Indymedia - Governance

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Characteristics

Introduction: Indymedia's radical democratic governance

Victor Pickard:

"Even casual observers will note that Indymedia puts forth a radical vision for media democracy. Indymedia’s celebrated slogan, ‘‘be the media,’’ suggests that media production and telling of stories is something to which all people should have access.

However, Indymedia’s radical democratic practice extends beyond website content and mission statements to encompass institutional practices, use of internet technology, and global network operations. To be more specific, Indymedia’s radical democratic practice entails an active renegotiation of all power relationships by democratizing the media (exemplified by an interactive web-based interface), leveling power hierarchies (exemplified by consensus-based decision-making), and countering proprietary logic (exemplified by open-source software). Inherent in these practices are significant strengths, weaknesses, and recurrent tensions, which I trace in the following case study of the Seattle Independent Media Center. I focus on how Indymedia activists, through institutional practices and the amplifying effects of internet technology, are actualizing radical democratic principles.

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Aiming to empower marginalized voices, Indymedia goes beyond advocating greater voice in policymaking or a seat at the table. It seeks active re-appropriation and redistribution of space, technology, and other resources to democratize society and thus would level all hierarchies. Thus, much of the structure defining Indymedia as an institution can be described as anarchic (Epstein, 2001) or as ‘‘radical participatory democracy’’ (Polletta, 2002). My use of ‘‘radical democracy’’ indicates an expansive version of participatory democracy that seeks to equalize power hierarchies, correct structural inequities in all institutions, and counter proprietary logic. Such radical democratic practices as Indymedia’s consensus decision-making and open internet technology are invested with values of inclusiveness, diversity, openness, co-operation, transparency, and collective decisionmaking.

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Recurring themes of radical participatory democracy, democratizing the media, and countering corporate power emerge from Indymedia documents linked to all IMC websites. Themes of media democracy and anti-corporate power are invoked in the mission statement on the main page: ‘‘Indymedia is a collective of independent media institutions and hundreds of journalists offering grassroots, non-corporate, non-commercial coverage of important social and political issues in Seattle and worldwide.’’ Indymedia’s anti-corporate stance is evidenced by a rare content restriction (one of several editorial controls discussed below) that under no circumstances may any advertisements or corporate promotions be posted. Community empowerment through media production is also a strong theme. For example, the FAQ page states that Indymedia is ‘‘committed to using media production and distribution as a tool for promoting social and economic justice.’’ Elsewhere on the FAQ page, IMC activists claim that Indymedia ‘‘encourages people to become the media by posting their own articles, analysis and information to the site.’’ Under ‘‘What is Indymedia’’ the IMC is defined as ‘‘a democratic media outlet for the creation of radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of truth.’’" (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)



The Principles of Unity

Victor Pickard:

"The ‘‘principles of unity’’ document is the clearest articulation of network-wide goals, ideals, and policies. It continues to be controversial, however, because some individual IMCs tend to resist central authority imposed upon them by the larger network. Initially drawn up during the second year of Indymedia’s existence by a small, dedicated core of Indymedia activists, the principles of unity codify the radical democratic mission of Indymedia, acting as a kind of unofficial constitution. The network as a whole has yet to ratify formally the ten principles of unity as a binding document. Nevertheless, to be accepted into the network, all new IMCs must demonstrate adherence to these principles; the induction process is initiated by filling out a form and submitting it to the New IMC email list for global network consensus.

The first principle establishes that all IMCs are ‘‘based upon principles of equality, decentralization and local autonomy.’’

The second principle emphasizes openness:

- ‘‘All IMCs consider open exchange of and open access to information a prerequisite to the building of a more free and just society.’’

The fourth principle says that all IMCs must allow individuals, groups, and institutions to express their views via open publishing on IMC websites. Principle five declares that all IMCs must remain not-for-profit, thus barring any commercial enterprises from using the newswire.

