Retake the Net establishes mandate

Movement proposes computers in soup kitchens and tools to browse the web anonymously

It was the ultimate test for a lobby group – would its supporters turn up for a barcamp on the weekend?

Retake the Net, a movement begun in the middle of this year, was devised to “take back the internet” from what proponents see as increasing corporate and government control. Its primary focus is a series of projects to encourage unrestricted use of the internet. This ranges from placing internet-connected computers in an inner city soup kitchen to developing tools to browse the web anonymously.

On Saturday October 29 the movement added another string to its bow by holding a barcamp, in Wellington – a weekend event is always a good test of popular commitment. About 60 people turned up to the event, which, in the style of barcamps, had no set agenda – apart, in this case, from an introduction by Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown, who has a background in ICT and was on the inaugural council of InternetNZ.

The first session after the mayor’s address was spent writing topics on Post-It notes and sticking them in slots on the blank timetable.

Several coherent themes emerged, ranging from censorship through identity and anonymity to “popular culture” – the merging, reuse, adaptation and mixing of cultural material under liberal terms such as the various Creative Commons licences as an alternative to conventional commercial models of copyright enforcement. Legal use of much-maligned peer-to-peer (P2P) networks is a key way of sharing content to this end.

A session exploring the theme: “Does government ‘get’ the net and does the net ‘get’ government?” saw participants agreeing that the standard of knowledge of internet matters in government and Parliament is in some cases adequate but elsewhere leaves much to be desired, as illustrated by some MPs’ ill-informed remarks in the last stages of debate on the Copyright (Infringing File-Sharing) Bill.

Ideas advanced to remedy the lack included building courses or instructional material for government officials and MPs to increase their knowledge, and cultivating contact with selected figures in government.

Some said the net champions need a coherent and one-pointed lobbying body to deal with government – which includes knowing the right points in the government structure to approach on particular questions.

One of the projects promoted by Retake the Net is the policy auction, where participants suggest policy ideas and back them with notional currency, revealing those best supported, which can then be advanced to government representatives.

A session on identity and anonymity drew so much interest that it was extended into a double timeslot. The freedom to maintain separate identities or to be completely anonymous online was discussed. Against the potential for abuse by anonymous people attacking others, delegates advanced the interests of vulnerable groups such as battered women, who wish to participate in society – including online society – without their identities becoming known.

The relevance of social networking sites gathering information about customer behaviour was discussed, with some saying they didn’t care if the site wanted to sell data about their behaviour, which was probably of little value, to advertisers. Others countered that once the information is out there, it is hard to know who might come by it or what harm they might be able to do.

Retake The Net has a project in this area called Privacy on a Stick. This puts on a USB stick a browser and “onion router” software, directing web access through a number of volunteer servers through the world, to disguise the source of the request.

The main anti-censorship stream discussed the problem of facilitating, or being perceived to support, illegal activity by demanding the removal of any filters on net content. The right not to be censored, it was suggested, must be balanced against the rights of those who may be harmed by distribution of illegal material. Proponents argued that it could be logically consistent to appreciate that dangerous material should be censored, yet be opposed to the damage that filters and surveillance do to the unimpeded operation of the internet.

• As part of the conditions of the barcamp, other than Wade-Brown, no participants could be quoted by name.

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