MAXIMUM SOCIAL IMPACT, MINIMUM LINES OF CODE: Software Development as Direct Action


You don’t have to be a big bad hacker, cracking Evil Corp passwords or doxxing killer cops, to make an impact online. A few lines of code can go a long way toward social and political change.

Online activism is trivial. We’ve all heard it. “Clicktivism!” White people sitting at home in their jammies tweeting in to the Daily Show. A never-ending shower of spam from MoveOn.org. Who cares? But with Internet infrastructure becoming just as integral to our daily lives as roads or the phone system, it’s nonsense to claim that political action in the digital realm doesn’t matter. A more realistic perspective might be that, both online and off, most political activism winds up being pretty trivial.

But not all. Consider the SOPA/PIPA blackout of 2012, when over 115,000 websites “went dark” in a coordinated protest against draconian “anti-piracy” legislation. That action resulted in more than 10 million voters contacting their congress members and the proposed bills being shelved. The New York Times called it “a political coming of age for the tech industry.” The protest was clever, attention-grabbing, novel, and effective. And it only worked once. As with most instances of PR-campaign-as-political-action, most viewers get the message and then get bored quickly. Subsequent efforts to light a fire of democratic fervor under the “sleeping giant” of the Internet seemed to sputter.

Digital activism as a whole, however, still matters. I believe we’ve only begun to see its potential. And I’ve been thinking lately about the use of software development as a form of direct action. Direct action software development is only one of many ways to approach activism online, but it’s one that I haven’t yet seen articulated elsewhere. We hear about “hacktivism” when Anonymous makes videos threatening the police. Meanwhile, “civic coding” efforts such as Greenhouse aim to inform voters and facilitate the democratic process. And the Internet has, of course, been used as a fantastic megaphone for traditional forms of political organizing such as petitions, awareness raising, and getting out the vote. But we don’t hear much about software development, itself, as a “hacktivist” strategy. So, I’m going to talk about it.

What is direct action software development? In short, “direct action” refers to political activism that immediately targets the perceived source of a problem, rather than trying to resolve the problem through standard channels for negotiating with authorities. Similar to civil disobedience, direct action strategies subvert established political processes (e.g. voting, petition writing, running for office, filing a complaint) in favor of more efficient and often more dramatic means of making social change.

For example: Say your issue is de-segregating gendered bathrooms. Gender-segregated public restrooms are dangerous for transgender people. So, using the established democratic process, you might call your senator, write a petition, hire a lobbyist, or draft legislation about the issue. Ideally, your bill requiring gender-neutral public restroom facilities will eventually be brought to a vote, passed into law, and then hopefully enforced.
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Civil disobedience around the same issue might involve staging a high-profile event where protestors gather at a busy public building and insist on using the “wrong” restroom/s until the police show up to arrest them. Meanwhile, one direct action tactic would be to run around the city pulling down “MALE” and “FEMALE” restroom signs and replacing them with “ALIENS” and “ROBOTS.”

Ultimately, all of these political tactics can be used together, although sometimes (if the people deploying them don’t coordinate well with each other) they can work at cross-purposes.  

Direct action tactics are often associated with a cartoonish image of anarchism, so the public may imagine “direct action” as nothing more than men in black masks smashing windows and kicking over trashcans — or, at best, sit-ins, strikes, occupations, blockades, and other ways of disrupting business as usual. Even in the online realm of “hacktivism,” digital direct action is typically associated with breaking and leaking stuff: DDoS attacks on the FBI website, doxxing the Steubenville rapists, Chelsea Manning’s release of classified documents to WikiLeaks. But the key feature of direct action is not destruction; it’s not asking permission from authority before making needed changes. Gender-segregated restrooms aren’t safe for trans folks? De-segregate them. Today. The “Designated Free Speech Zone” is so far away from the Evil Oil Billionaires Convention that nobody can hear you chant? Get closer. Fight the cops to get there if you have to. Your favorite social network censors rape survivors who name their rapists? Build a browser tool that lets users subvert administrative silencing.

The key feature of direct action is not destruction; it’s not asking permission from authority before making needed changes.

There are other forms of online action besides “hacktivism.” Blogging about political issues, signing digital petitions, meme-based awareness campaigns (e.g. changing your Facebook profile pic to support marriage equality or decry child abuse), these tactics are widespread and accessible to the general public. The average Internet user can work out how to tweet at their senator. But the most impactful online protest actions often require advanced technical skill alongside your commitment to a political or social cause.

