Internet contested in Catalan independence referendum A pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona on September 20, 2017. Photo by Màrius Montón (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Internet contested in Catalan independence referendum

BARCELONA, 01.10.2017. The Internet made a major difference in the preparation and execution of the independence referendum of Catalonia on 1 October.  Seventy-three percent of the electoral offices in Catalonia were open on the morning of the independence referendum for the province. This was despite the blockade from Spanish prosecutors, judges and local police forces. There were very long queues to vote. Meanwhile the “guardia civil”, a military police, together with the riot police, entered some of the electoral offices in large groups to seize ballot boxes and papers. As a result of police activities, about 500 peaceful people have suffered injuries so far.

As a result of a long list of measures and countermeasures to avoid the referendum (many orders from public prosecutors, including just recently from a judge, to block public payments of many kinds), the Catalan government declared in the morning a “universal census”, allowing people to vote in alternative offices if theirs were blocked. This was possible because the validation of voters was done over the Internet.

The Internet has made a major difference in the process. This universal census was only possible thanks to the Internet. In addition, civil society has found ways to spread the message and enable voting in ways that were not possible many years ago. People could print their own ballots at home, and print ballots for their neighbours. A mobile app was used to inform people about places to vote and was updated several times as conditions changed. After the Spanish police forced Google to close the app, it was replicated by others.

Voting was slow and painful but continued to progress. There were many network attacks on the servers coordinating the process. The police disconnected Internet access and WiFi at schools to block the election offices and to many sites helping to coordinate the process. As a result, the Internet is now fragmented in Catalonia. More than a hundred web sites from public, but also civil-society organisations, have been seized or blocked.

A few days before the vote, the tech responsible for the .cat top level domain (TLD) was literally taken from his home by the police while showering and detained for three days without any formal accusation. As a result, the .cat TLD and many .cat sites have been blocked. Web site owners were detained and forced by a judge and the police to give away their passwords –  not only for the sites but also to their personal email and social media accounts. A judge even ordered a block for any related future websites.

Citizens and electoral offices have been using new imaginative and decentralised means to deliver votes and manage the census, such as using virtual private servers abroad, Tor (free software for enabling anonymous communication), InterPlanetary File System (IPFS)*, anonymising proxies, etc. The larger the operators, the easier sites were blocked. Diversity in Internet connectivity (in terns of both access and servers) created alternatives and more resilient communications.

Several local and international organisations are following and collecting details about how the Internet is being blocked and at the same time used creatively (relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to resolve problems) to protect human rights (like those based on decentralisation, anonymisation, indirection, replication, tunnelling, etc). In the coming days we’ll be able to have more precise details about what happened along with the role played by citizens and community networks and report back.

We may disagree in what democracy is and what should come first: human rights or the rule of law in a country. In any event, political problems need political solutions, not more police and repression. The independence referendum in Catalonia presented a useful lesson for Internet Policy work, regulation and diversity in network providers.  Among many other sad examples around the world, let’s learn and apply our lessons to build a more resilient, open and rights-oriented Internet for everyone. Our work and collaboration with community networks is a strong step in that direction.

This article is based on a blog post by Leandro Navarro on the netCommons, entitled Internet censorship and blockade in Catalonia – self-sovereign Internet infrastructures.

 —

*IPFS  is a protocol designed to create a permanent and decentralised method of storing and sharing files