Security for the real world

August 7, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’m kicking myself for missing Observe. Hack. Make. – it sounds like it was an amazing event that brought together geek and activist communities in a really interesting and valuable way. Coverage coming through on Twitter also suggested that #OHM2013 hosted political discussions that were informed by a more complex political analysis than the ones I often see surrounding issues about digital security and civil rights. There was a lot of excitement around Eleanor Saitta’s talk in particular, Ethics and Power in the Long War. I encourage you to read the full transcript, but there were a few stand-out points that are worth emphasising.

  • Saitta talked about the need for those involved in developing digital security to stop harassing each other and have “a polite technical conversation like professionals do in the real world. (Sarah Sharp’s recent calls for civility on the Linux mailing list give good insight into some of the culture surrounding this.) This is especially important to me because poor communication and unwelcoming discussion are one of the barriers between better inter-community engagement I’ve noticed coming up over and over in my research and activism. Aggressive communication styles within a community are not only unproductive and tiring for those involved, they also makes it harder for those outside the community to consider joining, or coming in and saying, “hey, we need some help with this tool” or “can we link up on this issue”.
  • She also argued that “the user model is the thing that needs to come first”. There are some really useful security tools out there that people I know would benefit from, but they’re not using them because they require investing too much time and energy to learn, and the benefits aren’t clear.
  • Linked to this is her injunction to value the “incredibly complex and very powerful pattern matching CPU hooked-up to your system that you are not using … the user”. Many activists on the ground don’t have the skills (or the interest) to work through complicated tools that aren’t user-friendly, but they do have other important skills and knowledge, including an awareness of their own needs and an informed political analysis.
  • Saitta argued that we need new tools to be informed by a theory of change, an understanding of the larger battles and overall landscape in which tools will be deployed. Although her example focused on the brittleness of security systems (once stuff breaks, it really breaks), I’d argue that we also need to think about this in terms of a political theory of change. The theory of change for a lot of digital rights activism at the moment is, ‘more information will necessarily change politics’. More information helps, but we also need to understand that the system is sustained by powerful interests, not just ignorance, and our theory of change needs to be informed by that. (Which I think is happening, increasingly.)
  • She also calls out the tech community’s claims to being apolitical: “we don’t get to be apolitical anymore. Because If you’re doing security work, if you’re doing development work and you are apolitical, then you are aiding the existing centralizing structure. If you’re doing security work and you are apolitical, you are almost certainly working for an organization that exists in a great part to prop up existing companies and existing power structures.”

In response to this, Saitta lays out her own politics, noting that the increased surveillance we’re seeing these days is an inherent function of the state as it exists today:

if we want to have something that resembles democracy, given that the tactics of power and the tactics of the rich and the technology and the typological structures that we exist within, have made that impossible, then we have to deal with this centralizing function. As with the Internet, so the world. We have to take it all apart. We have to replace these structures. And this isn’t going to happen overnight, this is decades long project. We need to go build something else. We need to go build collective structures for discussion and decision making and governance, which don’t rely on centralized power anymore. If we want to have democracy, and I am not even talking about digital democracy, if we want to have democratic states that are actually meaningfully democratic, that is simply a requirement now.

Conversations which make this their starting point are incredibly important right now. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, to talk about decentralising political power. We need to also be talking about what that means in practice, how it will work, what kinds of tools and systems will support it.

New article out: the emergence of the digital liberties movement

August 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

My new article is now out on First Monday. This work complements my previous conference paper, which looked at the need to see the Internet and other digital technologies as a contested space which activists must work to protect.

The digital liberties movement is an emerging social movement that draws together activism around online censorship and surveillance, free/libre and open source software, and intellectual property. This paper uses the social movement literature’s framework to build an understanding of the movement, expanding the dominant framework by including a focus on the networks which sustain the movement. While other communities and movements have addressed these issues in the past, activists within the digital liberties movement are beginning to build a sense of a collective identity and a master frame that ties together these issues. They are doing this in online spaces, including blogs, and through campaigns around landmark issues, which also help to build the network which the movement relies upon. The 2012 campaign against the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act has highlighted the movement’s strength, but will also, perhaps, raise challenges for digital liberties activists as they confront the tension between attempts to disavow politics and a profoundly political project. [Read it all.]

Putting the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement into context

March 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

There’s been a lot of excitement among digital liberties types about the TPPA recently, as the US IP proposals were leaked last week. There’s an excellent analysis by Kim Weatherall over at LawFont, more analysis over at techdirt, and some opposition starting up by groups like the Pirate Party and EFA. Most of these activists have raised some great points – I particularly recommend Kim Weatherall’s article, which has identified some areas that might be particularly problematic, especially relating to copyright extensions and anti-circumvention provisions.

However, what I find strange about a lot of this, though, is the lack of connection with other anti-trade agreement activism. Left-wing activists have been critiquing “free trade” agreements for decades: the protests in Seattle in 1999 were some of the most visible examples of this in the global North, but they certainly haven’t been the only protests. When it comes to the TPPA, there are a number of groups continuing on from previous rounds of global justice activism, including TPPWatch (NZ) and AFTINET (AU). I’m not particularly well-linked to this activist scene, so I’m sure there are also plenty of less-visible groups.

There are a few reasons why digital liberties activists might not be connecting up with other strands of global justice activism, as I argued in my PhD. These include:

  • Many (but not all!) digital liberties activists come from “geeky” backgrounds – they know a lot about copyright, or software, but not necessarily a lot about non-institutional politics or protest movements.
  • Many digital liberties activists seem to want to avoid any association with left-wing politics, and often identify as libertarian, or as “apolitical” (despite the fact that they’re involved in intensely political projects).
  • A significant proportion of digital liberties activism comes from a pro-capitalist perspective and is based on the assumption that we need to expand the economy and encourage more “innovation”. See, for example, techdirt‘s complaints that the TPPA is “against the basic principles of the free market and consumer rights”. This doesn’t tend to mesh well with anarchist/socialist perspectives, although there are some overlaps.
  • As I’m learning more about digital liberties groups, it’s becoming clearer to me that many of those involved want to be identified as “serious” and capable of consultation. In fact, I suspect that many of them would resist the “activist” label, and would prefer to stick to formal lobbying activity, trying for inclusion in decision-making bodies.

However, while I can see the reasons that digital liberties activists might not want to link up with global justice activism against “free trade” agreements, I do think there are important arguments that they should at least consider:

  • There’s no point reinventing the wheel. Activists around the world have been involved in building critiques the processes used to create free trade agreements, bringing attention to the fact that these processes are undemocratic and opaque. Digital liberties activists might not fully agree with the critiques put forward by global justice activists, but they can draw on them.
  • Building coalitions can be helpful, especially if they bring together a range of demographics. Demonstrating that proposed agreements are likely to have effects on people beyond a relatively small band of “knowledge workers” is a good way to put pressure on governments.
  • If you want to get bring attention to intellectual property issues, you need to convince people that these issues will have some effect on their lives. Analysing them within the broader context of other provisions of free trade agreements is one way to do this.

I’ve argued elsewhere that global justice activists should be paying attention to digital liberties. I think it’s also important that digital liberties activists pay attention to what global justice activists are doing.

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