Perhaps the most defining principle is number six, which mandates consensus-based decision-making, Indymedia’s signature institutional practice:

- All IMCs recognize the importance of process to social change and are committed to the development of non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian relationships, from interpersonal relationships to group dynamics. Therefore, [all IMCs] shall organize themselves collectively and be committed to the principle of consensus decisionmaking and the development of a direct, participatory democratic process that is transparent to its membership. (http://docs.indymedia.org/view/Global/Principles OfUnity)

Although many members consider these principles central to Indymedia identity, how they are interpreted and implemented remains a contentious topic at meetings and on various local and global email lists. Different renderings of consensus decision-making (defined in the sixth principle) have led to competing visions of Indymedia process. For example, some IMC activists have advocated for ‘‘consensus minus one,’’ to avoid letting individuals derail the process. Even a form of majoritarian voting has been seriously discussed in some cases. These variations are increasing, given the growing number of newly admitted IMCs from a multitude of specific socio-political contexts." (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)


Open Source and Open Publishing

Victor Pickard:

"With its user-driven news production, collective editing, and open source practices, Indymedia has been in the vanguard of implementing technical strategies that engender and amplify democratic processes. As an innovative web-based communications model, Indymedia utilizes a special type of ‘‘open-publishing’’ software allowing anyone with internet access to ‘‘be the media’’ by posting their own news stories for immediate upload onto the website as part of the newswire. Combining such democratic rhetoric with straightforward instructions for the IMC newswire facilitates public participation and decentralized news production.


Open Source

The ninth principle of unity states, ‘‘All IMCs shall be committed to the use of free source code, whenever possible, in order to develop the digital infrastructure, and to increase the independence of the network by not relying on proprietary software.’’ The Seattle IMC accordingly relies on open source software for many of its functions. Open source software is typically protected under ‘‘copyleft’’ restrictions, which reverses copyright law by granting permission to run, modify, and distribute the program as long as no new restrictions are added. This provides a general public license to users of software; protected under copyleft, software remains free and deprivatized (Stallman, 1999). In addition, open source has a strategic dimension: When multiple programmers contribute, software can be written more quickly, efficiently, and creatively. To encourage these democratic, non-proprietary practices, IMC software must remain widely accessible and have limited restrictions on user innovations. These technological attributes have benefited Indymedia: Individual IMCs develop and adopt new generations of the original IMC code, such as when Seattle upgraded from Active to Mir. These improved models make it easier to replicate, update, and modify the IMC website; they usually run on the open source Linux, allowing activists to distribute information easily through shared calendars, group listings, and multimedia news discussions.


Open Publishing

Open source and open publishing are similar technological applications implemented by Indymedia to promote radical democratic values such as de-privatizing technology, increasing and decentralizing participation in news production, and leveling bureaucratic hierarchies. Open publishing guidelines allow users to contribute original content or to comment on other postings.

Arnison (2001) defines open publishing as a process of creating news that is transparent to readers:

- They can contribute a story and see it instantly appear in the pool of stories publicly available. . . . They can see how to get involved and help make editorial decisions. If they can think of a better way for the software to help shape editorial decisions, they can copy the software because it is free and change it and start their own site. If they want to redistribute the news, they can, preferably on an open publishing site. (’ 26)

Open publishing allows information to be corrected and supplemented faster and more efficiently. As described on a web page linked to the IMC site, open publishing is ‘‘an essential element of the Indymedia project that allows independent journalists and publications to publish the news they gather instantaneously on a globally accessible web site.’’ (http://docs.indymedia.org/view/Global/FrequentlyAskedQues tionEn#newswire)

Lawson and Gleason suggest:

The content produced by open publishing makes browsing indymedia sites a mixed bag of thoughtful analyses, activist dispatches, on-the-street news items, rants, and reprinted media from unknown publications or institutions. Without a central editorial authority dispatching reports (or fact checking stories), readers are obliged to think critically as they are reading*/to allow a story to provoke further research, further reading, and*/perhaps*/further writing. (2002, p. 12)" (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)

Network-Wide Decision-Making

Victor Pickard:

"For any institution, decision-making is one of the most central and fragile processes*/not least because it entails negotiating power. Many IMCs face a low-level, but constant, tension between the global network and the local or regional IMC.

