An ongoing conversation about Kéfir

Author: 
Erika Smith from the APC Womens’ Right Programme and Kéfir, feminist Latin American libre tech cooperative



What began as a small fundraising drive in July 2017 for Kéfir, a feminist libre tech co-op, has transformed into exploring the importance of feminist infrastructure in Latin America. Tune into this ongoing conversation we will be nurturing here in the near future and join the fundraiser
 
You can also check out the “From steel to skin” manifesto that Vedeta member Fernanda Monteiro and Nadége co-founder Kéfir jammed together in the spirit of rephrasing help as interdependence and infrastructure as collective embodiment.  

Erika: How do you understand the concept of infrastructure in Kéfir? Why is it particularly important that Kéfir is a feminist infrastructure initiative and what has it entailed to bring that about? What are we talking about when we are talking about autonomous community infrastructure and - I think what's erroneous is to say feminist infrastructure as if that were an add on - what makes it feminist? 

Kéfir: Actually there's an article we wrote that, starting from a situation which was the DDOW (Distributed Denial of Women) strike, we addressed geopolitics in internet. DDOS attacks are common cyberattacks that unfold the, still very invisibilised, common nature of internet as a battlefield constantly under attack. That’s why we think it should be framed more like the "economy of internet", like some people put it, and what lays behind it: bots, spam, cyberattacks... In the context of Latin America, and unfortunately many other regions, there are also specific attacks. But there is this general layer that every site and account will be under breach attempt every day. Half of internet's traffic are bots. We have this context and it’s kind of scary and makes us all tense. But that’s why resistance is so important and we have to do it together. That doesn't mean we have to “nerd” about it. There is specific knowledge and experience in more and more complex societies. In a community we delegate; there are people that are more into this, people that know more about that. In infrastructure, it’s the same thing.  
 
Autonomous infrastructure addresses many levels: resilience, shifting this framework of understanding security and protection towards caring communities but really, at the end of the day, we easily fall into the dynamics of people expecting things from others perceived as experts. The situation in “alternative internet service providers” doesn’t change, per se. There are certain things that aren't so corporate, we don't cut off the service when groups don’t pay, for example.  Many times it does end up being people expecting stuff and paying for it and that’s fine, in the sense that you don't have to engage in a rampant agency all the time. It’s just a big struggle to cultivate something different. "I'm going to migrate to this place that isn't so fucked up where someone is going to answer my emails and I don't just chat with a bot, where I’m going to feel more understood" but then... and this is what I fidget about in the article: there is a difference between feminist infrastructure and autonomous infrastructure. There shouldn't be. When it comes to activism, it should be self explanatory that it is - by default - feminist, decolonial and anti-capitalist. But hierarchy shifts to where you are. Activism is modular still and we have difficulties being more intersectional. Even though there is a lot of people talking about intersectionality, in practice things are separated all the time in boxes. More than saying it should be something different, it is a lens that we apply a lot in Kéfir and in collaboration with projects. What would feminist infrastructure look/feel like? This is someething we’re developing withh Vedetas, a Brazilian transhackfeminist server. Going back to Kéfir and it's claims: we think labor and economy has to be on the table. It's still an elephant in the room and something that "Marxist people talk about". Gender, tech, economy and labor and everything put together don't tend to jam. 
 
Feminist infrastructure has to do with having real considerations about conditions of people when they are migrating. What is that process? What does it involve? It’s also about the people that are involved in the infrastructure, administering it. Everything that has to do with infrastructure, there are so many things that are invisibilised. You don't just configure a machine and that’s it. It’s investigation, maintenance, creation, developing content, advocacy, raising awareness, being in different kinds of spaces, intersecting fights and activisms, giving support... It’s an ongoing process... What are the internal work conditions and work flows and how are we rethinking labor amongst us? How is that project being sustained economically? In this same article I mentioned at the beginning, we pose the question: "what does it mean to be autonomous?” Does it mean providing hosting to autonomous collectives? Or does it mean we don't consider ourselves commercia, our services aren’t not money-based and we provide “free” accounts? Perhaps it means to have time for myself, am I a free person or are we self exploiting ourselves again? There’s no answers, just a lot of questions that we encourage to be discussed more in the events like IFF, IGF or whatever-F. Why don't we talk more about this? 
 
It’s more and more difficult for new projects to pop up. There’s so many pebbles on the way. The majority of these projects are donation and voluntary based and that entails so many fraying edges. These projects imply, to a certain extent, that you be a cis-guy living somewhere like Amsterdam, with all my due respect... For non-binary people, diverse non-privileged people to be in tech, that means we really need to change how we are doing infrastructure. With all tenderness, most autonomous projects aren't framing their discourse and action from intersectionality, or at least not from a feminist lens, considering class, identity... I’m not just talking about women. And this doesn't mean feminism is always an arena for this analysis but it is much more prone to taking into account more layers of identities and perspectives. In infrastructure related spaces, yes, it’s addressed in short-sighted way for a bit but it’s still more prioritised to spend the next three hours in how we are going to deploy this service in a better way. The hype and the interest and the motivation is in coding certain things and not in reprogramming others, reprogramming our lives.
 
