Teknik och demokrati på Sida

Under gårdagen fick jag möjlighet att beskriva historiska och aktuella tendenser inom teknik och demokrati, som en av huvudtalarna på ett event på Sida. Här är mitt (okorrade) pratmanus:


I do not want to sound like a boomer, but I started working in the intersection of technology and human rights in 1998. This was when the internet was still very young, and a number of tech savvy activist groups had started to understand how to use technology for good. For many years I was involved in digital projects, some very creative – others more subversive. The common nominator was that we tried to explore how technology and societal change could be further connected. Among the most fun, but most likely not the most efficient, projects back in the days were the ones that were strictly digital. The impact however really showed when me and other understood how to best connect the online with the offline, harnessing engagement and change making in a digital context.

Since then I have been making many rounds within this space. I have done my time within the academy, hacking policy within these very walls and now I am the director of the global department for human rights defenders at risk at the Swedish human rights organization Civil Rights Defenders.

One of the most important terms of my craft is what is called the trinity of digital repression, which the challenges we aim to respond to can be condensed to. We talk about the surveillance, the censorship and the repression. Ten years ago we learned the hard way how these three crucial factors can overlap in the most devastating of ways.

During what was later called “The Arab Spring” I was part of organizing communities of hacktivists – a playful merge of hackers and activists – to provide digital security support for those longing for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, beginning in Iran 2009 and then spreading in the region. We helped local activists to break through digital firewalls of censorship, to spread their message and to encrypt their communications in order not to get caught. For many – including us, our friends on the ground and global policy makers – this was ground breaking times where the urge for societal change manifested online as it never had done before. However, as we all know – many struggles and sacrifices during that time were unsuccessful, some also made in vain.

Me and my friends, who had engaged because of our conviction of the inherited positive force of the internet, on many occasions came to question our beliefs. The surveillance was more extensive than we had expected. When we hacked regime controlled national telecom companies only to find that they had massive spying networks of interception servers throughout the countries – many built on US and EU hardware – and when our local activist colleagues where taken to interrogation and presented with meter high piles of Skype transcripts collected by the national security services. The censorship was widespread. As soon as we had created a tool to break through one national firewall, a new more efficient feature was presented. The repression was devastating. When people we chatted with on a daily basis in front of our very eyes were abducted by armed men and never returned back to their loved ones. Many things will never be unseen.

Based on many of these learnings, me and a number of fellow internet activists, were invited to form a focus group for the Swedish then Minister of Development Cooperation. I remember this clearly, as it was only a few weeks after the shared anniversary of the fall of the Egyptian ruler Housni Mubarak and the birth of my youngest kids – yes, we got twins. Anyway, the aim was to learn more about how to best support the new emerging actors within activism and democratic change. The Swedish government had understood that the communities of digital savvy activists were crucial for the events during the so called “Arab spring” and wanted to best understand how to provide efforts that could result in better sustainability and continuity of their work.

As we all know, the struggles a decade ago were not all successful. Iran just had a new round of well-needed protests criticizing the ruling class. Civil society in Egypt is still working under great repression. Syrian has just been thrown into yet another cycle of full-scale war. But the activists are still there, both in person and in concept – I am personally working with them on a daily basis, all over the world, as part of the global activist communities me and my fellow human rights defenders are part of.

As responsible for providing rapid response to some of the world’s most targeted human rights defenders in some of the world’s most repressive countries and contexts I am always reminded about how the trinity of digital repression is more relevant than ever. In countries I cannot even mention publicly I work with groups that on a regular basis have their IT infrastructure hacked by state-controlled actors that try to seize their most sensitive data. We have VPNs, encrypted messaging and high-end online resources as part of our standard toolbox to get around the sophisticated censorship routines today deployed all around the world. Our partners on a regular basis suffer from repression because of their online advocacy for human rights.

Now, what we on my end have learned – and continue to experience – is that the oppressors know what they are doing and that they invest a lot of time, effort and resources into doing their oppressing things. Therefor we, and others working with democracy support need to be on top of our things, to be able to outsmart them.

