The internet of today is much like the analog world that birthed it – simultaneously a beautiful and terrible place, alive with possibilities but full of pitfalls. Cybernews spoke to activist Katelyn Bowden, aka Medus4, who is fighting to wrest control of the web from big tech profiteers and return it to where it belongs, the hands of the people.
Katelyn, perhaps better known online as Medus4, didn’t begin adult life as a hacktivist. In fact, she was a bartender. Her journey to the front line of the data wars began quite accidentally: some years ago, private nude images of her were stolen by a malicious hacker and leaked on the notorious website AnonIB.
Understandably, Katelyn took exception to this: why should her privacy and sexuality be exploited by somebody she’d never even met? Don’t get mad, get even, as the old adage has it – and so Katelyn decided to do just that.
Banding together with others who had similarly fallen foul of AnonIB and its enablers, Katelyn learned the digital ropes, launching an online hacking counter-offensive that would eventually see the website taken down. In doing so, she drew the attention of hacktivist collective Cult of the Dead Cow, who invited her to join them.
Since then, Katelyn has taken her campaigning against violators of digital and personal privacy up a notch: the Veilid software she is at the forefront of promoting along with its architect Christien Rioux, aka DilDog, has big tech offenders like Twitter/X and Meta/ Facebook firmly in its sights.
Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, take note: your global empires are about to be challenged.
You’ve been involved in a lot of hacktivism. There's the Veilid coding, which you, DilDog, and fellow activist Paul Miller hope will be a non-monetizing, privacy-secure alternative to the likes of Facebook Messenger. There's Badass, which campaigned against non-consensual pornography. And of course, there’s the Cult of the Dead Cow. Tell us your story in your own words about how you got into all of this.
My nudes got leaked online. Somebody had stolen my ex-boyfriend's phone and posted them on a website called AnonIB and I got really pissed about it. I was pissed at a lot of things, and that was the one thing I felt like I could actually do something about. So I did. I started contacting the other victims and we started this hacktivism thing. We ended up getting that website shut down after we manually defaced it with pictures of Shrek to knock the [porn] pictures off the website. It only has room for so many pictures, so every picture of Shrek we put up, it was someone else's getting taken down. We helped a lot of people learn how to remove their pictures and feel like they weren't alone.
But I didn't really know what I was doing when it came to running a nonprofit and, being in charge of something that big that had grown that fast, it kind of fell apart right around the pandemic. All of us were just burnt out and didn't really have any system for bringing new people in. I was invited to join the Cult of the Dead Cow, because I had been doing things by their playbook without even knowing it.
You might say it was a natural intersection…
Yeah. I'd never heard of them until I read the [Cult of the Dead Cow] book. I was like: wait, so I'm not the only person doing this. They had been organizing and changing the world and doing these big flashy things to get people to pay attention for a long time, things that I had been doing. It spoke to me and I was instantly a big fan.
Do you find this revenge porn stuff happens to guys as well? Have you heard of women doing it to men, or in gay partnerships, or what have you?
It's a majority women, but it does happen to guys, although the consequences are – and I say this very generally – less severe, because there's not nearly as much stigma around male sexuality. It does happen in queer relationships, that is a big risk. But generally, just the physical ability of taking a picture of something that would be deemed sexual with the face in it is difficult.
You're talking about the, shall we say, physical dynamics of getting a compromising picture of a man in a single shot?
Usually the stuff that would be considered kompromat is not as easy with the face in it and everything as it is with women. You know, biological things. So the consequences tend to be a lot different. There isn't nearly as much of a market for dick pics online. There's not places that are made to spread them because there isn't as much shame in having a penis. Whereas women, their shame – having a body or being sexual – it's a different world. But there were plenty of men that were involved with Badass that we helped.
"We're not selling this license to companies. We're not selling this to Twitter. We may integrate it with other projects that we think have the right ideals, but we're definitely not selling it to anybody."Where we stand: Katelyn Bowden promotes the Veilid code, designed by Christien Rioux, that will allow anyone to develop privacy-secure communications free of charge.
Essentially what you've just been talking about is fighting violations of privacy, but now you've taken that up a step. I think we're all becoming more aware of the issue of data privacy, so talk to me about Veilid.
