Cory Doctorow on digital trends and privacy

Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow ist Aktivist, Science Fiktion Autor und Redakteur des Blogs Boing Boing. Er arbeitet auch mit der Electronic Frontier Foundation. Wir haben ihm ein paar Fragen gestellt zu Datenschutz, Snowden und wie man Bücher schreibt. Lest selbst. Interview von Judith Orland

You are a long-time observer and regular commenter of the impact of digital technologies on society. Which trends do you see as most relevant for the work of civil society organizations?

There are a lot of structural problems with using the internet to organize, particularly since the internet is becoming more centralized, and therefore more easily controlled.

Furthermore, we have seen the addition of compliance technologies to online services, e.g. easy ways to remove material that allegedly infringes copyright. This has effectively created censorship tools. By asserting that something violates copyright, you can have it removed permanently or temporarily. Police departments in the US are using it to suppress footage of police brutality, for example.

The other effect of the compliance regime is that it makes starting a similar service a lot more expensive. Making a new YouTube will require hundreds and millions dollars’ worth of compliance software to get off the ground.

This week the EU commission brought down their new copyright reforms. They actually exacerbate the problem. It will make it harder to compete with existing services and also make it easier to suppress the information that they host.

The compliance regime is really dangerous for everyone using the internet to organize and campaign on issues, whatever they are, housing justice, refugees, gender equality and so forth. Without an internet to use freely to campaign, we are at a singular disadvantage.

This is why I focus on keeping the internet free and open. Not because I think that it is the most important issue, but because I believe that all those more important issues are doomed unless we have an internet to fight for them with.


What can be done to keep the internet free and open?

The deep structural problems of the internet have lots of angles on which we can attack. It is a multi-part problem.

Some of the problems have to do with corruption, meaning the marriage of state and corporations to give special benefit to companies in exchange for money for politicians. The internet can be used to document and expose misconduct and thus fight corruption. As the recent case published in the Guardian about the corrupt governor of Wisconsin shows.

At the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), I focus on another issue: digital locks. Many of the devices that we own are increasingly devised to have locks that restrict how you can reconfigure them. These locks are nominally there to prevent copyright infringements. E.g. there is a lock that stops you from changing your iPhone to allow you to download software from stores other than apple’s app store.

Digital locks have mainly two effects. Firstly, companies use them to lock their customers into anything that benefits them. Secondly, security researchers who uncover holes face punishing liability if they come forward with information of how the locks are flawed. As a result, security problems tend to stick around and can thus be exploited by criminals or the government or any other entity.

The EFF just launched a lawsuit to invalidate the American law that protects these digital locks. As the lawsuit proceeds, we are planning on working with sister organizations in the EU and elsewhere to say: Hey, your country enacted its version of this law because the US trade representative pressurized you into it and promised you that the US would honor the same obligation. Now that the US is backing off from that obligation, why would you keep that law on your own books?

We are not going to win any of these fights without a free, fair and open information infrastructure. That starts with being able to trust the devices that we use.

If I have one ask to people in civil society who are using the internet to campaign, it is that when they hear that there is a threat to the internet, like digital locks, TTIP or the EU commission copyright modernization and the like, – to please join us! Please mobilize your constituency – because ultimately you have no future without the internet that we are defending.


We have seen the rise of hate speech esp. on social networks – can we still have meaningful discussion online at all?

There are deep structural problems with the way those services are run that allow hate speech to spread. One problem is the proliferation of terms of service that forbid users from running more sophisticated clients on their services. In fact, laws in the US, like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and there are similar laws in other countries, make violating the terms of service a crime.

For example: Just a few months ago, a court upheld that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was violated by a Facebook competitor that let Facebook users automatically contact their friends and invite them to leave Facebook with them and go somewhere else to have a better conversation.

That is one of the big problems. You have these platforms that are privately owned but that have public subsidy in the form of the government’s willingness to enforce their terms of service against their own users in a way that prevents people from competing with them to offer a better deal.

I am reluctant to say that the way that we solve the problem with hate speech is by having rules that compel these platforms to publish or restrict speech. I am much more interested in making it possible for users and technologists to hack those services to provide better experiences for the people who use them.

I even think that we could offer these services a deal. We could say: Look, if you want legal protection for your terms of service, that comes with the responsibility to operate in the public interest. If you want to operate in your own interest with minimal regulation, then you can’t ask the government to enforce your terms of service that keeps users taking their conversations to a different place that is more suited to their interests.


