Digital Rights And The Need To Organise

Australia just passed another law that further erodes civil liberties at the behest of security agencies. Every time this happens, and it has happened a lot, there are comments that it’s actually our fault for losing because we didn’t explain ourselves well enough.

The same arguments against digital rights groups can be made against unions, climate scientists, vaccination proponents, and those who oppose the rise of fascism. Every time the ABC profiles a fascist and thus normalises and promotes their ideas to a wide audience, you could say that opponents of fascism have failed. Every time the Australian Financial Review runs a story about how unions are evil, you could say unions have failed. Every time some anti-vaxxer gets on Sunrise, you could say doctors have failed.

This isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s also not really right, either.

Part of the problem is how the majority of people learn about technical topics. Most people don’t read the tech press. They read the general press. They read The Australian, and ABC News, and The Daily Telegraph, and The Sydney Morning Herald. They watch Sunrise.

Whatever spin is put on a topic by these mainstream outlets is what most people will see most often. If a particular set of ideas—encrypted apps are used by pedophiles for example, or only terrorists use Telegram—then that’s what they come to believe. If we want people to see a different set of ideas, like privacy is a human right then we need that idea to show up at least as often.

There is a whole machine involved in getting ideas out into the population. There are producers who choose which segments to air, and which guests to have on to explain things. There are editors who choose which stories to print, and what angle the story should push. There are armies of professional public relations (PR) people working to influence editors and producers to push their particular perspective so they can sell more toothpaste or ensure absolutely no action is taken on climate change.

And, generally, this machine favours the status quo. It favours the already rich and powerful because it is owned and run by the rich and powerful.

Remember how well the mining companies banded together to kill the carbon tax? Think that was fought on logic and facts? Of course not. It was millions of dollars in marketing and direct threats to politicians’ ability to fund-raise and get re-elected.

So when people blame climate scientists for not explaining climate change well enough, or digital rights people for not explaining how modern software development works well enough, they’re not entirely wrong.

But they are missing a big part of the point.

Myths, Power, and Influence

Logic isn’t lacking here. There isn’t a dearth of facts. It isn’t a matter of finding exactly the right combination of facts and logical sequencing that opponents will suddenly give up and concede “Oh! Now I see! Yes, you’re definitely correct.”

This just isn’t how political fights work. The opponents of privacy are—far more often than people like to believe—not acting in good faith. Sure, sometimes the basis comes from a genuine desire to catch Evildoers™ and bring them to justice, but daily contact with the reality of human systems means altruist desire to do good gets warped by the frustration that the Bad Guys™ are getting away because these pesky rules keep getting in the way. It’s how the police can justify running a child porn site for a year.

You don’t win these kinds of fights with facts and logic. You win with stories and marketing.

Digital rights groups have been losing because they’re not organised enough, and haven’t been doing a good enough job of marketing an alternate set of myths to the “encryption helps terrorists” bollocks. They haven’t carefully cultivated a network of press contacts who will push their ideas at least as often as handy drops from ASD. They haven’t gotten enough people angry enough that they’ll donate money and pressure politicians.

The efforts to counter the surveillance state have been fragmented and ineffective, and it’s been like this for years. Fixing it isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s not something you can just pick up the week before an astoundingly stupid piece of legislation gets rushed through Parliament and hope to succeed. It will take a decade of regular, constant, tedious and thankless work.

The tech industry is full of rich people, and they’ve mostly been disengaged from politics in Australia in ways that mining companies and banks absolutely have not. If you want things to be different, it means you’re going to have to do something different.

Get To Work

It is not a fair fight. We are out-numbered, out-funded, and out-resourced. We are up against power structures that have carefully and methodically embedded themselves in the very fabric of how the system works. It will require a discipline that has been singularly lacking. It will require work, and sometimes it won’t be much fun.

But it won’t be that way forever.

Success will not be achieved by a couple of people toiling in isolation. Success will require sharing the load, and sharing the credit. Success will require acknowledging common ground, and letting small differences slide. Success will require progress, not perfection.

Time to get smart, get organised, and get to work.

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  1. Talk to people who do social change comms with other communities and fields and issues. Talk to the marriage equality crowd, for example, about how they achieved a coordinated campaign despite having about seven different organisations involved. Talk to HIV educators about how they achieved high levels of community understanding and buy-in despite the insane degree of technical complexity of HIV treatment and prevention.

    You’re talking a good game on facts vs emotions in media strategy, even if your ideas about journalists practically guarantee they won’t take you seriously. But you’re totally neglecting the community and coalitional aspects of building a movement.

    I come from the queer community-led HIV response. As Turnt will confirm I watched on with utter disbelief at the handling of the MyHR debacle — that’s an issue that could have been made the basis for a broad-based coalitional movement, but instead there were disparate voices, no coordinated messaging, no outreach to affected communities, and the de facto spokespeople were, to put it mildly, shouty paranoiacs.

    But if you invite those connections you’d need to ensure they don’t get shat upon from great height for not having the same worldview and obsessive focus on the technical and legislative details as the bulk of the infosec community.

  2. I’m struggling a bit to reconcile your “ensure they don’t get shat upon” statement with the critiques you’ve provided in earlier paragraphs, but I’m glad you’ll be helping with the long, slow grind we have ahead of us.

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