Based on the anarchic, radically democratic ethic guiding Indymedia, each IMC is an autonomous node within the network, united only by a uniform design, hyperlink connections, and a shared commitment to the principles of unity. For the few decisions being made that affect the entire network, such as the handling of large sums of money, the large distributed network of autonomous collectives must somehow come to consensus despite cultural and international differences." (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)


Spokes Council Model

Victor Pickard:

"The Seattle IMC follows a spokes council model that was first perfected during the 1999 WTO protests by the Direct Action Network (DAN), a loose coalition of hundreds of activist groups. The spokes council model has its roots in the anarchic affinity model, an institutional structure initiated by anarcho-syndicalists during the Spanish Civil War, and is characterized by small groups loosely coordinated via temporary representatives chosen by group consensus. The spokes council model allows for mediation between autonomous working/affinity groups, or nodes within the network, and the larger institutional body. This model is seen at work both at the local IMC collective and the global network*/the latter based on the notion that sustainability for large networks like Indymedia depends on this less bureaucratic and more collectivist system. Accordingly, Seattle’s IMC institutional structure is based on a non-hierarchical collective comprising nearly a dozen smaller volunteer collectives, or working groups, including editorial, finance, liaison, spokes council, media, space, and tech. These collectives meet separately with varying degrees of regularity. Some groups are relatively inactive while new ad hoc groups may spring up spontaneously to face a particular challenge. Several groups maintain their own listservs and wiki pages.

In theory, representatives from each working group are empowered by the general Seattle IMC collective to become ‘‘spokes’’ within the ‘‘spokes council,’’ which acts as an organizing and coordinating body authorized to take action when decisions need to be made more rapidly. The Seattle IMC collective as a whole may also delegate additional projects or responsibilities to the spokes council. A core group is appointed by the general collective to serve limited terms. This raises potential problems with hierarchy formation, so there is a frequent turnover of positions. Although consensus for spokes nominations is usually a smooth process, Polletta (2002) identifies the potential challenge for a token leadership position as a common pressure point where the consensus process may falter, especially since often no default voting procedure is in place." (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)


Open Meetings

Victor Pickard:

"The Seattle IMC is one of the privileged IMCs that maintains a physical site where members meet on a regular basis. In addition to the working group meetings, bimonthly general meetings are held to decide policy. In Seattle, these meetings are open to anyone. They are usually long and sometimes contentious. Meeting topics range from the philosophical, such as the meaning of the ‘‘principles of unity,’’ to the banal, such as toilet-cleaning duty. As with most IMC communications, many issues discussed during general meetings are negotiated as much*/if not more*/online, though face-to-face meetings are considered vital, especially for airing out tensions that may build up during computer-mediated communications. Online discussions take place at the local level on any number of working group or general membership listservs. Several listservs are dedicated to global-level discussions, such as ‘‘Process,’’ ‘‘Communications,’’ ‘‘Finance,’’ and ‘‘New IMC.’’ These network-wide discussions also sometimes occur during real-time online chats via a program called Internet Relay Chat (IRC). The IRC serves as a kind of meeting place for representatives from far-flung IMCs to gather at designated times. However, the utility of IRC for making global network-wide decisions has been limited thus far." (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)


Consensus-Based Decision-Making

Victor Pickard:

"The most exemplary of Indymedia’s radical democratic institutional codes is an adherence to a consensus-based decision-making model. All IMCs utilize some form of consensus decision-making, which is codified in IMC documents. The success of consensus decision-making is based on institutional memory, constant reflexivity concerning process, and strong interpersonal relationships founded on trust. The Seattle IMC describes its consensus process in a website-linked document titled ‘‘Detailed Description of Consensus Decision Making,’’ which is part of an online publication, On Conflict and Consensus, published by members of the Consensus Network (Butler & Rothstein, 1987; see http://www.consensus.net). This online resource occasionally is referred to on the general listserv and during meetings. It addresses efficiency, leadership, discussion, and equality; it suggests that proposals be considered and, if necessary, reworked by the group to reach the best decision for the community as a whole.