I think right now is the right time for it. It's incredibly important. A lot of us are relying solely on social media for our social lives. We're sharing everything there. We're making plans. We're discussing things. And we are at a point where, whether you feel political or not, you're somehow being political. With the rise of surveillance capitalism, as well as various countries proposing laws and legislation that would scrape away at those privacy rights, we really need something like this. Dil[Dog] has been working on it for over three years. He's the coder, but I've been with him the whole time because I want to make sure that it can be used.
I don't want to become another Mastodon or, you know, even a Signal. If you ask your mother to download Signal and use that she's not going to, even though they make it very easy. The problem is they never marketed to users. They marketed to tech and the people who care about privacy and I think we're at a point where everybody cares about privacy. We're all seeing it slip away, the consequences of that, with people getting arrested for making plans to seek an abortion out of state. Things that aren't even necessarily illegal as of yet. Not only is that data being sold off, it is being used to keep us in line. And I don't think that's the way the world should be going. We need to make privacy available and accessible to everybody.
I started talking about the move towards what's been called a corporatocracy around five to ten years ago, and I guess we could upgrade that nowadays to call it a tech corporatocracy. Some people laughed at me when I first used that word. Should they be laughing?
No, not at all. I think that is correct. Facebook does a lot of lobbying. Like, a lot. And quite a few of the big tech companies have sway when it comes to legislation. US legislation, Canada has been affected – that's where Pornhub is coming out of. And we're seeing it over in the EU and Australia. Facebook, Google, they have all affected laws, and that would be a corporatocracy.
The Data Economics Company – Jennifer Hinkel and Arka Ray are the nucleus of that – would like to see all of us get paid for use of our data, whether that be to train AI large-language models or Google and Meta selling it on to monetize our internet usage. If that happened – and it's a big “if” – do you think that would be a better alternative to Veilid?
I think it's gone well beyond that now. Selling it, do we know, entering that contract, exactly what we're selling? The issue here is consent. And where I'm consenting to share my data, my data includes the data of my children. They're not consenting. They can't legally. But any data that includes me is gonna include them. If I have a health issue and that data is sold, how do I know that someday my great grandkid isn't going to get denied life insurance because they have a pre-existing health condition in their family? I see a future where that is definitely a possibility and that scares me.
I see the point in offering the monetary incentive here for people to care about their privacy. Yes, I think that it's a move. It might work [but] we're ignoring a big incentive of the human experience, which is that we all want to feel like we're doing something that matters. There are some days where we all feel like we are tiny little ants in a giant ant hill, and nothing we do really makes a difference. I got to join the Cult of the Dead Cow and was surrounded by these people that had already started making these differences, who had already changed the world. It was empowering to me to get the opportunity to do that again, with people that have the experience, the abilities, and the knowledge to do it: I want to make everyone feel like that.
I think especially people that get into tech, we have those brains that just want to build something that changes the world. I mean, that's a big motivator. And if they're willing to trade the monetary side of it – or at least do it in a way where they're not becoming the next Elon Musk, the next Mark Zuckerberg – I want to help them do it.
"Finding people that thought the way I did, or saw the world the way I did, wasn't something I was able to just spark. And I think it's the same for a lot of people. The internet has done the world a huge service in connecting us all."Why social media matters: As someone who grew up in a small, remote town, Bowden understands the value of the internet - and the importance of ending its corporate monetization by the likes of Meta and Twitter
It's a long road to travel, though, isn't it? I entirely sympathize, but how do we get there? You see, I'm old enough to remember what it was like not to have any of these things, and I would say it was a bit of a wrench even for me to get off social media and pare back my internet usage a few years ago. I mean, what do you say to people under 25? How do you make that shift?
We can't. Especially people under 25. That's all they know [but] if we offer them a free, private way to use their internet that isn't feeding into the corporate machine of a bunch of billionaires who they already hate, then, yeah, I think we could totally make this happen. With Veilid, we are building a community of people that want to build things. That includes things like accessibility experts, marketing people that are making sure the front end is going to look just as nice as the back end, because a lot of times that gets forgotten. And they assume the technical capability of the user is much higher than it is. If we build these things that people feel comfortable using, they know that it's safe, private, and they're eschewing Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, then they're going to be happy to use it. Nobody likes these guys. Nobody likes paying to see these billionaires do cage matches or send each other into space or whatever it is they feel like doing this week.
Your team is working on a social media app that will be based on the Veilid coding. But how will that be different to Signal, for example, which is already encrypted?
