European of the Week: The cyber-revolutionary on Tahrir Square
6 December 2011
If Mubarak failed to cut the Egyptian revolutionaries off from the rest of the world last January, it was thanks to a Swedish student and theorist of hacktivism: Christopher Kullenberg, named “Swede of the Year” by the weekly Fokus. A profile. Excerpts.
Just after midnight on the night of January 27 to 28, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak ordered the country’s ISPs to shut down the Internet. Except for a single cable laid in the bottom of the Mediterranean that allowed the Cairo Stock Exchange to stay open, Egypt was totally cut off from the rest of the world.
Even the mobile phone network was shut down – all to isolate Egyptians and prevent them from organising the “Day of Rage,” when hundreds of thousands of people were to converge on Tahrir Square after Friday prayers to protest against the dictatorship.
By day, Christopher Kullenberg is a PhD student in the philosophy of science at the University of Gothenburg; by night, a ‘netizen’. That night, he and other members of a group of hackers and activists scattered across Europe that come together under the name of Telecomix were watching on their screens as Internet connections in Egypt were being taken down. In the middle of a chat with an Egyptian activist, Christopher Kullenberg’s ‘line’ went dead. What to do?
Fifty Egyptians at most were able to connect
The number of discussions on the Telecomix chat channels skyrocketed. In the hope of contacting amateur radio operators in Egypt, an antenna was set up in Belgium. All the hackers managed to overhear, though, was the Egyptian army’s radio.
Telecomix members then got the idea of resurrecting old modem pools from the era when cyber communications passed through fixed lines, and they even enlisted the help of a French service provider, which dusted off its forgotten modem pools and set up free connections to them. Once the material was forwarded and in place, the group faxed to Egypt the telephone phone numbers and instructions on how to go getting connected.
Fifty Egyptians at most were able to connect to the Internet this way while the net was officially suspended. In a population of 80 million, that’s not much. But it was enough to get news from activists inside the country when Mubarak’s security forces stormed Tahrir Square a few days later. For several days, Christopher Kullenberg and his friends got by on little or no sleep.
EU has become main target of Telecomix
Telecomix was created in April 2009 at a party held at Kullenberg’s home, and initially there were only ten members. They had met at the trial of Pirate Bay and were worried about the “Telecoms Package” [European regulations on telecoms] being debated in Brussels, which threatened the right to a web free and open to all.
The chances for mobilising public opinion on an issue as marginal as Internet neutrality were considered slim. Telecomix took it on themselves to put pressure on decision-makers directly. They created a website, posted the phone numbers of MEPs on it, and urged users to call them. “We found a way to short-circuit the political process,” Christopher Kullenberg remarks.
Taken aback, the MEPs told on their return home how voters had suddenly begun calling them up in Brussels to talk about the Internet. Since then, the EU has become the main target of Telecomix, which is trying to reach as high as it can in the European hierarchy. In political circles, Christopher Kullenberg’s academic title gives the organisation legitimacy.
"Cyber activist with body-piercings"
In the former Court of Appeal in Gothenburg, an old brick building, the activist shares a small office with two other PhD students. “The Netizens’ Manifesto”, his first and so far only book, was published six months before the Arab Spring. Now it lies somewhere in the piles of books scattered around his desk. He ought to be finishing the final chapters of his thesis, but it’s the chat windows of Telecomix that are scrolling down his computer screen.
Christopher Kullenberg was born in 1980 in the small town of Bodafors, in the “Bible belt” of Småland [in the south of Sweden]. After his teen years he left for the University of Gothenburg, and freedom. There he spent most of his time in the university library. He took a double major, got the highest marks in his exams, and went on to PhD studies.
He was then drawn into the black hole of cyber politics, at the time when the police were raiding The Pirate Bay and the Pirate Party was being formed. What interests Christopher Kullenberg is not downloading music for free, but what is happening now to the web – the shared infrastructure of our freedom of expression.
As a theorist in the philosophy of science, he was recently at Tahrir Square in Cairo, amid the tear gas, invited there by the Embassy of Sweden to speak to bloggers. For the politicians – recently he gave a speech to the Council of Europe in Vienna – he’s the “cyber activist with body-piercings.” For the hacker culture, he’s a philosopher who, at bottom, is more interested in the humanities than in engineering.
The Internet is not, in itself, democratic
Christopher Kullenberg is much like an old-style teacher stuck in a digital age, with a special ability to translate complex technology into a policy that speaks to all. Telecomix is just one channel among several. He’s also an active member of the Julia Group, a think tank that promotes a web free and open to all. And he has launched a scientific journal on the theories of resistance.
Everywhere, the message is the same: “I try to translate an existing practice into politics.” He belongs neither among the prophets of doom nor the technophiles. Nor does he belong among those who claim that we are inexorably on the road to a police state, or among those who argue that the spread of fibre-optic cables will inevitably strengthen democracy in the world.
The Internet is not, in itself, democratic. Christopher Kullenberg is the first to recognise that the net is now largely governed by a handful of multinationals whose number one goal is to limit communications to their business services.
That doesn’t stop him from seeing a great potential for democracy in the march of technology. Concluding his “Netizens’ Manifesto”, he writes: “A state that is unable to ensure that its citizens can communicate freely does not deserve to be called a democracy.”