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Digital rights privilege problem: How trying to reach everyone becomes exclusive

Our Ruth Coustick-Deal discusses the need to make a conscious and deliberate effort to make digital rights campaigning more inclusive to ensure all voices, especially those of minorities, are reflected in our work. If you have any suggestions of how our organization can better address this issue, please drop us a comment below!

This piece by our Ruth Coustick-Deal was originally published on Medium.

Digital rights is the term used to cover a broad set of issues where technology and human rights intersect, though it has many different definitions. It is a concept and a movement. It has groups all around the world, working on the same set of core topics as they manifest in different jurisdictions; open source, privacy, free expression, Internet access, copyright reform. For example, Bytes for AllAccess NowBits of FreedomEFFOpen Rights Group, OpenMedia all do this work.

I live and breathe it; retweeting Cory Doctorow, reading blogs on copyright law, buying comic books about Edward Snowden. This is my world. These are my people.

But after years of working in this field I reached a point where I felt the digital rights movement is not making as much of a difference as we think we are. Make no mistake, I am proud of all that we have achieved, but we are capable of so much more.

In fact it so often feels like creating a system of advocacy that only campaigns on issues that are inconveniencing the powerful, rather than crushing the vulnerable.

So, in the world of campaigning, there are many varied human rights and social issues that people focus on changing for the better. For example:

  • ending poverty
  • access to services
  • reforming the legal system
  • increasing employment
  • ending prejudice
  • saving the environment

And for each concern, each perspective, it is the same humans who are on the blunt end of these social problems, despite seeming to be quite different issues:

  • women
  • people of colour
  • aboriginal people
  • disabled people
  • queer people

Usually, it is people containing some or all of these identities at once who face the worst effects of oppressions and societal failings. This has been written about extensively by better writers than I, and it shouldn’t be anything shocking anymore.

What has been missing from the understanding of most digital advocacy groups is that the same is true in our work. The fact is that when it comes to privacy, free speech, and access to Internet (the core of digital rights) it is the same marginalised people who are at the blunt end of the violation of these rights. And their perspectives are missing from our work.

My experience of the movement is that conferences, events, campaigns, staff, funders, board members, supporters are overwhelmingly white, and then male. This is also reflected in the membership of these groups — when I was at Open Rights Group we had an 80% / 20% split of male / female on our social media followers. They usually came with a background in the technology industry, from which this movement originally stemmed.

Digital Rights first worked on concerns like ‘code as free speech’ and defending hackers rights, on making the infrastructure something open that others could contribute to. These were all important topics, but what also happened was that we began by repeating the biases of that industry — its hiring problems, its lack of diversity and inclusivity, its increasingly bro-culture.

This demographic then influences digital rights group’s priorities. With a white male demographic in the positions of power, it frequently fails to recognise the effects that big issues, like mass surveillance, have on marginalised communities.

Instead the viewpoint that comes across is that these issues are self-contained, online-only and not connected to other social justice, environmental, and economic problems. Sometimes I have heard that argument directly in phrases like “we should stay in our lane” or “racism isn’t really in our remit”, “it’s not our job to solve sexism”.

This has been my experience within western-based groups, though I believe it is actively changing because it is not always the view of the staff or campaigners themselves.

In studying the work in depth many of us recognise how digital issues affect the most vulnerable, and we want to work on anti-oppression. Sometimes we’ve experienced these things personally ourselves.

However, these intentions still rarely reach the outward facing communications and campaigns that we prioritise. Despite what campaigners personally think, the work still exudes privilege.

Let’s take privacy as an example. With the Snowden leaks, the NSA and GCHQ regular topics of huge campaigns, we all hold privacy up as a key right to be defended in the digital age. We despise and aim to destroy structures of mass surveillance.

But we began the response to Snowden by arguing for an end to ‘indiscriminate mass surveillance’ and sought to replace it with ‘targeted surveillance’ — usually ignoring that ‘targeted’ in practice means ‘racially discriminating targeted’.

We ignored the racism we were justifying by infering “not me, but them”.

There are many examples of state surveillance being used in this targeted way: to focus on mosques, people with ‘muslim sounding names’ being the test subjects for GCHQ programs, or civil rights groups that criticise the police coming under direct scrutiny. A little while ago I met with representatives of several Muslim NGOs and charities, to talk about surveillance, and they told me that, “there are few spaces that Muslims in the UK can occupy without being monitored.”

For example, Prevent, the UK Government’s anti-extremism programme, targets infant-school age children. There are stories about children sent home from school because they discussed Iran, or had a ‘Free Palestine’ badge on their rucsac. This surveillance is focused on young people, treating children with brown skin as inherently suspicious. It’s done by teachers in the classroom in person, and using indirect electronic means to track their pupils. As Media Diversified reported, “counter-terrorism software packages are… marketed as a unique keyword-detection tool that teachers can install on school computers to monitor pupils for potential ‘extremist online activity’”.

It is clear that the situation of mass state surveillance is made worse for Muslims because of islamophobia: monitored offline by teachers and educators under the Prevent scheme, and online by GCHQ, it’s hard to feel free. This is the ‘chilling effect’ we often speak about in this sector.

Yet this is not reflected in campaigns on this issue.

Time to abandon a universal framework

The persistently flawed idea present in digital rights communities is that we can find a way to tell a story that will get all people on board, and behind us.

