Rodrigo Davies

Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

The revolution will be spoken - why voice matters for the next Spring

18 Jul 2012

For all the debate around the impact of social media on the Arab Spring - and Patrick McCurdy is compiling an excellent reading list on that topic - when a revolutionary movement is taking off in a non-democratic country, the social media information flow from within the country can slow dramatically. Protesters' concern for their security increases, while governments may seek to reduce the speed of access to social networks or block them altogether. The traffic on a hashtag can quickly become crowded with numerous posts from diaspora and foreign observers, but precious few from within.

But that doesn't mean the momentum behind the movement is slowing. The social media flow also only tells a part of the story, and rarely plays host to the most sensitive information.  Much of the rest is being exchanged and shared across borders via Skype voice calls, thanks to its robust encryption (as evidenced by the experience of Stephanie Lamy and others during Libya's information war). With the fast-rising tide of internet surveillance, the communications methods of those in sensitive jobs across the world have turned full circle: having been used to having their phones tapped, many are returning to IP-based voice as a fast and secure means of exchanging information.

But Skype doesn't work everywhere. It's actively blocked in some countries such as Oman, and in China an authorised version of the software is in operation - which can be monitored by the authorities. It has also become a target of those acting on behalf of threatened governments, who have been known to inundate potential supporters of dissidents with contact requests, hoping that they will be fooled and feed the government vital intelligence. Such are the security concerns around all platforms that some activists have abandoned online methods altogether and use so-called 'analogue activism' methods such as handwritten notes.

Now the digital anonymity/security initiative The Guardian Project has started testing the first open-source encrypted VOIP system, OSTN (Open Source Telephony Network).  You can install the beta version of OSTEL, the first OSTN provider, on any Android device and you're encouraged to build your own server, too. They've published a detailed explanation of the encryption, and unlike any mainstream social network, your communications can't be accessed by your OSTN provider. Safety from both real-time snooping and subsequent demands for information from platform providers will come as a great encouragement to those working for change in non-democratic countries.

OSTN technology could even be paired with the superb service Voice to Tweet to enable the dissemination of anonymous information via Twitter. Voice to Tweet was of course originally created to help activists in Egypt who were facing an internet blackout - and in the absence of an internet connection it's an excellent communication mechanism. But it remains unencrypted. For those with internet access, combining Voice to Tweet with an OSTN would fuse three powerful forces: the scale of social media, the security of anonymity and the fundamental flexibility of voice.

P.S. neither OSTNs nor Skype can shield their users from spyware that logs keystrokes or audio, something that has been used by several governments including Egypt. There's very little that platform providers of any kind can do to protect against that variety of malware - perhaps a gesture-based messaging system of sign language via Leap?