IFF Valencia: Can we rescue the internet?

My Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) started a little late as I was unable to get away from Brexit-gripped UK until Wednesday, but it was really refreshing to be in lovely Valencia in the spring, away from all that and spend the end of the week in such a stimulating environment. This was my first IFF, and I am lucky enough to have a colleague resident in Valencia who could put me up, as well as access to APC's Member Exchange and Travel Fund (METF) to pay my transport costs.

I had attended some APC Europe events in the past, but this felt like an international APC gathering, with colleagues from all over the world. One of the most exciting aspects of my trip was "putting faces to names", meeting people that I'd been in contact with on email, or whose names are familiar from APC contexts – such is the nature of an international distributed organisation. We remarked on how relatively recently it was that the experience of a face-to-face meeting with someone you'd initially met online was a novelty, and how it's become normalised in a short time.

I felt really privileged to meet up with GreenNet's founder, the almost legendary Mitra, and the nearly mythical Mike "The Wind" Jensen! That sort of conversation was common at IFF – it was wonderful and a rare treat to be with a group of like-minded folk from such a diverse geographical spread, but still to be able to assume a high level of technical understanding and common values and purpose.

GreenNet's values and work overlap with the IFF to a large degree. As well as being the ISP of choice for high-profile UK investigative journalists for many years, we've run clandestinely hosted multilingual blogs for regional dissident journalists, whistle-blowing dropboxes on cunningly obfuscated servers to defy corporates, secure decentralised chat systems for internationally distributed human rights defenders, cloud file stores for international peace building NGOs, tools to help sex workers share safety information confidentially... GreenNet has been around for over 30 years, and has long been involved in facilitating internet rights.

Personally, a special moment at the IFF was attending a session in Arabic – a language I speak okay for a white guy, but not well enough to contribute confidently to a fascinating discussion about gender pronouns in Arabic. It gave me a flavour of what the other sessions in English might feel like for the many participants for whom it's not their first language!

Our APC colleagues at Privacy International delivered an excellent presentation on big data, alongside Dejusticia, on Friday morning. It's shocking how out of control this phenomenon has got, and the talk gave good advice on resistance at an individual level, as well as sharing Privacy International and Dejusticia's research and legal work.

Another fascinating session was on "Revolutionary counter-optimisation", a title to be reckoned with that was more than lived up to by a very thought-provoking talk. You can check the session's slides here and the "workbook" on counter-optimisation systems here. I also enjoyed a useful session from journalist protectors the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) on strengthening web-hosting, with some practical suggestions and case studies, as well as interesting discussion of new flat CMS's.

How labour rights are affected by tech – both as a result of automation, but also more specifically in the tech sector – was a theme in a couple of other excellent sessions . Discussions were really well informed and nuanced, diverse opinions were shared without any hint of acrimony, willie-waving or mansplaining, amazing case studies were offered from a broad variety of contexts, both North and South, we learned from and encouraged each other. It was really inspiring and I left with a wonderful feeling of solidarity.

I was also lucky enough to attend two IFF side events run by APC, where we contributed to APC's planning processes, fed back on achievements and generally did some intense networking!

The APC sessions were held off the IFF campus at a beautiful location in Valencia's Cabanyal village, a short walk from the IFF at the docks towards the beach. The Canbanyal district was built in the 1920s and was a working class area, inhabited largely by fisherpeople. Many of the residents decorated the facades of their homes in lovely colours and plasterwork, including many charming mosaics, a unique modernism that is special to this particular neighbourhood.

Amongst them all, Cabanyal Horta is a traditional building with large single rooms on two floors, and a tall peaked roof. It houses a community space, and local designers have made it their workspace and left their mark on the interior. Behind it there is a community garden. Unfenced and open, it backs on to some of Valencia's poorest communities, a large building where many residents are from marginalised groups. The garden has been lovingly created over the past three years by the Horta's folk, and now grows vegetables, offers a beautiful peaceful space for the local folk, a place for kids to run around. It seems that the local authorities are now eyeing the space, which had previously been filled with trash, for redevelopment, and the community is working to challenge the proposals and protect their lovely horticultural space.

My journey home felt like a rude awakening. It was so fantastic to spend time in such stimulating company, working on such motivating issues, that the banality of my journey home, re-engaging with the mundane reality of air travel, drew a stark contrast and made me feel all the more keen to pursue the goals we'd discussed at the IFF and with APC.

It feels increasingly like the world is getting fed up with how our common online experience is turning out. My hope is that people like those who I was hanging out with those days are able to show the way to use the internet without being exploited and more and more people follow the example and get away from tech giants. I personally think it's a matter of time before the tide turns and abandonment of the corporate web becomes a mass movement. 

Image: Casa del Oso in Valencia, Spain, by Edward Maw.

GreenNet supports communities networking for peace, the environment, gender equality and social justice through the use of information and communication technologies. As a founding member of APC, it collaborates closely with sister organisations around the world in activities which strive for greater equality through improved access to technologies and information.
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