Digital rights and wrongs

Garry Kasparov 6 Jan 2022

Everything from communications to currency to photography is now more digital than analog, so why not our rights, too?

The term digital freedom contains enough ideas to keep an entire university busy for eternity. The ironic etymology of the English word “digital” is worth an amusing aside, by the way. Originally meaning the numbers 1-10 — those you could count on your digits — it now encompasses the modern computerized world. Everything from communications to currency to photography is now more digital than analog, so why not our rights, too?

As for “freedom,” what other word captures so much emotion, so much interpretation? It is so used and overused that it’s become practically meaningless as a practical concept. Where its meaning comes again into focus is in the absence of freedom. We may not be aware of liberties when we have them, but we can feel any loss of freedom keenly.

As I have often discussed in these (digital) pages, our rights cannot disappear simply because our expressions of them and challenges to them are online, not off. This doesn’t mean we can just copy-paste the old laws onto the internet, however. The digital world is bigger, crossing every national border. It’s faster, almost instantaneous, requiring responses that are just as fast. Then come the thorny issues of verifiable identity and how to balance accountability and transparency with privacy.

Security has also digitized to keep up with the abuse and crime that has been part of the online world almost from the start. Is it fair to say that there is also more crime online than offline these days? Probably impossible to say, but we should not allow the “online vs. IRL” divide to confuse us. Crime is crime, committed by people whether their hands are on a gun or a keyboard. As recent ransomware attacks on hospitals and other vital infrastructure should remind us, cybercrime can cost lives too. Much as we correctly say that categories like “women’s rights” are human rights, “cybercrime” is still crime, and “digital freedom” is still freedom.

We shouldn’t let these conversations become theoretical or academic arguments just because they have become buzzwords. Free speech is not just a semantic matter, especially in the unfree world where a tweet can land you in jail. There are bad guys out there pushing misinformation that can cause chaos and even kill. They exploit our open society and open platforms. How we protect ourselves without conceding our rights is one of the great societal challenges of the 21st century.

When I was asked by Avast to share my views on digital freedom, I said that for that purpose we need to discuss equal access to the internet and information, the pros and cons of the surveillance state, and the role of global tech giants in a digital world.

My personal perspective will always be clear and present, beginning with this post’s focus on the long double-standard in how some American tech giants deal with rights issues in the free and unfree worlds. A year-in-review demonstrates just how serious the problem has become.

The recent arrest of one of Jamal Khashoggi’s suspected Saudi assassins and Lukashenko’s continued use of migrants as human weapons reminds us just how barbaric autocrats are. But their barbarism doesn’t make them any less adept at dismantling internet freedoms, with the willing consent of Western digital companies.

During Russia’s parliamentary “elections” in September, Google and Apple silenced jailed dissident Alexei Navalny’s movement under Kremlin pressure. This summer, Apple and Tesla intentionally weakened their data protection systems and decided to store Chinese user data inside the country at the CCP’s request.

We found out this year that Israeli tech companies have helped authoritarian regimes spy on human rights activists like Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz. Meanwhile, Turkey has become more aggressive in pressuring social media companies to censor political opposition material.

Are these companies going to openly ally with hostile dictatorships? Would it not be better to leave than become a tool of oppression?

There are a few encouraging signs on occasion. YouTube has recently removed Russian propaganda channels on their German sites and taken down Belarussian interrogation videos. Still, it’s remarkable that these tools, developed and controlled in democracies, are so often by authoritarian states against their enemies at home and abroad.

If you are safe and sound in the free world, perhaps this seems like no big deal to you. But history tells us that practices developed in the unfree world don’t stay there for long. Modern dictatorships’ propaganda methods, for example — also powered by big US tech firms—have jumped the fence into democratic politics all over the world.

There is a vital distinction to be made between action taken in countries with independent courts and civil rights, but the role of massively powerful tech companies must come with accountability and transparency.

Surveillance powers, censorship, app and video takedowns on government demand — unfree states are the digital canaries in the digital coalmine. Consumers and institutions, especially in the US where most are based, still have great influence over these companies, but if they refuse to use it, they may find that the bad guys have once again turned the free world’s advantages against them.

Who really has the leverage? Is it all about money? What can be done and what can you do? We need more than news and concern; we need a game plan. That’s just what we’ll be working on in 2022. Stay safe everyone, online and off.

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