) recommends sites allow passphrases at least 64 characters long, and ideally as long as 256.

The policy on this website stops me following my preferred passphrase practice, which is similar to the method described in the XKCD comic, and results in easy-to-remember passphrases much longer than 10 characters. It’s a policy that urgently needs to be changed.

But when I went to the website feedback form to point all this out to the webmasters, I realized that I wasn’t even able to submit the complaint without allowing a third-party domain to run Javascript in my browser (mcxplatform.com.au owned by a US-based “customer experience” company Maritz LLC). This is a simple form with a few groups of tick boxes, a comment box, and a ’submit’ button. It does nothing that we couldn’t do on Indymedia news sites almost 20 years ago, and there’s no need for it to expose user-submitted data to an external service. I expect to be able to use all the functions of any official government website without enabling JS for any third-party domain. This too, needs to be fixed.

I also noticed that the site is running Javascript from three other third-party domains; doubleclick.net, google-analytics.com, and hotjar.com, owned by companies that collect data about website users (”analytics”). DoubleClick.net is owned by Google, and is usually used along with their analytics trackers, to help target their AdSense web ads at users. Hotjar.com is owned by a private company based in Europe. Is it really ethical to allow private companies, especially foreign companies, to collect data about NZ citizens - without their knowledge or consent - while they are using government services via an official website? This practice also needs to stop. If the website teams needs to collect analytics to improve the website, they can do it with their own instance of a free code tool like Matomo or AWStats.

Filed January 4th, 2019 under security

Dear not-for-profit community, thanks for all the great work you do in the public interest. As I stumble across your sites in web searches, or check them out on the advice of friends, I note that many of you are using CreativeCommons licenses, which is great. I’m a long-time supporter of CC licenses, in fact I spent a number of years doing voluntary work to increase awareness and use of the CC licenses in Aotearoa (NZ). It’s always exciting to see people making creative use of CC licenses, placing their work under a Some Rights Reserved model that is more in tune with the digital age than the ARR (All Rights Reserved) copyright automatically applied in many jurisdictions.

Just to be clear; I am not a laywer, and this letter is not legal advice. It’s just my opinion as an activist and a support of the digital commons. However, if you’re still using version 3.0 (or earlier) of the CC licenses, or you’ve chosen one of the licenses with NC (NonCommercial) or ND (NoDerivatives) clauses, I’d like to suggest a couple of changes to your choice of license. There are two parts to this, and I’ll explain them both as best I can from an activist perspective.

The first, and simplest part, is the upgrade from version 3.0 of the CC licenses to version 4.0. A number of improvements were made to the wording of the license texts in version 4.0, to bring them up-to-date with changes in copyright law, and further clarify things like what is and isn’t counted as “commercial use” of a licensed work. The biggest change between these versions is that from version 4.0 onward there is one international version of each CC license, instead of having to “port” each license to make it compatible with the copyright law of each jurisdiction, as was the case in previous versions. This is a welcome change, as it makes more sense for international media like the internet and the web. A summary of the differences between the various versions can be found on the CC wiki (just a guide, not legal advice).

So if the CC license you chose still reflects the ways you do and don’t want the work on your site to be used, I suggest upgrading to version 4.0 of that license. See the upgrade guide also on the CC wiki (also not legal advice) But if you chose a license with an NC or ND clause, does the license you chose really reflect the ways you do and don’t want the work on your site to be used? This brings me to the second part of my license upgrade suggestion. Let’s have a look at some of the pros and cons of using a CC license that includes the NC or ND clauses.

The CC wiki summarizes the meaning of the NonCommercial clause. NC is confusingly named, because it’s useful mainly to creators whose work is intended for commercial sale. For example, NC can be used by musicians, film-makers, or novelists, creators who have to invest significant resources to get their work ready for distribution, to prevent anyone selling copies in competition with them (and any distributors they have negotiated commercial contracts with). The idea that NC marks a work as having a not-for-profit goal is such a common misconception that serious thought was given to renaming it “Commercial Rights Reserved” in version 4.0 of the licenses. While the decision was made to keep the existing wording, for the sake of consistency between license versions, CC encourages us to use the “Commercial Rights Reserved” wording to help make the purpose of the NC clause clearer. Some arguments against using the NC clause can be found on the website of the Definition of Free Cultural Works.

Turning to the NoDerivatives clause, perhaps the best argument for ND restrictions comes from gnu.org, the website of the pioneering GNU Project:

“Works that express someone’s opinion—memoirs, editorials, and so on—serve a fundamentally different purpose than works for practical use like software and documentation. Because of this, we expect them to provide recipients with a different set of permissions: just the permission to copy and distribute the work verbatim.”