For activist groups like Indymedia, consensus is understood to mean that everyone feels that his or her input was considered in the decision-making process (Polletta, 2002). The Seattle IMC’s meetings allow for several levels of consensus and ways to register dissent without derailing the process, including ‘‘reservations’’ (have concerns), ‘‘non-support’’ or a state of ‘‘non-disagreement’’ (the person sees no need for the decision), or ‘‘stand aside’’ (it may be a mistake but a person can live with it). Making a ‘‘block’’ indicates that the person feels the decision goes against fundamental IMC principles. This stops any affirmative decision." (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)


Evaluation

Victor Pickard:

Introduction: Strengths and Limitations of Indymedia’s Radical Democracy

"The remarkable degree to which Indymedia discourse, technology, and institutional structure are consonant with radical democratic ideals is nearly equaled by the significant tensions in sustaining such participatory practices, especially consensus decision-making. Some theorists see consensus as critical to ideal democratic practice. Cohen (1997, p. 75) writes, ‘‘Ideal deliberation aims to arrive at a rationally motivated consensus*/to find reasons that are persuasive to all who are committed to acting on the results of a free and reasoned assessment of alternatives by equals.’’

However, some democratic theorists are quick to note the drawbacks of consensus-based decision-making, not least because the idea of ‘‘equal’’ is problematic (Young, 2000). Gastil (1993) also notes typical drawbacks in small group democracy, such as long meetings, unequal involvement and commitment, cliques, differences in skills and styles, and personality conflicts*/tensions constantly negotiated within the Seattle IMC. For Indymedia in general and the Seattle IMC in particular these tensions may act as barriers to actualizing radical democracy. I organize these systemic problems in the following section according to three ‘‘tyrannies.’’


The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Hauptmann (2001) suggests that radical participatory democracy was tried but failed during the 1960s and that deliberative democrats should distance themselves from such a position because it is inherently flawed. Some theorists reach back to Michels’ (1915) ‘‘iron law of oligarchy’’ to argue that radical organizations*/especially larger groups*/tend to become more bureaucratic and conservative over time. With this bureaucratization, idealistic and democratic institutions often come to be dominated by a small group of people. The formation of such an elite group, Michel argues, inevitably leads to oligarchy. Clearly, there is evidence of this developing in the Seattle IMC, where over time the most active members accrue respectability that translates to more de facto power within the collective.

Polletta acknowledges these oligarchic tendencies, but argues that increasingly activists are adapting sophisticated tactics to offset them. She convincingly argues that contemporary activists are more reflexive than in past eras by constantly reexamining their internal structures and processes, as evidenced by the institutionalizing of a ‘‘vibes watcher’’ in some radical democratic groups. Such reflexivity renders implicit power relationships more explicit, and helps bring into focus structural power inequities associated with class, race, and gender arrangements that persist even in seemingly non-hierarchical practices like consensus-based decision-making. Further evidence of corrective measures is the intense focus on process-related issues during and after meetings*/to the point of what Polletta characterizes as ‘‘fetishizing process,’’ which has its own set of drawbacks, such as excessively long meetings. In fact, some activists have decried being ‘‘processed to death.’’ In the spring of 2003 a ‘‘process v. progress’’ theme animated debate during IMC meetings and across the general email list several activists argued for less attention to procedure and more concern with concrete actions such as media making. This core tension is an ongoing debate in many Indymedia circles.

In another important critique, Bookchin (1994) argues that consensus dissuades the creative process of ‘‘dissensus’’ since it tends to pressure dissenters into silence. Allowing that consensus may be an appropriate form of decision-making in small groups of people familiar with one another, Bookchin argues that consensus is less successful with larger groups because consensus-based groups gravitate towards the least controversial. Therefore, he believes that such a process creates a pull towards mediocrity with the lowest common intellectual denominator prevailing, and permits an unintentional, but insidious, authoritarianism.

This position echoes what Freeman (1972) called ‘‘the tyranny of structurelessness.’’ In her classic critique on consensus, Freeman argues that when devotion to structurelessness reaches the level of dogma, it ceases being a progressive force. Freeman charges that within the power vacuum of structurelessness, ‘‘informal elites’’ arise that, when combined with the myth of non-hierarchy, can create an antidemocratic space. In this scenario, structurelessness masks power. Freeman also argues that unstructured groups are rendered politically impotent by their inability to accomplish the simplest of tasks. She offers a list of strategies that she claims are both democratic and effective: delegating discrete tasks to specific people by democratic procedures; requiring those with authority to be responsible to the entire group; distributing authority; rotating tasks; allocating tasks in a rational way so that task and individual are not mismatched; and providing equal access to information and other crucial resources.

