Rights activists focus on freedom, not fear, to drive public engagement

APTOPIX Japan Nuclear

By Simon Davies

Throughout this weekend, digital rights activists from across Europe will converge on Brussels to recharge their strategic batteries and brainstorm new approaches to tackling Big Brother.

The 4th annual Freedom Not Fear conference has brought together a spectrum of rights campaigners who are anxious to build their campaigning skills. Tactical campaign blueprints that will affect public policy and public opinion will be tested here.

 Contrary to the image frequently promoted by its antagonists, the advocacy field is populated by highly informed and well-connected experts who have built a foundation of evidence for campaigning.

The event reinforces one of the defining features of modern digital rights advocacy; a capacity to fearlessly and effectively engage institutions of power on their own turf – and to win crucial ground.

Increasingly, civil society groups are forcing security services into courtrooms and parliamentary chambers. They are aggressively testing the legal grounds for agencies and corporations to engage in surveillance activities – and those efforts are making a real difference. The US, in particular, has in recent times seen a strengthening of some aspects of privacy rights.

This activity indicates a growing maturity and confidence within the advocacy community – and the privacy community in particular. Contrary to the image frequently promoted by its antagonists, the field is populated by highly informed and well-connected experts who have built a foundation of evidence for campaigning. Indeed the privacy community (perhaps more accurately described as a network of networks) rigorously polices itself on matters of factual accuracy. There’s a hive awareness that assertions must be solid if the credibility of advocacy is to be maintained.

Freedom Not Fear and related events have helped reshape my own slightly pessimistic view of the rights landscape. For the past few years I had been concerned that mainstream privacy activism is becoming increasingly cautious and risk averse, shifting away from dynamic public participation in favour of formal engagement with institutions.

Put another way, until recently advocacy strategy appeared to be shifting by degrees from traditional public-facing campaigns toward more precisely focused legal challenges and astute political lobbying, trading public engagement for professional patronage.

The reason behind my previous anxiety is that regardless of the effectiveness of a strategy, any loss of opportunity for direct engagement with the public is a potentially serious matter on more than just a symbolic level. Hearts and minds must be won outside the parliaments if there is to be any hope of achieving new and strengthened protections in the statute books, rather than merely sharpening existing protections through the judicial system.

What I’m seeing now is a resurgence of direct engagement. Berlin campaigners, for example, routinely manage to pull 20,000 people into street demonstrations.

Up until a decade ago the style and nature of direct action was somewhat different to today. Then, campaigners borrowed activism concepts from the environmental and peace movements, implementing controversial and legally uncertain measures. The direct generational connection back then gave licence for activists to take more of an uncompromising stance against technologies such as CCTV.

Bringing back direct public engagement as a programme priority has the added advantage of providing a continuous reality check for campaigners. Privacy is a tremendously complex, vast and dynamic arena, and without care, privacy reform organisations could easily devolve into an elite community of legal and technical specialists with little or no connection to the pulse of the general public. Such a development would be dangerous.

The dynamics of campaigning in 2014 are, however, extremely encouraging. There’s every indication that rights advocacy in Europe is becoming stronger and more effective. Funding organizations may want to consider lending a hand so the sector can properly mature. With the right level of support, the protection of rights in this part of the world will achieve important new victories.