But it can also be argued that the ND clause is pointless for works that consist mainly of text. By using an excerpt from a gnu.org work, as I’ve done above, I’ve arguably made a “derivative work”. But this is allowed, because of the long-standing convention that one can reproduce any portion of a text, as long as it is placed within quote marks, and attributed to the original author. The one thing that All Rights Reserved copyright definitely says people can’t do with text - reproducing the entire work in its original form (even with quotes and attribution) - is the one thing that any CC license definitely allows.

One major downside of using a license that includes the ND clause is that it stops people translating your work into other languages, without first getting your permission to create a derivative work. Another problem with ND is that it stop works being included in free commons licensed under BY-SA or BY licenses, from online reference works like Wikipedia.org or Appropedia.org, to Open Educational Resources like WikiEducator or open textbooks, and many, many more. This is also true of the NC clause. Is restricting uses like these what you had in mind when you chose an NC or ND license? If so, then you chose the right license for your project. If not, it might be time to think about other options.

If your work has any commercial value to corporations, or anyone else who might try to extract value from your common work without voluntarily contributing back, the SA (ShareAlike) clause can be used to mitigate this. With an SA license, like the BY-SA license used by Wikipedia, anyone who reproduces the work, or makes a derivative work, must make any changes they’ve made available under the same license terms. If someone publishes a derivative work, you can choose to incorporate any of the changes or improvements you like back into your version of the work.

I originally dipped my toes into the water of creative commoning by putting my own writing at Disintermedia.net.nz under an NC license, but for the reasons given above, I decided on a change of license. All the work I write for Disintermedia, Counterclaim, and any other not-for-profit projects, is now licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 (unless there is a very strong argument for doing otherwise). So in summary, based on my experiences as a commoner and a CC advocate, my suggestion is that you consider talking to the people who shared in the creation of the work on your website about the possible benefits of relicensing to CC BY-SA 4.0.

One other thing, I notice some sites make it very hard to understand which CC license applies to their site (I’ll restrain myself from making an example of anyone here). To avoid confusion, please:

  • Indicate the name and version number of the license you’ve chosen in a prominent place on your site, and link it to the appropriate license page on the CreativeCommons website (eg CreativeCommons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0).
  • Make sure if the license is given in more than one place, for example on a copyright page *and* at the bottom of each page, that the license name and version number is the same on both, and they both link to the correct license page.
  • Use the correct CC license icon for the license you’ve chosen, and make sure that links to the correct license page too.
  • Check that the icon and link indicate the same license everywhere they appear, except where they indicate work under a different license from the rest of the site. When that’s the case, it’s best to make the license exception clear in an introduction or footer text, giving attribution to the creator, and if possible, linking to the original.

Keep up the good work!

Filed December 19th, 2018 under free culture

To whom it may concern,

For some time now, I have been trying to make contact with whoever is administrating lists.ibiblio.org. The Wikipedia article for Ibiblio says:

“It is run by the School of Information and Library Science and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with partners including the Center for the Public Domain, IBM, and SourceForge.”

So I am writing to each of these organizations about this. If your organization is no longer involved with the Ibiblio project, it might be a good idea to update this article. Otherwise, I would really appreciate it if you could pass on this message to the appropriate person, or at least to someone who is involved in the day-to-day operations of Ibiblio.org, whether in an organizational or technical capacity.

The problem I’m struggling with, is that I have been receiving ever increasing floods of spam via the mailserver at lists.ibiblio.org. A number of years ago, I was a list admin for a mailing list (cc-nz) hosted at lists.ibiblio.org. I am no longer in this role, and in fact this list is no longer in use, having been moved to a new host some years back by the organization using it. However, my email address is still listed as an admin on the list information pages at lists.ibiblio.org, and I still receive any email sent to the admin address for the cc-nz list.

I have done everything I can think of to make contact with the sysadmins in charge of these listservers and mailservers. I have pored over all the pages accessible from the lists.ibiblio.org domain, and tried sending email to every address there that might direct mail to an admin. I have tried joining any lists that seem to be used for admin communication. All with no success. I have tried looking for admin contact information on ibiblio.org, with no success. I have tried answers.ibiblio.org, but I was unable to sign up for an account, or login with any of the other login mechanisms (OpenID, WordPress etc), so I couldn’t ask a question there.

If you have any idea who is in currently charge of the services hosted at ibiblio.org and its subdomains, can you please ask them to make contact with me. Also, you might suggest that they take steps to update these services, so that anyone struggling with similar issues with Ibiblio don’t have to go on an epic quest to find a human to talk to about them.

