The turning point came on 8–12 January 2011 with the massacring of protesters in Kassarine, in central Tunisia. This slaughter led to mass protests in the capital, with the national workers’ union (UGTT) and the urban middle classes now conspicuously present, and the military exerting pressure on Ben Ali to step down. In his final speech of 13 January, the tyrant declared an end to the firing of “real bullets”. But it was too late to save his regime and he was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia with his family.
Standard journalistic accounts of the Tunisian uprising have it that the country’s youth forced a regime change. In fact, as the above sketch suggests, the reality is far more complex, and it involves journalists themselves. While young street protesters were indeed a powerful force, we should not neglect the contribution of less visible protest agents. Thus, during the pre-Kasserine phase three familiar types of freedom technologist (hackers/geeks, lawyers, and journalists) from WikiLeaks, Anonymous, Al Jazeera, Nawaat.org and other sundry outlets played crucial roles in framing the issue, aided by a broad band of other specialists and a sizeable portion of the population led by impoverished youths. This ad-hoc coalition dramatically expanded after the Kasserine massacre when two powerful non-netizen forces, namely the trade unions and the military, entered the fray, along with the vast majority of the Tunisian population. This spelled the end of Ben Ali’s regime.
Five years on, Tunisia is unique in the Arab world for having a working democracy, a new constitution based on human rights, a national unity government made up of secularists and Islamists, and a truth and reconciliation process. Yet despite these advances, Tunisia remains a deeply divided country, with the urban “digerati” enjoying unprecedented freedoms while the rural population still suffers from economic deprivation as violent jihadist cells seek to fill the void. 5
From “Yes we camp!” to “Yes we can!”
Meanwhile, in nearby Spain, local and foreign commentators concur that the indignados (15M) protests of 2011 were long overdue. Spain’s housing market “bubble” had burst in 2008, leaving almost half of the country’s young people unemployed and millions more citizens in a precarious situation. In addition, a series of high-profile corruption scandals had discredited its political class, as had an electoral law seen as perpetuating a two-party system. The vast pool of qualified young (and not so young) middle-class Spaniards unable to find jobs or further their careers enjoyed a surplus of free time while still living “at home”. Many were therefore in an ideal position to join the fledgling movement. This was also a period of rapid growth in the uptake of social and mobile media in Spain, with a dramatic increase (65%) in mobile internet usage between 2010 and 2011. With the precedent of popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt fresh in people’s minds, the scene was set for a Spring of discontent. Lastly, Spain had a proud history of internet activism whose personnel, ideals and practices were not dissimilar to those that had been used in North Africa to great effect.
The connections and overlaps between Spain’s digital freedom scene and its indignados (or 15M) movement are numerous. Indeed, free culture activists played a crucial role in the movement’s conception, gestation, birth and growth. Spain has boasted an active netizen (in Spanish, internauta) scene since the 1990s. In December 2009, a manifesto in defence of fundamental digital rights was published in opposition to the so-called Ley Sinde, a proposed bill aimed at curtailing “internet piracy”. Other protest methods included DDoS attacks, Twitter hashtags and offline actions. In December 2010, a group of tech lawyers and other freedom technologists launched a successful online mobilisation against the bill, now renamed Ley Biden-Sinde in honour of the US Vice President Joe Biden. This renaming came after WikiLeaks confirmed that the bill was drafted under pressure from the US government and its culture industry lobby. The mobilisation was supported by Anonymous, Hacktivistas.net and other hacker formations, and widely covered by both mainstream and alternative news media. For hacktivists like Margarita Padilla, the Ley Sinde struggle brought together networked “swarms” such as Anonymous and traditional movements, forging “monstrous alliances” that presaged the indignados movement.
Disregarding the netizen outcry, on 15 February 2011 Spain’s ruling socialist (PSOE) government, backed by Spain’s other major parties, went ahead and passed the anti-piracy bill under US pressure. Very shortly thereafter, the internet lawyer Sánchez Almeida with fellow freedom technologists created No Les Votes, an online formation that called on Spaniards to respond to this betrayal by not voting for any of the major parties in the coming municipal and regional elections. No Les Votes marked a radical break, a schism, between Spain’s netizens and its political class that would shape subsequent events. It soon joined forces with Anonymous, Juventud Sin Futuro (Youth Without a Future), Democracia Real Ya (DRY) (Real Democracy Now) and other platforms to call for mass demonstrations across Spain on 15 May 2011 under the slogan “Real democracy now! We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers”.
