Privacy and social networks: a grassroots social network activist’s perspective

Social network sites epitomize the wave of the future, Obama’s strength in 2008, and youth.  They’re overwhelmingly in favor of civil liberties.  And civil liberties supporters are getting organized there.

Social network activism and the future of civil liberties, originally published on Pam’s House Blend

At the annual privacy coalition meeting in Washington DC, Lillie Coney of EPIC asked me to be on a panel on “Cloud Computing and Social Networking” moderated by Rebecca MacKinnon.   Some of the topics she suggested I might want to cover include how the projects I’ve worked on have brought people together on social networks, and where users’ control of personal information did and didn’t matter.  Here’s a sketchy version of what I’m thinking of saying ….

  1. social network activism is a powerful way to reach and engage people who care about  the issues but are currently not active supporters.  unique advantages include rapid information diffusion through trusted sources, public indications of strength, creating and strengthening bonds between participants, and media attention
  2. people can participate publicly (changing status, posting links, joining groups, contacting politicians), secretly (forwarding information by private messages or in “friends-only” groups) or passively (consuming information).  for secret and passive participants, control of information and privacy is extremely important
  3. the privacy and civil liberties community in the US has a huge opportunity to change the dynamics of the debate by devoting a lot more resources to social network activism

Let’s briefly look at three case studies that illustrate this.*  All had major successes:

  • Get FISA Right got warrantless wiretapping and telecom immunity into the mainstream media in June/July 2008
  • Join the Impact organized over 100 simultaneous protests and 200,000 people in the streets in just 10 days
  • #iranelection influenced CNN coverage immediately after the election and along with the Mousavi Facebook page has since turned into the best source of information about Iran

Different levels of concerns about privacy for different people.  For GFR, virtually all communication was public.  It was the first time many people had been in a situation where they were being monitored by the government; there were plenty of nervous jokes about it, and I don’t know how many chose not to participate out of fear.  And when we tried to make the leap from our original home on to Facebook, a lot of people weren’t interested in being in such a privacy-invasive environment.  And who can blame them?

For JTI, word spread through a lot of different mechanisms: email, Google Groups, Twitter, and Facebook.  When I signed up to attend the Seattle JTI event, or shared photos I took there, all my friends could see — including a homophobic former colleague and Deborah’s Mom.  Hmm.  For a lot of people, this is a huge problem.  Even worse, with Facebook’s recent privacy changes, there’s a good chance that *everybody* could see.

With #iranelection, there’s no question that the authorities are monitoring public communications on the Twitter hashtag.  There’s a heartbreaking tweet from persiankiwi, a student who was very visible on the hashtag right after the election, regretting having putting a friend at risk by accidentally revealing enough information to identify him.  More recently there’s been a huge debate over an article in the Daily Telegraph attack accusing westerners of putting Iranians at risk by their tweeting.  Meanwhile on Facebook, I’ve heard that some Persians in the US who have relatives back in Iran are concerned about commenting on the Mousavi page — or even visiting it, unsure if the Iran government might have a way of discovering the information that Facebook or its advertisers track.

So yes, privacy and control of information is hugely important from an activism perspective.

Still even in extraordinarily dangerous situations, social network activism has had major successes — Voces contra las FARC, Egypt, Moldova, #longmarch in Pakistan, and so on.  Often the international community plays a big role; it’s safer and easier for people in the US and Western Europe to act as the public hubs.  In some circumstances Tor, Haystack, and other technologies can give tech-savvy activists some protections.  And of course a lot of people either are willing to take the risk — or participate without having thought the risks through.

Compare and contrast this with privacy activism in the US.  It’s often a popular cause: for example, pressuring Facebook to respect its users privacy.  Even when it’s a contentious issue like the Patriot Act, it’s typically not dangerous to engage in online advocacy.  And for the most part, my guess is that the key players — the people in this room and your organizations — are not at any risk from exposing their professional life and connections on social networks.  “They” know that we all know each other.   We even have meetings where we get together in hotels with surveillance cameras.

And with computers, mobile phones, and social network sites so pervasive in the US, there’s fertile ground here for education and activism on the topics that most of the media wants to ignore.   Privacy and civil liberties are unique in that they appeal to many of the best-organized online communities: progressives, libertarians, drug policy reform and pot legalizaiton advocates, migrant rights groups like the DREAM Activists, LGBTQ’s … and groups like EPIC, ACLU, CDT, EFF and others are getting increasingly well organized online.

So as each of the organizations tomorrow discusses plans for the upcoming year, I hope they’ll describe what they’re doing on social networks — not as an afterthought, but as an integral part of their strategy.

And putting on my hat as co-chair of this year’s Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, we’re planning on once again having a workshop and panels on social network activism.  So please propose topics, speakers, panels, and tutorials  on this – as well as all the other CFP topics.  Here’s the information about how to submit a proposal.  The conference is in San Jose, June 15-18.   If you can make it to the conference in person, please join us — it’s going to be great.  If not, we’ll get as much as we can online … via ustream, Twitter, Facebook, Google Wave, and other privacy-infringing technoolgies.


* for more information on these and many other social network activism campaigns including #dontgo, One Million Strong For Barack, Twitter Vote Report, the Voter Suppression Wiki, the Motrin Moms, the Facebook Terms of Service protest, and #p2, please see the links in my Selected writing on activism page

Update, October 20, 2011: I finally removed the “(DRAFT)” from the title 🙂