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18. Political technologists and civil society

April 20, 2015

By Muzammil M. Hussain

This is the eighteenth post in the Freedom technologists series. The following are some passages taken (with permission) from chapter 4 of Hussain, M. M. (2014). Securing Technologies of Freedom after the Arab Spring: Policy Entrepreneurship and Norms Consolidation Practices in Internet Freedom Promotion (Doctoral dissertation (Ph.D.) — University of Washington). https://dlib.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/26059

This quote captures the gist of Hussain’s ‘political technologists’ concept:

I focus on the community of technology designers and political hacktivists working on self-described “liberation technologies”—discussions, tools, and practices aimed explicitly at helping dissidents and human rights activists use digital infrastructures and ICTs for their political goals. I refer to these actors who are helping civil society stakeholders as political technologists. They are important because they are generating the important new norms about digital infrastructures that are most relevant to citizens and users.

In the last chapter (Chapter 3), I […] examined how the internet freedom proto-regime lacks cohesion in promoting coherent policies to implement internet freedom, and is currently balkanized between two opposing communities of practice generating and incorporating distinct and competing norms. Therefore, stakeholders have thus far failed to meaningfully consolidate a viable set of norms that policies can be enacted around that work effectively with the multiple layers constituting digital infrastructures. On the one hand, states are overly concerned with the internet’s backbone and approach it as a “critical” infrastructure and ignore citizen’s needs. On the other hand, civil society actors are producing some innovative norms and practices but lack the power to enforce them. In both cases, technology providers and the private sector have evaded meaningful participation and their responsibility for doing so.

Given these precarious issues at play, where might we find the best spaces or communities of practice working to consolidate these seemingly diametrically opposing normative frameworks? Where, if at all, is the substantive intellectual and experiential knowledge surrounding digital infrastructure politics and the social shaping of political technologies being formulated and aggregated? What new and innovative norms might emerge from here of use for internet freedom norms consolidation?So far it seems that civil society-led initiatives have produced the most interesting sets of ideas and norms to draw other diverse stakeholders together. Unlike the state-led gatherings, when internet freedom promotion is led by tech-savvy civil society organizations and leaders (as exhibited in the Silicon Valley Standard), the involvement of technology providers and the private sectors is also importantly different. Here, the private sector stakeholders were invited explicitly by political activists to help design new security approaches and technologies in order protect users’ rights.

So there already seems to exist a fundamental paradigmatic difference between the state-sponsored security-oriented approach to internet freedom promotion and the civil society-led approach which explicitly partners with private sector stakeholders to produce both tools and policies as a broader way to promote internet freedom. We can say more than just that the norms these communities of practice produce are different – more importantly, the ways in which these norms are negotiated and clarified are also different! In contrast to state-based stakeholders, civil society actors seem to view digital infrastructure as much more malleable environment [see Kelty 2008, JP] and therefore able to be redesigned with new affordances that promote internet freedom both through its architecture, and through its regulations and policies.

[In] this chapter (Chapter 4) I extend the stakeholder analysis from Chapter 3 to ethnographically investigate the most novel and important category of civil society stakeholders that seem to be contributing the “first fix it, then regulate it” approach to promoting internet freedom. To do so, I focus on the community of technology designers and political hacktivists working on self-described “liberation technologies”—discussions, tools, and practices aimed explicitly at helping dissidents and human rights activists use digital infrastructures and ICTs for their political goals. I refer to these actors who are helping civil society stakeholders as political technologists. They are important because they are generating the important new norms about digital infrastructures that are most relevant to citizens and users.

How they are doing this is also important: they are working hand in hand with users and activists to learn about the utility and pitfalls of their tools. Because these technology-savvy civil society experts exist as a transnational community of authoritative-knowledge producers, they share normative and principled beliefs about the political importance of digital technologies, and are committed to promoting the democratic importance of their tools. Since 2008 this community of experts has crowdsourced the social ties, curated the expert and experiential knowledge of technology designers and technology users, and monitored every major international event and scandal involving ICTs between 2008 and 2012.

In short, this group is not a formal community of stakeholders, but it is a core sub-community of tech-savvy helpers working primarily with civil society networks more broadly. If we want to understand who civil society stakeholders turn to in order to learn about new tools and strategies they can test out in their political work, and why civil society-engineered norms and norms consolidation procedures are different, novel, and innovative in comparison to state-based approaches, we should start by looking here. Moreover, if we want to see who state-based actors also sometimes turn to for policy consultations on how to rethink their understanding of digital infrastructures, we should again look here. So who are these individuals, and what is the substance of their technical work? What are the motivations behind the new political technologies being built and deployed to support democratization initiatives by these actors? Who are their designers and what tensions must they face in producing such innovations? How have they come about, and where might we expect their efforts to proceed within the changing regulatory conditions under which states have traditionally enjoyed greater leverage?

