The cover of GISWatch 2014 on state and corporate mass surveillance in communications. Photo taken from website of Hivos.
Living in a Middle Eastern dictatorship, one tends to think her government is keener on Internet surveillance, online spying, censorship and profiling than everybody else’s governments (except for the US government, maybe). This is actually a misguided view, but we tend to forget to look at or fail to see the general picture, distressed about how much our own lives have become fearful under totalitarian governments and the ever-growing terrorist threats in our region, and surprised that we still have it better than many others in this part of the world.
The Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) 2014 report, introduced at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in İstanbul in early September, was prepared jointly by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos). It has helped me put things in the online freedom area in perspective a little bit. I am not going to lie to you, I am one of the contributors of the report, but I am not writing about it for that reason! Because the book was launched in Turkey, I had a chance to see a printed sample before anybody else (except the printing house probably), and I have actually read most of it. GISWatch 2014 contains several thematic reports and 57 country-specific reports (including one on our little banana republic here, which doesn’t really have a significant banana production). It is an absolute must-read and most of its writers aren’t high-brow academics but fearful citizens like you and me (probably more fearful than you and me, as most of them are rights activists, which also makes them braver than us). This is by no means the gist of it, but it shows clearly that all governments everywhere do their best to track and retain user data — both for surveillance and censorship (which are essentially the same thing technically) — and will likely use it against you whenever they can. The reports also show clearly that city closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras (we call them “mobese” here, but unfortunately we don’t pronounce that word like obese with an “M”) don’t help you when you have been attacked, robbed or killed, but they will get you when you are in trouble (i.e., in trouble with the authorities). Another slightly relevant point I learned during the IGF and its alternative Internet Ungovernance Forum (IUF) is that Right to Information Acts never work anywhere, yet governments pass them.
GISWatch 2014 is also a good example of how growing networks of solidarity and collaboration between like-minded people and activists are producing solid results. It is hard to take on the big guys by yourself, but we can do it together, and we will be seeing a lot more cooperation among citizens of different countries. And we don’t really have to do any of this alone.
Yes, the challenges are the same and yes the Internet binds us all to a common fate (which increasingly appears to be a depressingly panoptical and Orwellian one), but there are also action steps and, in GISWatch 2014, the authors offer recommendations on how to deal with surveillance issues with regards to a specific country. They show us what our options are and that is a good place to start for all of us. Every citizen of the Internet should understand that we have options, and that it doesn’t have to be like this. GISWatch 2014 can be helpful in seeing our options and knowing who our friends are, which in turn will make the world in the age of digital surveillance a bit less scary and make us feel a bit less lonely.