Revolutionary technology from Spain to Burkina Faso to France to Taiwan

This is part 2 of a 4-part series of conversations with activists from around the world.

Pablo Soto on stage with Julian Assange at the Democratic Cities conference in Madrid. Photo credit

Pablo: During 15M, we didn’t have Telegram. Now, we’re the new government of activists and anarchists and so on, and we’re using Telegram all the time. To the point that the day that Telegram is offline for a short time, we are in big trouble. Also pads, we use TitanPad, when it goes down we are in trouble. The pads we started using in 15M, but not so massive as it is now. Not they’re fundamental tools. Like years ago it would have been like having a lawyer or an advertising company, that fundamental. So I’m always thinking what we could have done if we had Telegram and Loomio during 15M.

Baki: We come from your experience. You have the problem of the ancients. You were there before: sorry for you. Really, I’m serious. These tools, some of them existed at that time but they were not efficient. Now they are very efficient. We didn’t put all our eggs in the same basket, we used Telegram and Signal at the same time. We used Discourse and Loomio at the beginning. Then Loomio became the thing we use, thanks to the Numérique Commission which made crash-tests. Then Loomio existed more than Discourse. We used TitanPad, wiki, sometimes Word, we’re in France so sometimes we use paper!

You should not have done the revolution in 2011, you should have done it in 2016!

I was in France at the time, what you did in Spain was so advanced, we were obliged to do at least as well as you! I think the next generation in Europe that are doing things — I work with Africtivistes, a network of African web activists. We had a conference in Paris that was planned well before, but it happened during Nuit Debout, we brought 80 activists from 40 countries into the middle of Nuit Debout. It was so inspiring! The people who made the revolution in Burkina Faso, they removed a guy who was a paramilitary commander, they removed him by using WhatsApp! At that time it wasn’t even encoded, it was public, but they used it to make Blaise Compaoré go away!

Pablo: It’s not one technology. It’s not that we can use Twitter or Facebook or Loomio, it’s that we have a critical mass of different technologies. Probably the smartphone is the key, portable connected devices. The software is not about one platform. We have such a huge catalog of tools, people can rewrite, transform, recombine…

Baki: This is the only decision we took in the communication commission in France, is that all the tools we use have to be free software. Say for internal communication we don’t have a Facebook group for the Numérique Commission, we have one public Facebook for Nuit Debout, but for our internal coordinating, we use free tools. We know that the code can be rewritten, we can check the security. Very early we were joined by the two main groups of free software advocates in France. I asked them to join us from the beginning.

Pablo: That’s very interesting, because the first night in Madrid, in Puerta del Sol, like 25% of the people who slept that night were hackers and free software activists.

Baki: In France it’s also the same. This made it easier to use the tools. I know zero lines of code, I don’t even try.

Screenshot from logbot, one of the g0v internal coordination tools

Audrey: demonstrating logbot, one of the g0v internal coordination tools

If you see an S it came from Slack. If you see a T it came from Telegram. Otherwise it comes from Freenode. There are many other API points too. The logbot is replicated in three different containers. The idea is redundancy. We are not against using Slack, which is non-free. It is useful because it is very accessible. For instance they have existing live translator bots, so you can type in Chinese and read in English. This is very useful for our international friends. But we don’t trust Slack because it isn’t open source software. So we also have the two-way robots that synchronise with Telegram and Freenode, so it is impossible for all the three systems to go down together. We always have redundancy.

We do the same with Hackpad also, which is replicated to Github and into one of our in-house built systems. There’s always 3 or more storage, and the canonical storage is controlled by us. It’s not very featureful but we own it. Normally we use the featureful ones, but the archive is with us. If they go down, we can go back to Freenode.

Pablo: Does the average user understand the architecture? Or do they just use it without realising how smart it is.

Audrey: I think we make the architecture pretty transparent. You can see the S and the T, we could avoid that but we choose to represent the channels that the messages come from.

Pablo: It’s a political statement.

Audrey: It is a political statement. We understand not everybody cares so much about free software, or people are attached to Slack. But at least we make it democratic and transparent.

Pablo: At 15M we tried to move away from Facebook and use N-1 and it was a big crash. It destroyed the user base. You try to explain why it is important to use free software but it’s too late.

Rich: This is the problem with democracy right, you have your ideals, and then you have pragmatics, and you have to negotiate between them. If people are on Facebook, just because you ‘should’ be somewhere else, doesn’t mean it is going to work.