Signal relies on your phone number to be your unique identifier. Which means that other people can find you if they already have that piece of information. If you join Signal, everybody that has you in their contacts will get a little pop-up that says “Katelyn has joined Signal.” Now, some people might be in your contacts [but] you don't necessarily want to talk to them anymore. They might be an ex, or your old boss, or that number labeled Do Not Answer. They [all] get that text.
What we have done is created a unique identifier that does not rely on your phone number. And I think that is a big enough difference in itself. We are just as encrypted: Mark Zuckerberg doesn't have the keys to the encryption. We're not selling this license to companies. Dil wrote this: he still is working at his day job. This is his hobby. We're not selling this to Twitter. We may integrate it with other projects that we think have the right ideals, but we're definitely not selling it to anybody. We just want to make this thing grow and propagate: people get to play on it and create the things they want. If somebody comes out with a better version than what we've built, then cool.
So just to be clear, once it's up and running, this will be absolutely nonprofit and free at point of use to anyone that wishes to avail themselves of it?
The [essential] code is already up. The actual Veilid chat code will be released soon and Dil is getting it ready to be released before we release the app. So yeah, this is going to be free for anybody to use and Veilid itself is free to build on. We've already seen a few nice one-on-one ad hoc chats pop up. Other people have been looking into use cases, like medical support groups to move them off Facebook and private chats between people leaving their abuser [to give them] the resources they need. These are two ideals that have been put forth, and people are starting to jump in on those projects.
What would you say to people who say, “Maybe the best answer is to get people away from remote communication, away from social media, and just get them meeting up in person as they used to?” Do you foresee a time where social media will die the death?
No, I don't think we can go back. There is something special about being able to find your people online. I grew up in a very small, pretty abandoned part of the Rust Belt in Ohio. I would have to drive out all the way to Cleveland or Pittsburgh to see a punk show. Because there was no scene. There was no nothing. Finding people that thought the way I did, or saw the world the way I did, wasn't something I was able to just spark. And I think that's the same for a lot of people. The internet has done the world a huge service in connecting us all.
There are people that are coming out as gay or trans or going through that transition. They now have other people that can validate: okay, this is normal; you're feeling this way, normal. They have support people, are finding friendships all across the world through social media. Before that people would make ‘zines and go pass them out as a way to connect without necessarily using the technology. But we all need something to find our fellow weirdos. And I don't see social media going away for that very reason.
The question is, are we going to keep letting them monetize it and use it against us? I think that we can do better. People want to connect. I'm currently in a red state, Alabama. And when you're here in the Deep South and you know you're different... Different isn't looked kindly upon. Any queer kid in the Deep South needs the internet. Everybody needs to find their people. And sometimes your people is this weird niche group in Norway or this fun, silly group on Tumblr that understands your humor.
"I want to stick around. I want to see the fall of Mark Zuckerberg, of Elon Musk, of Amazon. I want to see the rise of community, of the people, of the users."Not going anywhere: Bowden and her fellow hacktivists are in it for the long haul, and will not rest until big tech's stranglehold on our digital lives is decisively broken
Going back to what big tech is doing, do you think that these companies need to be broken up? Huge corporations amass so much capital and that leads to the lobbying, which you alluded to. At some point something has to come from the so-called analog world, right, to mirror what people like you are trying to do in the digital sphere?
I agree with that. Actually, a lot of the things that we're doing are taken out of the analog world. We're doing things like mutual aid and community relations, getting people together. I've seen more homeless people helped because people got together and figured out ways to help them. I have seen communities thrive even under some really struggling economic times because everybody looked out for each other and they all put their talents in. This is what we're doing, taking a lot of those analog ideas and applying them in a digital way.
As for these social media companies, yes, they have the power of being able to purchase politicians and things like that. But I think the fact that we don't is actually – now hear me out – a positive. Because we are who we are. And I think that genuineness, that “we don't give a shit,” kind of helps us in a way. I think that's a little bit more relatable.
And, you know, we've seen these things all rise and fall. We saw AOL rise, we saw it fall. Friendster, Myspace… Microsoft is retiring a new piece of software every other week that people love. I want to stick around: I want to see the fall of Mark Zuckerberg, of Elon Musk, of Amazon. I want to see the rise of community, of the people, of the users. By giving people an option and being straightforward about what that means: to change and try this new thing rather than the thing that they're used to. If you give people the option, they might go with something that they know is not going to actively hurt them later in life.
