Let's Bring Digital Liberties into the Big Conversation

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We've been CISPA'd again.

For a second year the US House has passed the embarrassingly vague Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, a bill that could scatter your personal information like a tornado hitting a trailer park. Echoing last year, the Obama administration has threatened to veto CISPA if it fails to incorporate privacy controls, but we shouldn't have to rely on presidential intervention or the Senate's questionable wisdom to save us. Though Congress is gifted in the arts of incompetence and believes digital liberties only matter to basement-dwelling teens, we cannot entirely vilify the House, either. If there's one thing our representatives actually represent about us, it is our ignorance of technology.

Since you are reading Boing Boing, it is very likely that you live in the midst of the digital liberties conversation. You probably know why CISPA is a flawed bill, how it continues the tradition of other dangerously flawed bills like SOPA, and that there are truly insane examples of cyber-law on the books already. If I had to guess, I'd say you might be up to speed on lawsuits against NSA surveillance and follow the work of people like James Bamford and Laura Poitras. Maybe you have given money to groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Fight for the Future. Maybe you work for them. If you're here, you understand that digital liberties matter and have ramifications for everyone, everywhere. They are not a hobby issue for the tech community.

This is why I want to issue a friendly challenge to you: push digital liberties into the big conversation.

The status quo isn't good enough. Yes, we have an incredible array of talented organizations fighting for our digital liberties through the courts, political system, and public sphere. These groups helped unleash the widespread outrage that defeated SOPA and have brought unlikely allies together to resist congressional stupidity, but promising signs can lull us into missing a crucial point: digital liberties are a non-issue for most Americans. If we want to stop bills like CISPA from becoming annual events, we need to make digital liberties visible to people who don't read Boing Boing or Wired and have never heard of Demand Progress or the Center for Democracy and Technology. Website blackouts and hashtags won't reach this audience. Instead, we need to explain how digital liberties fit into the broader ecosystem of ideas.

I issue this challenge not as an expert in digital liberties, law, or technology, but as an audio producer. I spend my time interviewing Americans and following our intellectual trends for a project called The Conversation. The project is an odd mixture of documentary, oral history, philosophy seminar, and confession booth—essentially a series of long, unstructured, and interconnected conversations about the future. The Conversation's format has allowed me to ask interviewees about subjects outside of their specialties, see who is talking to whom, and learn what people are concerned about.

Equally interesting, I've learned what people are not concerned about. Of fifty-five interviewees, only James Bamford addressed digital liberties, and I had invited him to join The Conversation for exactly that reason. A few, like media theorist Douglas Rushkoff and biohacker Tim Cannon, were well-versed in questions of privacy and cyber-security but, because of time constraints or priorities, did not weave them into our conversations. Elsewhere, digital liberties were invisible, even when civil liberties or other aspects of the internet (like social networking) were on the table. The isolation of digital liberties was accentuated by the dense web of connections between other topics: environmentalists, economists, lawyers, scientists, artists, and theologians all seemed to have some working knowledge of each other's fields and concerns.

The Conversation isn't a perfect barometer of American thought, but all of the interviewees are thoughtful, curious, informed, and engaged in conversations about the future. In other words, they are the very sort of people who should be aware of digital liberties. But if a core-sample of our most versatile thinkers don't know about what is at stake, how much can we expect from the casually engaged citizen?

It is worth asking why digital liberties are invisible to so many Americans. Are they dauntingly hard to understand, the perfect combination of technical and legal esoterica? Or do they appear to lack the existential bite of climate change or an economic collapse? Are we so fearful of foreign hackers that we would trade our privacy for the promise of security? Perhaps we take digital liberties for granted or, worse, think they're a lost cause.

We know digital liberties are not a lost cause, but our situation is precarious and there are many legislative battles to come. CISPA could die in the Senate, but its successors will continue to stagger towards us like zombies. To stop these bills at their source and achieve a representative, fair, and genuinely secure future, we have to seek natural allies outside of the tech and civil liberties communities. Few issues could generate a more powerful coalition, but the burden falls upon us to show how digital liberties affect everyone, from the environmental activist to the apolitical suburbanite, the performance artist to the research scientist. Making these connections will be a challenge of language and framing, but it is a challenge we can meet—and if we want to push digital liberties into the big conversation, we need to start now.


  1. Instead of focusing solely on just what boundaries we don’t want crossed, we might also start offering just how far we’re willing to let things go, give them what we’re willing to give. Where will we allow policing, watching?

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