Netroots 2012: a review

I found out about Netroots 2012 through a tweet by Sue Marsh, one of the main authors of the Spartacus Report, earlier in the week and decided to go, more or less on the spur of the moment. It was at the TUC’s Congress Centre in central London, and I paid for my one ticket late on Wednesday afternoon and received it in the post the next day — they are obviously pretty efficient. I was greatly looking forward to meeting Sue and one other Twitter friend, and had no idea who else would be talking. The event was intended for online-based community activists with a left-of-centre leaning. Among the people I did in the event hear speeches by were Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy (and previously of Pickled Politics), Raven Brooks of Netroots Nation, and Owen Jones, author of Chavs, who gave the closing speech. (Sue wrote her account of the day here and the organisers put up a list of blog articles about the event here.)

After an opener by Frances O’Grady of the TUC, Hundal, Brooks and Sue Marsh did the first three speeches. Sunny Hundal spoke of the need to “take back our country from the neo liberal economics that has dominated for years”. Raven Brooks talked of the history of online left-wing organising in the USA, which went back to 2002 when the left were very much on the defensive and the technology was very much more basic than it is now (no social networking sites, and even WordPress only really came into its own in 2005) through to dealing with the realities of a Democrat in the White House today. He showed a diagram of two triangles, in which the mainstream media is connected by solid red lines to the Republican party and Republican bloggers, who also have a solid red line between themselves, but the mainstream media, Democratic party and left-wing bloggers are connected only by broken blue lines — in other words, their connection to each other is much looser and there is a much greater level of mutual distrust, a similar situation to what we find on the Left in the UK and was particularly the case when Labour was led by Blair.

Sue Marsh told the story of how the Spartacus Report came to be — how a group of disabled (and sometimes very ill) people raised thousands of pounds in a short space of time to get a report on the likely impact of the Welfare Reform Bill on disabled people researced and written, and hard copies produced and delivered to every MP and peer, and how a particular MP said that if they received ten or twenty emails then they don’t worry, but if they receive 200 then “I start shitting myself”, and how they managed to get someone to take delivery of the reports and give them to the MPs as Commons security refused to accept them. She said that, although they lost the battle in terms of the WRB passing, they managed to change Lib Dem party policy at Conference (although the MPs ignored it) and made contacts in every party and in major broadcasters.

After Sue’s speech, there were questions and answers and I asked one about the importance of activists “owning the means of production” so as to guard against both censorship and the risks of the company holding the content going bust, particularly in light of some of the companies being unprofitable (e.g. Twitter) and some using what look like long-shot business models and offering services for free. At which point, someone tweeted:

To that, Sunny responded that he didn’t think WordPress was going to go bust (which it hasn’t), but Sue said that disability activists had seen some of their forums suspended because of complaints from major companies about posts criticising them, and that many activists host their content in the USA or Jersey for that reason. One member of the audience said that being shut down had not done Marsha Payne (the school dinner blogger) any harm, but in fact she had not been shut down, merely forbidden by her local authority from taking photos.

After that was over, there were workshops in the side rooms around the conference hall, but the group I was with (Sue, Emma, Lisa Egan, Jamie Cartwright and Jamie Robertson from Scope) decided we wanted to sit and talk and have coffee, so one of the able-bodied males went to get the coffee and tea and another (me) went to get the biscuits, introducing them to my favourite strawberry jam shortbreads, and we had quite a long chat about the things we had been campaigning about for the last few months. That lasted until lunch, at which point Sue went off to lunch with Declan Gaffney and we had an “open-space” discussion about what’s next in the fight against the government’s welfare reforms. We discussedwhy people are receptive to propaganda against disabled people (Lisa suggested it was because people could find themselves disabled any time and this is something people find uncomfortable) and the need to build partnerships with people that wouldn’t normally be expected of disability activists (particularly outside the left-wing media and blog ghetto) and contacts beyond said ghetto. (I actually took the notes, but they were taken off me at the end of the session for distribution, and my memory is pretty sketchy, sadly.)

After this, I left the group and went and joined one of the afternoon workshops, namely “Are we seeing the end of Internet freedom, and what does this mean for protest and politics?”. I only saw two of the three speeches, but there was a woman from ActionAid who showed some of the spoof ‘advertising’ videos they had done attacking the major supermarkets for exploiting farm workers and polluting the environment and the such like, and talked about the potential legal ramifications, the need to check facts very closely, and the need for a copyright exemption for parody (something I thought already existed). Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group talked about incoming policy that will require internet service providers (ISPs) to make customers “opt in” to supposedly pornographic or “hate” material, among other things, pointing out the potential for false positives and over-zealous filtering (e.g. censoring anything with references to sex, rather than just actual pornography). (Update: Some of my disabled friends preferred to go to the “hyperlocal blogging” workshop instead, and one of the people who addressed that gave her account here. Almost makes me wish I’d joined them.)

During the Q&A, I mentioned that there is in fact evidence of teenage boys having access to pornography and much of it is extreme and degrading, especially to women, in a way that pornography never used to be, as noted by Gail Dines and others. I can’t remember his exact reply to this but he did say that someone of 14 who was willing to try and access this kind of material is the sort of person who could evade a very basic security system using proxies or similar means; he also said that ISP filters should not take the place of parents having conversations about those issues with their children. Another questioner said that we should get into the habit of encrypting emails, as is common among activists in the USA, while another opined that the battle for privacy online had already been lost.

After this it was time for afternoon tea and coffee, and then it was time for five “lightning” talks before the thumping closer by Owen Jones. The talks included a slide presentation on how to make a Freedom of Information request (such as that you have to ask for specific information, not opinion and not “everything on road safety”, for example, but that you don’t need to give a reason), and information on what excuses they can give for not answering (too costly, national security and commercial interests). Another talk was on the importance of transparency, and an important point from that was that although transparency does not deliver honest government, the latter won’t happen without it. Jones’s speech, finally, mentioned the importance of social media for providing a platform to activists who would otherwise be excluded by the “institutionally hostile” mainstream media, and noted that the government had been successful in using the media to redirect people’s anger away from the wealthy people who had caused the crisis towards the victims, and playing a divide-and-rule game: dividing the working poor against the disabled over benefits, and private sector workers against public over pensions. He mentioned the Spartacus Report and publicising the death of Karen Sherlock, who died of a cardiac arrest not long after winning a long struggle to get the benefits she was entitled to due to her extreme poor health and disability, as examples of what social media can do for activists. (Part of his speech can be seen here.)

Although I heard Lisa say that last year’s event was much busier than this, this was quite educational in many regards and I found the most interesting speech in terms of how much I didn’t already know was by Raven Brooks (although I came to hear, and meet, Sue, I already knew most of what she had to say as I’d been involved in the campaign). The best thing about going, though, was actually meeting the people I’d been talking to over Twitter for months and discussing things we couldn’t online. I did meet people who were from other fields, including someone from a homeless charity who was helping a rough sleeper set up some kind of peer mentoring scheme, who I sadly did not keep in touch with (we also talked about the media’s representation of Muslims since 9/11 and the similarities with how they represented the Irish situation in the past). It was very much worth the trip and the ticket price, though, and I would attend next year if there is a similar group of speakers.

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