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Countering There is No Alternative (TINA) with a Collective Skepticism

Date:07 June 2023
Author:Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn

Introduction: BigBlueBotton

As the coronavirus spread across the world in 2020, I began a research fellowship at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. I was not surprised to learn that all my interactions would be virtual as a result of on-going lockdowns. Yet, I was surprised to learn that I would be using a videoconferencing system I had never heard of. Although I was born and had completed my PhD in Canada, I had never heard of BigBlueButton. BBB as it is known is an open-source project initiated at Carleton University in Ottawa. Over the course of my fellowship, I would become very familiar with both the benefits and drawbacks of BBB. 

My German host institution stressed the benefits of BBB. Initiated in 2007 for researchers and teachers, data generated on BBB is held on local servers of the university. Unlike the American for-profit firm Zoom, which had apologized earlier that year for routing its traffic through mainland China, BBB is a local non-profit alternative. At a time when speculation swirled about privacy risks of using Zoom and other video conferencing systems offered by large multinationals, BBB seemed dedicated to the preservation of privacy and autonomy. These benefits were emphasized both by my host university and discussion boards of the open source BBB community.


Yet, as my peers and I quickly learned, BBB was rather slow and user unfriendly. Typically, only one person in a meeting could have their camera on at a time. I found that BBB would freeze and crash, not frequently but enough to make it seem unreliable. Despite being acutely aware of the risks involved, my team of research fellows eventually decided to join much of the rest of the world in using an American for-profit service and 'zoomed’ into our meetings for the remainder of our fellowships. Other academics, and both academic and government institutions have remained more dedicated to using BBB, with Wikipedia indicating that the French Ministry of Education being one of the longest continuing users of BBB.

Two instrcutive lessons

What my experience with BBB in Germany reveals are two instructive lessons for Data Autonomy in universities in the Netherlands and beyond. 
First and foremost is that alternatives do exist, but entail trade-offs. As universities and as citizens we must not simply resign ourselves to ‘lock-in’ by Big Tech services. Yet, if we want more privacy in online videoconferencing and other digital services we need to accept that there will be glitches, flaws and potentially slower (re-)designs that often accompany these alternatives. As economists like to stress, there is a price for everything. In this case the price is often our patience and willingness to accept the experimental nature of not-for-profit systems. 

Second, and at the same time, we must remain critical of alternatives. The Open-Source community maintaining BBB appears genuinely committed to the protection of privacy. But we cannot just assume that openness ensures or even guarantees autonomy. As my research on various applications of blockchain and ‘distributed’ ledger technologies has alerted me to, simply pitting oneself against the status quo does not an alternative make. In other words, there are many instances in which alternatives are – or may turn out to be – genuinely worse than what currently exists. 

A world of scandals, scams and frauds

Consider the case of the moment: ChatGPT. Its operator, OpenAI began as a non-profit. It eventually partnered with Microsoft as its CEO Sam Altman’s ambitions grew and the firm’s repertoire of experiments included the likes of Worldcoin, an initiate to give cryptocurrency to those who would have their irises scanned by a ball.  Research into these and other such applications of cryptocurrency’s underlying technology with so-called Decentralised Autonomous Organizations (or DAOs) reveals a world of scandals, scams, and frauds. The openness of digital design can and often does entail that everywhere, including ill-intentioned and nefarious actors, are able to participate.  

Data Autonomy is a collective enterprise

All this is not to say that experimentation with alternatives is not to be welcomed. But in our drive for Data Autonomy we need to be cognisant of the costs and skeptical of the skeptics. There are entire industries preying on desires for autonomy (see much of the cryptocurrency industry), but also collections of actors vetting, certifying and accrediting alternatives, such as the Open Source Foundation in the case of BBB.
What is important is that these costs and such skepticism not be individualized. That is we should not leave it to the individual student, researcher and administrator at our institutions to double and triple check alternatives to the status quo. Data Autonomy is a collective enterprise. As the literature on experimentalist governance indicates, we need to foster communities in which we share experiences and learn from one another in achieving our goals.

About the author

Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn
Malcolm Campbell-Verduyn


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