Rebel Geeks

Rebel Geeks: Steal from the Capitalists

As the Twitter co-creator returns to activism, his fellow hackers question the techniques he brings from Silicon Valley.

Evan “Rabble” Henshaw-Plath is a coder, activist, anarchist, and a hacker. He is also one of the original developers of Twitter.

Henshaw-Plath believes that, as a tech activist, his role is to promote social justice, and he is eager to empower civil society to influence politics through the use of software. He explains how TxTMob, a platform that enabled protesters to send text messages to large groups anonymously, formed the basis of Twitter. 

But when he came to the realisation that Twitter was not the world-changing idea he had hoped it would be, he sold his share. 

Now bridging the worlds of hackers, activists and Silicon Valley start-ups, he’s on a mission: to use techniques he has learned in the world of lean start-ups to support the technology being developed by activist groups.

The technologies he’s promoting are all about allowing people to truly have secure communications, and his attempts to use Silicon Valley techniques have provoked resistance from his radical colleagues.

Can Henshaw-Plath convince the activists to steal from the capitalists in the name of efficacy, or is that a political compromise too far?

[Mohsin Ali/Al Jazeera]
[Mohsin Ali/Al Jazeera]


By Yasmin Fedda

The Chaos Communication Camp, one of Europe’s largest hacker gatherings, featuring camping with electricity cables, its own internal Internet service and strict rules on filming and photography, takes place outside Berlin every four years. Hackers and coders gather to relax, connect with friends and discuss the pertinent matters of the day – issues around the development of new technologies and the pressing political questions of surveillance and privacy. At night, the camp is lit up with light and laser shows.

Evan Henshaw-Plath gets up on stage in one of the main events tents at the camp and says to an audience of nearly 1,000: “We need to steal from the capitalists.” Evan is on a mission – to use the techniques he has learned and developed in Silicon Valley and various tech start-ups for the benefit of the activists and hackers working to develop secure communications technologies, which are essential tools for social and political movements to be able to organise.

My interest in activism and technology goes back to the anti-globalisation movement in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Just before midnight on July 21, 2001, I was in a school being used as the Indymedia centre for the antiG8 protests in Genoa. Indymedia was a global network of media activists, which, in the early 2000s, and before the advent of social media, blogging, and smart phones, was experimenting with alternative ways of presenting the news by using the Internet as a platform. I was in the building for a meeting to discuss what to do next, after days of intense demonstrations in which one protester was killed. There were also lawyers in the building discussing how to use the evidence they had gathered of police brutality at the protests.

There was suddenly a lot of tear gas outside, and police helicopters were circling above. The police forced their way into the building and beat some people and arrested others. They broke computers and equipment and took away cameras and computer hard drives. I hid, terrified, under a table.

The police then proceeded across the road into another school building where many protesters were sleeping. They indiscriminately attacked the people there and arrested many. I was with those on the other side where we could only witness what was happening and scream in anger.

After the police left and emptied the building of activists, many of us who were on the other side went into the school and walked around. It had been trashed. There was blood on the walls and on the floors. It was a terrible scene of police brutality. But we were alone. We couldn’t instantly share or get a message out to the wider world about what had just happened.

Phone calls were made to the mainstream media, politicians and diplomats, but it took some time for news of this event to be circulated. Several of the people who were arrested that night, it was later revealed, had been tortured by the police in secret locations. Although this went on to become a major case in Italy, and a number of those involved were tried in court, none of the police responsible have served time for their actions.

Although I thought I was politically aware, this was the first time I had direct experience of the need to create an alternative media. When the protests and uprisings began across the Middle East in 2011 it was fascinating to see the shift in news sharing, how different types of social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, were being utilised as tools of communication to directly share what was happening through individual people’s experiences. The news was being shared by these tools in a much more direct way than by the mainstream media.

When I was I thinking about ideas for this film, a friend from activist circles suggested I speak to Evan Henshaw-Plath. Evan was one of the cocreators of Twitter but also had a long and dedicated activist background. He had been involved with Indymedia from its early days during the Seattle World Trade Organisation protests in 1999 and stayed involved with its development in different countries around the world for many years afterwards. When I met Evan, I was excited to work on a film with him as he brought all these various interests together having been a developer and coder for Indymedia, Twitter and other fascinating technologies.

When you make a film, stories get simplified, and a lot of detail gets put aside to be able to construct a narrative that makes sense. The story of Indymedia, Twitter, hackers and activism have so many other people involved, who are no less important, but I could not include all these fascinating stories. I learned that with technology and the Internet, innovations and creations are made collaboratively, building on the work of others, and normally shared.

There isn’t one person behind any new technology or software but a group of people and ideas coming together. However, Evan was my portal into this world and his personal journey reflects some interesting developments in technology in the past decade. His mission today, and his belief that the values of coders, hackers and programmers do inform the technologies they create, and that these matter in what gets made in the future, is a lesson for us all.