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If one thing gives me hope for the future, it’s the cause of ​internet freedom


A funny thing happened on the way to the high-tech dystopia.

Fifteen years ago, there were very few “technology activist” groups in the field. My former (and once again) employer, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was one of the first wave, preceded by a scant few like the Free Software Foundation. These groups were excited by the possibilities of technology, of course – but that’s not what animated them. Rather, they were and are motivated by a mixture of hope and fear: hope for the ways technology could give us a better world, and fear of how technology will make the world worse in a million ways.

I became aware of the movement’s existence in 1993, shortly before I dropped out of university (for the fourth and final time) and went to work as a programmer. I remember it well: I was about to get on a Greyhound bus from downtown Toronto to the University of Waterloo. I had a used laptop with a battery that only lasted 30 minutes, and it was an hour-long ride, so I bought a brand-new magazine to read: the first issue of Wired I’d ever seen. it was issue 1.2, and the cover story was “Crypto Rebels,” by Steven Levy.

The article impressed me with the technical infrastructure proposed by the burgeoning “cypherpunk” movement, who saw a day coming soon in which networked computers would mediate all our actions, which could be secured by means of mathematically elegant, provable cryptographic tools that would allow parties to authenticate each others’ messages, keep secrets, and establish trust in a world where they wouldn’t ever meet and anyone could be listening.

Even more impressive to me – as someone who’d grown up inside the anti-nuclear proliferation and social justice movements – was the sense that computers could be a tool for organising mass movements, and that they could also be a tool to smash them. Once everything that challenged the establishment was on the net, the giant corporations and governments that controlled it would be able to spy on everything everyone did, all the time. I’d grown up on tales of Pierre Trudeau’s War Measures Act, a period of Canadian law when the intelligence services dirty-tricked their way through radical groups with total, lawless impunity. Imagine what they could have done if the internet had obviated the need to break into the offices of radical groups to steal their files.

Now it’s 2015, and if there’s one thing that gives me hope for the future, it’s the sheer proliferation of activist groups whose cause is, in some way or another, internet freedom. Every EU nation has a group of its own, from the UK’s Open Rights Group (disclosure: I co-founded ORG) to the Netherlands’ Bits of Freedom, and dozens more. Not because the most important fight we have is the internet – there are far more pressing issues than how we regulate the net, from climate change to economic injustice. But every one of those fights will be won or lost on the internet, which makes the fight for the net the most foundational fight, if not the most important.

And here’s the funny thing that happened on the way to the high-tech dystopia: the movement to make the internet open, free and fair has accumulated a long, dragging kite-tail of critics who claim that activists are “techno-determinists” blind to the way that the net makes it possible to alienate workers from one another, lets criminals plunder innocents’ bank accounts and trash their privacy, and puts whole populations under surveillance. They say that technology activists think that technology is the answer to everything, and can do no wrong.


I know a lot of internet activists and I don’t know anyone who fits that bill. Oh sure, there are entrepreneurial hucksters with Tony Stark complexes who’ll tell you that there’s a bright future around the corner, thanks to the miraculous power of the internet to solve our problems. Those people have been with us forever. But they’re not the ones who fight for online freedom.

The only reason to be a technology activist is if you don’t believe in determinism. An activist is someone who thinks that the future is up for grabs, and that what we do today can make tomorrow better. An activist is someone who thinks that without action, things will be worse. Activism is a synonym of indeterminacy, a belief that the future changes because people change it.

It’s true: technology activists view the world through the lens of technology. If the “sharing economy” has become a front for exploitative labour practices, tech activists might propose a collective bargaining app, a crowdsourced lobbying campaign, a networked co-op for workers whose cream is being skimmed by venture-backed corporations. These activities are technological, but they attack the problem as a market problem, a legal problem and a normative problem.

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This isn’t “solutionism” – it’s activism. Technology makes it cheaper to try stuff than ever before. Activists can coordinate with one another and test a lot of tactics out to see how they work. When networked computers become a problem, we need to fix the problem – and it’s natural to start with the networked computers that are causing the problem. Not because everything looks like a nail to a person with a hammer – because you can’t solve a problem by ignoring its source.

Geeks can be wrong. Very wrong. I am often wrong. But technology will change the world in profound ways. It’s urgent that we get that change right, or things will go very wrong indeed. Those are two things that geeks have been right about all along.

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