Okay, so I’m pissed off about something the government or a multinational corporation is doing. What are my options? On a good day, I can go outside and demonstrate with a bunch of other like-minded people and get tear-gassed and beaten by the cops. If I’m lucky, the media will cover it and focus on the violent protestors rather than the problem I’m demonstrating against. On a bad day, I’ll go and only a few hundred people will show up, but at least the media won’t report the protest in a bad light: the demonstration probably won’t even make the news. So now I’m not only pissed off, but I’m frustrated too.
Well, there’s a new option: the Citizen Lab (www.citizenlab.org). The Citizen Lab provides new, effective methods of telling those asinine corporations and governments where to stick it. The lab combines technology with social justice and grassroots movements to create new ways of fighting the system. Better still, by providing new methods of social change, the lab helps combat the untrue view that activists are just kids who want to throw things at cops. Ronald Deibert, the lab’s founder and director has heard comments reflecting this view: “Oh, it’s just a bunch of kids—it’s like Pokemon or hula hoops.”
“There’s much more to politics than going out on a Friday and marching with other people,” continues Deibert, who is also a political science professor at U of T. “It’s changing the world around you from the inside out, your whole lifestyle, the choices you make, the way you think about the news critically—the way you engage in politics on a day-to-day level.”
Using technology against technologically sophisticated corporations is what Deibert calls “hacktivism.” Nart Villeneuve, a student and one of the lab’s research assistants has revealed some interesting information. You know how Canada is great and democratic and China is evil and blocks its citizens’ access to the Internet? Well, Villeneuve was able to map the networks used by China to determine where its blocking technology came from. It turned out to be Nortel and Cisco, both Western companies.
“These corporations who go around saying ‘We’re for freedom,’ well, that’s all bullshit,” says Deibert. “They’re the bad ones supplying regimes with these technologies simply for profit.” Armed with proof, the lab is able to publish this information in The New York Times and academic journals to expose and shame the companies involved.
Mind your own business!
Another problem the lab is working on is protecting social justice groups from being spied upon.
“Governments around the world have enacted sweeping legislation that allows them to eavesdrop on e-mail, in ways that would’ve been considered astounding before September 11,” says Deibert. “People just let them pass without any resistance. This is really troubling because non-governmental organizations and civil society groups rely on the Internet in fundamental ways for what they do, and yet they are very ignorant of Internet security issues.”
The lab is working on providing these groups with secure network platforms they can carry out their subversive activities on without having their work messed with by paranoid governments.
The lab is even participating in a project to fight back against surveillance called “World Surveillance Day.” Video cameras are often put in public places to discourage people from doing things people in charge don’t want them doing. The excuse is that people who have nothing to hide should not be afraid to be on camera when in public. But how far will this go? Wired magazine reported in 1995 that cameras are in store changing rooms. Do we really need to be videotaped naked? Most people would say no. To fight back, there won’t be marching and picketing. Instead, protestors will put on disguises and “go on a shooting spree,” taking pictures in camera-shy areas on Dec. 24. This event will add a new twist to ordinary demonstration.
Hang out with your prof!
The lab also gets students involved—and not by sitting in a lecture hall. “Academics are really conservative,” says Deibert. He hopes to run a course on anarchy next year titled “How to Fuck the System.” “Most people around here, if they care about teaching at all, they go up there and lecture and maybe throw on a video or something.”
Deibert ran a project in the Citizen Lab that involved first-year students taking a 21-day trip through the United States in an RV, which they documented for TV with filmmaker Mike Downie.
“Everyone has these assumptions about what America and Americans are like. I wanted them to go and experience it first-hand,” says Deibert. “We did everything: visiting Ground Zero, churches, NORAD…we shot guns, too. We did everything.” The series, called Into America, will air on TVO this fall.
What is really going on, says Deibert, is a “rise of civil society groups and civil activist groups connecting across borders, using the Internet and new forms of technology to get involved in politics and not leave it to states and corporations who have traditionally set the rules of the game.”