Warm regards,

Danyl Strype

Filed December 11th, 2018 under free culture

Update 2018-12-11: I corrected “Project Lead” to “Public Lead”, which was the formal title used by CreativeCommons for the non-legal coordinators of local “porting” and advocacy projects, and while I was at it I decided it was remiss of me not to mention NZ GOAL, so I added a mention.

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In June, while I was preoccupied with preparations to travel to London for the Open 2018 conference on Platform Cooperativism, a significant announcement flew under my rader. The team running what was CreativeCommons Aotearoa/ New Zealand (CCANZ) have announced that “Tohatoha” is the new name for the organization. Tohatoha is the word for “sharing” in Te Reo Māori, the indigenous language of Aotearoa.

It’s now common for public organizations in Aotearoa to have a Te Reo Māori name, as well as an English name, in recognition of the bicultural origins of our country. I’ve long advocated for the organization that promotes the CreativeCommons licenses in Aotearoa to follow this convention. But I remember suggesting some words in Te Reo as potential names in the early years of the project, and being reminded by the first CC ANZ Public Lead (2007-2010), Dr Brian Opie, that it’s more culturally appropriate if such a name is gifted, rather than simply chosen. Now that I’ve caught up with the renaming news, I’m curious to learn more about the origins of the new name. 

For more than a decade now, CCANZ has served as the formal hub in Aotearoa/ NZ for a range of work supporting and promoting the use of the CreativeCommons licensing framework. It emerged from a network of free culture, open access, open source, and open government activists, which I helped to prepare the ground for in early 2006, beginning with the establishment of the cc-nz email list on Ibiblio.org (now hosted by OnlineGroups.net).

The first major projects as CCANZ were establishing the creativecommons.org.nz website (now tohatoha.org.nz), which went live in July 2007, and recruiting and overseeing the legal team drafting the NZ “ports” of the CC licenses, formally launched in October of that year. These projects were coordinated by Dr Opie under the umbrella of Te Whāinga Aronui, the Council for the Humanities (which later became part of the Royal Society of NZ). Perhaps the most significant achievement of this period was the formalization of the NZ GOAL (Government Open Access and Licensing) framework, approved in July, 2010 by Cabinet, the executive body of the NZ Government (the NZ Goal Software Extension came later, in 2016). Subsequent Public Leads, Jane Hornibrook, Matt McGregor, and Mandy Henk (now Chief Executive of Tohatoha), have overseen a number of changes of Hosting Institution, first to the Royal Society, after Te Whāinga Aronui decided to merge with it, then to the Open Educational Resources Foundation, and now to being an independent entity (thus the new name).

Prior to the recent announcements, there had been very little public comment from anyone involved in CC ANZ since the announcements in November 2017 of a new strategic plan, and a 10th birthday party. The cc-nz list and the CC ANZ Loomio group (neither of which have yet been updated to reflect the name), have been quiet since the end of last year too. The only information on the rebranded website about how to get involved is a webform where visitors can submit an indication of interested in a special meeting to take place in 2018, but there is no information about when it is, or if it already took place. If there is still an active community of kiwi CC advocates, it’s a bit unclear how, or where, interested people can join the discussions.

But after years of supporting CCANZ, I’m aware that behind the publicly-available information that makes up the visible part of the iceberg, there is always a huge amount of hard work going on beneath the water line. Reading between the lines, it looks like the release of the strategic plan was followed by a lot of work to secure funding, to recruit and orientate the new staff members, and to carry out the re-organization and rebranding that the transition to self-hosting as Tohatoha required. Now that this work is complete, I look forward to seeing a revitalization of CC advocacy work in Aotearoa.

For the first time in a few years, two new case studies on local CC use have appeared on the website. One is on Isa Pearl Ritchie’s novel ‘Fishing for Maui’ (licensed CC BY-NC 4.0), and one on Siobhan Leachman’s citizen science work with “Wikimedia, the Biodiversity Heritage Library and the USA-based Smithsonian Institution”, both posted in the last few months. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.

Filed December 3rd, 2018 under free culture

Update 2018-12-19: More good news from the Free Music Archive, they report they will resume normal transmission in the new year, after getting themselves acquired by a camera rental platform called KitSplit. Kudos to the KitSplit crew for stepping in to keep the FMA alive. In related good news,  the crew of the federated audio-hosting app FunkWhale have also imported a large chunk of the FMA collection into a music library at open.audio, by copying from the FMA mirror at Archive.org.