The marches were well attended but they failed to achieve the media visibility protesters had hoped for. However, a small group of protesters in Madrid decided to spend the night at Puerta del Sol, the city’s main square. Freedom technologists were well represented among these “first 40” campers, including an “Anon” who had broken into the Goya award ceremony, a copyleft lawyer formerly employed by a leading law firm, and a member of the hacktivist group, Isaac Hacksimov, who described the occupation as “a gesture that broke the collective mental block”.
By 17 May the number of occupiers had grown to 200 and by 20 May nearly 30,000 people had taken the square in full view of the national and international media, with dozens of squares across Spain following suit in rapid succession.
Although the role played by hackers and other computer experts in lending the indignados (15M) movement its strong free culture character is crucial, it is important not to overlook the part played by both amateur and professional journalists. In the 15M discourse the mainstream news media were often portrayed as an integral part of a monolithic “system” hostile to the protesters, while “citizen journalism” and other form of “horizontal” and “networked” communication were celebrated. In fact, without the support of sympathetic journalists and editors from major news organisations, it is unlikely that the campers would have reached such wide publics during the month-long occupation of Spain’s squares and their aftermath. For instance, Joseba Elola, a journalist with the centre-left daily El País, could barely contain his emotion when reporting from the Sol encampments, portraying the occupiers as “young people conscious of their civil liberties who have risen to head a protest in search of a great change”. It is telling that it was precisely Elola who secured the participation of El País in the global release of WikiLeaks’ US diplomatic cables in November 2010, following a secret meeting with Assange in London. This experience changed Elola’s professional outlook. He came to realise that the news media had been “a little bit asleep” and that WikiLeaks had “brought something really good for journalism and for society”.
Let us fast-forward to early 2014, when a number of new political parties in Spain announced their intention to campaign in the European elections of 25 May 2014. The pioneer was Partido X, a “citizen network” (red ciudadana) created in early 2013 by the same group of Barcelona freedom technologists behind DRY. Partido X is no ordinary party, for it draws on hacker/free culture principles and practices and regards itself as a “methodology” for political change that can be freely borrowed and remixed by other parties – as long as the borrowing is publicly acknowledged. Indeed, soon after the new political party Podemos (“We Can”) was founded in early 2014, its leaders announced that they would borrow some of Partido X’s techno-political methods. Podemos was one the biggest surprises in the European elections, obtaining 8 per cent of the vote in Spain and five seats in the European Parliament.
Podemos is a leftist formation rooted in the indignados (15M) movement and led by the charismatic political scientist Pablo Iglesias, aged 37. For its European campaign it carried out a successful hybrid media (or transmedia) strategy right across the establishment vs. civic media divide by banking on its telegenic leader. In contrast, Partido X relied heavily on social media and opted for not playing the charismatic leader game, paying dearly for it at the ballot box, for they did not win any European seats. Iglesias became a masterful practitioner of Spain’s tertulia genre. Tertulias are popular TV and radio panel shows devoted to discussing current affairs. These media sites would often become arenas in which Iglesias often emerged victorious.
Exactly a year later, on 24 May 2015, local elections were held across Spain. In Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and other major cities, new antiestablishment candidates either won or came very close to winning, signalling a major change in the country’s political landscape. In Barcelona, a new municipalist platform named Barcelona en Comú (‘Barcelona in Common’), derived from the anti-eviction group PAH, gained power. Like Pablo Iglesias before her, its popular leader, Ada Colau, opted for a low-budget but highly effective transmedia strategy. Their electoral programme, drafted by over 5,000 people, was based on input from both online platforms and open assemblies. 6 The new platform also gave birth to SomComuns, a network of internet activists campaigning on social media, as well as a collective of designers and artists calling for the “graphic liberation” of Barcelona. SomComuns volunteers were free to experiment with language and media formats. As one of its initiators put it, “If a message works, we promote it, regardless of who created it. In fact, some of our top virals were made by anonymous people”. An example of this “new electoral narrative” is the video “El run run” (“The buzz”), featuring a joyful Ada Colau. Not only did “El run run” strike a chord with Colau’s supporters, it also found its way into the mainstream media.