When the Association for Progressive Communications began in the early 90’s, it was made up of lot of different internet service providers (ISPs) that were trying to interconnect to build connectivity in different places where there was none. This was before corporate interests, well before broadband. One of the things people became aware of was concentrating civil society in one place; after a while lots of civil society groups were on these servers because as they were getting on the internet this is where they would go. Sometimes there wasn’t any other choice, there weren't necessarily commercial providers in these countries.  But this also meant vulnerability because it was the point of access for civil society and it was pretty easy to focus on and attack that point of access. So I'm very pleased with this fundraiser, like the notion that "the more of us, the better", "we're stronger if we're more of us". That was a firm belief when internet was growing in the early 90s within APC. But also it’s against this idea of competition. For people that are trying to do surveillance, and for people that are really trying to attack, if servers are isolated it can be an ideal scenario. I’m not saying that being on a commercial provider makes it safer for dissident groups.
 
What do you think about that in terms of on the one hand working very hard to redefine what it means to be an autonomous infrastructure and on the other knowing its a red flag in front of a bull? The spirit of Kéfir is about taking technology into our own hands, which is why I find it aligns so much with “Take back the tech” philosophy too. We're really excited the fundraiser is happening and that Kéfir exists, not just to provide a service but to really question how these services are provided. Kéfir pushes us to examine what role we have; separating out these concepts of what it means to be a "user" and what it means to "appropriate technology". 
 
How to be autonomous and strong in the face of aggression? How is it working to be in one of several smaller community and autonomous initiatives that tries to go further?  A project that both geeks out on this aspect of delivery but also has other serious questions.
 
On our first version of the site, because now we have a new version, we defined ourselves as a "seed", a "local seed" in this bigger ecosystem of projects that have different life spans. I still think that’s in the message though more subtle. We try to convey this idea that we don't want to scale up, we want to keep it small in the sense of a neighborhood1 where everyone knows each other. And we don’t want to create the impression that we are the only people working in this field either because there are many projects that might not even want to be visible and that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. 
 
Diversity is so misunderstood and difficult at so many levels. How can we really articulate and collaborate from there? We talk so much about collaboration and it’s this illusion of being on this permanent collective chat or online group where we think we are all talking... There’s so many power dynamics and bottlenecks embedded in those interfaces.
 
We say “local seed” because of the idea of distributed networks. If you were to picture it: a fishing net that shifts this centralised master model where we just receive the good and the bad. Of course centralised systems can be cosy, comfortable… Hegemony is negotiated, it’s not something imposed and that’s it. I'm not saying we deserve it but it is a feedback relationship. Going to a more distributed network, where each node - which could be a person, collective or whatever – commits and is accountable but also has power and influence. In this terminology, federated networks are this idea of different nodes that collaborate, not in a completely distributed way where everybody does everything but at least it’s taking this idea of one-entity-controlling and framing it more locally or “glocally”. So local seeds, in any sense or project, are fundamental. Because of what I mentioned before like social-economical conditions, really for a project to thrive in Latin America, a feminist project in tech, it’s a mountain. You can be an organisation campaigning, creating content, documentaries, storytelling, but in tech, in tech as in this more "straightforward" technical knowledge and infrastructure and being a provider, it’s an enormous effort at so many levels. Such a big learning curve. Of course you can do it but... that’s why diversity is wonderful but hard to achieve. In infrastructure meet-ups, non-cismen and more diverse projects as a whole, in terms of geographical representation for example, are still unicorns.
 
Again, moving away from the concept of competition and knowing that that “fishing net” is going to be stronger with, and as, more feminist and autonomous networks are set up. That’s a bit how the idea of the fundraiser came about, making a commitment to Kéfir and the need for feminist infrastructure in Latin America. There are several networks supporting this initiative, particularly because they recognise that very distinct element that having a feminist autonomous network brings. 
 
Of course they are interested. They are allies. But in practice, its difficult, even for us. One thing is thinking diversity and intersectionality are important, another thing is how you really embed that in your day to day flow. How you do things, feel things and I think there are priorities. It is still more of a priority to get your server working and having more users, even in some alternative tech projects. It’s not on a pending list, in the same extent, to address diversity and create conditions of possibility for that to happen. In Kéfir, we use a work flow management system and we have as many issues in community building as in "technical stuff".  For us everything is potentially "technical" because "technical" refers to level of complexity and how you interrelate things. It’s not more "technical" to maintain Wordpress than to co-create an illustration that’s going to explain what a web service is - which is actually something that we are working on now in Kéfir. Or, for example, what a URL shortener does, this middle point that knows what link people are visiting, that is in the middle of the traffic. We're using other languages to explain why it’s important to shift from an idea of service towards the notion of common goods that people of trust are maintaining and managing.
 
