Recode The Internet

Lawyer and activist Lizzie O’Shea on digital surveillance, privacy and what we need to lead healthy, digital lives.


By Olivia DeBourcier

Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like our digital lives are subject to the whims of social media conglomerates. I’ve considered deleting my Facebook account, either to prevent creepily accurate ads from taking over my timeline or to protest Facebook allowing far-right groups to grow in size and strength. But it’s hard to quit social media when so much of our world demands its use. Is there another solution apart from withdrawing from the digital world? And what exactly are our rights when it comes to the web?

Lizzie O’Shea explores these questions in her work as a lawyer, writer, and human rights activist based out of Melbourne, Australia. She explores how the history of the digital world could inform a more equitable and democratic future in her recent book, Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Teach Us about Digital Technology, building on her works as a founder and the chair of Digital Rights Watch.

She will be the keynote speaker at the University of Alberta’s International Week on Feb. 1, 2021.

How did you get involved in the field of law and technology?

I don’t have a computer science background, so I, probably like many people, thought that it was something that’s perhaps beyond my skill set to comment on. But I do have a background in history. And I can see how we are inheritors of traditions, both good and bad, from the past. Coming to know that gives you a chance to interrogate the present. That was the kind of thought process that I brought to this.

I watched Edward Snowden releasing documents into the public domain when he was concerned about the injustice that has been perpetrated by the U.S. government. I found that to be a very interesting commentary on how you can speak truth to power, how you can try to change the dynamic of a massive topic like surveillance and start to talk about how people have rights that they ought to be entitled to have respected by government authorities.

So that was a key part of me seeing both the potential of technology, in terms of giving people a voice, but also the reactionary ways in which technology is imposed upon people by government authorities to control them. We don’t have to accept technology as it currently is.

Even here in Canada we’re talking a lot about the attempted insurrection in Washington, D.C. As part of that, I’m seeing discussion about how a strong government reaction to these events could potentially affect a whole variety of social movements — Black Lives Matter and the climate activists — not just the far right. What impact could this event have on the way governments may surveil social movements?

I am pretty alarmed by discussions in the United States of essentially treating this as a kind of War on Terror scenario. I mean, the War on Terror was a bad thing. It involved violations of people’s rights, scaremongering, the building of mass surveillance infrastructure which has been used in oppressive ways, both domestically for Americans but also abroad.

We need to be very careful about treating all social problems as police problems.

Police advocates claim that police forces are for preventing crime, but I would argue slightly differently. When they evolved in the late 18th century and early 19th century, it was around the maintenance of social control and social division. The first modern police force was an experiment on the docks of the River Thames: a police force was set up to watch workers unloading stock. And that the idea was to have people internalize the threat of incarceration as a way of cultivating compliance. And that’s a thread that has been carried throughout the whole history of modern policing.

Of course, police do different things. I’m not suggesting that it’s so simple. But in this particular moment where we have to deal with the very serious threat of right-wing nationalism, extremism, white nationalism, empowering law enforcement and intelligence may not be the answer that we’re hoping for. There are lots of other things at our disposal, like content moderation, finding the underlying social and economic causes for some of this disaffection, and the like.

For your talk, there will be a focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. How do the SDGs address digital freedoms and rights?

In the Sustainable Development Goals they talk about things like fair and decent work and economic development. That’s a clear issue in relation to how people’s work lives have become worse in the 21st century. Work feels more invasive, more constant, not unlike what I imagine it felt like in the 19th century when people were going through the Industrial Revolution. I do think, in terms of sustainability, we’re going to have to find ways to work less, and technology will give us some of those solutions — but not in its current form.

There was a really interesting recent report by the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty that talked about the digitization of the welfare state and how oppressive that has been in various parts of the world. People who access welfare services are treated almost like customers, that it’s a privilege to be able to access welfare services. That’s how the system has been designed as it’s automated and as digital technology becomes the overlay through which it’s delivered. We have to contend with how these systems are designed… so that what we’re building is not the machinery that perpetuates oppression, but actually, what we’re building is designed to leave oppression behind.

You’ve said that one of the solutions would also be greater public investment in the internet and the digital world. But given what you’ve said about state surveillance and security, are governments the right bodies to solve this?

Can we trust the government to provide digital infrastructure when they’ve also been the architects of mass surveillance? Well, I think we need public investment in these projects but, absolutely, we need localized ownership over them. I think that’s much better than necessarily trusting a centralized authority with all the power to create the system. There’s someone who’s accountable for it. We’ve seen a bit of that in the United States as local governments started to develop their own digital infrastructure, offering connectivity to residents at a reasonable, discounted cost compared to their private counterparts — and doing so successfully.

The foundation should be localized community governance, grassroots, bottom-up. That’s how you build strong democracies that can hold power accountable.

Can you elaborate on why we should care about who holds the power in this situation?

I think it is a matter of holding corporations accountable because they have such influence in our social democracy. Even if you’ve never spent any time on Facebook, chances are that Facebook will be able to know quite a bit about you because they’ve learned so much about your demographic qualities from others. And that’s a system that has to end.

Privacy is a collective issue. It’s a collective right that is determined, not by individuals making choices, but collectively by regulating how information can be held and distributed and managed and stored. That will start to then contend with the business model that has led to such a serious breakdown in people’s understanding of social democracy. It will help us repair some of the damage that’s been done by these companies, but also make use of their great potential — because social media is also a great place to be! It allows communities to develop in ways that were completely unexpected 10 years ago.

Want to hear more from Lizzie O’Shea? Tune in to for her keynote address and live Q&A at the University of Alberta’s International Week, Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 at 6 p.m. Edmonton local time.

Learn more and register:

(For Melbourne local time, please tune in Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 at Noon).



University of Alberta — Sustainability

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.