The changing face of digital rights activism

Global threats to online free expression have diversified, attracting more public interest.

When Egyptian authorities cut internet access, members of Anonymous helped to find alternative connections [GALLO/GETTY]

San Francisco, CA In February 2012, Twitter announced a new mechanism that would allow the company to minimise the effects of government censorship requests. Though new for Twitter, the idea of per-country takedowns has existed in the industry since at least 2006, when Google blocked Thai visitors to certain YouTube videos by IP address in order to comply with local laws. Now, Google relies upon the mechanism to operate within the laws of the more than 60 countries in which it has offices. Other companies, such as Facebook, do the same.

To the surprise of many long-time observers, Twitter’s announcement was largely met with anger from users who had believed the company – which last year had referred to itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party” – was an exception. Though a significant amount of the criticism was based in rumour and conspiracy (many suspected, for example, that the recent investment of Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal played a role), the overall tenor of the reactions indicated something more: It wasn’t that Twitter had done something unprecedented, but that perhaps the world itself had changed.

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Indeed, in the past two years or so, the global threats to online free expression have not only diversified, but have attracted more public interest than ever before. Starting, perhaps, with the Iranian uprising of 2009 – during which Iranian authorities cracked down harder on the internet than ever before – and hitting full stride in the aftermath of the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables release, digital rights activism has taken on a life of its own.

Digital rights activism

In 2006, when Google famously entered China, the concept of digital rights as we now know it, was still in its infancy. Though early libertarian thinkers envisioned the internet a borderless world where the long arm of government could not reach, that vision quickly gave way to a reality in which one’s view of cyberspace was dependent upon where in the world she was sitting.

Google’s entry to China, the Shi Tao case (in which Yahoo handed over the dissident’s information to the Chinese government) and numerous other events around the same time led to the strengthening of digital rights advocacy as new organisations formed, and traditional human rights groups began to see online rights as part of their mission. 

The year 2010 saw government actors take strides in their fight toward a free and open internet, beginning with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s January remarks on internet freedom. Though Hillary’s remarks were widely lauded at the time, the very public advocacy of the US government backfired later that year when, in the aftermath of the WikiLeaks cable release, corporate giants like Amazon, Visa and MasterCard cut off services to the whistleblower organisation in a response to unofficial pressure from members of the US government. The companies’ actions resulted in calls for boycotts, as well as distributed denial of service attacks against Visa and MasterCard.

The WikiLeaks release and the resulting controversies were almost immediately followed by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, both of which attracted a large number of activists hoping to help individuals on the ground circumvent censorship. In Tunisia, the loose collective of “hacktivists” known as Anonymous, stepped in to help Tunisians by hacking government websites, after the government had sought to spy on and silence internet users. 

When Egyptian authorities cut off access to the internet, Google and Twitter banded together to create a tool that would allow Egyptians to make their voices heard around the world, hundreds of individuals volunteered to transcribe and translate their voice messages. Still others – including, again, members of Anonymous – helped to find alternative means of connecting to the internet.

The uprisings were followed in quick succession by several events that helped shape the ethos of digital rights activism: the shutdown of mobile networks in San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit or BART (to which Egyptians lent their ire); the response of the British and Canadian governments to local riots (both suggested censoring social networks); the Syrian government’s crackdown on the internet (to which groups like Telecomix responded by offering online safety guides); and most recently, alleged anti-piracy bills Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the US legislature.

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The reactions to each event were not only rapid and fierce, but global in nature, taking authorities by surprise. Surely, when Egypt’s Mubarak flipped the kill switch, he never suspected Americans to take to the streets in solidarity. Just as sure, the local San Francisco transport police never guessed that their actions would result in comparisons to Egyptian dictatorship.

And it is certain that the representatives who sponsored SOPA and PIPA could not have predicted their bills would spark what was the largest coordinated action the internet has ever seen. Indeed, even studio executives were taken aback; Paramount executive Alfred Perry was later quoted as saying that the company was “humbled by the strong public opposition” to the proposed legislation.

After SOPA and PIPA, it is no longer surprising to see corporations and individuals rally together to protest. For example, the Pakistani government’s attempt to pervasively censor the internet was met with harsh criticism from both activists and corporations like Websense and OpenDNS. It should be equally unsurprising to see that users’ expectations have – or are at least beginning to – shift in the wake of revelations of broad corporate complicity with governmental human rights violations, from the spyware sold by American companies to MidEast governments to the acquiescence of online service providers to inane local laws.

Indeed, then, the world has changed: just as the world is waking up to the disruptive political power of the internet, so too are they waking up to the threats posed by those corporate and government actors who wish to control it. Eventually, it seems, those actors will need to be the ones to adapt.

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She writes a regular column for Al Jazeera focusing on free expression and Internet freedom. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

Follow her on Twitter: @jilliancyork