To be swift, responsive and flexible is crucial in our line of work. In attempts to challenge the trend of democratic decline we have set up intriguing but also very complex relocation schemes to keep LGBT activists in Chechnya alive. We have made deep and thorough security assessments of Cambodian human rights networks. When the situation in Ethiopia rapidly changed in 2018 we were the first to provide security trainings for local human rights defenders, and now we are struggling to with very scares resources keep LGBT and SOGIE activists in Tanzania floating during the currently very repressive times. When the repression against journalists and human rights monitoring networks in Venezuela is increasing we have increased our contingency planning supports for local activists, to increase their readiness ahead of next crackdown.

We see the intersection of online and offline materialize in our security work. Ten years ago we and our likeminded were very focused on digital security, mainly because we say the internet as a new arena for democratic change. Today, when we sadly now how the cyber space and the meat space overlap and interact, we understand that we need to work holistically with all kinds of security – combining digital security with personal assault alarm systems, interrogation trainings and well-being efforts. We need to understand that one cannot be made without the other.

What we also have learned is that, even though the internet is a never-ending series of connected networks, many human rights defenders are still working in solitude. One of their regimes most efficient tools to cripple the critical voices is to isolate them and make them feel alone. In my daily work it materializes in several very well-connected bits and pieces.

Firstly, countless are the times I have heard that human rights defenders feel that they stand completely alone in their struggle and that no one understands their challenges. When understanding they have many standing by their side, and that they are part of a larger movement – they stand more confident and are defacto more secure. That is why platforms and network building events are so important, let it be the Stockholm Internet Forum, our own Defenders Days or other regional and global convenings of human rights defenders.

Secondly, international solidarity is key. We work closely with our partners in equally sharing mentoring relations, being there in good and more difficult times. Knowing we have each others backs is of utter importance when building communities. And our work could never be made possible without our close collaboration with fellow international ngos – providing different kinds of complementary support. While we for instance have a long experience of family relocations, others may have better connections with local security firms providing safe housing.

Thirdly, support for actors within human rights need to continue to be creative and flexible. The oppressors are learning from each other, and implementing never-ending tweaks of their previous strategies. We need to keep up with them, be prepared for sudden changes and always be open to new-world solutions to old-world problems.

Understanding the merge of human and digital rights is a key part of the international human rights communities way ahead. I have to admit, ten-fifteen years ago we were quite naïve – hoping that internet would liberate us all. Now we all know better. We know we need to understand how the digital space affects the human rights struggles we are part of. We need to understand how meat space issues as government repression, gender-based violence and personal security are affected by the cyber space preconditions – the technologies we today no longer can choose to relate to – they are there, and we need to stop claiming this is something new. The trinity is real.

The drive for democracy is a joint venture. This is something that needs to be done together, using the wisdoms and learnings of those who have walked the road before. Since the topic of today is “when democracy support works”, let me just mention some of the voice-bearers I really would like to urge us all to continue supporting, as the most important change agents for democracy:

  • Human rights defenders: as the bearers of values, struggles and knowledge for shaping a human rights based society when exactly that is what is lacking.
  • Informal groups and communities: as most of the truly important actors in the repressive contexts of the world never had the opportunity to organize into what we would understand as civil society organisations.
  • Progressive actors: individuals and groups understanding the up-and-coming tools and struggles, because I really want to stress that we need to get-up-to but also maintain speed when challenging the oppressors.

Concluding, I would like to stress that we – all – have a lot to learn. We need to let our proud guard down and realize that the expertise is not something we carry, it is something we acquire. In the realm of digital security and freedom online this is specifically true. With my years of experience I can without hesitation guarantee you that many of the internet related discussions are cyclic. We have all done this before, and we need to learn from that. While the over-arching challenges are similar, the more detailed issues are constantly ever-changing. Being truly defender-centric and building on the learnings of front line human rights defenders is what will help us understand how to best support democracy and human rights, online as well as offline. Thank you.