Reclaim the Streets, Reclaim the Code

An interview with Matthew Arnison of Community Activist Technology and one of Indymedia's original coders. By Madhava
"We've actually got the access to global communications now - easy access because it's cheap - that the corporations and colonial governments have had for centuries. Now it's in the hands of ordinary people and it's turning the tables on globalization."

(First published in Punk Planet #43 May / June 2001: Special issue on Indymedia and the history, culture, and technology of media activism. This version seems a bit longer and rougher than what was printed.)

Matthew Arnison is one of the founding members of Community Activist Technology, also known as Catalyst (or CAT). On their website (, they describe themselves as "a Temporary Autonomous Zone created for the free exchange of information. Low tech grass roots net access for real people. Pedestrians, public transport and pushbikes on the information super hypeway."

CAT was one of the driving forces behind the success of the first Independent Media Centre (IMC) in Seattle, November 1999. CAT's software enabled media producers to publish their text, audio, photo, and video onto the first Indymedia website and have it display on the frontpage in a matter of minutes. This self-publishing system has now been implemented in all of the over 40 IMC sites around the world, becoming the heart of the new movement for a democratic media. In this interview, Matthew explains how the internet is empowering activists and activating technologists. He also shares the story of the origin of the technology behind indymedia.

Madhava: What does CAT do and how did you folks start up?

Arnison: We started out just trying to give dial-up e-mail access to people in Australia, then the internet went commercial and we didn't need to do that much so we got more and more into websites for community groups. Then June 18, 1999 came up and it was a big global protest in lots of cities around the world. This was kind of the first global day of action. Before that there was a global Reclaim the Streets day but J18 (the moniker for the June 18th day of protests) was much more about globalization explicitly. In Sydney, we thought well, let's do a webcast. So we wrote up some software that worked in all the ways that we thought were important and that's all the things you see in indymedia. We wanted to have the feel of things happening live, but at the same time we wanted it to be stored, a live transmission is useless on the web because if you miss the thing you can't see it.

There's quite a strong history of community media in it, that's where we're coming from I guess, except it's the Internet instead of radio or television. Many of us were involved in community television but the politics of it ended up really messy and nasty and there were court cases and out of control companies and all sorts of crap going on. We kind of all got a bit burned out by that, that just turned a whole bunch of the original TV crew right off getting involved in the community channel. So, some people just went off and did different things, some people got into making video cassettes instead of going on air and a few of us went and helped start up Catalyst or CAT. That was about 5 or 6 years ago now.

How did CAT get involved with the Seattle WTO protests in 1999 and with Indymedia?

What happened is that I'm doing a PhD in physics and I was in Colorado as part of that, doing research at the university and I thought I'd check out the local media activist scene. So one night I dropped in on Free Speech TV (a progressive satellite television station and internet streaming media provider) and I ran into Manse. Actually, through email from another Australian I found out that Manse was involved in the Seattle thing, so I got onto him and said "look, look, look, have you got any software to do the webcast for this?" because I'd started hearing how big this event was gonna be and the huge media center that they had planned and that it was gonna be multimedia and all that sort of stuff. I was worried that they'd try and do the web page manually because I'd seen a lot of people try to do that and it's just a disaster generally because there's too much going on. So I talked to Manse and they did actually have something but it was under [Microsoft] Windows and it was still very early stages and this was 4 weeks before Seattle.

They were more thinking in terms of a newswire between organizations so that people would put the media up and then other people would take the media down and use it somewhere else, they weren't really thinking of it as a public page. So I showed them our software and I said look, this is free software, you can take it and you can use it. I can help you work on it. I'll be back in Sydney but this is Linux so I can do all sorts of stuff over the net, whereas their stuff was based on Windows so if they wanted to run with that they would have been stuck with working on it themselves 'cause it's not very good for long-distance stuff. They decided to go for it, so they got our cobbled together messy code. We got the website up about 3 days before Seattle. Nobody in Seattle knew beforehand how to use it or anything about it which was a bit of a problem but it turned out pretty well.

How did you get the whole online self-publishing thing to work? Were people receptive to the idea?

I was kind of confident that open publishing would work just because it was just going to be too crazy trying to control it or edit it or filter it. There was just no way that we were going to be able to keep up. The other thing is that we just didn't have time to tell everyone about it. There was the media center in Seattle with people streaming in and out all day, and then there were different places within Seattle with people working on it. The unexpected thing that came through was just all the stories we got from individuals who'd been to the protests, been to the lock downs and stuff, who'd come back home, checked out the website and just written up their story. It's still making me tingle just thinking about it. You had people writing about what they saw on Capital Hill that night when the police just rampaged through a suburb, you had the video coming straight through of, I couldn't believe it, these people with guns and teargas, sounds of explosions going off in the streets. It sounded like a war zone from where I was in Sydney. It was good luck really. We [in Sydney] were just one part, but to be able to plug in was amazing.

Open publishing is a really big thing. People who are resistant to open publishing say, "oh no we have to edit, we have to do this and do that." I think that's the big challenge for us, to try to educate people and explain that yes, actually you can trust people, that you will get a lot of stories that you wouldn't get otherwise if you have open publishing because if you trust people to judge whether their story is news worthy then you'll get them trusting you in ways that they wouldn't otherwise. You'll get different stories you wouldn't get if you had an edited filter system. And they're exciting stories, they're amazing stories.