Digital activists’ very own geek squad

It is March 2010, and Google London’s pristine facility near Buckingham Palace is buzzing with recently arrived young tech-savvy and business-card-wielding professionals. This is the third meeting of the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit (AYM). I have arrived two hours earlier via London Heathrow from Seattle. I am in my second year of graduate study at the University of Washington. Having few ties to this particular tech-venture community, I am waiting somewhat anxiously in the lobby, contemplating how to make good use of my time at this interesting gathering of venture capitalists, IT professionals, and youth civic leaders. These seem to be an exceptional bunch, coming from venture capitals like San Francisco, Dubai, and Singapore, and rapidly climbing to the ranks of policy advisers in major social media companies and foreign ministries, or running their own start-ups. Soon, after a few hellos and brief introductions, I begin to feel a little more at home. It seems that several of these people in their early to late 20s know or are friends with people who are also engaged in their areas of work in Seattle’s University of Washington, Google’s Kirkland facility, or Microsoft Research’s Redmond spaces—while I don’t personally know them, at least I can get a conversation started around the interesting projects I know that are happening in Seattle and the UW that seems to have piqued their interest.

Although at that time I did not know very many people at the London gathering, or their friends back home in Seattle, I was originally invited to attend at the behest of Jonathan, a friend who was working in a Seattle philanthropic organization at the time. Like his colleagues, and unlike me, Jonathan had moved to Seattle just a few months earlier from a PR and advertising job in New York. Prior to the job in New York he worked as a journalist in Egypt, Palestine, and the greater Levantine region. But in his new post in Seattle, Jonathan’s day-to-day responsibilities revolved around networking with other new social enterprise startups backed with angel funding from the local technology sector. Most of his technology sector friends were based in the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley, New York’s Silicon Alley, or civic entrepreneurship and community engagement projects in Boston, Chicago, or Seattle. His other network of friends was based abroad, extending across major political capitals in Europe and the Middle East—people he met while working as a journalist, but whose company he came to enjoy because of their shared fascination with social media and internet politics.

When thinking about Jonathan’s profile and the intersections of his work, it became more obvious to me why he was invited to this gathering—most of the people I was meeting were much like him: young, entrepreneurial, and boldly joining or starting up their own technology-based political activism projects. Some of them had migrated into this network after their tenure in the 2008 digital campaign to elect Barack Obama president; others had found their way in after being identified and invited to the gathering by the United States Department of State because of the success of their seed projects on digital media and civic engagement. But at this particular gathering in London, the overwhelming majority of young technologists and experts actually represented a broad cross-section of youth leaders from emerging democracies and authoritarian regimes. The training and sharing of digital media tactics for political participation and social change hasn’t necessarily been a new phenomenon, but the active propagation of these strategies to repressive and downright dangerous political systems seemed radically new.

The March 2010 summit in London was the third and (thus far) final meeting of the AYM—previous meetings were held in New York City (2008) and Mexico City (2009), and backed by powerful individuals and supported by major digital corporations and governmental agencies. Among the 50 to 100 organizations that have attended the three AYM summits, there have been participants from Bahrain, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Moldova, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Venezuela. Organizers and attendees included the talents behind the Obama campaign’s New Media Team (many of whom had moved to Blue State Digital, the consulting agency behind Howard Dean’s 2004 and Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns), and the US Department of State. Official sponsors of the AYM events included Meetup, Howcast, Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Gen-Next, Causecast, TechPresident, the World Bank, the RAND Corporation, the US Institutes of Peace, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to name the most visible. Collectively, these sponsorships indicated a mutual intersection of stakeholders positioned within international think tanks, international non-governmental organizations, telecommunications providers, and software and social media corporations.

For stakeholders attending meetings like AYM in London, this backdrop of political technologies and social entrepreneurs inspired collaborations and partnerships between technology designers and political activists. They seem to enjoy tinkering with or building their own social networking tools, platforms, and campaigns, both “at home” in advanced democracies and “abroad” in repressive nondemocratic societies. Who are these enthusiastic and ambitious proponents of political technologies and digital-enabled democratization initiatives? What might we learn by understanding the history of their ambitious, sometimes even unrealistic, campaigns? Not every activist network or cause in repressive political systems has the benefits or access to squads of political technology consultants and political communications strategists, but there seems to be a lot more that we can say and understand about the cultivation of new digital strategies and toolkits. Where is most of this work taking place, and how is it often accessed by the broader transnational activist community?

