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Social movements online: "The right to free speech should apply with full force on the internet"

Today’s social movements need freedom of speech and freedom to organise, even though much of that activity now takes place online. So what can we do to combat digital surveillance? 

Protests against Trump's Muslim Ban in early 2017 were largely organised online. Image: Ted Eytan/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Matt Cagle is a Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. A lot of his work relates to issues raised by new technologies in Silicon Valley, but he also works on surveillance issues at the local level by law enforcement agencies such as the police.

This interview is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society

Anna Norman (AN): Can you give an overview of the positives and negatives of new technologies specifically in relation to social protest

Matt Cagle (MC): Technology has become an essential tool for organising people for changing hearts and minds and for making alliances and contacts with people who we may not even know. We’ve seen again and again that technology has been essential for helping to organise social protest, starting back in the `Arab Spring’ but also at the start of this year when thousands of Americans organised online and went to airports in the United States to protest against President Trump’s Muslim Ban. These protests were attended in great numbers, and were really effective for shifting the debate about political issues of the day.

We’ve also seen this with Black Lives Matter, which has used social media to reveal police abuses, the killing of black and brown men, and which has really changed the conversation about police violence in the United States. They’ve become a political force in the United States.

But the same technologies that allow organisers and activists to spread their message and to gain new followers are really useful to law enforcement for surveillance as well. So we’ve seen efforts in the United States by police departments, who conduct surveillance of social media posts that activists are putting online. And this is happening without the knowledge of the users themselves; we do not expect or desire law enforcement to conduct surveillance of posts when we post something on Instagram or Facebook.

AN: How much of a development is this from surveillance practices of the pre-digital era?

MC: Governments in the United States have used surveillance to counter political movements and to personally embarrass people for many years now, it’s not a new thing. We saw this back during Martin Luther King’s era, during the civil rights era. The FBI conducted illegal surveillance of his associates, and they used that information to try to blackmail members of his movement and to discourage them from speaking out against legal racism in the United States.

Just because we’re using platforms like Facebook and Twitter to conduct political discourse today is not a free pass for the government to conduct dragnet surveillance

So this is a continuing trend and it’s continued to be an issue in the United States today, where you have Black Lives Matter and other activists who are organising for change and trying to get the US government and local police to change their practices. In the United States we learned, in 2016, that there are sophisticated surveillance products that draw information from social media and then create easy-to-search databases for police to look at, [to monitor] where activists are meeting, what they’re saying and when they’re saying it.

AN: How would you respond to the argument that states need these powers of digital surveillance to combat terrorism?

MC: It’s important that as more and more of our speech and more and more of our civil discussion moves onto the internet that the government doesn’t get a free pass or a blank cheque to conduct surveillance of our activities simply because they take place in the digital sphere. If the government has actual suspicion, they can of course conduct investigations. But just because we’re using platforms like Facebook and Twitter to conduct political discourse today is not a free pass for the government to conduct dragnet surveillance of our conduct online.

The right to protest and the right to free speech should apply with full force on the internet. As more and more of our speech moves onto platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it’s important that there is transparency, accountability and oversight for the conduct of those companies and the government vis-à-vis free speech. It’s important to today’s social movements that free speech has a place online and that there is freedom to speak out against government abuses.

AN: What can people do to counteract state digital surveillance, particularly when it comes to organising protests and demonstrations?

MC: It’s important to take steps to ensure that your data is private and your data is secure, especially if you’re going to participate in a public protest. So that means doing things like using secure and encrypted messaging apps. One particular app is Signal, which encrypts messages end-to-end so that if your government seeks information from the company, the company actually cannot produce the data of your messages.

It’s also important to make sure that you know your rights as a protester before you go into the streets and exercise your right to speak freely in the public square.

Public social protest is going to continue to be important for ensuring the strength of democracy in the United States

Finally, it’s important to make sure that you’ve updated your apps and that you’re using a passcode on your device that encrypts your device in case you do have an interaction with law enforcement. It’s important to make sure that law enforcement cannot just simply rifle through the contents of your device.

AN: How important is the right to protest for modern-day social movements in the United States?

MC: Modern social activism movements depend on protest to draw attention to causes, attention to injustices, and to rally support for change and to draw attention to the goals that the activists and organisers might have. We’ve seen this with Black Lives Matter, and we’ve seen this with protesters of the Dakota Access pipeline. Through the use of peaceful protest these activists and these organisations have rallied people around their cause and raised awareness about abuses of the governments in the United States that impact black and brown Americans and also indigenous Americans.

This type of protest, protest that draws attention to injustices, is going to continue to be very important and very relevant during President Trump’s tenure. We have a president right now who has been outwardly aggressive towards free speech and free press and who has sought to create a deportation mission that would target immigrants working in the United States and living in the United States. Public social protest is going to continue to be important for ensuring the strength of democracy in the United States.

 


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