Online activism, governance, privacy and security

This session examined the capacity of hyper-connected digital technologies to enhance government surveillance and control, alongside the potential impact of these technologies on democratic an authoritarian regimes. Discussion referenced the importance of legally prohibiting governments from demanding other organisations release personal data without due process. The role of online activism in transforming the future landscape of political activity and participation, as well as the impact of open government and transparency initiatives were explored. Consideration was also given to the challenges of multi-jurisdictional Internet regulation and the future role of online privacy and anonymity tools in an environment where sophisticated tracking and data correlation techniques can be used to de-anonymize personal data (and potentially engage in price discrimination). Open government data and services will require more robust and professionalised information management skills – and should be demand-driven as opposed to just supply-driven. Finally, online engagement with the public poses challenges in terms of accurately identifying eligible electors, but also offers benefits through the political empowerment of diaspora communities, support for evidence-based policy making and a mechanism for disseminating authoritative information on climate change, health, welfare and education.

Specific questions for further discussion

(links take you to the relevant forum subtopic):

Q1: Will a future crisis of trust and confidence in the online world undermine the social, political and economic benefits of the Internet?

Q2: Can governments prevent the private sector from engaging in price discrimination against individuals using advanced commercial profiling techniques?

Q3: Online public engagement with government - more evidence-based policy making - or greater influence for vocal online minorities?

Link to main discussion topic:

The future outlook for government surveillance and control

There will be far more control of networks by agencies in terms of surveillance and content filtering. This will not be purely for security reasons – another potential driver will be the protection of copyright. Decryption methods, including deep packet inspection techniques will be likely to increase in frequency. All these developments will erode privacy – possibly undermining social and political activism in many countries – whilst stifling transparency and access to information. Increasing hyper-connectivity can also be harnessed to increase the capacity of governments and companies to track and trace the activity of Internet users.

Three possible scenarios:

  1. Democratic societies become less democratic
  2. Undemocratic regimes may crumble as a result of the Internet
  3. A divergence between democratic regimes which continue to become more participative and transparent using technology and authoritarian regimes harnessing that same technology to consolidate control and surveillance of their populations.

Governments are not going to be equally able or interested in mastering the technology behind advanced Internet surveillance. China has made an enormous investment in both personnel and technology behind surveillance – but most countries will lack the resources to develop this kind of infrastructure. There will also be widespread pressure from governments on private entities to outsource their surveillance operations. Every government will not build its own “Great Firewall” – instead they will look to the private sector or other undemocratic countries. Overall, filtering and surveillance will become cheaper and easier for governments over time.

However, it was also argued that the right of access to information has increased in many countries. Many others offer the right of asylum to bloggers and activists. Education and awareness of the importance of freedom of expression and privacy feed increasing self-regulation on the part of the individual which will also generate more due process on the part of governments.

Rising pressure on private entities to supply personal data to governments

As advertising becomes a dominant Internet business model, private companies will increasingly invest in an array of different tracking and monitoring technologies and infrastructure. Governments will seek to exploit this resource. Therefore it is essential to keep governments accountable and make sure that they are legally prohibited (without due process or at least transparency) from demanding the private sector to surrender user/customer information and data. Multinational companies from the US and Europe will be under increasing pressure from third party governments demanding them to surrender domestic information covering the Internet activities of their citizens. Refusal to comply could lead disputes to escalate to become international trade issues.

Political trends and the rise of online participation and activism

By 2020 we will see a substantial reinvention of politics driven by the progressive evolution of online activism techniques. After the SOPA battle in January 2012 large numbers of lobbying organisations in Washington will have sought to hire online expertise to synthesize the approaches which yielded success for online activists in the campaign against SOPA – but harnessed towards the prosecution of their client’s objectives. The future of the political system in most democratic countries will look like American politics does today. There will be more money involved and there will be more professionalised manipulation of public sentiment. It will be less about getting people to vote on particular issues and more about mobilising mass feeling (usually around single cross-cutting issues). The political elites realise this is how you get what you want from the political system – and the Internet is an incredibly effective tool for mobilising mass popular sentiment. This mobilisation process will become increasingly less organic and more organised and deliberate.