Online discussion forums for curating technical expertise and best practices

One of the ways in which political technologists and digital activists have built their collaborative relationships, designed platforms, and experimented with new strategies has been through sometimes official and open, but often closed and by-invitation-only online discussion groups of likeminded enthusiasts. The AYM community has its own closed email list—but you have to be invited, and invitations are extended only to individuals who have been invited to and attended an AYM summit. On the other hand, the Progressphiles list is a far more exclusive network. It includes the technology designers behind the 2008 Obama campaign’s digital media platforms. Many of them are members of the New Organizing Institute (known as the “West Point for organizers”), but far more were introduced to each other while working on the Obama campaign. Progressphiles is the main discussion community of data and technology experts working in American progressive politics. To be invited to this email list, one needs to be vetted and have the support of two existing list members. By cultivating safe spaces for like-minded politically oriented technologists or political activists seeking technology services, over the past several years, they have allowed their discussions and experiments to become more public. While the email lists for these discussion groups do not originate in authoritarian states, they are also being read by those in the cosmopolitan neighborhoods and activist cafés of Beirut, Tunis, Cairo, etc.

One specific online group came up in conversations consistently throughout my interactions with various young civic actors in the neighborhoods of Amman, Beirut, Cairo, London, San Francisco, and Washington DC: the LiberationTech email list from Stanford University started in 2008. Throughout my fieldwork and interviews, I have also noted the presence of this email community in the most surprising places. Here are three examples.

First, in July 2012, while living in a neighborhood in Tunis near Tunisia’s most important telecommunications and computer engineering college (SUP’COM), I interviewed several political hacktivists who were active during the revolt to depose Ben Ali during the Arab Spring. The LiberationTech email list made a surprise appearance during this fieldwork, when a cache of hard-drive content and files was shared with me by Ahmed, an active Tunisian hacker who regularly competes in hacker competitions in Paris and Moscow. His data files included PDFs of technical manuals, political books, computer games, and four months of emails archived directly from the LiberationTech email list.

Second, in May 2012, while interviewing political activists in Beirut’s Hamra neighborhood (historically known as the best place to meet dissidents and activists since the civil war) several of the fixers who were actively smuggling hard drives of footage documenting the Assad regime’s human rights violations had ties to the LiberationTech community. These fixers do their work by assisting international journalists in finding local contacts and sources for their stories. They also do the dangerous work of transporting sensitive footage across the Syrian border into Beirut, where these images and footage of human rights violations are uploaded onto YouTube and shared with their news contacts to get the stories covered by global media networks. Frequently, these fixers discuss their network security concerns with technologists directly or closely connected with members of the LiberationTech email community. Indeed, many of the most important members of the LiberationTech community also come from Lebanon, Iran, and other places with non-democratic regimes. This anecdote from fieldwork indicates that the LiberationTech community not only exports strategies and best practices, it also provides a space where affected parties can share their experiences and expertise with mindful and concerned technology designers.

Third, near the completion of my fieldwork in Sweden, in August 2012, LiberationTech members again made appearances as the organizers behind “hackathons” and sponsors of conferences discussing the politics of information infrastructure. These actors are members of the LiberationTech email community, and they are also affiliated with the hacktivism communities of Anonymous, Telecomix, and other Western-based activism networks. Across these three examples, then, drawn directly from primary fieldwork, we see consistently that the LiberationTech email discussion network helps connect disparate actors from technology companies and security agencies based in Global North countries with political hackers and journalist fixers from the Global South. These relationships happen either directly (i.e., they know each other or consider each other to be collaborators) or indirectly (i.e., they can be connected to each other with very few degrees of social separation). This anecdote reflects the characteristic that LiberationTech’s online discussion community is actually a transnational community composed of political activists seeking help with technology problems and technology experts motivated to help with civic issues. They mostly do their substantive work and collaborations online, but sometimes they also organize offline events and meet face to face. In other words, they imagine themselves as a community and build and trade on social capital with each other to pursue collaborative projects.

Overall, the LiberationTech discussion network gives us a rare opportunity to listen in on and track the evolving perspectives of political technology designers and promulgators of these tools in repressive political systems. These factors, along with several unique advantages, collectively position this discussion email list above several others. Their purpose-driven ambitions focusing on the political application of ICTs and digital media inform the context and help explain the political ideology behind tech-savvy activism. These characteristics of the LiberationTech community are precisely what make it a useful context in which to examine more closely the ambitions and self-understandings of political technology designers, and their project collaborations and tool deployments. Doing so helps us to more deeply understanding why civil society stakeholders want to promote internet freedom and how certain norms and frameworks have been generated from their discussions and collaborations with allied technical experts.

