Claiming back digital rights through play and subversion

15 March 2015

I’ve noticed two somewhat distinct schools of thought, or action, around asserting digital rights online. One, calling for people to practise better digital security online; raising awareness of privacy-protecting ways to browse the internet, promoting alternatives to big, privacy-invasive corporations, to name just a few tactics.

The other: encouraging playfulness, and subversion of the roles that those corporations and governments are putting internet users in. Instead of hiding; revealing. Instead of blocking; pushing. Instead of circumventing; confronting.

Of course, there are many privileges that are necessary to be able to choose the latter course of action. And for those who are most harmed by a lack of digital rights, it’s usually out of the question to do anything like this; but for the users who can, or those who feel comfortable doing so, the latter option provides another way of taking back power for the user, and sidestepping those assigned roles.

Noise, obfuscation, agency

An example might be moving from using an AdBlocker to avoid advertisements, to a plugin called AdNauseum, which clicks on every ad possible. It subverts our usual roles - it makes the very purpose of pop-up advertisements totally futile, and it’s a form of play. Speaking at Transmediale earlier this year, Mushon talked about the tool as data obfuscation, being a form of play as protest - creating noise, rather than going silent, and revelling in what you want to be doing rather than hiding.

AdNauseam - Clicking Ads So You Don't Have To from mushon on Vimeo.

Along the same kind of lines are tools like OpenPaths.cc, which describes itself as a “secure data locker for personal location information”. In essence, it does the same thing that invasive corporate apps do, often without people really realising - that is, collects and stores your location data from your mobile phone. The difference is that with OpenPaths, you, the user, the person creating that data, are the only person who can see, use and access that data, unless you specifically specify otherwise.

I had the pleasure of listening to Jer Thorp, who created OpenPaths, speak last month at FutureEverything, and one of his most poignant comments was on how somehow, the structure we have in place today mean that the user - or the data creator - often has the least access to their own data. Your personal data might go from your phone, to a corporation, to a bunch of third parties, who will then share it onwards, but often during that entire process, you, the person who generated that data, might never see it. The OpenPaths tool goes against that premise, and places the user back where they should be, trying to re-establish a more personal relationship with their own data.

Another tool that Jer talked about was FloodWatch - similar to AdNauseum, mentioned above, it subverts the power dynamics between the user, and the advertising industry, by watching those who are watching you. The plugin, once installed, “tracks the ads you see as you browse the internet.” Instead of the advertising industry being able to gather mass amounts of data on users, it empowers users to do the same, and provides a mechanism for users to share that data between ourselves.

Challenging powerful institutions

In English: Cryptography is defence, freedom of information is offense.

Stefan mentioned the phrase above in his talk at 31c3 in December - he was talking about Freedom of Information requests specifically, but the same idea applies.

Actively asking for information that isn’t by default made available to citizens could perhaps be another way of playing or performing between citizens and governments; asking for things that might be seen as trivial or unuseful, and testing government processes, is all a way of challenging their power. Why should they have access to more information about us than we do?

Of course, there are limited situations and countries worldwide where this is even an option, let alone a viable one, but at least as a possibility for many people living in, say, Germany or the UK, it is perhaps not used enough. For people living in countries with strong FOI laws, there might also be a user-friendly FOI portal available to simplify the process of submitting an FOI request.

Parody and play

And perhaps my favourite strategy within this second school of thought: simply making fun of the institutions and the powers that be. In a lot of ways, they seem to make this incredibly easy- take Ingrid Burrington’s Astrology Charts for the Five Eyes spy agencies, for example. Parody and play seems like an excellent, intelligent response to what might otherwise become an overwhelming battle.

google hug

Or Peng Collective’s wonderful Google parody, Google Nest, providing four all too realistic new services - Google Hug (described above), Google Trust (‘data insurance’), Google Bee (personal drones), and Google Bye (an online memorial site.) Although Google didn’t seem to find it so funny, and made them take it down, the wonders of the internet mean that there are still versions online to see today.

Conclusion

Given the gargantuan strength and resources of corporations and institutions online that we seem to be opposing in the fight for individual digital rights, I strongly believe that we’ll need all the different strategies that we can get. I especially appreciate the creativity and playfulness of all of the initiatives I’ve mentioned above - there are many more out there already, and I look forward to seeing, contributing and taking part in more in the future!


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