Technologies Of Dissent: A Primer From Yale A2K4 Conference

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Leaps forward in technology can bring with them dramatic social changes; in particular the expansion of digital and social media has both democratised the power to record information and to be heard, but it has also simultaneously made it easier than ever before for public institutions to intrude upon private lives.

Will the future of internet be as the protector of the surveillance state, making citizenry a prisoner of a panopticon? Or can it be used by the public to uphold rights, asked Anupam Chander, a professor of law at the University of California, Davis.

Governments used to fear coffee houses as centres of media and social change, where self-published pamphlets became a counterpoint to mainstream media. Now the internet allows for the public to express dissatisfaction and dissent, and might spur political reform. But it can also be used by authorities to identify dissidents, said Chander.

“What is our responsibility for using technologies of dissent [and] also using technology formats to create an infrastructure of free expression?” asked Laura DeNardis, the director of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.

Technology can reflect arrangements of power in society, but it can also invert them. Former Republican Senator George Allen, for example, was a speculative US presidential candidate until he directed a racial slur at a competitor’s campaign worker. Which was recorded and posted on YouTube. The resulting public outcry cost him an election, but without the video and the place to spread it he might have been a presidential candidate, said DeNardis.

“Human rights organisations need good, reliable information to keep governments accountable,” said Molly Beutz Land of New York Law School. New media allow the possibility for getting out this information, but also the risk that governments will use the technology to strike back, and the risk that the information has not been properly vetted and could be misinformation.

“What can be done to undermine the future of surveillance and promote the future of discourse?” Chander asked.

They were speaking at a panel at the fourth Access to Knowledge Conference, taking place at Yale Law School 12-13 February.

Refusing Surveillance

One thing that can be done is that western democracies have an “obligation to refuse surveillance,” and US companies should be forbidden from assisting China in spying on customers, said Chander.

A Chinese non-governmental organisation employee, whose organisation he said ran websites fighting against discrimination of those with hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS that were censored by the government in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic games, praised Google for its recent threat to leave China if the government continued to censor the internet and asked whether it was possible for more American internet companies to do the same.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called on US media companies to “take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship and surveillance.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which supports and defends freedom in the digital world, has listed 7 “corporations of interest” who are violating this call by selling surveillance technology to the Chinese government, Katz said. These corporations include: Cisco, Nortel, Oracle, Motorola, EMC, Sybase and L-1 Identity Solutions. It has also launched a “Surveillance Self-Defense” project detailing what kinds of surveillance are currently legal in the United States and providing practical data for protecting private information.

It is also important to think about what kind of ‘slippery slope’ certain uses of technology could lead to. Technologies of surveillance being currently used by the entertainment industry to find copyright infringers online. They probably won’t have to once they finally figure out a business model… but then that structure will be in place and easily used by dictators” Katz.

The view from the global south, said Andrew Rens, an intellectual property fellow at the Shuttleworth Foundation, is that the surveillance to stop piracy through vehicles like the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement is not that different from surveillance to stop unwelcome political views. “It’s just which kind of dissent you are cracking down on,” he said.

Other issues to take into account are technical standards, anonymity, and open participation in both culture and technology development.

Technical standards have a role to play in regulating behaviour, said DeNardis, as they can be designed to allow for free expression and interoperability or not.

Anonymity is “key to preserving freedom of expression,” said Katz. The “war on terror framing sees anonymity as safe haven for terrorists,” he said, “but it is also the only way dissidents can talk.” Use of TOR, software which protects anonymity, is perhaps a good idea, he said. It also may have business applications, as a Vienna business explained to its customers that running it allows greater financial security, Katz said.

Allowing for egalitarian research may also be relevant to these issues. At a separate panel, Eve Gray of the University of Cape Town said the editor of the Lancet journal had commented the international science journalism discourages the publication of African science, “so we get a narrow window about what constitutes research [and] what is worse is it’s a narrow window that disadvantages countries where research is needed.”

“Today most scientific decisions are not taken by stakeholders, they are taken by shareholders,” said David Hammerstein of TransAtlantic Consumer Dialogue, during Gray’s panel. “If there is no equality in the relationships when deciding what to investigate and what to invest in, then we are lost.”

Kaitlin Mara may be reached at

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