Silicon Valley roots: origins of the LiberationTech community, 2008-2012

The LiberationTech email discussion network started as a course-related project of Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) in 2008. One of the earliest topics of discussion to arise in this list began with a call in seeking to invest several hundred thousands of dollars with social entrepreneurs. The call cited interest specifically in social entrepreneurs possessing the belief “in the power of innovative and passionate individuals to change the world.” The handful of awardees would receive $50,000 multi-year fellowships via angel funding to enable their visions under a venture capital model.

The language of calls for funding like these was not without cause, because sponsoring organizations and individual benefactors often had their early success in Silicon Valley’s economic boom period of the 1970s and 1980s. These angel funders made their fortune by investing in companies like Activision, Apollo Computer, and Dionex. Technology and innovation was the culture shaping these early participants’ worldviews. Furthermore, early calls like the one in 2008 also came from family foundations that also have a history of leadership in international social development platforms and organizations like the United Nations Development Programme. So from its inception, the LiberationTech community was up to something interesting: they were drawing in the funders and venture risk takers of the IT industry and extending their domain to include social entrepreneurship and international development initiatives. The formation of the LiberationTech community was bringing together technology designers and civic entrepreneurs. As a result, for the majority of its first two years of activity, this discussion community developed quickly, but also remained primarily a forum for news and calls for sponsorship that helped build its ties with Silicon Valley–area funders, technologists, and activists.

In those early years between 2008 and 2010, it was also not uncommon to see just under thirty to forty updates a month, mostly revolving around helping local nonprofits find web designers and programmers for their needs (see Figure 4). Some calls for proposals joined together e-business ideas with social causes, and others simply shared news and articles about ICTs being applied broadly in the international development field to solve social problems, like providing mobile banking to fishermen in villages, setting up internet kiosks in slums, etc. Between 2008 and 2010, this community was mostly a network bridging the geeky and the cool with examples of prototypes and experiments from around the world. During this time the total membership of the community was also quite small, and included less than 100 total members irregularly contributing a few messages over the entire twenty-four-month period.

But all of this began to change rapidly in the summer of 2009 because of what was taking place a world away in Tehran, Iran. Sparked by the fervent discussions surrounding the importance of Twitter and social media tools during Iran’s 2009 contested elections and the ensuing Green Revolution of student-led protests against the theocratic regime, the LiberationTech discussion network was jolted to life with activity and debate. The events following the Green Revolution helped to solidify an identity based on an impossible purpose: designing and testing the utility of ICTs to overthrow despotic regimes.

The community developed a concerted focus on examining the political uses of social media tools by dissidents during the mobilization period. These new kinds of discussion topics went beyond ICTs for development, and the membership and active discussants exploded on the list. During the first half of 2010, this community rapidly propelled itself from a general focus on technology and social entrepreneurship to having an overt and defining interest in the digital politics surrounding repressive states.

This ascent took place for two specific reasons that went beyond just the discussion of current events and dealt with the actual substantive work being done by its members and the tools they were developing. First, a cryptographic software designed to help Iranian dissidents maintain online connections in the face of government efforts to locate them came to the forefront of debate and discussion on the list. LiberationTech members vocally expressed their concerns about the closed technical details of the technology. This tool and its production process violated the community’s basic norms, namely that all collaborations should have an open-source approach. This culture was aimed at opening up any strategies or tools to be vetted by members in the list who saw themselves as “hackers who know their stuff.” The underlying idea here was that if you said that your tool could afford certain practices or protect from certain risks, community members should first test it out before users deployed it for real (and dangerous) political acts in repressive countries.

Second, Facebook’s content regulation norms became the center of debate when the site shut down portions of a community campaign page focused on boycotting Target. This conflict was picked up by the news media, who framed the issue as “Grass-roots activists organizing boycotts against large corporations like Target stores and BP now find themselves directing some of their ire at another corporate monolith: Facebook” (Email communication: September 18, 2010). Additionally, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and India began pressuring RIM, the company behind the popular Blackberry smartphones, to change its basic infrastructure security protocols. Because the Canadian company refused to give these regimes the technical capacity to monitor data transmissions over its networks, members from LiberationTech were quick to begin assessing the corporation’s decisions and investigating the normative claims being championed by these regimes and corporations. One member, foreshadowing the NSA breaches we were to see years later, astutely commented:

“The tyrannical mentality of the UAE, Saudi and Bush DHS authorities are far from aberrational. They are perfectly representative of how the current U.S. administration thinks as well: every communication and all other human transactions must be subject to government surveillance. Nothing may be beyond the reach of official spying agencies. There must be no such thing as true privacy from government authorities.” ~ Email communication: September 27, 2010

So in addition to the tools they were designing, these political technologists were also facing challenges in the regulations impacting the basic layer of the internet backbone that enabled their tools and strategies to begin with. Collectively, incidents like these also helped to solidify the foci of this community around some core new challenges and outcomes: a) tool development and testing to aid democracy promoters and digital activists, b) monitoring the norms and behaviors of technology powers and their collusion with state powers, and c) assessing the regulatory policy frameworks of regimes themselves who were increasingly restraining the digital infrastructure that activists were making use of for political purposes.

