Monthly Archives: January 2009

Civil liberties in the network society

In yesterday’s post I reflected on how battles for civil liberties were ways for people with less power to try and gain more power.  This is a fairly mainstream sociological perspective on power and the reasons that people engage in collective action. Today I’m going to ask how this changes in a network society.  The theorist of social movements Alberto Melucci writes in his book Challenging Codes that, “a social movement is an actor engaged in a conflict directly or indirectly affecting the distribution of power within a society.”  But I’d like to know:  is there some finite amount of power?  If so, where are the places where it is most concentrated?  What are today’s most significant struggles?

If we think of our society as being characterized by 1.  relationships structured by/through networked forms and networked infrastructures and 2. the high value placed on information, then it is easier to see why today’s struggles over power involve things like media reform and privacy.  Colin Bennett (among other privacy advocates) looks at how privacy is framed as a civil liberties issue.  He writes in The Privacy Advocates that “the protection of privacy has always featured prominently within the agendas of civil liberties organizations, historically concerned with the legitimate boundaries between the individual and state and with the protection of citizens from abuses of power” (p. 35).  One limitation of this perspective, as Bennet notes, is that it focuses on individual rights rather than collective (civil) rights.  We could imagine this perspective as a shield preventing the powerful state from abusing the powerless individual.

Maybe its possible to think of the individual – or the collective – as having power that can be disruptive.  Manuel Castells argues that any exercise of power also produces “counter-power.”  Any oppression produces resistance.  For example, the consolidation of global capital and information that the internet made possible was balanced out by the development of new social movements that opposed that power using the tools provided (the internet, global interaction).  Now that more of society can be thought of as working like a network, this power/counterpower relationship is developing.  Some of the important questions are:  who figures out how networks of influence and networks of infrastructure are going to operate?  Who makes the rules?

Developing counter-power that restructures how networks work is a good way of framing why media reform has become a big issue — and even why technical standards and protocols are becoming objects of political discussion.  But one of the big challenges of understanding power – and civil liberties – in a network society is actually determining where counterpower or resistance should be directed.  Castells claims that a pressing question is: “against whom do I revolt”?

This is exactly why issues of privacy and media reform are becoming more thorny.  It’s not simply a question of shielding individuals from the burly oppression of the state.  Many forms of power are ways of controlling our uncertainty about the world, and even a surveillance state can do that (the argument for surveillance cameras is often that they make people safer, as everyone is being watched).  It’s a question of determining *where* abuses of power come from -in the multi-layered networks of infrastructure, content, finance, and politics – and *how* to use the same networks to disconnect or route around those abuses.

Would you go to jail for your rights?

I went to the British Library on Saturday to see the exhibit “Taking Liberties:  The struggle for Britain’s freedom and rights.” Beginning with the Magna Carta (on display!) it showed how unstable British politics have been, and for how long.

I was fascinated by the section on the long struggle to give women the vote.  The movement started in the 1860s, but the exhibit claimed that it didn’t have much success until after the First World War – women over 30 got the vote 1920, and women over 21 in 1928.  The Suffragettes were more organized, and more radical than I thought.  They blew up post boxes, stages rallies in the street, and accumulated criminal records.  In fact, so many of them went to jail in the 1890s and 1900s, and then went on hunger strikes in order to be released, that the government passed a new law.  The “Cat and Mouse” law permitted the government to release a woman after a hunger strike and then rearrest her as soon as she had gained enough weight not to die in jail.

It seems unimaginable now that the suffrage activists would have to go to such lengths to prove that women should be allowed the same democratic rights as men.  But female suffrage was very threatening to the moral and social order of the times.  If women were willing to blow up mailboxes in order to get the right to vote, who knows who they might vote for if they got the chance?

The exhibit was a good reminder that freedoms and rights are often grudgingly given by those with more power to those with less.  Those with less  are often called to put their beliefs on the line.  I started to ask myself, “would I be willing to go to jail for my rights?”  If ever my right to vote were revoked, I would like to belive I would.

Democracy (especially in Britain) sometimes seems wounded and tepid – with too much balancing to truly bring change.  But another amazing event of this week proves that it can still work.  Obama’s inauguration, and the vision of millions of people on Washington’s mall, suggest that people with less power, working together, can still shift the heavy machinery of government.    But we all need to be willing to push.

Starry Starry Night

A perfect night out:

A river (preferably one of the world’s greatest waterways)
A boat
Tape to hold the lights on
8 oars
7 friends
Moon (rising)
Stars (Orion hanging just over the horizon)

I am falling into an epic love affair with the Thames. Tonight, the first night outing with my rowing club, was a serene marvel of flat water, sliding oars, stars, and speed. I hope for many, many more.

1/2 a laptop per child? OLPC cuts staff in half

The Register notes that Nicholas Negroponte’s controversial One Laptop Per Child project is cutting half of its staff. The article mentions the project’s Give One Get One scheme where one laptop is donated to a poor country for every one purchased in a rich country. It’s hard, in this glaring credit-crunch light, not to see the project as a glorified corporate-giving scheme where the have-lots get an excuse to buy another interesting toy . . .

but that could just be my cynicism at the ideas that laptops are somehow necessary and sufficient for eduction.

On Communication as a Right

My US-based colleague Sascha Meinrath recently published an editorial in the Guardian arguing that universal internet connectivity should become part of a new social contract for the United States. He argues that connectivity, like public safety and public space, should be available to all. After all, parks and other public services are freely available to US citizens, and internet infrastructure is equally important.

The comments on the story by British readers were very revealing about the way people think about public services. One commenter noted that parks were not freely accessible, as due to fears of pedophilia single childless adults were interrogated by park staff. Another compared the internet to a shopping mall – since it is primarily commercial, why provide public support?

These comments helped me to situate the UK’s seeming shortage of community broadband projects (I’m still looking for more of them!). I am still surprised to see how many “public” spaces are privatized (including parks that belong to the Royals). Meanwhile, the perceived erosion of basic public services in the UK seems to be making citizens wary of arguing for connectivity as public service, or – by extension – communication as a right.

The right to speak and to express opinions is the foundation of democracy. In an age when network infrastructure supports many of the ways we express these opinions publicly, equal access must be provided to everyone. This does not supercede the importance of clean water, shelter, and health care. It does ensure that we are free to speak, listen, and dissent – publicly.