There is a lot of concern around privacy, yet at the same time people give away their information freely and most websites employ tracking software. This seems to be a contradiction.

It is a contradiction. At the same time, this is the totally predictable outcome of allowing the gathering of private data without regard to the eventual costs to the people you are gathering it from. It is like problems with pollution or corruption. If companies don’t have to pay for the negative consequences of their actions and only enjoy the benefits, then they will do it.  And once all your competitors are doing it, if you don’t do it, you go out of business.

So this is a predictable outcome that is easy enough to shift by forcing companies to start taking on board the actual cost of gathering all that data.

Historically, when companies breach sensitive user data, they pay little or no penalty – so if we can make those companies pay the full cost of their reckless data collection and retention, then they will start to moderate their conduct.

But again – we are never going to get governments to curb private surveillance as long as public surveillance depends on private surveillance for its subsidy.


Three years after the Snowden revelations. Where do we stand?

My feeling is that we have reached a peak indifference to surveillance. Most people still don’t care about surveillance. However, from now on the number of people that care about surveillance will go up, simply because the number of people who will be impacted by breaches and surveillance is going to increase.

It is increasingly becoming clear that erosion of privacy isn’t an emergent phenomenon of the technological race to the future, but instead is the result of cynical decisions taken by named people who we can hold to account.

There are both technological and legal matters that we can take in our hands to improve the situation. You can use better privacy tools. You can opt-out of privacy invasive technology. You can demand from law-makers and courts that there are remedies for this kind of surveillance.

The European Privacy Directive is a disaster, partly as a result of how heavily it was lobbied by internet companies. The directive says that companies that can figure out how to anonymize their user data can treat that anonymized data as though it has no privacy value.  They can effectively do anything they want with it.

Now universally, computer scientists believe that complete anonymization is not possible. There is no such thing that there is this imaginary data that is critically damaging to people but if you do this technically non-sense step to anonymize it you can then treat it as if it would not harm anyone at all. So the directive is a terrifically bad policy and we can demand something better.

People often say: I am not worried about private sector spying, I am worried about government spying. But the reality is that the way governments spy on us is by using private sector data.  Basically, private industry now conducts the surveillance and we subsidize it with our own money. We pay for the phones that track us everywhere we go. We are footing the bill for our own surveillance.


You work with the law and using legal institutions at lot. Should activists and campaigners become lawyers in the digital age?

No. I never studied law. In fact, I believe that there are four forces that act on the world: code, law, markets and norms.

If our norms have shifted and our laws have shifted and our technology has shifted to allow people to make money enhancing our privacy, then such companies will emerge.

Basically, I think campaigners need to pay attention to all four aspects. You have to know enough of each discipline to know whether or not your plan has a hope of working. It is not that you have to be an expert but you have to take an interest in all these different forces and try to mobilize them together.

Cory Doctorow

Apart from your work with the EFF, you have also written a couple of fiction books that focus on the impact of digital technology on society. What inspires you and how do you find the time to write?

When I am working on a novel, I set a work target that is plausible in the context to what is going on in the rest of my life. For example, Homeland I wrote while I

was touring for FOR THE WIN in Germany.  I had four reading events a day. While my translator was reading the German version, I would be working on Homeland. In that way, I wrote 2000 words a day and was able to finish the book in about 50 days. The audience – often school children – did not mind. In fact, they thought it was great to see how a new book was being produced right in front of them. Right now, I am working on a third little brother book. I am writing 250 words a day. So this means the book will take me about a year. I am working at that pace, because I am doing so much else right now.

From my experience, regular work is the only way to get long projects done reliably. Inspiration comes and goes. Over the years, I realized that although there were days were I felt good about my work and other days where I felt that I did not do my best, I could not tell the difference in retrospect: Which words had I written on a good or bad day? I came to realize that the difference between good and bad days was not the quality of the fiction but how I felt about my life at that particular moment. In short: it had more to do with my blood sugar or stress level than with the words.

Why and how I write – I have always done it. It has been my vocation since I was a child. In terms of inspiration for science fiction – if you live in the 21st century and you don’t come up with three ideas a day, you are not really paying attention. I have never been short of ideas or cool things to write about. Certainly it ties in strongly with my activism. And that gives me inspiration, too.

Thank you!



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