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The Privacy Movement and Dissent: Protest

In 2013-2015 I made a snapshot of the Berlin-based privacy movement. Join me in this last article of the series and find out how the privacy movement uses protest as an expression of dissent.

How do you understand the act of protest in a movement that is so intertwined with the Internet as the privacy movement is? In this article I will look at how protest was affected by the rise of the Internet, and subsequently zoom in on the different types of protest deployed by the privacy movement.

Protest in the Digital Age

Protest as we know it today has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s, when “signing petitions, lawful demonstrations, boycotts, withholding of rent or tax, occupations, sit-ins, blocking traffic, and wildcat strikes” became a legitimate part of the protest repertoire.Della Porta, Donatella, and Mario Diani. Social movements. An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. The influence the Internet has had on protest is twofold.Van Aelst, Peter, and Jeroen van Laer. “Internet and Social Movement Action Repertoires. Opportunities and Limitations.” Information, Communication & Society 13:8 (2010): 1146-1171. On the one hand, the Internet has complemented already existing, offline forms of protest, such as street demonstrations. Because the Internet allows communication to spread fast and among large groups of people, it has made mobilization and organization easier for offline forms of protests and has given it the ability to go beyond borders. On the other hand, the Internet has also generated new forms of protest, which are often associated with hacktivism. And more often than not, it has become difficult to determine where the offline world stops and the online world begins. This is certainly true for the privacy movement, where every form of protest that shows characteristics of offline protest, shows equally as many characteristics of online protest.

Protest Philosophy

Sociologists Della Porta and Diani distinguish three forms of actionDella Porta, Donatella, and Mario Diani. Social movements. An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. based on the pattern they follow: the logic of numbersThe logic of numbers assigns importance to the number of activists protesting., the logic of damageThe logic of damage focuses on the violence that accompanies protests., and the logic of bearing witness. The logic of bearing witness is the form of action that best suits the privacy movement. Instead of focusing chiefly on convincing decision-makers and the public, the protest is driven by a “strong commitment to an objective deemed vital for humanity’s future”. There is a certain risk involved in this kind of protest, a risk activists are willing to accept in order to demonstrate their beliefs.

Another feature of the logic of bearing witness is that it has a certain “sensitivity [towards] other alternative values and cultures” and that it uses “conferences, journals, concerts, and documentaries” as means of education. In the case of the privacy movement, this shows for example through the many conferences the activists attend and lecture at, the books and films that are published, and educational meetings that are organized. All these activities attempt to change the public’s view on the world, and the public is constantly addressed and encouraged to take action. Although political change certainly is a motive in the philosophy behind the logic of bearing witness, this change has to come from the public and not solely from political decision-makers. It is always a combination of a change in “political structures” and a change in “individual consciousness”.

How the Privacy Movement Protests

In order to describe, analyze, and understand the ways in which the privacy movement uses protest as dissent, it is important to bear in mind the Internet plays an all-encompassing role. Van Aelst and Van Laer’s typology of new digitalized action repertoire Van Aelst, Peter, and Jeroen van Laer. “Internet and Social Movement Action Repertoires. Opportunities and Limitations.” Information, Communication & Society 13:8 (2010): 1146-1171. is helpful to explain this. First, we can distinguish between actions that are Internet-supported and actions that are Internet-based. Protests that are Internet-supported are traditional means of protest that the Internet has made easier to coordinate and organize, whereas protests that are Internet-based could not have happened without the Internet. Second, there is the height of the threshold for people to become involved. A high threshold means that participating entails a high risk and level of commitment, while a low threshold means a low risk and level of commitment. In the privacy movement, Internet-supported protest with a low threshold and Internet-based protest with a high threshold are the most common forms of protest.

Internet-Supported Protest With a Low Threshold

The most common types of Internet-supported protest with a low threshold that we find in the privacy movement are asking for donations and organizing legal protest demonstrations.

The Internet has given an impuls to donations: whereas in the analogue age the costs to coordinate such actions would outweigh the benefits, in the digital age collecting money has become much easier and accessible. The Courage FoundationThe Courage Foundation is an international organization that supports whistleblowers., for instance, collects donations for the legal defense of whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and Lauri Love. And WikiLeaks asks its supporters to donate in order to be able to continue to share news. In addition, many other European organizations similarly offer their members and supporters the opportunity to make donations. However, it is worth noting that specifically in the case of the privacy movement, the threshold for donating money is higher than usual, as whistleblowing is a politically sensitive subject and community members have a heightened knowledge of privacy concerns associated with online payments.Read more about the "banking blockade" WikiLeaks faced when, at the end of 2010, Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal, and Western Union decided to stop transferring money to WikiLeaks. It is not surprising that donating via the anonymous digital currency Bitcoin is an option many organizations offer.

When it comes to demonstrations, the Internet has also been an enhancing factor, as it has made the spreading and exchanging of information about the goal and practical details of a demonstration much easier. This also proves to be the case for demonstrations organized by the privacy movement. A fitting example of how the Internet can help rapidly spread information and the effect that has on protest is the Netzpolitik demonstration held in Berlin on August 1, 2015. The announcement made by NetzpolitikIn the summer of 2015, Netzpolitik announced that Andre Meister and Markus Beckedahl were suspected of treason., a German organization concerned with digital rights and culture, that two of their reporters and one source had been charged with treason, kicked up a storm among privacy activists. The announcement was made on 30 July, 2015, and soon the first tweets about a demonstration started to appear. No more than two days later, on August 1, 2015, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Berlin to protest for the freedom of the press. Within a matter of days a number of leading privacy activists had showed their support for Netzpolitik, including tweets by Glenn Greenwald and the Courage foundation, and a guest blog for Netzpolitik by Appelbaum about the “Landesverrat”.