For Carlos Delclós, the success of Barcelona en Comú and similar platforms marks the rise of a “new municipal agenda” in Spain. This agenda echoes the ideas of the founding father of libertarian municipalism, Murray Bookchin, who identified its four main features: “a revival of the citizens’ assembly, the need for confederation with other municipalities, grassroots politics as a school of genuine citizenship and the municipalisation of the economy”. Underlying this programme, argues Delclós, is “a recovery of a new participatory politics structured around free, self-empowered and active citizens”.7
In late October 2015, Barcelona en Comú announced it would join Podemos to stand in Spain’s general elections on the coming 20 December 8. As expected, their joint campaign displayed a rare admixture of techno-political savvy and neo-leftist/social justice ideals. Together, they came first in Catalonia, securing almost 25% of the vote and 12 MPs from Catalonia’s share of the Spanish parliament. Nationally, Podemos became the third political force in Spain with over five million votes, surging to 20.66% of the total vote, which gave the new political party 69 MPs and put an end to the country’s twoparty system, in place throughout the post-Franco era.
Digital rights are social rights
Beyond the specificities of each national context, success in the application of techno-political ideals and practices to democratic transformation consists of three main elements: a deep economic crisis, interdisciplinary expertise, and grassroots populism. First, it is no coincidence that countries that managed to weather the post-2008 economic storm (such as Germany, Norway, Singapore or Indonesia) did not experience mass protest movements in which freedom technologists could play an important role. By the same token, it was countries like Iceland, Tunisia, Egypt, Spain or the USA – i.e. those worst hit by the global financial crisis – that saw a spectacular growth of political contention. Second, no techno-political project can have societal impact if it is founded solely on the IT expertise of hackers and geeks – it must be an interdisciplinary endeavour. To succeed politically, these specialists have to join forces with other technology experts (such as digital rights lawyers, online journalists, geeky politicians) as well as non-technological experts (for instance, artists, intellectuals, social scientists) and ordinary citizens with no specialist knowledge through inclusive initiatives where all can make a contribution. It is the coming together of everyday people, technology nerds and other political actors via social media, mainstream media and in physical settings such as streets and squares that drives processes of change. To achieve this convergence, would-be democratic reformers (and revolutionaries) must find innovative ways of bridging the chasm between the frames and interests of the middle and lower classes through grassroots populism. We saw this most dramatically in the martyrdom story of Mohamad Bouazizi, which served as a “bridging frame” that appealed to both working- and middle-class Tunisians, in the Occupy movement’s “We are the 99%” slogan, and in Spain’s “We are not commodities in the hands of politicians and bankers”.
In this connection, it is worth noting that Spain – a country that is far from being a global technology leader – currently boasts what is arguably the world’s most advanced techno-political field. Even more remarkable, Spain’s civil society has achieved this leading position while pursuing agendas that are as much concerned with social justice as they are with liberty. In contrast, the techno-political scene in the rest of Europe is dominated by Pirate Parties with “pro-social” agendas (such as. guaranteeing citizens a basic income or free health and education) but who seem unwilling, to quote Bart Cammaerts, “to clarify the[ir] ideological position and the precise relationship between a libertarian freedom-related agenda and a social justice agenda”. 9
The problem is even more acute outside Europe, where freedom technologists rarely make the link between liberty and social justice. Take, for instance, the case of Southeast Asia. This is a pioneering region in the use of information technologies for political change following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which led to the birth of new pro-democracy movements across the region, most notably in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
A personal research experience will drive this point home. In March 2015 I was in the Philippine capital, Manila, to attend the fourth RightsCon meeting as a participant-observer. According to its organisers, this series of digital rights conferences, usually held in Silicon Valley, seeks “to advance solutions to human rights challenges by concentrating on the possibilities within the tech sector”. All in all, RightsCon 2015 was a successful event. As its organisers noted during the closing ceremony, the Manila conference provided a safe, genderbalanced space for civil society and technology actors from numerous countries to meet and network.