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The Free Music Archive is facing a funding crisis, and at this point, will be shutting down on Dec 1. If you, or your organization, can help keep the FMA alive, please contact them today! While their full collection and an archive of the site will be available on Archive.org, it would be a real shame if the live site, and its community of curators, was lost to the web.

Why are online institutions like the Free Music Archive important? Because they are (ideally) an enduring public record of the work created by musicians who choose a more permissive style of copyright licensing for a wide range of reasons, and often with a level of commercial success that some people may find surprising.

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Update 2018-11-30:  Some good news from the folks at the Free Music Archive. Details are sketchy, but what they can tell us for now is that the site will *not* go down on Dec 1. Uploads are still suspended for now, and their collection is still being mirrored at Archive.org, which is good anyway. Watch this space.

Filed November 27th, 2018 under free culture

 PeerTube is a revolutionary new video hosting system created by a developer known as Chocobozzz.  Supported and funded by Framasoft, a French organization working on a project to  “de-Googlify the Internet“, PeerTube (as the name suggests) has been created as a potential replacement for YouTube and you can watch the intro video here, streamed from a PeerTube site. Excited software freedom geeks have been testing experimental versions of PeerTube for a couple of years now, and there are dozens of groups and individuals running PeerTube sites (or “instances”). In October of 2018, Framasoft proudly announced the release of PeerTube 1.0.

Finally, the wait is over, and PeerTube is ready for average users to dive in. But what what makes PeerTube different from existing independent video sites like EngageMedia or BitChute? First, a little background.

Since it first became possible to embed video files in websites, it’s always been risky to host your own videos on your own website. The reason is that even short video files are much, much bigger than text or image files, or even audio files. If your video goes viral, and you have hundreds or thousands of users trying to stream or download the video at once, you end up having to pay huge fees for the bandwidth that uses on your server, or even having your website break down completely because of the traffic jam.

For years, this has created a paradox where creators who publish their own video, or small, community-hosted video sites, get nowhere if none of their videos get attention, and get punished if any of the videos they host get too popular. Either way, they lose. This is why, with the exception of a few determined anti-corporate activists and free code hackers, most people host their video on a handful of giant, corporate-controlled hosts like YouTube and Vimeo.

What makes PeerTube sites different from other independent video sites like EngageMedia or BitChute is not the type of video they host, nor their moderation policies, but the way they all interconnect (or “federate”) with each other. Using new technologies like WebTorrent and ActivityPub (more on them later), PeerTube sites automatically combine their hosting power to form a federated, video-hosting network. Working together, they can compete with corporate video-hosting platforms like YouTube, something no independent site, and certainly no independent video producer, can afford to do alone.

Today, I started a project of reaching out to independent video producers to make sure they know about PeerTube and the fediverse it’s a part of, encourage them to make use of these tools, and offer support to help them do so. Here’s a generic version of the text I wrote, in case it’s useful to anyone wanting to do something similar.

“Great to see work you’re doing in independent film-making.

I note that your contact page links to a number of corporate-controlled media platforms (FarceBook, TheirsTube etc). Have you heard about the ‘fediverse’, the federated replacements for these centralized platforms, using free code (or “open source”) software? For example, there are a number of inter-connected micro-blogging networks that offer a replacement for the birdsite, including GNU Social, Mastodon, Pleroma, and Misskey, and users on any of the thousands of independent sites running any of these software packages can all communicate with one another, not just the users on their site (or “instance”).

Even more relevant to your work, is PeerTube, a network of video-hosting sites that are similarly inter-connected with each other. PeerTube sites use WebTorrent to allow users watching videos to help serve them to other viewers, reducing the bandwith load on the host if a video goes viral, and making it viable for organizations to host their own video directly. PeerTube sites also use inter-connect with the rest of the fediverse, allowing users to follow PeerTube channels, watch embedded videos, and comment on them, all from within their social media client.

If you need any help figuring out how these technologies could help you organize, promote, and distribute your work, please feel free to get in touch.”

Filed November 27th, 2018 under independent media, free software

My apologies to my three readers, and to the hard working organizers from The Open Coop, for not getting around to a write-up on Open 2018 yet. One positive outcome from that event is that attendees who are working on ‘Open App Ecosystems’ of various kinds were able to compare notes, and as a result, there has been a wave of new members and activity on the OAE Loomio group. Open 2018 was a fantastic event, and I encourage anyone interested in potential collaborations between the software freedom movement and the cooperative movement to attend in 2019.

I will soon be heading to Hong Kong for another platform cooperativism conference, ‘Sowing the Seeds‘, taking place from 28-29 September at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). This event is a collaboration between a number of cooperatives from around Asia, and the Platform Cooperativism Consortium, based at The New School at NYU (New York University). I’m also hoping to attend the cooperative hackathon taking place over two days before the conference (watch this space!).