The LiberationTech community’s identity-formation period following the Green Revolution in Iran also corresponded with a critical mass of incidents around the world. Digital activism expanded to encompass more than just the use of existing tools for political participation. This rise in activity and discussion topics correlated with the increasing number of observations from around the world where technologies were being seen as impacting politics and democratization. Digital activism also meant promoting activism to protect the utility of ICTs and digital infrastructures. Through this important phase of community growth and increasing cohesion, LiberationTech membership increased exponentially from generating less than fifty messages per month by a small community of under thirty active members to a phenomenal 200+ messages and debates by a rapidly expanding collective of 150 active contributors by the end of 2010.

Who are these new individuals that began to make up this active collective of political technology experts? What expertise did they offer and in which institutions or contexts were they imbedded? Having a deeper understanding of their experiences and backgrounds is particularly important because while the popular discourse about technology-savvy activism often frames them reductively as naïve enthusiasts suffering from bouts of technological determinism, this does not tell us very much about the substantive issues underlying the politics of digital infrastructures and how these new risks were being identified. In the next section, I describe the types of activities that have been cultivated by political technologists, as well as their institutional linkages enabling their sophisticated skills and policy perspectives.

Individual expertise

The collective of political technologists that formed around the LiberationTech email list can be conceptually described as a “community of practice” (Wasko and Faraj 2000). The term refers to groups of people who organize around a shared craft and set of problems, and are gelled together with the social capital and group identity that they often form as an outcome of their collaborative efforts. Communities of practice have been examined particularly in virtual communities, like email discussion networks, and the concept is apt for framing how and why the individuals in question have come to interact with each other.

First, these members shared normative beliefs about the political significance of communications technologies and digital informational tools they wanted to examine and design. Second, they shared a complex causal understanding that these political technologies can have important impacts on the users employing them. Third, they shared strong notions of community standards regarding open software and peer-reviewed processes for the development, deployment, and uses of said tools. Finally, they shared concerns about the policy developments surrounding political technologies at the hands of both private sector technology corporations and state-based governmental agencies, with a presumption that the welfare of users also depends on the regulatory norms surrounding digital infrastructures within which ICT tools and web-enabled practices are embedded.

In order to understand these themes in greater detail, it is important to examine the actors themselves and their products. But doing so is not so simple, given that communities of practice are not necessarily organized formally by organizational hierarchies nor constrained by overt and binding relationships, like institutions and organizations. To further complicate matters, many of the members in this network are self-described hackers, who tend to remain private or anonymous to protect their identities and reputations. While not everyone on this email list is a hacker, many self-described hackers work for security companies and governmental agencies and are bound by nondisclosure agreements and obligations. On the one hand, these conditions limit their ability to publicly discuss or speak openly about their activities and concerns. But on the other hand, they seem to enthusiastically discuss these potentially risky subjects openly and frequently on the LiberationTech email list.

Despite the lack of a binding hierarchy in the discussion community, there are also vast differences between the most central and active contributors and the long tail of interested observers and listeners who contribute far more infrequently. For example, Ahmed, the Tunisian hacker described earlier in this chapter, reads and archives the discussions on this email list, but has never posted or contributed to the discussions himself. This variation in contribution is sometimes due to the unequal distribution of skills and interest, as a large number of less active contributors are there simply because they are interested in staying up to date on the latest technical discussions or getting help from more knowledgeable programmers or strategists. Some are also journalists who are present on the list because they want to report on a new topic they don’t fully understand. Others are foreign policy makers who want to do the same, and use the list to invite these experts to advise them on policy frameworks by helping to draft policies or participate in events where these policies are being debated.

Despite the varying distribution of engagement and contribution among the total community of participants on the email list, to date the total contribution of discussions, debates, and deliberations have totaled more than 6,000 discrete email messages (see Figure 5). These messages have been shared by a visible set of 850+ contributors, while the total community membership size is well over 1,500. It is difficult to say more about the list because although it is technically16 public, the membership lists are not. List moderators have announced several times how best to treat the site, and have consistently shared concerns about list members residing in places like Tunisia, Lebanon, and elsewhere, where their public involvement in political technologies and hacktivism would endanger their welfare. However, as Figure 5 also reveals, there is also a visible and heavy skew in the activity levels and centrality of actors. Although nearly 1,000 individuals have contributed to the discussions over the past four years, less than 100 members have been responsible for contributing well over 66 percent of the discussions and deliberations. In other words, 100 top contributors have shared over 4,000 messages (66 percent) over the past four years about internet politics.