In terms of what social media has done to debate and political thinking, there's one school of thought that says it is not responsible for disinformation or bigotry or intolerance, but more akin to pouring fuel on the fire. Academic studies suggest that people must already have that conspiracy theory ‘bone’ in their bodies to seek them out on social media in the first place. It's a sort of chicken and egg thing. What do you think?
Well, I think it's a double-edged sword, right? The whole Internet is a double-edged sword. Yes, it's full of misinformation. But at the same time, you don't have to go to the library and try to look up encyclopedias when you want to find out information. I think we all had that one friend in high school, that when you were alone with them, they were one person, but you got them in a crowd they became somebody else. That one person that had that ability to be both an introvert and an extrovert.
Well, there's people that offline probably are the sanest, most normal people. And then online you get them in a group telling them some weird conspiracy theory and suddenly they're thinking that: you know, body doubles of our president and lizard people. But yeah, I think that's going to take place in any landscape. And the only way we can really combat that is by reworking our educational systems. Paying teachers more. Making sure that kids are learning how to think critically before starting to approach the internet. That's more of a societal issue than it is necessarily an online one.
I don't have children, but I've interviewed a concerned parent in the UK campaigning for kids not to get smartphones before 14. Are social media awareness courses being taught in American schools to, say, nine- or ten-year-olds?
Basic internet security is not being taught to anyone. Astonishing. Seek out classes, it's pretty crazy, especially when it comes to social media. In my opinion, that all kind of ties into a thing that is terribly named, but it's called “comprehensive sex ed.” It basically talks about relationships and connecting with people. Grade kindergarten: teaching kids to ask for consent before you hug somebody; if somebody says they're not having fun, then you stop playing that game, that kind of thing. But that would also fall into: what does it look like when someone online is trying to manipulate you, or how do you know that you're in a safe place when you start talking about things? What does grooming look like?
It's something that I think should be taught in schools and made more available, because connecting with people online has its own unique set of consequences if you do it wrong. When I was with Badass, I used to go to schools and talk to them, and most of these kids had never had anything like that: frank discussions about sharing nudes online other than one teacher saying, “don't.” When there was an incident, all the girls would get taken into a room and yelled at about taking pictures, and the guys would get to go watch a movie. That was the common reaction.
I’d like to quote you again: “Forget Web 3. We want to bring it back to Web 1.5.” What is that exactly?
It was before the web became some corporate money pit. Before users stopped being seen as users and started being seen as chattel and our data started getting mined. There was a certain point where the web diverted from what we wanted it to be. We all wanted this open landscape that connected people and where we could learn things, you know? Instead, it became this.
I'd like to bring it back to the days where there was still hope, where not everything you do is putting money in somebody's pocket. Where you're not getting five bazillion pop-up ads for any free service, much less extremely niche targeted ads, and you have no idea how Facebook knows that you would be interested in that.
Something like that happened to me and my girlfriend. We were in our local bar, I don't even remember what thing we were discussing, but an advert for it pops up on her phone about a minute later. And during the exchange between us sixty seconds previously, we hadn’t even had our phones out. That was creepy…
Big companies have said they don't do that. But I think we've all had an experience or two where we can say, we think you do? Not that I sit around talking about crimes: if they want to hear me talk about my cat or my husband or listen to me play Stardew Valley for hours on end, fine. But it scares me because I have kids and want to build a world that is going to be kind to them.
Do you think they will get to grow up in that world you want to see?
I have no idea. I hope. I hope. I hope. I know they spend a lot of time online. Some of their best friends have been online. My youngest is a gamer and she's on the VR. All we do is hear her yell insults at other people playing games. It's very funny, because she's ten and lowers her voice so that no one realizes she's a girl. She sounds like every other kid in there: they all sound like 12-year-old boys.
I have to say though that makes it sound like gaming is still gendered, doesn’t it? When I was young, it was all about Dungeons & Dragons: it was offline, analog. We had a few sisters, so to speak, but it was generally boys, albeit from different backgrounds.
I wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons so bad. But like I said, small town... No one else was into it. Now you can either buy it off the internet or you can get a 3D printer and make your own. It's so cool. I think that is one of the most beautiful things about the internet, how we have made every nerd-dom accessible. You know what? There are probably 30 million Americans who have discovered [UK sci-fi TV show] Doctor Who, and they love it. They probably would never have even heard of it if it weren't for the internet.
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