One of the guests at this year's Subversive Festival was Jillian C. York, an American activist, journalist and Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
At the festival, she participated in public discussions Freedom of Speech, Civil Disobedience and Satire in the Digital Era and Who Whistles Means No Harm. She serves on the Board of Directors of Global Voices and publishes articles in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, etc. Her interests include freedom of expression, privacy and digital security.
You work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a legal and advocacy group whose goal is to protect people’s rights and freedoms in the digital realm. What exactly does your work involve?
The organization itself does a number of things to promote Internet rights. We work on strategic litigation in the courts, advocate for good policies (and against bad ones), build technology, and work to educate users.
Personally, I direct our international work on freedom of expression. This encompasses a range of things, from fighting against censorship in both repressive countries and democracies, and pushing corporations like Facebook to consider free expression in their policies.
Many of us grew up with the idea that the internet represents a space which provides anonymity and freedom to play with different identities. When Facebook first appeared, I initially refused to join because using my real name online made me feel uneasy. How do you comment on Facebook's policy of requiring the use of "real" names and asking users to present their personal documents as proof? What are some of the possible or actual abuses of this policy? Why are our "authentic" selves, as supposedly reflected by our legal names, so important to social media companies?
I’ve been vocally opposed to Facebook’s and other “real name” policies for a long time. I believe in the right to anonymity, and to pseudonymity, which is all people are asking for from Facebook. Not only does it hold us to an identity that wasn’t of our choosing (our birth or “authentic” name), but it can also create additional risk for certain people – transgender people, women escaping abusive relationships, gay teens who aren’t “out” in their communities, activists in repressive countries, etc.
It’s not entirely clear why companies feel so strongly about this. Some say it’s to target advertising better, but I’m not sure about that – the companies can tell enough about you without knowing your name, because they have your IP address, your interests, your networks, etc. What Facebook says is that they feel that people behave more civilly toward one another when they use their “authentic” name, but there’s research that suggests that’s not true. So I don’t really know.
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Social media is usually perceived as a public space in which anyone can participate, express their ideas, exchange information, organise protests, and so on. In reality, how free is free speech on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter? How much of the online content gets censored, and who makes these decisions?
These spaces feel public, but they’re not. The companies that own them are based in the United States and bound to US law, which means several things: they’re protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which on the one hand protects them from some liability but on the other hand allows them to regulate content as they see fit. So, ultimately, they can discriminate against certain content with impunity.
Each company has its own rules, and is also bound by law in some cases and countries to remove content at the request of governments. My project, Onlinecensorship.org, collects reports from users who have had their content removed – our data is by no means comprehensive, but we see a lot of content being taken down for violations of the “real name” policy, as well as Facebook’s policy against nudity, both of which I see as discriminatory (women cannot appear shirtless, while men can).
Other things we see taken down are “hate speech,” support for terrorism, and harassment. In the case of “hate speech” and terrorist support, some of the content taken down is actually satirical, or even in opposition to the speech in question, but the content moderators at these companies often apply the rules improperly. Sarah Roberts, an American academic, has conducted fascinating research into the conditions in which these content moderators work. They are paid much less than regular employees at these companies, and are often contractors with minimal or no benefits. And the stuff they have to look at all day is terrible: beheading videos, child pornography, the list goes on.
In other words, these companies are grappling with hard choices, but ultimately some of their policies and practices need serious reconsideration.
What can you tell us about how women's (and other marginalized groups') voices and bodies are treated and represented online?
Women, refugees, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups receive tremendous amounts of harassment and face online. This isn’t my area of research per se, but I’m obviously affected by it, and have experienced plenty of harassment myself.
This is one very strong argument for ensuring that there is more diversity inside these companies. Right now, the statistics aren’t good. Diversity inside these companies matters at every level, from how products are developed to how policies are made that govern privacy and speech.
Protecting one's privacy online seems to require a lot of (self)education and effort. Is it possible to protect one's personal information completely, and is it worth the effort? Can you give us some tips?
It does take education, but it’s worth it! By increasing your digital security, you’re not only protecting yourself, but you’re protecting the other people in your network. It’s important for everyone, from accountants to journalists and everyone in between.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to protecting yourself online, although a few things —such as using strong passwords or passphrases—apply to everyone. I recommend taking a look at our website, Surveillance Self-Defense, for more information. It’s one of many great resources out there that provides information on how to stay safe. A good place to start is by assessing your personal situation and security needs. A couple of other good resources include Security in a Box and Security First.
In the context of social media harassment, how to balance between free speech and the protection of other basic human rights? Who, in your opinion, should be responsible for regulating these issues (the state, corporations...)?
This is a difficult question. I would prefer regulation by the state to corporations, which don’t answer to the people. But we have to be cautious and proactive to ensure that laws intended to protect us don’t encroach on our rights.
How do you explain the fact that most people seem to be relatively unperturbed by the possibility (or fact) of being watched by their government or even private corporations? Has the concept of privacy changed over the last few decades, or do people simply not care about online privacy?
I’m not sure I can explain it, to be perfectly honest. It makes me pessimistic sometimes, but we can’t give up our rights, and that means that we need to help people understand what’s happening. People have other real concerns; freedom of expression and privacy aren’t necessarily the first things we fight for. But without them, we can’t do anything about our other needs – we can’t speak up about other injustices if we don’t have the right to. So ultimately, we must protect our free speech and privacy in order to preserve the rest of our rights.
Much of today's journalism is dependent on clicks and relies on analytics. Should we adopt a pessimistic view of the future of journalism?
I don't want to be pessimistic about journalism. There's a lot of negative things happening, certainly – not just the ways in which media companies are tracking our online habits, but we're also seeing a general decline in press freedom worldwide. But we're also seeing people who previously did not have access to the media speaking out. I'm on the board of a project called Global Voices which brings local perspectives to conversations organically happening: on social media, on blogs, in local publications. These articles are translated into dozens of languages, giving fresh insight to readers in disparate locales. I'm also really impressed with what AJ+ is doing, and with publications like Quartz.
I think it's up to consumers to demand new models for media. We're the readers, we can choose where we spend our money, and where we click. So we should support journalism that respects its readers, both in content and in how it's supported.
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