In early 2014, Creative Commons founder and anti-censorship advocate Larry Lessig gave a talk imploring technologists to get involved in politics:

I get it. As technologists, it’s not your field. But as citizens? [T]here is a movement out there that has ENORMOUS needs which you, uniquely, can provide. The obvious ones, the technical needs. This is a movement that will only succeed if we find a way to knit together people in a different model from the television advertising model of politics today. […] This movement is STARVED for people with your skill who can figure out how to make this work. It desperately needs this type of skill offered by people who genuinely believe in the cause as opposed to people who are just trying to get rich.

He’s not the only one who thinks so. Over the past several years, there has been an explosion of “civic hacking” efforts such as Code for America, data-driven government transparency initiatives, hackathons like CreateAthon and the Coder Day of Service to help non-profit organizations, etc. These projects are different from Anonymous-style “hacktivism” in that their goal is to build, not break. civichackingThey are largely geared toward technologically supporting the democratic process. However, they are plagued by many of the same issues as other policy-oriented activism: they are slow; they are overwrought with funding issues and procedural hangups; they are typically dependent on approval, information, or resources from some governmental or corporate authority; and access to such necessities is often unreliable because, to be blunt, governments and corporations rarely have their constituents’ best interests at heart. As a friend of mine says, “civic hacking is basically a way for the government to get a bunch of free tech labor.”

This is where direct action software development comes in. Unlike other hacktivism, the point of direct action development is not strategic destruction; it is to build, develop, create, and “design for good.” It differs from civic hacking, however, by building for good without waiting for permission. Direct action developers design software, websites, and other tools with the intent to make immediate political and social change. These technologies are “disruptive” in the most literal sense of the word. Much like physical-world actions which violate unjust ordinances, trigger conflict with authorities, and inconvenience passersby, direct action technologies often ignore online standards of etiquette, upset site administrators, and even violate the CFAA or other laws. Both online and off, the key to direct action is refusing to cooperate with any authorities who obstruct change. (If you are contemplating potentially-illegal online activism of any form, I encourage you to make a safety plan. That discussion is out of scope for this post, but consider contacting a tech-knowledgeable lawyer or the EFF for more information.)

Here are some concrete examples of software development as direct action:

PROJECT: WikiLeaks

WHAT DOES IT DO: WikiLeaks is an international, non-profit, journalistic organization that publishes secret information, news leaks, and classified media from anonymous sources. Some of its best known publications include 250,000+ classified diplomatic cables sent to the U.S. State Department, and the “Collateral Murder” video and other incriminating materials leaked by Chelsea Manning.

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Lack of government, military, and corporate accountability worldwide. Prosecution and persecution of whistleblowers and journalists who report on high-level corruption.

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: International initiatives requiring increased transparency, open data, and opportunities for public participation in governments and corporate entities such as banks. Stronger legislation to support whistleblowers and investigative journalism.

HOW CODE DOES IT: Okay, so technically WikiLeaks itself isn’t software; it’s a website and an organization. Founder Julian Assange describes himself as an “information activist.” But the project does require a significant technical backbone in order to stay live on a distributed network of servers despite constant hostilities, and to provide a secure, anonymous, online drop box that allows sources to leak information to the site in relative safety.

WHO LOVES IT: Journalists. Activists. People who use the Internet. Pretty much everyone.

WHO HATES IT: Big businesses. Big banks. Corrupt diplomats. Murderous military personnel. All governments everywhere.

PROJECT: TextSecure, Signal, and RedPhone

WHAT DOES IT DO: These user-friendly apps provide end-to-end encryption for iOS and Android communications. lockedenvelopeMade by Open Whisper Systems, an open source non-profit software development group with a mission to “make private communication simple,” these apps are free and allow smartphone users to communicate securely via text or voice with any other user of the app.

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Government surveillance and mass data collection. (Also helps protect against subpoena of your text messages.)

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: Stronger data privacy protections in the law, and the ability and willingness of government agencies to enforce them. (Remember that the NSA knew their spying programs were illegal and did it anyway.)

HOW CODE DOES IT: The apps use public-key encryption, the strongest and most reliable encryption protocol currently known, to ensure that texts are unreadable to anybody but the intended recipient and that voice calls cannot be listened in on by outside parties. Most importantly, the encryption is built into the apps in a way that make secure communications accessible to relatively non-technical users.

WHO LOVES IT: Private citizens who want to remain private. Political organizers and dissidents working under oppressive regimes. Information Security professionals. Math nerds. Your drug dealer. Edward Snowden.

WHO HATES IT: David Cameron. The NSA. The FBI.