Yet something about this event kept nagging at me as the sessions passed by, namely its inattention to social inequality. This global issue is glaringly obvious as soon as one steps out of the comforts of an international hotel to walk the streets of Manila (or London, for that matter). By way of an experiment I attempted to enter a beautiful gated community aptly named “Arcadia”, located across the road from the conference venue. Disappointingly, I was refused access by the security guards for not having a contact name and address inside the vast compound. “Sorry sir”, one of them apologised, “it’s SOP, Standard Operating Procedure”. Meanwhile, Arcadia’s army of workers streamed out on foot, while the occasional luxury vehicle was allowed entrance through the gates.
Economic inequality has been on the rise worldwide for decades, which have witnessed the concomitant emergence of a global plutocracy and the consolidation of corporate “illegitimate power”. 10 In the opening ceremony, “structural inequality” was identified as one of the conference’s main concerns, yet little was said about it in the remainder of the conference.
Arguably, the most urgent issue to tackle in these and other digital rights events is precisely how to use our collective techno-political and research savvy to address the present global system’s grotesque inequalities. There is a crucial debate to be had between freedom technologists who argue for multi-stakeholder approaches to the future of the internet 11 and those like Aral Balkan who advocate a post-plutocratic world order in which the internet is a global public good, not a corporate and state battlefield. A case in point is the problematic sponsorship of these events by giant Silicon Valley corporations. As Balkan tweeted in connection to RightsCon 2015:
Having #rightscon sponsored by Facebook, Google, & Microsoft is like having #healthcon sponsored by McDonald’s, Coke, and Lucky Strike.
But how can the social justice impasse be overcome beyond these small internet freedom circles? First, academics, public intellectuals, mainstream journalists and others have a crucial part to play in exploring the relationship between freedom in its various forms – including its technological dimensions – and social justice. They should do this through evidence-based public discussions across a range of media and physical settings, taking care not to assume that Silicon Valley’s venture capitalism is the only technological business model available to us. Second, we must start thinking of what a post-venture capitalism age of socio-technical innovation might look like, and how it could contribute to democratic renewal in different cultural contexts. Third, it is amply clear by now that the so-called digital divide cannot be bridged through technological means alone, as it must be understood within broader systems of entrenched social and economic exclusion. Digital rights are not only human rights, as we often hear in net freedom circles: digital rights are also social rights.
1. The first three sections of this essay are adapted from Postill, J. (2014). Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: a theory of protest formulas. Convergence, 20 (3), 402-418. Unless otherwise noted, please refer to that piece for bibliographic references.
2. Michael Mandel (200). Iceland goes bankrupt, Business Week. 10 October.
3. Lázaro, Paula (2014). Icelandic Modern Media Initiative. (16:50-17:15).
4. See Rushton, Steve (2014). Anarchist and Parliamentarian, Iceland’s Birgitta Jónsdóttir Talks Big E-Revolution. Tuesday 4 January.
5. See Eakin, Hugh (2015) Why Tunisia?,The New York Review of Books, 2 July.
6. Shea Baird, Kate (2015). Beyond Ada Colau: the common people of Barcelona en Comú. Open Democracy, 27 May.
7. Delclos, Carlos (2015a). Towards a new municipal agenda in Spain. Open Democracy, 26 May.
8. Delclos, Carlos (2015b). Barcelona en Comú joins Podemos in Spanish elections. Roar Mag, 5 November.
9. Cammaerts, B. (2015). Pirates on the Liquid Shores of Liberal Democracy: Movement Frames of European Pirate Parties. Javnost-The Public, 22(1), 19-36.
10. Freeland, C. (2012). Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. London: Penguin; George, S. (2014). State of Corporations – The rise of illegitimate power and the threat to democracy.
11. For a thorough exposition of the internet multi-stakeholderism position, see MacKinnon, R. (2012). Consent of the Networked: The Struggle for Internet Freedom. Basic Books: New York.