I was in Manchester today at the Open Rights Group’s conference on digital rights. The keynote speech (Dropbox-located .pdf file) was given by EFF’s John Buckman. You can find a summary of the day’s proceedings at ORG’s own website here (scroll down to the bottom of the page for details).
I attended the keynote speech, of course, which amongst other things laid patent for all to see how lucky we still are in the UK to have some civil servants who want to think: who are interested in trying to understand the background and essence of the complex digital issues which continue to assail us. The cynical and money-laden brute force of American lobbying simply doesn’t bear contemplating, nor – at least for the moment – excessive comparison.
The first post-keynote session I attended involved discussions around data-protection regulation, with representatives from ORG itself, academia, privacy interests and the ICO. The ICO representative came in for quite a bit of pointed questioning, which – under the circumstances – seemed a little unfair. His main beef wasn’t with the essential direction of proposed new European directives so much as with the potential for the bureaucratisation of their implementation. In a sense, perhaps, this strand of thought was used a little like a battering-ram to defend our shores from the encroaching hordes of data-privacy fundamentalists. Nevertheless, data privacy is an issue of considerable importance: its potential for abuse allows large corporations and other interests not only to take advantage of our lives as profiled in everything we do online but also to reduce the advantage we ourselves, as rather more modest citizens, can extract from a supposedly empowering digital economy.
Another suggestion which came up, in this case in relation to datasets such as medical records, seemed to me analogous to copyright legislation in countries like Spain: if my understanding is correct, in Spain it’s impossible not to assert your intrinsic moral right to be recognised as the author of a work you’ve created. This approach in relation to a broader definition of data, the data trails which for example we lay down through our usage of social networks, would make it utterly unnecessary (ie legally impossible) for there to exist Terms of Service which could undermine our inherent right to maintain the integrity and ownership of our digital profiles, particularly with respect to the right to delete or modify data laid down in such away. In such a circumstance, and with this new legal figure, our data could not be taken away from us by a default acceptance of a private ToS contract.
The second session I went to, after a snatched lunch, involved the right to be offensive. Here, we had representatives from ORG, online media and lobbyists especially involved in the subject of free speech. A fascinating and wide-ranging discussion ensued, captured – as all were – on video. Hopefully, the material will be edited down and made available to an online audience shortly.
Finally, I attended two unconference sessions. The final one was a productive discussion on the subject of passwords – perhaps, more usefully, to use the terminology of one person present, “credentials”. The conclusions were a bit scary, to be honest. Not much more one could do than carry out a damage limitation exercise, as a rule.
But the most interesting session, for me at least, mainly because of my interest in crossover dynamics, was an unconference session called “Bursting the bubble”. Led by a member of the Pirate Party UK, it started out looking like an indirect (or not very indirect) PPUK appeal for ideas to help further its future election strategies. To be fair, it did also interface with ORG’s own presence and efforts; one attendee, in particular, did wish ORG and other digital rights’ activists were better able to “sell” their wares. One idea that came up was a kind of products division, where specific and highly focussed needs (browser plugins, websites for checking mobile phone blocking etc) could be identified and satisfied in a programmed and properly marketed way. Adding value to members and supporters of organisations which carried out such development would certainly help to raise their profile in the eyes of ordinary people.
Everyone did agree that ORG punches way above its size, which is a credit to the professionalism of the resources it provides. But, even so, the digital bubble still exists, and whether we wish to reframe digital rights as human rights (for the latter is also, sadly, a term plagued with its own set of very English prejudice) or, alternatively, argue that the best strategy might be to interface one step away – as ORG is already beginning to – with charities and other interested parties whose mission it is to work with the poor who are, by the by, also digitally disadvantaged (better placed as they may be to interpret the language of digital activism in such a way that those most affected but least knowledgeable might begin to benefit from the research taking place), in truth the pursuit of a wider evangelisation must be a long-term objective of everyone interested in what we might term an evermore digitally-underpinned justice.
It’s possible, therefore, that ORG must remain a focussed teller of frank truths for it not to lose the value it consistently adds to UK digital-rights debate. But there is little point in forever telling the truth to the politicians, legislators and thoughtful civil servants if you leave behind the very people you are trying to protect and defend: that is to say, the citizens themselves.
There must come a time when digital rights are sold differently – when, in fact, they are sold as the rights that underpin the laws which software engineers now make, every day of the week, behind closed corporate doors; outside of Parliament; within the recesses of their brilliant and unpredictable minds.
A true digital economy would be one which matched the power of transnational corporations to innovate astonishingly with the rights of individuals to continue living their lives with sense and sensibility.
The question really being whether this isn’t an impossible pipe-dream amongst a humongous mass of virtual pipes: a digital economy which becomes not a dream but a nightmare, where we end up counting on the fingers of one hand the real beneficiaries of all those ever-so-unprivate online profiles we almost gladly deposit – even as the once-expected empowerment of consumer-producer ecosystems becomes just another foolish hope to be discarded on the road to that unstoppable corporatisation of society.