Many Indymedia activists I have spoken with argue that the strength of the consensus model rests on the fact that it is structured, as demonstrated by the complex flow chart placed in view of the membership during each general meeting. Further, many of Freeman’s proposed strategies are already implemented by the IMC, such as mandating that all spokes positions operate on a rotating schedule, empowering certain groups and individuals to operate in ad hoc fashion beyond consensus, and relying on rational self-selection, although the latter may lead to informal reputation hierarchies by which the most socially outgoing and confident people, not to mention those with the luxury of time on their hands, take on a majority of tasks and begin to wield a certain amount of power.


The Tyranny of Ideology

It is incorrect to assume that Indymedia activists always strictly adhere to new ‘‘grand narratives’’ of participatory politics. Many activists argue for a less purist approach.

In describing today’s increasingly hybridized activism, Polletta (2002) suggests, ‘‘No one believes any longer that decisions can be made by strict consensus. Activists are more comfortable with rules, less hostile to power, and more attuned to inequalities concealed in informal relations’’ (p. 202). Similarly, many Indymedia activists are increasingly flexible and pragmatic about rules, so they can adapt quickly to new situations through ad hoc procedures.

Nevertheless, allowing codified processes to become rigid and unyielding to special situations and diversity of opinions is a potential peril symptomatic of the Indymedia model. A failure to reach consensus on accepting a Ford Foundation Grant in the fall of 2002 was a spectacular example of how ideological obeisance may lead to institutional paralysis in the Indymedia network (Pickard, in press). The money, which had been earmarked for funding a desperately needed international IMC conference, was turned down due to perceived corporate connections. Additionally, some Indymedia activists, in particular members of the Argentina IMC, were alarmed by what they saw as North American IMCs dominating the network decision process. Though such instances may evidence how an ideological pull towards strict consensus leads to inaction, proliferating evidence suggests that Indymedia activists are more comfortable with this constant friction*/indeed, even regard such tensions as a positive force*/and thus privilege pragmatic concerns over ideological purity.


The Tyranny of the Editor

Radical openness causes similar tensions on the technology side of Indymedia, especially regarding editorial processes and the relationship between the open published newswire and featured articles. The featured articles section takes up the center of any IMC homepage, whereas the open publishing newswire*/though still a significant component on the right hand side of the IMC site*/is only allotted about one third the website space given to the featured articles. Unlike the newswire where anyone with internet access can post news stories, featured articles go through an editorial selection process, suggesting the existence of a hierarchical value system based on subjective criteria contrary to IMC’s ‘‘be the media’’ mission.

Editorial policy is not specifically prescribed in the principles of unity and is one of the most important decisions left largely up to individual IMCs. Addressing this tension between the radically democratic newswire and the editorially selected featured articles, Jonathan Lawson of the Seattle IMC editorial collective explained the selection process as follows:

A member comes up with an idea, usually referencing one or more articles from the IMC newswire [or] significant stories published by other media sites or institutions. The member composes the feature, which then goes through an approval process by the editorial collective as a whole. In selecting features, we look for stories that strike us as particularly prominent (this is, of course, subjective for each member), pithy, well-written, etc. . . . We generally attempt to gauge the credibility of items we feature. We also take seriously requests for features which come from outside our circle, and are constantly inviting other people to join our group. (personal communication, March 13, 2002)

For the sake of transparency, editorial management of the Seattle IMC newswire is limited to ‘‘hiding’’ inappropriate posts, such as duplicates, hate speech, and advertisements. These posts are moved to a specific location on the site with an explanation for why they were hidden. Further, editorial working group meetings are open; anyone can participate and give input to all editorial processes.

As an institution, Indymedia is torn between aspiring to become a credible news institution able to challenge corporate mainstream representations, and wanting to be inclusive so as not to repel large numbers of people who may not be able*/due to lack of privilege and education*/to produce content according to mainstream news quality standards. This openness has also led to common abuse of the newswire by hate groups such as neo-nazis, which, in turn, has led to significant consternation and rife among IMC activists trying to decide how to deal with the problem. This tension has often led to conflict between those advocating for a pure radical democratic approach by leaving the newswire unmanaged, and others who advocate a more pragmatic approach (Beckerman, 2003).