People will prioritise security before looking at things that aren't considered technical (though in Kéfir they are technical). How do you keep these on your priority list and focused? A lot of independent and autonomous servers are frequently under attack because of the very people and organisations that they host - that’s part of why they exist in the first place. We saw this with the constant attacks on the MayFirst servers for having abortion sites on their server or for the Black lives matter or Occupy sites at the time.
 
On one hand, I think that being able to provide, having a response and making sure that your service goes forward is vital. And to make sure there is a distributed network to support you in that process because autonomous networks face this problem so it's really interesting how you keep this as a priority and intimacy in this relationship. It’s also a risk: autonomous networks are obviously going to be under even greater attack and may have less technical tools at their disposal and fewer human resources to do so. That makes it hard on people making decisions to opt for autonomous servers because their first thought is "oh, is my site going to stay up". They don’t realise that on a commercial server they might be charged for extra traffic under a DDOS attack. It’s more likely to have a commercial provider saying "I don't agree with abortion so you can’t be hosted here", even though in their policy they don’t say they are against abortion; maybe it cites service provider “discretion” for dismissing your content. So there is this constant censorship that happens, due to economic or service delivery concerns or providers’ hidden agendas. As a result, autonomous networks that are willing and interested and seek to ensure that expression are under more attack as a result. That’s one aspect of this. On other autonomous networks I know, just as in Kefir, this reality necessitates a fuller understanding of the technology. You don't build user knowledge, you build a relationship with technology and the people behind technology when you are talking about Kéfir services. Maybe that’s not the best way of thinking about it but it is, to me... because people stop being users of a service and really begin to interrelate with services and a provider in a different way.
 
You don't need to have known the "official history of internet" because that doesn't even exist. What the hell does that mean? It’s always the same story of "it started and this or whatever investigation center and then it was Arpanetwork..." and that’s just one side of the story. You could say internet started, in a more expansive way, in fungi transmitting data in forests... Anyways, this whole idea of how it’s built up in terms of what we expect from internet today. These big clusters of reflections of what is public, for example, and who has access to what. These giant platforms that gobble up lives and stories. This idea that there are just 2 or 3 big chaotic marketplaces where people hang around and gossip... you can’t regulate that. And I'm not discrediting the work that’s being done and so many feminist allies that are trying to twist Facebook's, Twitter's and Google's arm in making them more accountable and raising awareness with people. But it easily ends up being "be careful what you publish" or "separate your identities". What does it mean to "separate your identities"? As if we could do that. It’s patching bugs and errors and we're wanting internet to be this public arena because we believe that entails outreach and I don't know if it’s that way. There are ways of contaminating and articulating and pollinating other people we don't know and it doesn't have to be public. It can be other transmissions that can be quick, if you want to be quick, though we could question how speed is overrated. We're valuing, over other things, for it to be quick and for everyone and it isn't even quick and for everyone anyway but we think it is. I'm not going to talk about good and bad because there is no such thing but the side effects of that is that we are so exposed all the time. Its overwhelming. What we try to do in Kéfir, with inhabitants/memberships and the spaces we participate in and when we write and draw, is to unravel and entangle and understand what we want and desire together. And this cant be an "elite" conversation where people that can and have, maybe not pure time but privileges that allow them to have this discussion, no, lets do it in other places as well. Many communities have thought about this long way back in not necessarily internet-related contexts. They have and have had reflections that are very similar in terms of intimacy and opening and closing up, resistance, creativity, autonomy... So let’s just intersect and touch each other more.

1 "Digital neighbourhoods" is part of an ongoing investigation developed by Liliana Zaragoza Cano (Lili_Anaz) around autonomous servers, safe spaces, libre tech and potential bonds amongst inhabitants. This concept continued sprouting in Laboratorio de Interconectividades, a fellow project that influenced and inspired the beginning of Kéfir.
 
Erika Smith has been training women in Mexico on the use of computers and the internet since 1991. As part of the APC Women's Rights Programme since 1994 she is responsible for the implementation of the Womanity Award for Gender and ICT to end violence against women / Take Back the Tech! Mexico, and integrates the capacity building strategy group within WRP.
 
Kéfir is a libre/free tech feminist co-op based in Latinamerica thats wants to help build safe and free (as in freedom) spaces in internet. They defend the need to create together digital neighborhoods where people can trust eachother, express and operate/trigger without fear. Their cooperative is made up of activists immersed in social movements related with libre software and culture, feminisms and critical social economy. 
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