Sustaining Free Culture in Social Justice and Environmental Online Communities

The following is a post from a guest, Ian Elwood, who has been involved in social justice movements for some time and has tried to bring the Free Software and Free Culture movements to them. We post it here because it expresses a voice in the discussion of free network services. Indymedia London recently considered questions very much like these.  Ian Elwood’s thoughts follow.

The Internet is being used as the primary organizing tool by people in the global social justice and environmental movements, but many do not fully realize how integral technological and cultural freedoms are to having a sustainable activist movement.

As former Project Manager for CorpWatch‘s corporate accountability wiki, Crocodyl.org, I noticed that many aspects of interacting with a small but focused online community seemed contradictory. The purpose of the project is to increase transparency, accountability and respect for human rights by holding corporations accountable, yet I grappled with the lack of adoption of tools that were analogous to those aims. I wanted to find out if these themes were consistent in other online communities. My participation in a similar online community, WiserEarth.org, also showed that many activists in environmental and social justice circles are not as insistent about their choice of media and technology as they are about what kind of foods they eat, or the clothes that they wear. Although people insist on organic foods, fabrics and biodegradable soap, they tend to settle for less than what Mozilla has dubbed organic software.

WiserEarth is a site dedicated to creating connections, fostering collaboration and sharing knowledge in the environmental sustainability, indigenous rights and social justice movements. Renowned environmentalist, journalist and author Paul Hawken describes the current movement of people working towards these goals in his book, “Blessed Unrest.” His strategy for creating a directory of organizations that make up this movement was the beginning of a bottom up and global effort—now represented by WiserEarth.org. The site grew from his idea and is now a thriving online community and social networking space with over 17,000 members and 110,000 organizations. Through participating in conversations with WiserEarth staff and community members, a few common themes presented themselves.

Though its content is Creative Commons, its software is GPL and it is working on creating an open API, the majority of the community members on WiserEarth, as with most online communities, do not see the bigger picture of why these measures are important to maintaining the Internet as an independent medium where free speech, privacy and human rights are protected. The staff of WiserEarth understands these issues, but WiserEarth’s new feature development process stresses that the users of the WiserEarth platform should be the main drivers of new features. WiserEarth receives constant feedback about what is useful, what works and what doesn’t, and they attempt to accommodate community member requests as a point of process. Unfortunately, the community regularly requests bells and whistles without regard for more abstract considerations such as the negative social consequences of certain technologies.

The site regularly gets requests to integrate proprietary software into its codebase, create applications within closed social networks, and republish copyrighted content outside the terms of fair use. These things are antithetical to the work that WiserEarth wants to facilitate, because its mission is to help the global community connect, collaborate and share knowledge without restrictions. A copyrighted, proprietary and closed Internet—or online community—cannot do this. Often times selecting a free (as in freedom) tool is not considered, because the gravity of this situation is not felt by the community member making the request.

In this case and in others, I would like to see more community members making requests for integration of software, standards and other related tools that are held to a higher ethical standard. WiserEarth has shown a commitment to the underlying values of the larger free culture and open source movements in its actions, but has not formally made a commitment to the sole use of free and open source tools. It would be good for this commitment to be made, but action will not be taken unless there is a groundswell of community support for ethical web tools.

With a “Yes We Can” attitude on the mind this month, I urge people in the Free Culture community to help WiserEarth by being counted among its members. It would be helpful to have Free Culture people join discussions and educate people about open source, free software and the importance of keeping the Internet free for everyone. WiserEarth is an excellent platform for these discussions, because its members represent a large segment of the global social justice movement—namely the ones who are using Internet technology as a part of their social justice organizing. It is a good wedge community for educating and building more connections between communities advocating for software freedom, media justice, social justice and free culture.

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