How can activists and engineers work together?

På fredag åker jag påPeace and War Digital i Aachen. Jag är inbjuden som talare och kommer att jobba med rubriken "How can activists and engineers work together?". Förutom själva konferensen ska jag även delta på en presskonferens. Därför övar jag på tyska fraser för att kunna få fram budskapet om att Sverige lever i ett stundande FRA-samhälle. Delar av vad jag kommer att säga i Aachen kommer jag att beröra redan på torsdag på The Resistance Studies Seminar.

Men, jag tar gärna emot kommentarer och reflektioner av mina kära bloggläsare. Därför kommer alltså del ett i denna bloggserie, som förhoppningsvis kan leda till något positivt även här i FRA-land. Ni får ursäkta engelskan... (själv är jag glad att jag slapp skriva på tyska).

1. Introduction

Since the September 11 attacks the world has been challenged with intrusive legislation upon civil liberties and increased use of surveillance technologies. As this development is proceeding rapidly, both from a legal point of view and a technological side, it takes more than parliamentary politics to pursue a democratic and open discussion about these matters. This is where the civil society, or rather, the civil societies, need to collaborate, intertwine and reconfigure their composition. Thus, I will propose that engineers, software-programmers and people in the private sector of Informations Technology should co-oporate with activists, human-rights organisations and citizen-journalists.

Issues that keep arising in the backwaters of the “wars” on terrorism, drugs, and trafficking are often complex and require technical and legal expertise, not only to be understood, but more importantly, to be taken seriously in the public debate and by the media. In order to avoid that laws are passed without a proper debate, or that technologies are implemented as merely technical solutions, I will propose that criticism could have a positive task in building a collaborative informational infrastructure, an effective media strategy and other innovations.

Let me give an example from Sweden. This year (2008) a law was passed, which allowed the government to pursue extensive signals intelligence on the Internet. It is called the “FRA-law”, since the authority is called Försvarets Radioanstalt, and it is the equivalent to the NSA in the United States or the Bundesnachrichtensdienst in Germany.

The FRA was previously only allowed to search and intercept radio traffic, but this new law would allow them to monitor all Internet traffic, starting already at so called “co-operation points” at the Internet Service Providers. Thus, a mode of operation which was developed in the context of the post-war arms race, will be transferred to the Internet as this law is effectuated during 2009. However, the Internet is largely used by private and corporate communication, rather than military information, a fact that arises questions concerning privacy, integrity and the rights to private communication.

I will argue that if it were not for the active formation of a public, this law would have been passed without resistance or criticism. This was not the case however, since reactions have been very strong, and keeps the issue of the FRA-law open and critical.

The notion of a “public” is borrowed from the philosopher John Dewey, and he explicitly stresses the importance of communication:

But participation in activities and sharing in results are additive concerns. They demand communication as a prerequisite. (Dewey 1927: 296) /…/ Communication of the results of social inquiry is the same thing as the formation of public opinion. (Ibid: 304)

Crucial to the formation of a participatory public issue, and to allow it to build political pressure, is the free flow of information in the sense that it operates in a smooth space without restrictions, something which is very different to the notions of mass-communication or information-overflow (Thanks Per for the comment). This is where the Internet has a very interesting potential since it by design promotes participation, sharing and communication, which is precisely what Dewey is asking for. However, it seems that this free flow can not be guaranteed by the Internet alone, since the same abilities can be used for what I, along with a few colleagues, call panspectric surveillance.

To be continued...

Coming posts:

2 Panspectric surveillance and War

3 Citizen journalism, pirate parties and activists

4 How an engineer can be an activist, and and activist can be technical?

5 The Internet(s) – a democratic space or a panspectric surveillance minefield?