The example I usually give of that is from Washington DC at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank protests (April 2000). One of the early protests was against police brutality and the prison system. They had a permit but they were marching along and the police just cordoned off the street and said you can't go that way, you have to go this way. And the protestors did and it was a trap. They turned the corner and of course they weren't legal anymore even though the police had told them to go that way and the police surrounded this block and picked everyone up, put them on busses and took them to prison. They picked up the activists, they picked up the tourists, they picked up journalists, and they picked up a consultant on his way to work at the World Bank. So he spent about a day in prison and he couldn't contact his family to let them know where he was. Then he got home and was quite shocked about the whole experience. Somehow he must have found the indymedia site and he wrote his story on there, that's how I found out about it.

Working with media activists around the world through Indymedia, in particular people from the States, do you see differences in how people view corporate media?

I don't know if this is something people are aware of in America but it's a big thing here in Australia that people don't trust the media, despite the fact that so many people watch it. I think they're just doing the cooking or something and want something to watch. We're coming from completely the other end of the spectrum. We assume we can trust people and then we work from there. So maybe there's some things we have to do, like delete viruses or whatever. And that also opens different styles of journalism up. So you might have the straight traditional journalistic style, you might have the passionate rant, the personal story, you've all these different ways of telling stories. You've got the direct feedback with the comment system, you've got people reusing other people's stories. And if you've got copyleft that sort of forces the ability to do that. So I've actually seen stories on indymedia where someone has taken a previous story and then remixed it and turned it into a new story. This was a sound piece. So I definitely think there is a different way of doing journalism that's actually different than a lot of community media, community radio and community television. For some reason they got locked into this mode where they try to emulate the traditional media. You'd have your alternative news show but it'd still use a lot of the styles and techniques of the mainstream news show. Basically these people were in training for professional jobs. And that's where we can break the whole system down because we're not trying to have paid employees, we're not trying to have jobs. It's just volunteer based and hopefully it will always be volunteer based.

This sentiment of using a volunteer base to offer an alternative seems to mirror your thinking behind the technology involved with Indymedia. Can you talk a little about that?

One of the reasons that the internet is such a strong activist force I think is that it's built on free software. People who might be working for the government or for a university or just volunteering their time donate their code to the public through something called a copyleft which basically uses the copyright law to enforce the fact that you must share the code. If you use it or change it, you have to then share it again. The code can be copied freely but anyone who copies it must then, if they make any changes and give it to someone else, share the original source code, the raw material so that the next person can change it again. That's the genius of free software, reclaiming public code, but using the copyright laws to do it.

So, that's why the internet is so strong. It's built on this incredibly reliable free software because there's this whole free software ethic that ties in with the decentralization and the freedom from censorship and editors. In the last ten years we've also seen the rise of Linux on top of the free software that runs the Internet and that's such a powerful thing that it's giving Microsoft a lot of trouble. They're really starting to hurt now from free software. This is the biggest corporation in the world running scared from tens of thousands of volunteers. It's a pretty amazing thing and I actually think that's one the biggest successes of the nineties; taking the power away from Microsoft with just with a bunch of activists and software hackers.

We haven't seen the end of the fight yet of course, we've got the MPAA [the Motion Picture Association of America is currently suing the hacker website for publishing some code written by a young boy in Scandinavia that allows people to watch DVD movies they have purchased on Linux computers] and the record companies of America fighting the same battle, but I think they're in a really tough spot.

What do you say to those who claim that the Internet actually has a centralizing effect considering that it is disproportionately used by large corporations that already have lots of power?

I reckon that's garbage. The thing is that people look at the internet and they look at the 100% hype which says it's totally free from censorship, totally free from corporate control, routes around censorship, all of these things. That is an ideal and it's not matched by reality. But at the same time the same people who criticize the internet for all these ways that it doesn't live up 100% to the ideal, sometimes they forget to look at what we had before the internet which is radio and television. When you look at radio and television it's just a joke. You have Pacifica which was meant to be a community group completely get overtaken by corporate interests, the television is all coming through about half a dozen American media companies. Whether you're living in the U.S. or living in Australia, or living in Bangladesh you're international news is probably going through an American or maybe European newswire service and that's all based around the stock market, it's got nothing to do with what actual people want to know, it's just a side effect of financial news. So if you look at radio and television it's ridiculously centralized. You have one transmitter or five transmitters for 4 million people in Sydney. So I don't think it makes sense to that the internet is centralizing things. It's obviously decentralizing things. In Sydney there would be tens of thousands of people with their own websites and they've got total control over what goes up on those websites.

A sort of cute analogy I thought of the other day is the whole idea of the global village that we got with international satellite TV in the 60's and 70's. I don't think we really had a global village, I think what we had was a very small group of rich boys with big megaphones telling the village what the rest of the village thought. Now with the internet you've got the opportunity to bump into people on the street and have a chat with them, you don't have to be anyone special to have a two way conversation and we've actually got that access to global communications now, that easy access because it's cheap, that the corporations and colonial governments have had for centuries. Now it's in the hands of ordinary people and it's turning the tables on globalization. Finally people have some global sense of what's going on, rather than just governments and corporations.

Copyright status: uncertain. I'm trying to contact Madhava - he owns the copyright. Meanwhile I'm assuming the standard indymedia license: free for non-profit re-use. At the time of the interview, Madhava was a volunteer with the New York City Indymedia collective.

See also:

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