There will be more and more single issue political movements which cut across traditional party lines, generational lines and geography. Political and business lobbying will become increasingly interwoven across transnational lines. The state to state or intergovernmental mechanism will not be the dominant decision making locus – this locus instead will lie with cross-cutting international business connections. This will lead to large scale commercial arrangements being agreed under the radar of traditional intergovernmental negotiations.

In the future governments will not just gain legitimacy through elections – they will also be measured against their ability to deliver on open government and transparency objectives – enabled by digital technologies and hyper-connectivity. These will become new major sources of political and institutional credibility.

Increases in the use of gameification and simulated environments where people can test out potential decisions in a virtual context before executing them in a real world context will have a profound effect on a range of areas of human activity. In particular, such simulated environments will allow voters to project the potential social and economic impact of different political party policies before deciding which to support. This will potentially be hugely disruptive to traditional party politics – and hopefully compel many political actors to consider projected outcomes more carefully before making attractive (yet probably unrealistic) promises to their electorates.

Party politics will recede and engaging with the state as a set of processes rather than an institution will increase. Now that it is becoming progressively easier to determine which bit of government (national, local and municipal) is dealing with the issue or area you care about – more people will engage with particular parts of government on that basis. People will continue to aggregate around single issues which resonate with their values and interests – but not around traditional century old political parties.

It was suggested that in the short term (for example by 2020) the Internet is unlikely to radically change the electoral system in terms of the concept of democratic voting - but the trend towards rising voter engagement via the Internet will certainly continue. This is likely to weaken traditional political parties as they are less likely to be able to mobilise these new digital channels and opportunities than newer single issue political movements. This may produce progressive fragmentation of the party system in the developed democracies as the younger generation increasingly focus on specific issues which matter to them as opposed to generational or partisan alliances which have defined party systems in the past. This may also yield to individuals developing political and intellectual affinities which transcend traditional boundaries along national, regional, generational or geographical lines.

It was suggested that in one sense the future is already here but its impact has not yet been evenly distributed. Governments and large centralised institutions and organisations will continue to fail to grasp the full extent of the opportunities presented by the Internet, whilst continuing to grapple with the trans-national and multi-jurisdictional regulatory challenges it presents. Monolithic states will find it particularly difficult to adapt as the next generation of young people will continue to be increasingly technologically empowered. However, monitoring and tracking techniques will also increase in their sophistication with emotional metering and retina movement tracking replacing traditional click tracing. It will also become harder to differentiate between different agendas and which corporate or political forces are driving them.

The question was posed whether the future would see a consolidation of religious fundamentalism in digital form. It was highlighted that it is important For example there are large Muslim populations in Indonesia, India and the Philippines who would not necessarily conform to the traditional Middle Eastern fundamentalist stereotype.

The “no more secrets” factor will continue to consolidate by 2020. It has become increasingly difficult to keep information secret which has a counterbalancing effect of attempts to exercise control. The pressure to accommodate freedom of speech will be on-going, particularly from bottom-up civic engagement and advocacy initiatives.

The role of online privacy/anonymity tools

Will privacy and anonymity tools be increasingly available and used? Will use of some of these tools be criminalised? It was suggested that there will be an on-going arms race between privacy/encryption tools and monitoring/surveillance tools which will continue to escalate.

Tools to preserve anonymity online are an important feature of democratic society. However, it is a mistake to place excessive faith in online circumvention tools (email encryption, proxy servers…etc) because the vast majority of people will not use them (or know how to use them correctly). Centralised services are going to be a fact of life in 2020 for the vast majority of uses. Therefore laws will need to be in place to secure the personal information on those services and prevent government acquisition of that data without due process.

The mainstream of Internet users will always opt for interactive and user friendly services before considering security. This is also because that many of these circumvention/privacy tools have moderately degrading effect on online user experience However, in order to preserve their future market share and protect their customer base increasing numbers of online platforms will start embedding encryption and security into their services.

