Thursday, October 22, 2009

Digital Resistance examined.

For our Tech Foundations class...:

In the time since Digital Resistance was published (in 2000), much has changed regarding the possibility of a digitally-based civil disobedience. Much of what was proposed by the CAE would now be characterized as “cyber-terrorism”, and has become the fodder for overwrought news reports and countless new security groups, both governmental and private. The process of having a person’s records be more valuable than their physical body is now complete, with illicit data capture now named “identity theft”.

As the global economy has become more centered around the Internet as a marketing and commerce center, governmental agencies have reacted by further criminalizing actions outside the norm. This has the effect of reducing the opportunities to mount effective (while still quasi-legal) resistance using computer- or network-based means.

As a result, the public face of digital resistance has changed – largely as a result of the crackdown on “hacker” behavior and the widespread theft/fraud present in E-commerce. Since this system is seen to be fragile, CD efforts that target the movement of goods or money are considered too intimidating to be effective. One area where CD has thrived – despite the CAE’s skepticism toward the media – is the movement toward presenting user-created media on public channels.

Recently, after a particularly corrupt election in Iran, local residents were able to shape global public opinion using updated versions of classic resistance techniques. With makeshift media tools (like cellphone video and photo captures) and homespun communications (including blog entries, YouTube videos and Twitter messages), the Iranian public burst forth with information that would otherwise have been unattainable.

In this case, the Iranian citizen-reporters found a willing audience for their information, and received worldwide attention for their cause. Because this resistance didn’t interfere with first-world commerce, because it was inexpensive to produce and display, and because it was directed at an already vilified governmental entity, the resistance movement was greeted with open arms and great praise.

This new form of resistance is flexing its muscles by “showing” revealing examples of systemic misuse and forcing transparency. A good example is the China Channel add-on for the Firefox browser. This tool allows a user to experience the level of censorship found among the Chinese populace. This provides an opportunity to see that the “borderless, nationless” Internet it limited by a government attempting to control data flow. China’s “Golden Shield” content blocking system is a constant overlord of incoming data, and will target users that search for or access “inappropriate” data.

Another example of forced transparency is the creation, by the Electronic Freedom Foundation of a TOS tracker. User advocates had been disturbed with the secretive way that Facebook, YouTube and other large companies could change their terms of service without any notification to end-users, and how this could easily lead to privacy concerns. By creating a program that would keep track of policies and user agreements, the EFF forced an improvement in transparency – without support or acknowledgement by the companies in their sights.

Recently, I was forwarded a link to an ACLU-based Facebook application that would show how a simple quiz could reveal much of my personal data to the quiz creator. I was shocked – not only my available personal data, but by how much of my friend’s data was also provided to the quiz creator. This forced me to change many of the privacy settings, mostly using the information on this site:

So, while digital resistance – especially against large-scale entities (both governmental and corporate) – has changed, there are still ways to cause change using digital means. By either co-opting the media (ala Iran) or making systems more transparent (ala China Channel, the EFF and ACLU), there are opportunities for cause change through digital means.


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