Eight challenges of opening the web

By EDRi · October 5, 2016

The Open Web Fellows programme is an international programme designed to link developers, engineers, technologists and programmers with civil society organisations around the world. This article is written by Sid Rao, the Open Web Fellow who is spending ten months with the EDRi office in Brussels, working in cooperation with us to safeguard the internet as a global public resource.

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Since the day I was selected for the Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellowship, I have been interrogated by many of ex-colleagues, friends and family about the notion of my commitment for the next ten months. Most of them see this fellowship just as a collaboration between eight people who will be nurtured by eight well-known civil society organisations situated in eight different locations in the world. Even though I had a similar take on the fellowship (of course with my personal motivations of contributing to “public interest computer science” and ”advocacy” sector), I sought more clarity after attending the fellowship onboarding week in Toronto in September. The discussion with Ford-Foundation (specifically Michael Brennan) and the Advocacy team of Mozilla Foundation helped me to understand their motto and thereby improvise my perspective of the open web fellowship. Based on that, I now foresee the fellows to be working on one or more of the following eight challenges of opening the web.

  1. The threat to freedom of expression: The internet is meant to be an open platform for every individual to express their opinion about anything that matters to them. It could also include the freedom to report in public forums (such as freedom of the press) on the issues which could potentially affect more than one individual. However, in the current internet ecosystem such freedom is either denied or restricted.
  2. The threat to personal identity: Everyone has the right to be different, which allows us to define and express our identity with whoever we want. However, these rights are suppressed by online bullying, harassment, and discrimination, not just by humans, but also by algorithms.
  3. The threat to personal space: The internet has become an intuitive part of our day-to-day lives with its almost ubiquitous presence in large parts of the world. As a result, the privacy of our interactions is of utmost concern to many of us. Online identities and behaviours are used to secretly profile the internet users. This data serve as a source of money for some big companies or as a target for governmental institutions to potentially brand you as “abnormal” or “anti-social”, thereby removing freedom of expression and identity.
  4. The threat to the internet ecosystem: When we consider the internet ecosystem as a whole, it has bigger problems imposed by governments such as “surveillance”, “access censorship” and repeated “internet shutdowns” which are sometimes beyond an individual’s control. Furthermore, big corporate players try to dominate the market by selling “fake internet” to people in countries where roll-out of internet access services is not yet as advanced (services such as
  5. Lack of transparency in public and government data: Many practitioners consider the  internet as a learning platform which should allow its users to remix and reuse the existing online content. This perspective of the internet not only harnesses the collaboration between various communities, but also creates space for new and innovative ideas in every possible aspect of day-to-day life. Opening data for the public well-being should start right from the government sector, which could potentially include disclosing the data from traffic, urban plans, agriculture, and so on. Moreover, opening the data could also include having access to one’s personal data, meaning that people get full insight into what companies or governments know about them and the right to information (where an individual can get the necessary data to question authority). Unfortunately, the current state of the internet lacks such transparency.
  6. Lack of efficient internet policies and laws: Beyond all the threats mentioned earlier, internet policies and laws in every country (or, even better, at a global level) should be accountable to be as inclusive as possible to respect individual preferences and privacy. When the private corporate sectors exploit the flaws in existing policies, the government policies should take a stand and protect their citizens’ right to freely access the internet. However, nowadays the government itself exploits these “flaw-filled” policies, . The problem could be either that internet users are not well aware of their countries’ policies or the policies are not strong enough to uphold their digital rights.
  7. Lack of awareness: The discourse about internet freedom has increased after the Snowden revelations, even though it existed in the hacktivist community long before that. Even now, most of the general public do not grasp the current problems surrounding their internet usage. Firstly, they are not well informed about the value of their personal data (which leads to the discussion of “I have nothing to hide”), which is invariably exploited with (albeit with limited knowledge) or without their consent. Secondly, even if many of them are aware of the value of their data, they don’t know how to take enough measures to protect themselves, and therefore retain their digital freedom.
  8. Inadequate strategies for user engagement:  Many tools and methods exist to bypass censorship, secure online communication, and preserve privacy. However, many of these tools are way too complicated to be used by tech novices, and that is why “Johnny still cannot encrypt”. The strategies to involve more users to access the internet securely and privately is beyond the problem of raising awareness about the issues. In spite of extensive research done in academia and industry with regards to internet security in general, “usable security” – which deals with making “usable tools” for everyone, is a relatively new field. Until usable security becomes mainstream, the internet users, at least some of the targeted communities (such as LGBT) should be trained thoroughly on using the existing tools.

All the fellows, including myself, come from different tech backgrounds such as academic, corporate, training, and art, with an open mindset to free the internet from shackles, improve its capability and administration, and make it truly people-friendly. To keep it as open as it is meant for, we span our next ten months to strengthen the existing technology stack, to create transparent policies, and raise awareness among the public. Oh! Mozzie – our mascot has taken an oath to keep us on track.

Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellows 2016

EDRi: EDRi welcomes its Open Web Fellow (24.08.2016)

Why Johnny Can’t Encrypt: A Usability Evaluation of PGP 5.0

(Contribution by Sid Rao, Open Web Fellow)