PROJECT: Peacekeeper

WHAT DOES IT DO: The Peacekeeper App facilitates community-based emergency response. It allows users to quickly send and receive detailed emergency alerts among everyone in a geographically local network. The ultimate goal of the project is to develop networks of trained and trusted community responders for a range of emergencies including fires, break-ins, medical emergencies, and interpersonal violence — ultimately serving as a replacement for dialing 911.

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Government emergency services (paramedics, fire departments, the police) are at best underfunded and inefficient and, especially in the case of the police, frequently discriminatory and even brutally violent in their responses to 911 calls.

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: Dramatically increase funding for all established emergency services. Develop and mandate provably effective anti-discrimination training for all police officers and other emergency responders. Require local police forces to reflect the demographics of the communities they police. Improve legal protections for citizens who document police abuses.

HOW CODE DOES IT: Peacekeeper takes the connective power of a social networking app and focuses it on creating a real-world social network — specifically, one made up of people who the user knows and trusts to come to their aid in an emergency. The app provides communities who use it with an immediate alternative to calling the police. (After encouragement from other direct action software developers, the app is now free and open source.)

WHO LOVES IT: Anarchists. Libertarians. (Peacekeeper branding skews extremely Right Libertarian. They partner with “The Pulse O2DA Battle Academy” to offer combat training modules.) People who live in rural areas. Anybody who feels unsafe or uncomfortable dealing with the police.

WHO HATES IT: Criminals. Cops. (We also think it’s a great technology that desperately needs a political makeover.)

PROJECT: Predator Alert Tool

WHAT DOES IT DO: The Predator Alert Tools are a suite of browser add-ons focused on preventing sexual violence. They allow users of social network and dating sites to share information about site members who have committed rape or sexual abuse, and to be informed about people in their communities who are potential threats. Predator Alert Tools are currently available for seven social websites including OkCupid, Facebook, and the fetish dating site FetLife.

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Censorship by site administrators that prevents survivors of sexual violence from publicly naming their perpetrator. Community silencing and siloing of information about known sexual predators.

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: Site owners could amend Terms of Use agreements to allow naming abusers, build pro-survivor reporting mechanisms into their sites, and task administrators to encourage online cultures that prioritize the voices of survivors and the safety of vulnerable users. Unlikely, given that many sites, especially dating sites, have a financial incentive not to acknowledge the risk of sexual violence. (It’s a buzzkill.)

HOW CODE DOES IT: The Predator Alert Tools depends on a number of public repositories where data about consent violations can be shared anonymously. Depending on the site, the tools also provide a range of other mechanisms for sharing either anonymously, non-anonymously, publicly, or with a limited group of friends. Browser-side extensions then put that information at the “point of need” by e.g. placing a “red flag” on the reported user’s profile picture with a link to more information. Because these extensions run locally, site admins have no control over what the user reports or sees.

WHO LOVES IT: Survivor advocates. Feminist activists. Prison abolitionists. (Community-centered accountability processes are important alternatives to the prison-industrial complex.) Fifty-five thousand Tumblr users. Survivors of sexual violence, and their family members, friends, and loved ones.

WHO HATES IT: Rapists.

PROJECT: Falling Fruit

WHAT DOES IT DO: In their own words, “Falling Fruit is a massive, collaborative map of the urban harvest. By uniting the efforts of foragers, freegans, and foresters everywhere, the map already points to over a half million food sources around the world (from plants and fungi to water wells and dumpsters). Our rapidly growing user community is actively edumpsterfoodxploring, editing, and adding to the map.”

WHAT PROBLEMS DOES IT ADDRESS: Food insecurity. Corporate food waste.

HOW POLICY MIGHT DO IT: More funding to government benefits like food stamps. Improving any government or non-profit program intended to fight hunger. Legislation or corporate policies requiring restaurants and grocery stores to donate leftover food rather than trashing it. Major international shifts in the nature of agri-business and food distribution.

HOW CODE DOES IT: Distributes information about where free food and water are available near you right now. Certainly no substitute for major international shifts in the nature of agri-business and food distribution, but it’s a start.

WHO LOVES IT: People who like to eat food.

WHO HATES IT: Trader Joe’s.

These are just a handful of examples. Direct action software projects span a huge political and technical range, but tend to have a few qualities in common: The code is relatively lightweight. The project is primarily supported by donations and volunteer labor. It’s free to use and open source. And it serves parallel purposes of making a clear political statement while also providing a tangible, real world, immediate benefit to users right now, today. There are so many different, novel, clever, and powerful ways to write code that both makes a point and makes change. If you have other examples of direct action software, or ideas for direct action development projects, I’d love to hear about them! Please drop me a line: foxtale at riseup dot net.

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