Frequency Festival: What are our digital rights?

Yesterday the first night of Lincoln’s Frequency Festival opened with an interesting discussion into our digital rights and freedom. With the city celebrating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta this year, the festival’s first event asked: what would the digital Magna Carta would look like?

Speakers at the debate included Professor Raul Espejo (Director-General of the World Organisation of Systems and Cybernetics), Wendy Grossman (a writer, folksinger and journalist) and Richard Barbrook (senior lecturer at the University of Westminster). The event also saw contributions from the audience.

Admittedly, I was under the impression that the event would be a debate, when it was more a series of three lectures from the main speakers. All three of them – Professor Espejo, Dr Barbrook and Ms Grossman – all presented different views on the proposed digital bill of rights. Whilst it was interesting to see three different perspectives, I was particularly interested in Professor Espejo’s talk about Cyberfolk and Algedonic Meters.

Basically, the discussion was around a data loop between the people and the state. The meter itself was for an ‘inclusive democracy’ and enabled the public to “[respond] to what policy makers were doing” (Espejo, 2015). In particular, this would be the public saying that they liked a particular debate or proposal.

At the same time, government discussions were being broadcast to the masses. However, at the top of this loop (or dichotomy, if you will), the state are overwhelmed with public data and are unable to handle the data correctly or ethically. According to Espejo (2015), the “extreme proliferation of data today is misunderstood” and proposed that “digital abuses of freedom and privacy […] need to be replaced by a society and individually fair ‘variety engineering” – the term variety referring to Ashby’s law of requisite variety.

This abuse of freedom and privacy at the top is something which I discussed previously in my post about the Channel 4 series, Hunted. After writing this post, one of the key questions I raised, which I wanted to explore further, was whether we as individuals have the right to complain about breaches of privacy when – through social media sites for example – we publicly and freely volunteer that information?

It’s a question I still don’t think that I have the answer to. But, having said that, one of the points raised about this issue was the fact that, alongside the state not knowing how to handle the mass amounts of data, the individual does not know how to properly volunteer data. In particular, someone does not know how that data could be used to benefit themselves, or others in the future. An example which Wendy Grossman gave was the first college-goers at Harvard who used the early version of Facebook, without knowing that what they post may one day be available on Google.

In that respect, I think we, as individuals, need to learn about digital footprints in detail. But in terms of a Digital Bill of Rights, perhaps it would be wise to place regulations on the individual to prevent them from volunteering certain data. If not that, then we should be made aware of what that data could mean in the future, or where it could be made available (like a Harvard student’s Facebook post being visible on Google, for instance – as mentioned above).

Once again, it comes back to the line between public and private in terms of technology. If a Digital Bill of Rights were to be drafted, then it’s likely that the main defence for an accusation of a privacy breach would be that the data in question is readily available to the public. An interesting example of this is a piece of work by Liz Sterry called ‘Kay’s Blog’. This, which was part of a Furtherfield exhibition entitled ‘Being Social’, was a project which saw Sterry reconstruct the bedroom of a blogger (named Kay) – with the information being obtained solely from her blog posts.

Admittedly, I myself would find this a rather large invasion of privacy, especially when it goes on to appear in a public exhibition. But as mentioned beforehand, if this information has been made public, then there is no defence. To be honest, should the terms and conditions of social media platforms not cover this already, then a Digital Bill of Rights should include an agreement. This agreement would state that as much as an individual would consider information published online as private, everyone who uses the Internet today knows that it is a public hub for creativity and information. For that reason, the Digital Bill should remind individuals that information obtained about them from social media cannot be seen as a breach of privacy. However, I do think that there are some exceptions when it comes to state surveillance (see my Hunted post for more information).

Similarly, this can be an issue when it comes to copyright and intellectual property. Yes, whilst most cases are easily identified and breaches of copyright can often be dealt with, it’s a piece of legislation which tries cover as much of the ever-expanding Internet as possible.

In a somewhat similar example, the music industry has been impacted by illegal downloading for a while now. Admittedly, the problem has escalated to the point that enforcing a legislation would simply not work, but that just demonstrates how hard it is to place laws on a rapidly changing entity such as the Internet. In terms of intellectual property, how can we stop the majority from breaching copyright, rather than the few?

Finally, if we were to consider the web as being this massive creative pool for the public, then who owns the Internet? This was a question raised by an audience member and it certainly was an interesting one. In the past, control over the Internet has turned into a bizarre free-for-all, with companies and the government both being eager to regulate or control aspects of technology. For example, a recent campaign to promote net neutrality talked about stopping Internet Service Providers from restricting Internet access to certain sites or content. A more recent example is Home Secretary Theresa May’s Draft Communications Data Bill (dubbed ‘the snooper’s charter’), where the government plans to gain more powers in terms of investigation and surveillance.

However, what we don’t have is rules or laws put in place by the public. If a Digital Bill of Rights was to be introduced, then how could it be made law? Who would enforce it? How could it be maintained, updated and enforced on every single online citizen?

Whilst governments and companies may be trying to control certain aspects of technology and the web, the Internet will always belong to ‘the people’. In a sense, the Internet is a Marxist hub. If we are to call it that, then of course one of the main issues is that the promotion of Marxism is contradictory – in order to enforce Marxism you need a leader.

So, in that case, how can a Digital Bill of Rights for the digital citizen and ‘the people’ be enforced – and by whom? How could the bill be maintained and updated?

Liam

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