A number of the speakers and participants at this conference were contributors to ‘Ours to Hack and Own‘, a book of essays that attempt to map out the transition from data farms that benefit corporations and investors, to digital cafes that benefits their members and workers. It’s a great book, and while I encourage you to buy a copy if you can afford to, I’m aware of at least one place you can download a gratis digital copy (see our Notable Books library).

It’s a privilege to be able to attend these events, and learn more about the fantastic work being done by cooperative organizers and free code hackers around the world. At the same time, it’s taking some effort to get my head around this new social movement, and how it relates to the pre-existing economic democracy and digital freedom movements that I’ve been involved in for decades. Expect to see more writing on this blog about both the organization and technical aspects of platform cooperatives over the next year or so. It may be that some of this writing will provide the ending I’ve been looking for to complete the story I want to tell in ‘Email At My Life‘. Again, watch this space!

Filed September 23rd, 2018 under News, open source

According to a piece on left-leaning kiwi blog site The Daily Blog, there’s more bad news looming for basic democratic rights. Both the Australian and New Zealand governments are considering passing new laws that would force people to hand over the keys to their encrypted communications. NZ already has some stupidly strict laws on “exporting” anything encryption-related from the country, and even publishing articles about it in academic journals requires special permission. A coalition of digital liberties groups, including InternetNZ and the NZ Council for Civil Liberties, has been defending the right to encrypt since at least 2016. A time when the debate over the technology was heating up around the world, thanks to the work of groups like Access Now. Back then, the Obama administration were saying that the US federal government would not be doing anything that weakened the digital security provided by encryption.

The problem is, encrypted communication is such an obscure thing for most people, and so far from their everyday concerns about paying the rent, keep dinner on the table, keeping the shop open, or whatever. There’s a risk that too many people will only understand why this matters too late, and start trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted. So here’s a simple way to explain it.

You have a lock box in your house. In it, you might keep some cash for emergencies. You might keep important documents like your passport when you’re not travelling, or copies of your will, or a copy of your research on your family history. You might keep something harmless but embarrassing, like some saucy Polaroid photos you took with your lover, or something weird and sentimental, like a lace doily, or half a doughnut. It’s nobody else’s business what’s in that box. You have a fundamental right to keep it private. It’s a right that’s asserted in a bunch of other human rights conventions, including Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

You don’t want anyone to see what’s in your lock box, but let’s say law enforcement officers want the key to it, because they believe it contains evidence of a crime. Traditionally, in democratic countries, the officers have to appear before a neutral third-party (like a judge) and the onus is on them to convince that person that they have a very good reason to be allowed to violate your privacy, not on you to prove that they don’t (”nothing to hide …”).

If they get permission - in the form of a judicial warrant - it only applies in this specific case, to you, to the private property they’re asking the judge for access to, in this case your lock box, and for a specific period of time. They can’t get a warrant to search anyone’s lock box. They can’t get a warrant to search anything you choose to keep private. They can’t get a warrant to violate your privacy any time they like from now on. A warrant is a temporary, specific exemption to the laws that normally protect your privacy. If law enforcement officers can just ask you for the key to your lock box, and threaten to arrest you and charge with obstruction if you say no, that’s “arbitrary interference” in your “privacy, home or correspondence”, and Article 12 says that’s something governments that respect human rights protect their people from.

An encryption key is like a digital version of the key to your lock box. Like your email or social media passphrase, it protects things you have reasons to want to keep private. In a tiny minority of cases, that might be communications about committing a crime. But in the majority of cases, they will be things you want to keep private because they are embarrassing (dick pics), or personal (love letters), or financially sensitive (online banking), or its your professional duty  (a doctor’s database of their patients’ medical records). Things that are harmless. Things that could even be harmful to people if their privacy is violated, like medical insurance companies getting access to people’s medical records, and charging higher premiums to people with unusual health problems, even though the whole point of insurance is to collect money off lots of people, so it can be paid out to those who need it.

The problem with the laws being discussed about encryption is not that they let law enforcement violate a specific person’s privacy, in specific ways, when they have good reason to think they will find evidence of a crime. The law already allows them to apply for a warrant for that. The problem is, these laws would let them search through anything that anyone chose to encrypt, any time they like. It would let them do so in secret, with no effective way for the public to hold them accountable for how they use those powers.

This is how policing works in a police state, not a democracy. Please contact your political representatives and urge them to do everything in their power to protect our privacy, by protecting our right to encrypt.

Filed September 7th, 2018 under News, security
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