Bits of Freedom: Four Years After HAR2009

Bits of Freedom was relaunched at HAR2009 four years ago. This morning the Dutch digital rights organization presented what has happened in the last four years.

Ot van Daalen and Rejo Zenger

In 2009 the sense of urgency was high: the data retention law was being implemented, biometric fingerprints in passports were to be introduced and stored in a centralized database, voluntary website blocking was on the agenda for Dutch ISP, the talks around ACTA had just started. This led to the second wave of national digital rights organizations.

Bits of Freedom was launched in that year and quickly gained a lot of support. The media found them, because they didn’t have a good source for this type of expertise. The same was the case for politicians. This was probably because they were the only organization presenting the case for Internet users.

There have been victories in the last years: ACTA was stopped and net neutrality was put into law. But certain battles haven’t been won yet. The data retention law is still in full effect. The Dutch minister of Justice has proposed a law that allows the police to hack into your computer. It is terribly hard to find your way on the Internet without being tracked.

One thing that has changed in the past few years is that politicians have noticed the Internet. It suddenly is on their agenda, but not necessarily in a way that aligns with digital rights. They use the term Internet Freedom when it is convenients for them. IT security companies have also gotten media attention and drive their agenda. The general public has become more aware too. Security breaches and leaks (Snowden!) are published nearly every day.

In the past the Internet was open and it was easy to build alternatives to existing features. Nowadays it is much harder: there are a few gigantic and very closed commercial companies. This means it is now tougher to solve social issues with technological means.

Giving policy advice on proposed European legislation is difficult. You can’t just read the proposal and agree or disagree with it, you have to read thousands of amendments. Politicians are understanding our tactics and try to write up legislation in a way that people might accept more easily and makes it harder to criticise.

So much stuff is going on and the number of stakeholders keep rising, the number of issues get bigger and there is more complexity. It is hard to keep up. This will not change. The number of involved organizations and parties will continue to grow. This means that Bits of Freedom needs to focus on what they do best. They do advocacy work, campaigning/mobilizing and empowerment. There are many issues that Bits of Freedom doesn’t work on and many methods that they don’t apply (e.g. litigation or research).

We need a new strategy: instead of support organizations like Bits of Freedom, we need more people to start organizations like Bits of Freedom. There are many things that can be done:

  • Fact finding: a lot of research isn’t done yet.
  • Do Freedom of Information requests. They can dig up interesting leads and can help turn you into an trusted adviser to journalists.
  • Help create comprehensible examples that make the problem clear for the general audience: storytelling.
  • There is a lot campaigning to be done: people need to go to the streets and protest. Mobilizing people can be done with very limited resources.
  • Litigation or enforcing rights isn’t happening enough too. Companies can easily ignore rights. You can go to supervisory authorities to complain (a good example of this is Europe vs Facebook. For litigation you need lawyers, but you also need to get the technical facts rights. The hacker community can clearly make a difference here.
  • You can build usable tools that help with privacy issues.
  • If you work for a technical company you can share information about how things like wire-tapping are really implemented and how they work.

There are no good reasons not to help: it will not take a lot of time, it does actually help, it isn’t too late and on the current trajectory you will suffer personal consquences too.

It can be done!