This is important because the knowledge being produced, curated, and evaluated surrounding the development of political technologies is actually generated by a core group of knowledge experts. These experts do most of the hard work in designing and deploying technology toolkits in repressive political contexts, although the long tail of community members also helps crowdsource expertise and experiences from far corners of the globe. Many of them are well connected, have advanced graduate training in a small number of the world’s top research programs, and though not all are expert technologists, the vast majority are. They are located in governmental agencies, work as international journalists in dangerous conflict zones, belong to prestigious academic institutions and technology labs where their research profiles focused on digital politics. They also include political hackers who were active during the Arab Spring protests, internet policy experts who share high-level positions in internet regulatory agencies, as well as individuals positioned within top policy think tanks. The fact that these top 100 contributors inhabit such an important leadership role in the LiberationTech community and share roots in disparate and diverse institutions helps to further justify profiling this community and its expertise is crucial.

So who are these core 100 technically-skilled contributors? First, approximately 85 percent, or the overwhelming majority of them, can be described as male technologists, many of whom have sophisticated technical engineering backgrounds, and several of whom describe themselves as hackers working in the security industry. Of the less than fifteen women in the community, three or four can be categorized as technologists working on designing, programming, and testing hardware and software applications. The remaining minority of nontechnical actors includes a diverse group of academics, lawyers, social entrepreneurs, self-described “policy wonks,” bloggers, and journalists. Therefore, the overarching archetype of the top knowledge workers in this community reflects the stereotypically young, male hacker, writing code and debating appropriate application of security protocols. They often work for security consultancies and corporations to make a living, but in their off hours have a passion for open-source development.

Second, these members have all attended an overlapping small number of research institutions and conferences. These labs and discussions have allowed this collective to train and acquire its technical skills and specialized knowledge base. They work and share information on the email list, but they also extend these collaborations offline. The core network of supporting institutions where they meet or learn their trade includes American universities: Harvard and Stanford, as well as MIT and Berkeley. Most of the tech-savvy programmers seem to have trained in one of these top institutions. To a lesser degree, Georgetown and Yale frequently appear as institutions where the lawyers and self-described policy wonks acquired their graduate and law degrees. Some German and British universities also make the cut, with Oxford being the most common node. Canadian and Scandinavian universities are more peripheral but still important spaces for technology labs. As an important exception, the University of Toronto, home to the Citizen Lab, has been an important space outside the American network of universities, although it has strong ties within the network of American institutions.

Supporting organizations

Beyond universities, the San Francisco–based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Washington, DC–based New America Foundation (NAF) represent some of the most important policy development spaces to which LiberationTech members have graduated. They have “graduated” in the sense that, at some point before taking these policy positions, they spent time in programs like Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; Stanford’s Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law; MIT’s Media Lab; and Yale’s Internet and Society Project where they developed their thinking and relationships to digital politics work. Outside the United States, Oxford’s Internet Institute and Toronto’s Citizen Lab seem to be two prominent institutions connected to this intuitional network. San Francisco’s EFF and Washington’s NAF are particularly worthy of further discussion.

The EFF was founded in 1990 as a nonprofit organization focusing on the intersections of law, freedom, and privacy and provides legal support, produces legal briefs, and protects both individuals and technologies from governmental intrusions regarding the privacy and protection of users and data. Some LiberationTech members have referred to the EFF as the “ACLU of Internet Freedom.” The NAF, on the other hand, came about much more recently, in 1999, under the leadership of Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt, and deals with private industry-based concerns on technology policy. The EFF grew out of the challenges that came about with the arrival of the Information Age during the 1980s and 1990s in the San Francisco Bay area, and now shares its workload with a growing number of similar supporting outfits like the Center for Democracy and Technology (Washington, DC), Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (Seattle), Privacy International (London), and, most recently, the Global Network Initiative (GNI) The GNI was established in 2008 to represent a coalition of corporations, nonprofits, and universities and places digital rights in the framework of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The EFF and related organizations illustrate a steady advancement in the treatment of technology policy focusing on data privacy and its consequences for human rights and political freedoms.