It was suggested that it is useful to distinguish between user demand for online privacy and online “clandestinity”. Online privacy involves personal data, postings or online choices/tastes not entering the public realm, or being used for commercial marketing or targeting purpose. Online clandestinity – involves the ability to potentially place a post or information in the public realm whilst preserving anonymity. In this instance the output of the user’s behaviour is visible (in the form of a blog post or an email) – but the origin of that behaviour remains concealed.

Virtual Private Networks will primarily be used by individuals seeking to circumvent copyright related surveillance. If privacy tools are adopted by such individuals, what are the implications for the legitimacy of those tools? If only pirates use anonymity tools then governments will have a stronger basis to make those tools illegal.

It was advanced that pseudonymity could become popular as the middle range privacy solution for the average person. This does not constitute total anonymity (required by users engaging in illegal behaviour) but is instead dependent on context. Essentially this relates to education surrounding avatar management, allowing people to manage a range of different pseudonymous identities across different online fora.

There will also be increased use of private information lockers, frequently household based. This will be coincidental with a closer connection between habeas corpus and habeas data (bringing together the concept of freedom from imprisonment without evidence or due legal process and freedom from the exploitation or access to private data without evidence or due legal process). However, it was also pointed out that the problem with pseudonymity is that users will often confuse it with anonymity. Internet service providers will always know who their customers are.

The future of online privacy and the security of personal data

Generally speaking the trend towards ever expanding digitally-enabled opportunity in relation to education and democratic/political participation will continue across the developed and developing world – on a scale which is too large and diffuse for governments to prevent or control. However, freedom and privacy must not be taken for granted. Greater public education and awareness on these issues will be increasingly essential in order to promote an active public and consumer voice. This will also require enhanced levels of individual responsibility/regulation.

With the increasing uptake of cloud based services with companies operating across national boundaries with servers based in multiple national jurisdictions – what will be the implications for the security and privacy of personal data? There are already instances where national governments are seeking to compel companies to release personal data. For example it has been contended (see article) that the US Patriot act provides a legal basis for the US Government to access personal data held by servers by companies operating within its jurisdiction but not its borders (i.e. having some form of US-based commercial presence, even when the servers themselves are located in a different national jurisdiction.

The collection of personal information by one organisation is an important issue – but the correlation of multiple separate data sets and the migration of personal information to other databases are also significant concerns. It depends on who holds the right to the information itself and where that information is physically located. Privacy laws vary in different national jurisdictions – with significant variances between, for example, laws in the United States and the European Union (with the latter having higher privacy safeguards/requirements). Global companies often receive information in one country and then process it in a different country where a different regulatory framework applies. Therefore in a globalised world it becomes ever more challenging to ensure uniform standards of privacy.

These new developments also open the door for companies to engage in price discrimination based on personal data – for example in relation to the provision of discriminatory insurance policies based on enhanced knowledge of people’s lifestyle and dietary habits harvested from multiple online databases based upon online behaviour/choices.

The importance of building a legislative wall between governments and private entities which hold personal data was highlighted. In the US the 1986 Privacy Act attempted to do this – but this legislation is now obsolete in the modern information age. There is a pressing need for a legal framework which effectively prohibits Internet service providers and private repositories of personal data from acquiescing to government requests (or pressure) to release this information without due process. This is particularly important in terms of requests which cut across national jurisdictions.  It was also suggested that such a framework should also be operated in relation to government departments sharing personal information – for example between the public health authorities and immigration authorities.

It was pointed out that many governments are reluctant to accept foreign companies refusing to hand over data held on domestic servers based on protections afforded by their own country’s legal framework – and that in many instances such companies eventually give in (e.g. RIM in India).

