Somewhere in the world, a dozen or more activists have occupied a chat room attempting to organize a mind-numbingly complex transparency project. The activists — a decentralized consortium of journalists, hackers, and programmers — face a number of daunting hurdles, not the least of which is the fact that the government is almost certainly tracking their every keystroke. Additionally, there are grave organizational problems, a lack of critical infrastructure, and an inability to recruit needed team members. They also have a sneaking suspicion that other activists — working on a different project altogether — have already figured out an efficient streamlined method. If only they could share resources without broadcasting their efforts to authorities. Better still, what if these activists could link together and collaborate with other groups pursuing similar projects that have disparate objectives?
A new system, developed by information activist Barrett Brown may soon offer such an arsenal of tools. The Pursuance Project, billed as the “world’s first comprehensive framework for process democracy,” was conceived with mass online collaboration in mind. Brown, who served five years in federal prison for leaking information as part of the PM Project — which sought to make transparent the abuses of the surveillance state — believes the full promise of the Internet is yet to be realized. The Pursuance Project, which he calls a “civic collaboration network,” will leverage online tools and relationships to create “a vast and formidable ecosystem of opposition to institutionalized injustice.”
A snapshot of the Pursuance Project might lead one to believe it is merely an encrypted project management system. But closer inspection reveals that there are broader ideological goals, as well as more specific technical goals. ‘Pursuances’ will operate as self-organized, scalable, interconnected relationships established via a “proceduralism of agreement” in a server-based ecosystem. If this sounds confusing, Barrett Brown urges one to visualize highly customizable and “evolvable organizational charts” in a 3-dimensional space. In other words, imagine Slack for underground democracy, an encrypted Trello for revolutionary journalists and hackers. Yet even these delineations do not do justice to the expanding ecosystem of civic collaboration Brown envisions.
He describes the way in which individuals would collaborate via Pursuance using figures he originally sketched in prison.
On the Pursuance Project site, Barrett Brown buttresses the illustration with scenarios matching each of the four figures.
In Figure 1, we have Participant Albert, who wants to work on prison reform. He has a strong idea of how he wants to proceed, but he needs help.
In Figure 2, Albert seeks to conscript a more detail-oriented person to help him flesh out his idea, which involves an informational packet about how to use Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. He also designates a way in which other participants can submit ideas to him and apply to join his ‘pursuance.’
In Figure 3, Participant Beth joins the project and the two begin to work together under mutually agreed upon terms. These terms can later be altered, as new powers of agency may need to be implemented in order to bring more people on board. Some pursuances could end up involving hundreds of participants. As Brown notes,“the prospect of exponential growth without a significant drop in average user quality is a key aspect of this system.”
In Figure 4, the pursuance has grown to include an entire team of members who may each have their own subset of pursuances that connect back to the whole. Some of these subsets may interconnect with other projects that are only tangentially related but that share core or peripheral concepts. The larger project can be customized in a variety of ways and will benefit from the Pursuance Project’s own“expanding library of structures that others have found useful….Most importantly,” Barrett Brown writes on the Pursuance site, “[participants] may link up with other pursuances – sometimes on a limited basis, merely to share data or discuss policy, but often more formally, in ways that involve shared obligations and coordinated action on areas of common purpose.”
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“The ecosystem we’re building is designed to incubate new tactics by making it easier for participants to experiment,” Brown explained to Anti-Media. “To get a hearing for good ideas, to quickly recruit effective people into structures that are purpose-built to conduct real work rather than descend into philosophical arguments and social drama, and to maintain access to a range of research, privacy, and organizational tools that will be available via a series of central ‘libraries’ – which will themselves evolve over time as users submit proven tactics and even pursuance structures that have been shown to be useful for particular goals.
“Everything that any movement, NGO, non-profit, or advocacy group is doing already will be more easily accomplished with this system,” Barrett Brown says. “The overall goal is to provide the worldwide constituency of honest and competent people who respect the rights of others with a means of organizing their efforts in a systematic yet agile manner, within an ecosystem that serves to build upon itself, to rapidly expand while maintaining a high average quality of contributors, and to perpetually demonstrate itself as a viable alternative to the broken institutions that have brought us to this point.”
The system, whose technical implementation is being managed by Steven Phillips, an open-source software developer who is a regular speaker at DefCon, will integrate his own project, LeapChat, an end-to-end encrypted chat platform, as well as a task management system called Ensue. Cutting-edge applications for research, collaboration, and information management, such as Transparency Toolkit, will also be integrated. Phillips has made the entire code for Pursuance open source at GitHub.
The team running Pursuance is also worth noting – a veritable who’s who of not only cryptography and open source development, but also information activism from across the international political spectrum. The board of directors includes Icelandic Member of Parliament, poet, and Pirate Party member Birgitta Jonsdottir; CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou; former Columbia Journalism Review board member, author, and WhoWhatWhy founder Russ Baker; retired Professor Mano Singham of Case Western University; Professor Robert Tynes of Bard University; author, intelligence critic, and former CIA Directorate of Operations covert asset Barry Eisler; criminal defense attorney Jay Leiderman, who specializes in defending activists; Pirate Party International board member Raymond Johansen; and actor and filmmaker Alex Winter (yes, Bill from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure).
Barrett Brown imagines nothing less than a “technocratic super-organism” that will challenge the grossly incompetent institutional democracy that’s currently running off the rails. Collaboration is the key. In an article for Vice Motherboard, Brown notes that “the most important fact of the 21st century is that any individual can now collaborate with any other individual on the planet.”
“People will build pursuances in order to better conduct those tactics that have already worked in the past, both offline and online, whether it be coordinating insurrections against dictatorships (as happened in Tunisia, for instance, with support from Anonymous and other groups in the form of software to prevent protest leaders from being identified via the nation’s espionage services, media interfacing, disruption of government servers); aiding long-term democratic movements (which we did with Bahrain’s opposition, though with more limited successes generally involving identifying the U.S. companies that did propaganda and espionage for the government); doing crowd-sourced research on subjects that are as of yet poorly understood (the campaign against the intelligence contractors); organizing information and resistance campaigns (such as with SOPA); overseeing effective, results-oriented protests as means of building opposition to criminalized institutions (as Anonymous did so well against the Church of Scientology in 2008); providing various forms of training and support for specialized tasks (as was done in certain Anonymous channels where experienced activists taught newcomers); and all the other things that have proven to work when done right.”
Barrett Brown learned many lessons from his years of harassment at the hands of the Department of Justice. One of these lessons, it seems, was most certainly not backing down from the fight. And he sees net-driven mass collaboration as the most important arsenal in an information war that is already well underway.
People interested in getting involved in the Pursuance Project can sign up for the mailing list at pursuanceproject.org and read the following document about the current technical status/plans for building the rest of Pursuance: https://gist.github.com/elimisteve/5f434892dba623aaae052aafa69456a4.
Open-source software engineers interested in contributing their time to the project can reach the Pursuance team at [email protected] or Twitter @elimisteve. Public updates will be delivered via Twitter @pursuanceproj.