In keeping with a democratizing agenda, some IMC activists have advocated for technological solutions to help lessen the central role of human editorial control. For example, some IMC members have discussed reputation schemes, by which individual users rate news stories, thus allowing a general consensus to emerge around the perceived quality of a contribution and contributor. However, as one Seattle IMC activist put it, ‘‘reputation schemes are controversial as hell,’’ and may even worsen the tendency towards elitism by introducing elements of competition and potential for abusing power. As individuals accrue higher reputation ‘‘points,’’ they may not always use that power towards egalitarian ends. Another possibility is using a syndication model similar to the umbrella IMC site’s model, which automatically draws content from local sites. However, some Seattle IMC members say this would be another way of privileging certain kinds of content, thus reifying the very power structures they aim to upset. Therefore, an easy technical fix proves elusive as the perennial tensions endemic to Indymedia practice*/between quality and equity, and participation and elitism*/map onto Indymedia uses of internet technology." (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)

Conclusion

Victor Pickard:

"Radical democratic values structure the technological and institutional processes of Indymedia in complex and, in some cases, unprecedented ways. Some tensions plaguing Indymedia have been present in radical politics since 17th-century England, when revolutionary groups like the Diggers and Levelers threatened the propertied class with an effusion of radically egalitarian ideas (Hill, 1972). Nonetheless, negotiating these tensions with new technologies such as the internet brings to the fore new power configurations, new strengths, and new weaknesses. Ranging from editorial decisions about open-published news stories to coordinating a vast global network, Internet operations combined with Indymedia activists’ adherence to their principles of unity have unleashed new opportunities and challenges in the push for radical democracy. These efforts reflect Indymedia’s modeling according to a vision that prefigures a more ideal society. IMC activists actively try to redefine relationships instead of replicating the power inequities, structural biases, and systemic failures that they organize against. Yet anti-democratic tendencies persist and are sometimes even exacerbated by the very processes used to counteract them. Mansbridge’s (1983) study of how consensus decision-making reproduces gender hierarchies supports the notion that some tensions remain or are even worsened.

Another often-overlooked aspect of these radical democratic practices is their strategic value. Traditionally, social scientists have treated these prefigurative politics as high-principled, but strategically disadvantageous (Polletta, 2002). Indymedia activists demonstrate what Polletta described: Radical democratic practice encourages innovation, solidarity, and dispersion of leadership skills. Further, maintaining a decentralized, non-hierarchical structure makes groups like Indymedia more resistant to state repression (De Armond, 2001). For example, no state can arrest the ‘‘leader’’ of Indymedia, nor can they sue or close down the entire network. This resilience was demonstrated in the fall of 2004 when, for reasons that were hidden from the public, authorities seized two IMC servers in London, taking down over a dozen IMC sites. Yet no arrests were made and within days the sites were back up online.

The leveling role of the internet is a significant new development in the evolving repertoire of radical political groups. The internet amplifies Indymedia activists’ potential for radical democracy by democratizing media production, increasing non-hierarchical communications, and redistributing power to facilitate coordinated, co-operative action. Indeed, considering that internet communications*/ranging from email lists and easily uploaded news stories to collective online documents and even a shared website architecture*/enable operation of these institutional structures, in the case of Indymedia the technology and institutional structure are mutually constitutive. Undoing one would disable the other. In other words, the radical openness of Indymedia’s technology is predicated on a radical democratic institutional structure; this structure could not exist without internet communications, especially on the global network level. Although face-to-face interaction remains crucial on the local level, the Indymedia network continues to function by consensus*/a consensus reached amongst thousands of actors who will never meet in person. Important questions remain regarding the often-passive nature of this consensus; we should interrogate whether silence on an email list can constitute participatory democracy. Nevertheless, building on notions from earlier projects for participatory democracy and pluralistic egalitarianism, today’s Indymedia activists are succeeding in actualizing radical democratic in unprecedented ways, especially as they elevate such logic to the global network level. Whether this model is sustainable remains an important question." (http://www.victorpickard.com/upload/rcsm157052.pdf)


More Information

  1. Indymedia