Episode 92

Niels ten Oever on Human Rights, Open Source, and Digital Infrastructure


September 24th, 2021

41 mins 52 secs

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About this Episode


Niels ten Oever


Eric Berry | Justin Dorfman | Richard Littauer

Show Notes

Hello and welcome to Sustain! The podcast where we talk about sustaining open source for the long haul. Our guest today is Niels ten Oever, who is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Amsterdam, and recently published a really interesting report from the Ford Foundation on “Human Rights Are Not A Bug: Upgrading Governance for an Equitable Internet,” which we will learn more about. Today, Niels shares his thoughts on what the internet is, what human rights are, and how to make sure that we all work in the open. Niels tells us about the idea he had to build this powerful tool for the people in Ethiopia and what happened with that. He explains how he got interested in Internet Governance, his thoughts on 5G, working with the Guardian Project to develop the StoryMaker app, and more about his PhD report called, “Wired Norms.” Niels also shares great advice for open source developers on what they can do to make the world a better place. Download this episode now to hear so much more from Niels.

[00:01:41] Niels tells us how he got into being a developer and working in open source, and tells us about working with the Guardian Project to develop the StoryMaker app.

[00:04:25] Niels explains how he came up with this idea to build this powerful tool for the people in Ethiopia. He talks about his involvement with Tactical Tech and more about the report he wrote for the Ford Foundation on “Human Rights Are Not A Bug: Upgrading Governance for an Equitable Internet” and he goes in depth about infrastructural norm of interconnection.”

[00:16:23] Since Niels is someone who is an open source developer and has worked with open tools, Richard asks him how he views the intersection between large unseen infrastructure, human rights, and open source as this whole idea of everything should be able to be used by anyone else and how does that work with him with the idea of privacy.

[00:20:56] Niels talks about an article that he did along with Mallory Knodel, that the New York Times printed called, ‘Master,’ ‘Slave’ and the Fight over Offensive Terms in Computing.

[00:26:06] Richard is curious to know how Niels personally chooses what level of the stack to approach to figure out how to be a better person. Niels shares his thoughts and advice for open source developers on what they can do to make the world a better place. He mentions Cloudflare as a company that has adopted a Human Rights Policy.

[00:31:58] We find out from Niels about writing his PhD report called “Wired Norms,” why he came out with it, and the best part of it.

[00:36:12] Find out where you can follow Niels online and learn more about things that he’s writing.

[00:36:27] Justin brings one final point about how Niels writes a lot of papers on 5G and how in America there a certain people that have this conspiracy theory that 5G is not secure, and since Niels works very closely in that community, he shares his thoughts.


[00:03:18] “Then we develop different distros for the different parts of the radio station that have been in use ever since.”

[00:03:52] “So we tend to think that you need the really fancy computers to do things, but Linux actually allowed me to reuse so much of the hardware and software there to enable freedom of expression.”

[00:05:38] “I had also studied a year in Berlin and one of the quotes on top of the Humboldt University directly when you entered is in German and it means “Philosophers have always interpreted the world differently, but what really matters is to change it.” And that’s what I actually wanted to do. I didn’t want to be an armchair philosopher.”

[00:08:42] “And then I thought like hey, but all these smartphones people carry around, they have as much computing power as my Linux boxes. Why don’t we actually do editing on that?”

[00:09:51] “So then I got really involved with technical tech and other organizations working on digital security issues, but also found out that like teaching people who were under the most stressful situation of their lives to do something else added on top and that the best possible outcome of that behavior is nothing happens is almost like the worst premise for behavior change.”

[00:10:30] “So, then I started wondering, why don’t we address this in the infrastructure itself?”

[00:11:03] “So, that really confused me because my whole premise, freedom of expression plus access to information equals social change, clearly wasn’t true.”

[00:13:09] “What is so interesting about the internet, which consist of more than 70,000 independent networks, lots of different devices from different manufacturers, lots of networking stacks, operating systems, that are all working together, that is possible through what I call “infrastructural norm of interconnection.”

[00:14:49] “But this is the nature of infrastructure, it hides itself, it only shows what it breaks.”

[00:17:47] “But, as open source developers know, the most central part in this are actually people.”

[00:18:35] “But, unfortunately, as the excellent researcher Corinne Cath shows, is that many of these governance bodies, such as the internet engineering task force, there is a total monoculture that is actually very resistant to change.”

[00:19:09] “And there is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it is wrong if they set the rules for a global internet.”

[00:20:56] “Together with Mallory Knodel, officer at the Center for Democracy and Technology, I made a really simple internet draft to request people to stop using “master,” “slave” and “blacklist”, “whitelist,” and that ended up being a huge route which ended up in the New York Times.”

[00:23:22] “But what’s the most important part I think is that it’s never done, your human rights are like muscles, you need to keep training them or else you lose them.”

[00:24:10] “If your code is used for a bad thing, that doesn’t make you a bad person, but it makes you a bad person if you don’t do anything about it and if you don’t relate to that.”

[00:24:37] “Our actions have consequences and people who work with computers have a disproportional impact on society.”

[00:27:20] “Try to make the things a bit better, try to document your code better, try having discussions, try having people who are not just all CS white dudes on the developing team, but really do your best to bring more people in.”

[00:28:43] “So, I do a lot of martial arts and I really enjoy it. And so, the first time you get punched in the face, you feel almost like insulted, right, like whoa, what, can you do this?”

[00:29:35] “And I think that’s what open source software is and can be really good for because we can fork, we can change, we can make iterative changes, discuss them in our meetings.”

[00:30:41] “So like it’s just another sign that says, “Club, need to comply to our methods, our tools, to be able to partake in this.”


  • [00:38:22] Eric’s spotlight is news that he just heard that Nadia Eghbal got engaged!
  • [00:38:52] Justin’s spotlight is cosign, a container signing, verification storage application.
  • [00:39:23] Richard's spotlight is Der Kleine Hobbit (The Hobbit in German) by J.R.R. Tolkien.
  • [00:39:55] Niels spotlights are** **organizations that are active in Internet Governance: ARTICLE19 and the Center for Democracy and Technology. Also, great researchers such as Corinne Cath, and great pieces of software such as the Python community and Debian. He is also working on building 5G networks and has the Ettus B210.



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