In contrast, Washington’s NAF has focused on similar initiatives to the EFF, though it is less focused on legal counseling and more on lobbying and shaping public policy. The NAF has a noticeably new focus on technology policy. Established about a decade after the EFF, the NAF has cultivated policy making at the intersection of security studies, technology policy, and the “new economy” being powered by digital media and internet infrastructure. Of particular note is its leadership history, which includes Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt as chairman of the board of directors. Schmidt initially helped shape the mission of the organization to “emphasize work that is responsive to the changing conditions and problems of our 21st Century information-age economy.” Furthermore, influential funders of the NAF include the family foundations of Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates (Microsoft), followed by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Google, the Open Society Institute, and the US Department of State. The NAF’s fellowship program has actively supported several experts on internet politics and policy, of whom several have been members of the LiberationTech community.

Collectively, these new policy institutions seem to connect, and increasingly house, the most active members of the discussion community designing political technologies. Castells’s (2011) concept of the “space of flows” helps describes the nature of work pursued by these political technologists and their institutional anchoring in North American and Western European research institutes and think tanks (see Figure 6). The concept of space of flows moves beyond traditional approaches of describing work spaces as passive and separate locations towards “the material organization of time-sharing social practices that work through flows.” So, although the most important members of this online community of practice are based in several different organizations and industries, they are engaging in a connected body of work involving designing and deploying political technologies. These organizational nodes support and make possible continuous time-sensitive communications and information flows around a complex and rapidly changing issue area, and connect these individuals to a cybernetic community that also meets face-to-face in conferences, project meetings, and policy discussions. Applying this logic to the community of political technologists in question, we can observe that they are transnationally and globally located, yet communicate in real time to coordinate actions and develop norms of work-sharing habits. Due to the institutions including universities, research centers, think tanks, and technology industries that have provided them with the material resources for their work, it is possible to also identify the hierarchy of locations where most of this work is taking place.

First, all of the top locations are based within the political borders and economic systems of Western democracies. Second, all of these locations are strictly bound to the most industrially advanced Western democracies, and include the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Although the top ten cities around which the labor of political technologists are concentrated include the examples stated previously, the technology industries of the United States remain the home of the vast majority of this work. Third, Silicon Valley, which continues to have the largest presence of both venture capital and social entrepreneurship projects, is the single most important location of cultural incubation in influencing the ideologies and objectives of these actors. These political technologists in the aftermath of the Arab Spring are becoming central to the designing and shaping of the policies and regulatory frameworks surrounding internet politics. Therefore, the next section examines the actual technologies that have been developed and tested, and the technical work that these actors have conducted over the past 4-plus years. The following discussion covers both the successes and failures of their new experimental work. Doing so helps to illuminate important aspects of the norms underpinning their approach towards digital infrastructure and further tells us how they relate with different sets of actors and stakeholders influencing internet freedom promotion.

[…]

Conclusion: the limits of crowdfixing the political internet

The LiberationTech collective profiled in this chapter helps to illustrate the ambitious and innovative work done by political technologists who are actively facilitating the creation of tools and advising the best practices surrounding some cutting-edge digital technologies. But despite the creative methods of designing and using ICTs by this community, and their sophisticated understanding of the causal consequences and limitations of technical solutions, they are increasingly finding themselves facing major obstacles. The underlying structure and institutional conditions that shape the internet are increasingly threatening to limit the usability and relevance of their work for two reasons.

First, in the process of developing tools, learning about their users’ needs, and trying to better understand the environments in which their tools and users interact, they have increasingly come to notice the strategies by which state powers are subverting the basic infrastructure upon which both users and tools rely. Second, they have also been instrumental in identifying the collusion, in several instances, of private corporations who have been hired or forced to do the surveillance and censorship work of state powers. Sometimes these infrastructure actors do not necessarily intend to work against their users’ interests. But these technologists have also identified and tracked several incidents where private sector corporations, like Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Flickr, and YouTube, have applied sweeping measures that inevitably endangered and harmed the very users they are deriving market value from.

For example, there have been many incidents where corporations like Facebook have interfered with activism pages using broad stroke measures, with disregard to its impact on the users. During the Tunisian revolution Ben Ali’s regime was able to hack into hundreds of Tunisian Facebook users’ accounts. When activists changed their names to fake ones to protect their identities, Facebook engineers in Palo Alto were asked to respond algorithmically and shut down all accounts with suspicious activity, particularly those violating Facebook’s “real name” policy. What this meant for citizens in Tunisia was that one of their few reliable methods of finding each other and coordinating their activities was turned off, mid-revolution, from the opposite end of the globe. In thinking about the incredible powers corporations and states increasingly have to turn off vast communities and pieces of the internet infrastructure, LiberationTech technologists have taken note that:

