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Renewing the fight for digital rights

An EngageMedia postcard circa 2009

Last week I handed over my Executive Director responsibilities at EngageMedia to Phet Sayo. I’ve known of Phet’s leadership capacity for some time; those capacities have only borne out more strongly over the past busy month of handover.

I am now delighted to support Phet and the team’s journey moving forward from a different position: as a board member of EngageMedia and as a specialist adviser over the coming months.

EngageMedia has been built by many people over the past 17 years. I thank you all. First and foremost are our energetic and committed staff – supported by our board members, consultants, and our funders and partners. Most fundamental are the Asia-Pacific changemakers we support to advance digital rights, open and secure technology, and video for change.

Phet plunges into a vastly different stream from when EngageMedia was founded. 2005 was a time of great optimism about the internet and its potential to advance human rights and democracy. In hindsight, that optimism was too utopian and naive. Big Tech has marched radically into people’s everyday lives since that time, tracking and tracing the most banal aspects of our lives and using captured data to sell to and nudge us in directions of which we are often largely unaware.

Big Tech’s censorship and surveillance are matched by its disinformation. There is a tendency to blame the spread of disinformation on small actors or foreign agents, which obfuscates the fact that governments and the corporate media remain the main drivers of disinformation. It is those bigger and more powerful actors who we should focus on, including to protect freedom of expression from the weaponisation of “disinformation”.

The digital rights movement itself has changed radically since 2005, particularly in the West. Previously a bastion of support for free speech and expression, today it often advocates for strong “content moderation” by Big Tech and even governments. This has been particularly noticeable during the COVID-19 pandemic. Concerned not to step out of line, the digital rights movement has often acquiesced to censorship of information that countered official narratives of government health bureaucracies.

Early in the pandemic, there were some critiques of contact tracing apps, but they quickly faded as any opposition to restrictions stated to advance public health became associated with right-wing politics. The lack of pushback has meant a rapid acceleration of surveillance and erosion of privacy, the expansion of covert influencing operations, and a very concerning weakening of key watchdog institutions that should protect our digital and human rights.

Most concerning was the near silence as digital technologies such as vaccine passports were introduced to segregate society, policies that were even supported by civil liberties organisations. As the virus spread regardless of vaccination, how were such forms of techno-bio-power and control to be justified?

Digital rights must be imagined as much more than human rights online and include instead the full gamut of digital technologies that mediate our lives.

And while EngageMedia contributed to early critiques of the impacts of lockdowns on the poor, we also were late to the game in challenging government and corporate overreach. To counter this, we launched Pandemic of Control in late 2021, a series of articles detailing pandemic-inspired attacks on privacy, freedom of speech and expression, and bio-technological autonomy.

The upside is that as digital authoritarianism has become bipartisan, so has the critique of Big Tech. The naïveté of the early years of internet utopianism has also been largely swept away.

EngageMedia’s mission is far more relevant today than when we started, much as I wish it weren’t. The future is only going to be more challenging; the rise of AI and central bank digital currencies ushers in new levels of corporate and government control over sense-making and social behaviour. A great deal more resilience and courage will be needed.

Thankfully, in the Asia-Pacific, the idea that you might want to empower governments to have more control over online expression is met mostly with quizzical looks. But the disabling influence of new Western trends looms. It’s a good time to remember that EngageMedia was ahead of the curve in our critiques and interventions to advance digital rights and support civil society.

That rigour is in our founding DNA – embedded in our core mission to build independent media on free and open source software. A strong digital rights movement that is willing to take unpopular positions and challenge power of all political stripes is vital. I am confident EngageMedia will continue to meet evolving challenges in a principled, practical, and effective way.

Thank you again to everyone who has supported EngageMedia – and me personally – during my time here.

Andrew Lowenthal is a board member and specialist adviser of EngageMedia. You may follow or contact him on LinkedIn.

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