Audrey: Actually we pay Facebook, in the form of ads to take people out of Facebook. It used to be Loomio, now it’s Pol.is. We pay for people to see ads telling them to get off Facebook and into Pol.is. We tell them the binding decision is happening outside of Facebook, and no matter how many sentences you type there, it won’t be binding. That’s the only thing we pay Facebook for. It’s basically feudalism.

Pablo: We do the same. In the government of Madrid we created the decide.madrid.es platform. We buy ads on Facebook to entice people over. You can discuss on Facebook, but you decide over here.

Audrey: Even Richard Stallman says it’s ethical to use some non-free software, if your goal is to replace it.

Rich: In these conversations the subtlety often gets lost. There’s a difference between the arrival of technology and the shift in attitudes that happen. The technology doesn’t cause something to happen. It changes what’s possible, and changes people’s sensibilities and their desires. People think, if I can edit Wikipedia how come I can’t edit the Constitution. It changes possibilities, but it is an interaction between culture and technology. Building technology is really easy, but building culture is 900 times harder.

Baki: The non-decision we took in the Media Centre in Paris, in the beginning we didn’t want a Facebook page. We had Twitter. Our challenge was to disrupt the mass media, to oblige them to use a new narrative to tell what is happening. If they tell nonsense, people will say ‘but we saw these pages on Twitter.’

The first night, one of the representatives for Anne Hidalgo (Mayor of Paris) said, ‘we will not let people privatise Place de République, it’s for all Parisians’. This an error of communication. These guys have been in media training. I made a tweet, one minute later, in English, ‘we don’t occupy, we don’t privatise, we share’. Anne Hidalgo retweeted it! It wasn’t Anne, it was Clémence who works for her.

Pablo: She had hackers in the house!

Baki: This is very symbolic. When we tweeted this, to say we’re not going to occupy this place, we are going to share it as Parisians, and every Parisian can discuss, we’ll show a movie or make a film or create a commission. There’s the anti-speciesist commission for animal rights. Every day commissions are created. We share the space.

We use Facebook and Twitter to share this information into mass media. The non-decision is that we use tools, only as if we were making a press release. Everything we publish are not strategic, they are just communication. Then for our internal communication we use tools that we test all the time.

Place de la Concorde in Paris

For example: we make non-violent actions. We wanted to block the parliament. There’s a bridge between parliament and Place de la Concorde. There’s a story about Place de la Concorde. When they took la Bastille, they occupied this bridge, and obliged the parliament to give. We wanted to symbolically occupy it. You know the stones of Place de la Concorde are built with the stones of the Bastille prison.

In general, no one can capture that place, but we wanted to. We used Telegram to decide the action. After the decision, we built groups in Telegram. We sent a message telling people which group you’re in. When you’re in the group, we use physical papers for 3 days up until the occupation. You’re in a group of 5 people, you can call them and say ‘where are you’.

We decided this because we thought French police would enter the movement. French police are very good at infiltrating the unions and all that. So maybe they are in one of those groups. So every group has their own location. Only ten people know what we are going to do. We knew each other for many years. We give appointments to different places around Place de la Concorde. From that place we can occupy de l’Élysées, Champs-Élysées, Matignon and all these strategic points around the city/

Paris map showing Matignon, Madeleine, Concorde at the top, and Montparnasse far to the south

So we thought we had a policeman in one of our groups. We called them the sacrifice group. We sent them to Montparnasse (5km to the south). There were many policemen at Montparnasse at that time!

We made a decision with the taxi drivers, who were on strike against Uber, we gave them an appointment at Madeleine. We didn’t know if we could trust them. We said we’re going to make a big action, they said they would support us. We took them to Nuit Debout, they made a very good speech, so we supported their struggle. So they said they would support us. They came with 15 taxis at Madeleine. They thought they were going to take us somewhere far, but it’s like 200 meters!

When the action began, the taxis came, we blocked the bridge, and it was finished. The police came 30 minutes later. To do that, we had to circulate the decision at the last minute.

The next action is prepared now, we’ve been planning it for 3 weeks. For the moment, even I don’t know all the details. There is a small group that knows all the details, and they will communicate at the last moment. Telegram is good for the moment.

We blocked the bridge, then we moved. The police removed us, we took the metro, then we occupied outside the National Assembly. There were zero police. We could have entered the National Assembly.

We blocked everything. No one was arrested, we were already going by the time the police arrived.

We had so many Spanish people helping us directly. People with the experience from 15M.


This is part 2 of a 4-part series of conversations with activists from around the world. Part 3 is here.

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