Instead of an unregulated, decentralized Internet, we have centralized platforms serving as public spaces: a quasi-public sphere. […] But as private companies increasingly take on roles in the public sphere, the rules users must follow become increasingly complex. […] At the same time, companies set their own standards, which often means navigating tricky terrain […] Negotiating this terrain often means compromising on one or more of these areas, sometimes at the expense of users.
~ Research report authored, and shared by LiberationTech members: September 2010

In addressing problems like these, producing new, safer, and more secure technologies does not seem to be making a difference. For example, the platform Diaspora, which received wide support in the Occupy movements as a replacement for Facebook, has run into several problems, because users attempting to access the platform eventually are forced to rely on internet service providers and therefore are not able to escape the network structures that are insecure to begin with:

There is no escape from that in the current network structure. There used to be, when the Internet was really “hands-off” and content-agnostic. But 1995 was a long time ago. Everything at the Application layer and up is subject to control by the layers below, and these layers are out of the hands of application distributors. ISPs can cut off spammers who originate non-locally-damaging traffic to meet the policy objectives or good-neighbor requests of peers. This power exists and can’t be overcome.
~ LiberationTech email: September 25, 2010

These new challenges arising from the basic layer of the digital infrastructure itself are proving difficult for cryptologists and technologists to design technical solutions for. The political economy of the internet infrastructure backbone does not incentivize ISPs and platform providers to consider their regular users’ interests. Many political technologists are at a loss in thinking about how to encourage these infrastructure actors to take users’ welfare more seriously. For example, there have been several instances where private sector ICT providers have overtly sold technologies built for the express purpose of surveillance and censorship to repressive regimes, without regard to how those tools are being used by governments to politically censor and target average users. At most these technologists have been devising ways to identify important breaches of users’ rights and safety considerations.

As early as November 2011, the American company Narus came under fire from this community for providing Egypt with surveillance technologies, followed quickly by news that Microsoft had aided Tunisia in a similar fashion. But it was in July 2012 that community members further identified FinSpy, produced and sold by a UK company, and widely used in Egypt, Bahrain, Turkmenistan, the UAE, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Qatar, Mongolia, and other Arab Spring countries to target dissidents. The LiberationTech community did organize campaigns to raise awareness about these abuses of infrastructure. In the end, these reports were picked up by journalists and the news media, but public coverage does not seem to be doing enough. The company responsible for selling these tools actually originated in Germany, then moved operations to the UK, and based its servers in Beirut (presumably to serve its Middle Eastern clients). Although the investigative work of the community revealed important details, the ultimate attempts to address the problem were not as successful:

Unfortunately, market pressure (via boycotts or similar) rarely work out in these cases, as can be seen by his examples. When human rights and ethical problems present themselves and the market fails to do the right thing (stop the wrong actions from happening) then something other than the market must step in.
~LiberationTech Email: July 38, 2012

In addition to the problematic and unregulated nature of private sector companies and their noncompliance with the public needs of their users, governments (both authoritarian and democratic) have made sophisticated advances in their co-optation and control of information infrastructure:

Tools for circumventing censorship are indeed important for activists. But they do nothing to […] address a growing number of other ways that governments work to prevent activists from using the Internet to access information, get their message out, and organize.
~LiberationTech Email: November 19, 2010

It seems, then, that the research labs and hackspaces used to design tools to circumvent censorship and surveillance software are no longer a viable area for these political technologists to invest in exclusively to enact their cyber libertarian values. Can these technologies, or at the very least the lessons learned from designing and using them, be useful for shaping public policy? In the preceding chapter (Chapter 3) I showed the ways in which these technologists’ practices and norms have emerged though civil society-sponsored internet freedom agendas, such as the Silicon Valley Standard. But how effectively can these norms be implemented in real policy competitions? With their advanced technical backgrounds, do these political technologists and allies of civil society stakeholders have any more effective leverage over the private sector technology providers to rein them into internet freedom promotion?

In the following chapter (Chapter 5), I address these questions in the context of a real global communication policy negotiation that took place in December 2012. The United Nations-sponsored International Telecommunication Union (ITU) gathering, titled The World Conference on International Telecommunications is the most important field site for this investigation because it represents the first time in the past 25 years that nation states from around the world gathered to negotiate and update a major global communication treaty regime. In this event analysis of the WCIT-12 proceedings, I evaluate the consistency (or lack thereof) of the different infrastructure stakeholders to effectively promote internet freedom norms at the international stage. More importantly, the controversies surrounding this event are necessary for understanding the underlying political economic tensions that guide our stakeholders’ political ambitions and commitments. If the efforts and lessons drawn together by political technologists discussed in this chapter can meaningfully inform internet freedom norms, we should be able to observe some of these norms and actors at work at the policy level, and if not, imagine the ways in which they could.

See PhD thesis abstract and download whole thesis…

Back to Freedom technologists series…

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