Here, too, it is worth considering how low the threshold for demonstrating actually is for activists within the privacy movement. In the analogue age it was difficult for governments to get a clear image of who exactly took part in a demonstration. Modern technology, however, has changed and continues to change the game. In Data and Goliath. The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your WorldBruce Schneier's Data and Goliath is a must-read if you are interested in (digital) surveillance., Bruce Schneier explains how after participating in a protest, protesters in the Ukraine received a text message from their government that stated, “Dear Subscriber, you have been registered as a participant in a mass disturbance”. Something similar happened in Michigan, U.S.A., in 2010. After a labor protest the local police asked for information about every cellphone that had been near the protest. Thus, the height of the risk that is involved in these sorts of protest is definitely worth reconsidering, especially when reflecting on a movement with so much awareness of (digital) surveillance.

Internet-Based Protest With a High Threshold

Internet-based actions with a high threshold entail protest websites, alternative media, culture jamming, and hacktivism. Protest websites are websites that “promote social causes and chiefly mobilizes support". Van Aelst, Peter, and Jeroen van Laer. “Internet and Social Movement Action Repertoires. Opportunities and Limitations.” Information, Communication & Society 13:8 (2010): 1146-1171. The privacy movement is involved in a number of these sort of websites,  for example edwardsnowden.com and chelseamanning.org, which are dedicated to whistleblowers and explain how supporters can help them, and savetheinternet.com, which asks supporters to take action in protecting net neutrality.

Alternative media have proven to be a crucial part of how the privacy movement voices dissent and “bears witness”, as the Internet has made it possible to circumvent mass media and has minimized the effort to spread information to a large audience. A well-known example of alternative media, emerging from the privacy movement, is The InterceptRead The Intercept here., an online news organization co-founded by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill. This newspaper aims, according to its website, to “[produce] fearless, adversarial journalism” and focuses on stories that provide transparency about government and corporate institutions’ behavior. Media organization WikiLeaks relies on the Internet not only to get its message out there, but also to receive documents from whistleblowersRead part II of this series, which deals with the important role whistleblowers play within the privacy movement.. Although leaking documents through an online submission process is still definitely not without risk, the Internet has made it easier for an organization like WikiLeaks to exist by lowering the threshold for engagement.

Culture jamming is a form of protest where corporate identity and communications is appropriated for the protesters’ own goals, using tactics such as “billboard pirating, physical and virtual graffiti, website alteration, [and] spoof sites”. Although the privacy movement does not yet make wide use of any of these techniques, there is one example worth mentioning that can be seen as a new form of a spoof siteA spoof site is a clone of an existing website that is meant to parody or provoke the organization behind it.. When at the end of 2013 the public relations department of the NSA launched its own Twitter account, there soon came a response in the form of a spoof account: @NSA_PRThe NSA Public Relations account is still active on Twitter., or NSA Public Relations in full. The owners of the account have altered the original NSA logo by providing the American eagle with an evil grin and came up with its own marketing slogan: “we care, we’re here to listen”. The account often responds to recent surveillance and security issues in a humorous way. For example, when WikiLeaks published documents about the NSA’s interception of French leaders, NSA Public Relations posted, “Parlez-vous Français?” And when the USA Freedom Act was enacted, the account reacted: “Please direct all media inquiries regarding today's passage of ‪#FreedomAct to someone who cares. Thank you.” Another favorite tweet: “Hiring: Director of Strategic Communications. Responsibilities include: replying “Nuh uh” to @ggreenwald” on Twitter”.

Hacktivism is the last form of Internet-based protest with a high threshold. It is defined as “confrontational activities like DoS attacks via automated email floods, website defacements altering the source code of targeted websites, or the use of malicious software like viruses and worms”. These activities are not commonly used within the privacy movement. This does, however, not mean that the privacy movement does not use hacktivism as means of protest, but rather that it performs a "digitally correct" form of hacktivism. Digitally correct hacktivism designs computer programs that help confirm and accomplish their political aims. Of the many programs that exist, two of the most well-known and widely used programs for this kind of protest are the Tor Project web browser and Pretty Good Privacy. Both programs are designed to secure the user’s privacy. Whereas it is debatable whether direct action hacktivism is legal or not, the use of the Tor browser and email encryption of course are.

In addition, the promotion of these privacy tools influence consumer behavior. Literature classifies the influencing of consumer behaviorA more traditional way of influencing consumer behavior are the "toolkit"-websites many organisations maintain featuring advice on what online tools and applications to use. as a form of Internet-supported protest. In the particular case of the privacy movement, however, it is most definitely an Internet-based form of protest. In addition, using certain programs and boycotting others, much like creating artRead part III in this series which deals with the role art plays in the privacy movement., allowes the movement to express or reinforce movement values, ideas, and tactics.

The digital age has undeniably affected the way in which social movements protest. Traditional forms of protest have become Internet-supported, but additionally there are also forms of protest being used that cannot even exist without the Internet. This is even more the case for the privacy movement. For a movement that is so intertwined with the Internet, we see that it is difficult to even make the distinction between online and offline protest, and that it comes up with its own specific alterations to already existing forms of protest.


This was the final article in my series on the Berlin-Based privacy movement. Hopefully, I have been able to give you a glimpse of how privacy activists operate and how whistleblowing, art, and protest are important tools for them to express their dissent. Almost two years have passed since I finished this research. Much has changed, and the expressions of dissent I have described are certainly not exhaustive. Therefore, in a few weeks I will publish two whole new articles on strategic litigation and lobbying. Stay tuned!

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