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Free Software social networks for social change. A look into recent events in Wall Street and Egypt.

October 10th, 2011

(by Diego J. Naranjo Barroso)

The Arab Spring, the 15M movement and Occupy Wall Street are all part of a new wave of change around the world. In this wave of changes the use of social networks has become essential to reinforce strategies, communicate with a huge number of activists as well as spreading news over the Internet. In this era, the need of social networks not subject to censorship is urgent and essential for social change in the XXI century. The recent events in Wall Street and Egypt demonstrate this importance and that these helpful tools, being privative and corporate owned, might be easily subject to censorship as it happened both in NY and Egypt .  But,

  1. How has censorship occurred in NY and Egypt in social networks? In those cases censorship was enforced in different ways. Apparently the trending topic #OccupyWallStreet was blocked for a period of time by Twitter , thus blocking communication between those activists present in the place and those willing to assist the rally or to be informed about the event. This problem was overcome using other trending topics but it  remains possible that next time all new topics are blocked and therefore making it impossible to communicate using this social network. In Egypt Facebook was also blocked in an attempt to stop the revolution. As we can see, the need for a reliable, stable and secure social network seems nowadays as no less than an extension of other human rights as the right to peacefully assembly or the right to association, as well as the right to privacy.
  2. How do privative software networks attack the right to privacy?The right to privacy is a human right recognized by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in its art.17 that can be seriously affected when using social networks. Besides censorship issues already commented, the main problem is that both Facebook and Twitter (as many other social networks) are companies whose main interest is earning more profits, and therefore they tend to trade with delicate personal information from their users in order to sell it to third parties (i.e.: that is why you get certain advertisements in your main Facebook page). As FSFE President Karsten Gerloff put it, in Facebook “you are not the customer: You are the product” . E-mail providers are not an exception to this. The case of Gmail and other e-mail clients with a column of advertisement that change according the topic of the e-mail you are reading at that moment is quite frightening despite the fact that we are already used to it.
  3. Are there any FS alternatives that can overcome this threat? There is still no stable version of an alternative Facebook based on Free Software although there are some efforts being done at the Diaspora Social Network community and  N-1 (for social activists). Regarding tweeter alternatives, identi.ca has been working fully since 2009 and gives the same features than tweeter but respecting privacy and not being under control by anyone.
  4. Then… are Free Software-based technologies 100% safe from abuse? Unfortunately, Governments still can block IPs and the whole traffic of the Internet in a country so even for open source communities is no 100% safe, but it is still definitely safer than privative ones like Facebook or Twitter.
  5. How can human rights defenders protect their activity and themselves? There are many tools that HRDs may use in order to  work effectively with less risks for themselves. First of all, the use of Free Software Operative Systems (GNU/Linux) is a must. The times when alternatives to Windows or Macintosh were just for nerds dressed in black is far over today. There are GNU/Linux distributions as Ubuntu or Fedora that anyone is able to use quickly due to its intuitive design, despite the fact that you would need the obvious adaptation time you need to get used to a new operative system. However, this will not require more than adapting to use a smart phone instead of your old not-so-clever mobile phone. Most of Free Software distributions come already with all you need to work on your computer such as internet browsers, e-mail clients, instant messaging programs, audio and video players, as well as Libre Office to work on all kinds of documents. Even if you still (??!!) use a non-free operative system (1) you might see yourself using every day Free Software programs such as Firefox or Thunderbird, which might help you not to freak out when thinking to “convert” to a Free Software alternative.
  6. Why is Free Software so important? There are many reasons to use Free Software. FSFE makes a interesting point in their website when it states that , “(f)or those who are connected (…) human rights of participation in culture, freedom of speech and opinion are influenced to a large extent by their control over the software they use, as are freedom of association and movement. Software forms the medium. Unlike the proprietary approach, Free Software gives each person full control about their personal information space. Although this alone is not sufficient to grant privacy and security, it is a necessary prerequisite.” Frontline, an Irish-based NGO that defends human rights defenders, also promotes the use of Free Software as a tool to defend Human Rights in a safer way. In its useful guide “Digital Security & Privacy for Human Rights Defenders” Frontline provides with a extended list of measures that might increase to a high level your security on the Internet. These measures go from using GnuPGP keys in order to encrypt your e-mails to more complex systems to hide your IP, explained always in a non-geek manner. “Security and Privacy for Dummies” might have been another good title for the guide.
  7. Ok… Where should I start? First of all think about how much privacy and freedom matters to you. Another reason would be how much you prefer to support local businesses rather than greedy multinational corporations. Once you decide to go one step beyond for your freedom, you may start using some Free Software programs to run on your current non-free operative system. There are many programs for Mac and Windows. If you are already convinced to switch to a Free Software option, try any of the Live CDs that allow you to test GNU/Linux systems in your computer without installing it and, if you like it and everything works, make a backup of all your files and install it to work alone (desirably) or along with your non-free operative system. If you choose this last option you will be able to choose among your different operative systems when you start your computer. A step forward after this would be learning how to encrypt your hard-drive (this can be done when installing most GNU/Linux distributions) as well as your e-mails. With these steps you will be a little bit more free and secure. So let’s begin… how much does privacy and freedom matters to you?

Notes: 1- The words of Free Software Foundation Richard Stallman make a interesting point at why this is not an obvious question : “People started using computers with proprietary software, they took for granted that that’s how it is, everyone around them was saying this is how it’s has to be, and only the Free Software Movement was saying anything else”. (Read the rest of the speech for more info ).