Centralisation of services is increasingly irresistible from an industry perspective because of the rise of mobile. Users want to be able to access their data from any device, which effectively requires that data and services be based on a cloud-based server. Whilst the open source community correctly identifies that individual households running their own servers would be the best way to safeguard privacy, civil liberties, freedom and competition – in reality consumers are unlikely to do this, which makes private sector operated cloud-based servers and services the most attractive and feasible option.  Few individuals will want to actively administer their own server infrastructure.

It was pointed out that open source intelligence statistical techniques are able to collect, correlate and triangulate data in such a way as to de-anonymize previously anonymous information. In this context any potential mechanisms designed to protect private information could be subject to circumvention – and Internet users need to be educated on the importance of such developments, while organisations and entities which employ such techniques unlawfully should be held liable for such transgressions.

Current levels of trust in the online world may eventually plateau or even significantly decrease. Right now many people are quite comfortable with sharing significant amounts of personal information online (either via social networks or online activity tracking systems) – but this is likely to change. As the Internet matures people (and particularly young people) will wake up to the potential consequences of their behaviour online. This may create a broader and more energetic and innovative market for online privacy tools.

The future impact of open government and open data initiatives

For the benefits of open government data to be fully realised there needs to be a greater professionalization of information management skills within the public sector – both in terms of the quality of the data acquired/recorded and the referencing/indexing regimes applied to that data to allow multiple data sets to be interoperable and intelligible.

It was contended that the process of governments aggregating public data can be described as developing a tax payer funded data resource using public property (data collected from citizens). Offering that resource back to tax payers to use for private and commercial applications is essentially government returning that property to the citizen. It was also suggested that in the future the public sector may also seek to monetise the data it collects in the same way that social networks and private companies do today.

By 2020 governments will have realised that it takes more than rhetoric to deliver effective and transparent open government services. Currently what is available in terms of open government services and data is mainly supply driven, when in reality it needs to be driven by citizen demand. There will also be an added importance placed on mechanisms or intermediaries which make it easier for citizens to interact with open government services – given that the act of merely making such services available will be insufficient in driving citizen uptake and engagement with these services.

Governments will need to work with other organisations and partners to improve the use-ability of open government interfaces. Intermediaries can play a role in helping governments provide information which is retrievable for citizens and ensure that it is available in a way which is valuable and useful for citizens. At present a lot of potentially valuable information is buried several clicks down within the architecture of government websites.

Online identity and engagement

There is also an issue with open government services and interactions using social media in terms of identifying the electorate. Traditional electoral systems go to great lengths to ensure that each eligible individual is connected with one singular vote. When a particular government initiative, proposal or programme has 20,000 likes (or online endorsements) it is difficult to determine how many of these come from one individual registering multiple times – or even if those endorsements originate from people who are either under age or residents of other national jurisdictions.

On the positive side – the ability offer an online endorsement (via social media and other related mechanisms) to politicians and leaders from countries other than your own gives a global voice to citizens who lack the right to participate foreign political systems – even when those political system (e.g. the US) frequently take decisions which have a significant impact on their social and economic livelihoods. This trend also has the capacity to further empower and energise online diasporas. 

It was also pointed out that the value/significance of an online “like” is limited given the minimal barriers and cost to citizens expressing themselves in this way through a single mouse click – in comparison to citizens actually organising, mobilising and proactively advocating, which carries far greater weight and substance.

Evidence based policy making

Improving standards of health, welfare and lifestyle are crucial in developing countries. Effective approaches depend upon authenticated information and evidence-based policy making and consumer choice. The capacity of new hyper-connected information technologies to disseminate health information is an unprecedented opportunity. Relatively simple targets such as expanding the availability of reliable information on pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and rape can help transform the lives of the next female generation in Africa and beyond. It was predicted that we will see substantial changes in the status of women in many parts of the world over the next 10 years, driven by increasing access to hyper-connected information technologies.

Evidence based policy making depends upon the quality of the evidence used. The debate around climate change is interesting because there are large disagreements around the evidence – even when relying upon automated atmospheric temperature observations. Libraries have a role in terms of maintaining our capability of curating, understanding and preserving evidence upon which current and future policies can be based.