Why we should all care about digital rights

Digital rights for all? Milena Popova calls for more diverse representation within the IT community.

Image: CC BY-NC 2.5 (Xkcd Comics)

I recently gave a talk at Skeptics in the Pub on digital rights. While the audience were lively, engaged, well-informed and provided lots of food for thought in the post-talk discussion, it didn’t escape my attention that only about 10% were female.

The technology sector in general has a reputation for being dominated by white men, and that extends to related campaigning organisations. The Pirate Party for instance, didn’t manage to field a single female candidate in the 2010 general election (though they did better in the Scottish Parliament elections this year). Last year’s ORGCon - a truly inspiring event - wasn’t even close to being gender-balanced, either in terms of speakers or attendees. There are many structural reasons why the sector struggles with diversity: lack of role models, high-profile cases of vicious bullying and harassment of women technologists, and the booth babes phenomenon all play a part and all need to be addressed. However, the fact that a female speaker at an event run by an organisation which is generally inclusive and tends to have more balanced audiences attracted a 90% white male audience points at an element of self-selection too. Do women and minorities simply not care about digital rights?

Personally, I have a number of female and minority friends who do care and who are both interested and active in digital rights: artists, copyright experts, writers. Among the general population, however, digital rights are often seen as the domain of geeky kids who download too much music off the internet. Technology like the internet, mobile phones and mobile data has become so pervasive that we all take it for granted. We organise our social lives through Twitter and Facebook, we access information about education, employment and government services online, we use the internet to express our thoughts and ideas and to reach thousands more people than we could in our local communities. We network, meet new people, get advice, we even meet our partners through online dating.

Mothers get advice and support on all kinds of issues on Mumsnet. Feminists organise through websites like The F Word which often translate into real world action. Disabled people find new ways of reaching out to the world and fighting for their rights through The Broken of Britain Campaign. Bullied lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender teens can find new hope through the It Gets Better videos. The Finding Ada campaign aims to highlight the successes of women in science and technology and attract more women to the sector. Men, women, black, white, straight, gay, Muslim or humanist, able-bodied or not, the internet brings us together and empowers us all.

Yet our position is precarious. Technology empowers us, but it also gives both businesses and the state new tools to control us: from face recognition to data retention, web blocking and the threatened disconnection from the internet for alleged copyright infringement. Imagine one day you couldn’t access the Internet anymore because your daughter had downloaded the latest Beyoncé song - or even worse, simply because someone at your ISP had mixed up IP addresses when they’d passed on data to rights holders! Imagine your bullied, gay teenage son couldn’t access the It Gets Better videos anymore because his school had deemed them “inappropriate content”. Imagine your data storage devices - laptop, portable hard drive, iPod - being routinely searched by customs agents every time you cross a border, to check for “infringing material”. Our fluffy, liberal, democratic governments already do, or are proposing to do, these things. Imagine what a BNP government 20 years from now would do to sites like The Broken of Britain or the F Word!

Just as the internet has become an inextricable part of the fabric our lives, so have digital rights. Without one, we can never guarantee the neutrality and freedom of the other - and so we can never guarantee our own personal freedom. Digital rights matter - to us all.

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By Milena Popova on Oct 03, 2011

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