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Inside Catalonia's cypherpunk referendum

  • 06 October 2017


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.

Despite 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,