So as campaigners we make the choice to explain mass surveillance in a broad way, hoping that it will reach everyone. We say “you are all watched by the Government” or “We all do X on the Internet”.

In this way a generic form of inclusiveness is aimed for that tries to draw on what are seen to be universal experiences. However, this actually ends up acting as a form of erasure by not focusing in on the specific, real, lived oppressions that are experienced at the same time as an oppressive surveillance state.

Whenever we choose to say ‘everyone’, we push some people under the bus by not looking at how they are hurting the most. The broad focus seems like it is being inclusive, but we end up participating in oppression because we ignore real, specific, abuses of privacy when it targets marginalised groups.

“If we are not consciously and deliberately making an effort to be inclusive we will end up being exclusive”*

Trying to talk in universal terms also doesn’t always succeed in engaging privileged people as we expect it to. The threat doesn’t actually ring true for those who have been protected from negative experiences with the state. They actually need different arguments to understand the threat, when there is a higher sense of personal safety and trust in the power structures surrounding us. Not everyone has the same threat model for surveillance — if we teach that in crypto and encryption talks, why can’t we say it in our political campaigns?

To discuss mass surveillance we need to accept that the scales are not balanced equally, affecting everyone in a similar way. Some people truly never will feel the harms of surveillance, and some people will be afraid to live their normal lives because of its pervasive presence.

So it might be ‘mass surveillance’, but just because it happens to us all, doesn’t mean we share an experience. As with many forms of oppression there is no universal experience, and we should stop pretending that there is.

As I wrote before, ‘Nothing to hide, Nothing to fear’ is a terrible argument — but it is true for some people. Let’s not tell the privileged they are wrong when they tell us they have no reason to fear [yet]- let’s tell them to have empathy for those who desperately need this privacy.

Surveillance is another layer of oppression

Physical bodies, how we exist off the Internet, change how online oppression manifests itself. Here’s another example from the UK:

The Government has been introducing massive cuts to benefits and support for people with disabilities over many years, cutting mobility schemes and living allowances — and then it places those people under direct personal surveillance and digital surveillance, in order to prove that they are ‘not really disabled’.

Whether leaving to go to the shops, or mobilising online, all activity is seen as a sign you don’t deserve benefits. The surveillance they are under is not an issue that is separate from cuts, from the scapegoating, or vigilante reporting of their behaviour to the job centre. It’s all one experience, one life. And it’s still a digital rights issue.

The same surveillance on able-bodied people is absolutely still a breach of their human rights, but it is not likely to be as crushing on day to day life.

Or yet another example: the issue of ‘revenge porn,’: a form of sexual abuse, often in the form of stealing naked images of women and publishing them online in an attempt to blackmail, shame and punish. It was, and is, having serious direct harms on women — but very few digital advocacy groups commented on it. A frequent consensus I encountered when discussing this was that it “wasn’t really a digital rights issue” because it was a “women’s issue”. No joke. It’s not hard to see that it was both. And therefore important to fight from a digital rights perspective too.

What makes us act?

After these kinds of conversations and direct experiences, it seemed like techno-centred white men don’t want mass surveillance — because they don’t want it to apply to them.

It only becomes a problem when it reaches that ‘mass’ critical point: if it affects everyone, it affects me.

Although I’ve gone through this piece using surveillance as my example, the same patterns are true of access (are we more concerned with rural middle class white people having internet access than indigenous people?) and free speech (are we more concerned about copyright law stopping home videos than about Black Lives Matter videos being taken off Facebook by the police?).

Because if campaigners only ever focus on an issue — whether that’s mass surveillance, or net neutrality — that reaches far enough that it impacts white, straight, able-bodied, cis, financially secure men too — are we really campaigning for rights, or for keeping our privilege?

Next steps

We need to seriously assess what it is that pushes us to the “We should fight this” point, what is it that sparks our energy to make change?

If the audience is white male and you’ve got into that trap of assuming you should only work on things that affect your audience, then ask are they really representative of society, or the people who are most affected by those issues?

We need to work with an equitable, rather than equal approach. This definition from the Annie E Casey Foundation sums up this concept perfectly:

“Equity involves trying to understand and give people what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equality, in contrast, aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. Like equity, equality aims to promote fairness and justice, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things.”

So for a long time we’ve taken this equal approach in messaging and campaigns, but we need to bases our actions on responding to needs to create equal outcomes. Digital rights campaigning should focus on people who are most affected, most oppressed by digital issues, not just who our supporters are. And it needs to work on building targeted, equitable, solutions to these issues. Ultimately that means changing power dynamics, who has influence and who is listened to in the movement.

My final gauntlet to all of us who work on these issues is this — work with other groups, spread out to campaign on something that doesn’t affect white men or the most privileged at all. And when we take up that mission— seek out those affected, give them a platform, form coalitions, help fund others and be prepared to be told you’re doing it wrong. But get better.

I aim to follow this up with a part 2: Where campaigns are getting it right, what holds us back and building intersectionality into digital rights thinking.

*I wrote this note down at a talk on inclusivity, I never caught who said it. But it wasn’t me.

Thanks: I could not have written this piece without the help of the amazing Cynthia Khoo who gave widsom and feedback. The top image was created by the talented Marianela at @undazedandsuch specially for this piece. I was also inspired by many of the pieces at Media Diversified and my fellow campaigners in Campaign Bootcamp.

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