Inside Catalonia's cypherpunk referendum

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The referendum for independence in Catalonia on 1 October opens up an uncertain era for both Catalonia and Spain — a new period that may also impact the future of the European Union.

xxxxxDespite all the efforts by the Spanish government and the Constitutional Court to halt the poll, more than 2 million people were able to cast their votes. Yet, polling also came with a high cost. Nearly 900 Catalan voters were injured after national police forces stormed polling stations across the country to seize ballot boxes.

Two days later, crowds of citizens took the streets in peaceful and massive protest. So did scores of pro-referendum supporters on the internet. Blended activism at its fullest.

Protest movements turning to social media to voice their aspirations are no news. The Iranian green revolution of 2009 and the Arab Spring of 2011 famously leveraged social media for protest and coordination. In both cases, state governments reacted quickly by blocking access to social networks and shutting down the internet. Repression of bloggers and digital activists followed. The revolutions were tweeted, but the promise of technology-enabled liberation did not hold.

In Catalonia, events took an interesting turn days before the referendum. Pro-referendum websites were closed following judicial orders. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont took then to Twitter to recommend the use of proxies to access clone sites under the .eu domain.

As Spanish ISPs blocked access to the newly published domains, tech-savvy citizens picked up 30 new ones to create mirror sites: referendum.party, referendum.fun, referendum.ninja, and referendum.love made their way on social media.

As concerns over internet censorship in Catalonia increased, new supports came from abroad. Julian Assange offered expertise on virtual private networks, secured communications, and the use of apps such as Firechat or Signal. He also suggested Catalans bypass the seizure of regional finances by adopting Bitcoin, the flagship of the new cryptoeconomy.

 

"In our digital world, those responsibilities should always extend to cyberspace, as this is the venue where fundamental rights are equally at stake."

 

Likewise, Pirate Bay founder Peter Sunde offered anonymous hosting to censored websites through his privacy-enhancing service Njalla. The hosting website explains that Njalla is 'the Sami word referring to the way of keeping the non-wanted beasts out of the stuff you care about'. Catalans got the point. 

From another bay, the tech-savvy Catalan Pirate Party played a pivotal role by cloning referendum websites. The cloned sites used the Interplanetary File System (IPFS), an open source, distributed protocol inspired in Bitcoin and BitTorrent. The system allows users to view websites when the original server is down using peer-to-peer file transfer from other computers in the network. Contents use a cryptographic hash to guarantee authentication.

It is not that Arab spring activists did not receive support from hacker communities around the world. Quite the opposite, they came to the rescue in Egypt and Libya during internet blackouts and assisted with tools such as TOR to navigate the web anonymously. Anonymous hackers went on to put down government websites.

Yet, in Catalonia the Pirate Party took a different approach. When Josep Jover, one of the lawyers and party's candidate, contacted the international hacker communities for support, he just made one specific request: do not attack any web of the Spanish state. No web was taken down.

Pirates' efforts to protect webs from malicious attacks, regardless of their content, would later be followed by UN experts' reminder to the Spanish government of their responsibility to respect the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and public participation.

In our digital world, those responsibilities should always extend to cyberspace, as this is the venue where fundamental rights are equally at stake.

Eventually, a combination of secure hosting of the electoral roll and a last minute announcement of a 'universal census' (where voters were able to cast their vote at any polling station) circumvented the state's cyberspace tactics to block the votes on 1 October. Politically contested as it is, the 1 October vote will be remembered as the first cypherpunk referendum in history.

Throughout the unusually frantic days before and after the referendum, citizens in Catalonia coordinated their mobilisations on the streets via the widely popular WhatsApp, used by 70 per cent of internet users, and the fast-growing Telegram. Signal also became popular for secured communications. Recommendations, memes, and rumours travelled rapidly across platforms and went viral in minutes.

Activism advocating widespread use of encryption and privacy-enhancing technologies to bring political change in Catalonia is perhaps a sign of emerging trends on the internet: the horizontal, decentralised internet that Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, inventors of its core technologies, initially envisioned and are currently demanding.

There are many ways to enhance privacy in digital technologies, and encryption is one of them. Yet, when other fundamental rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association are thwarted it takes a social movement, and not just technology, to defend them. 21st century activism comes with an interesting paradox: the more it will rely on secured and encrypted networks, they more open, inclusive, ethical, and transparent it will need to be.

 

 

Marta Poblet BalcellMarta Poblet Balcell is associate professor at the Graduate School of Business and Law, RMIT University.

Topic tags: Marta Poblet Balcell, Catalonia


 

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Existing comments

I wonder why this approach is not being used by the Palestinians to gain their freedom from the oppressive Israeli regime.
Fredrick Toben | 06 October 2017


Often Australians know no Spanish history. Peoples like the Basques and Catalans consider themselves Basque or Catalan first. Both ethnic groups tended to support the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War and suffered accordingly. A very interesting article. I wonder how the Catalan independence movement will pan out. Could Catalonia survive independently? Like Scotland I think it could.
Edward Fido | 06 October 2017


A fascinating and informative article. Protecting citizens rights to freedom of speech and fulfillment of their basic democratic rights, such a voting in a referendum or plebiscite, is vital for all democratic communities. Wonderful to see Catalonia showing how it is done in this modern cyber age.
John Edwards | 10 October 2017


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