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[liberationtech] liberationtech Digest, Vol 78, Issue 2

Catherine Fitzpatrick catfitz at
Tue Nov 8 11:58:09 PST 2011

Re: Syria Crackdown Aided by U.S.-Europe Spy Gear 

I have thought a lot about this generic issue in a blog post here:

I'm the first to say boycotts over symbolic issues even if they don't really change behaviour (or force the target merely to buy elsewhere) are worthwhile if they help you avoid conferring legitimacy on bad governments (i.e. the boycott of Uzbek cotton by Western companies, even though Uzbekistan merely goes and sells to Russia or Bangledesh). Building out the moral "wall of shame" is a worthy task. But that's if you can at least show a direct relationship between Western technology and Syria, and not destroy the village in order to save it, i.e. indicate beyond reasonable doubt that the technology was purchased and not pirated, or that resistance and bloggers and such in Syria don't get an advantage from the technology, too. Can you show that? Dan Colascione has indicated enough variables to open it up for debate.

I have some other considerations:

1. As Electronic Frontier Foundation has run campaigns against corporations before, I've wondered whether this cause, too, is not part of a larger anti-corporate, anti-proprietary-software struggle for which these companies like Cisco selling to China or Western companies selling to Syria are merely low-hanging fruit that help them dramatize their point and attract human rights advocates not focused on technology to their cause. As there is selectivity about these anti-corporate campaigns (i.e. avoiding Google) and it's part of a selective human rights program in any event, I do question it. In other words, if these struggles are for EFF part of putting in place a world order that doesn't include nation-states, even if elected, and corporations, even if responsible, and free enterprise and IP even if regulated, I question whether to join it. And that's simply because I think that alternative utopian world order of networks and darknets and humming
 engineers is no guarantee of liberties whatsoever, quite the contrary.

2. I'm really wary of the notion of hard-wiring "human rights policy" into the ICT chain because I don't think, again, we mean the same things by "human rights" -- which in some hands turns, again, into a struggle against corporations, property, proprietary software merely as part of a larger anti-capitalist struggle not really about rights in the classic sense. Property as well as liberal democratic governments are vital factors in maintaining human rights, in fact. Aside from what would undoubtedly be deep disagreements about what human rights are, it's surely legitimate to ask whether housing the responsibility to protect human rights in vague third-party entities like "all software coders following this human rights blueprint" or the Google-dominated GNI is a solution, and in fact as Dan says, doesn't lead to a policy of repression, where as I would point out more starkly, we are hinging the fate of people's freedom on a self-selected and actually
 unaccountable Wired State.

In fact, I'm wary of Brett Solomon's "human rights by design" wiring not because I think technology is neutral and can't be relied on to enforce code-as-law, as Dan implies. Rather, I think software in fact is HIGHLY subjective and malleable as a concretization of coders' will, and that all kinds of little and big decisions made very politically and subjectively by coders without accountability get baked into the code and leave us with oppressive situations all over. Software is not neutral because coders -- and companies -- are not neutral and it's not technophobia to point this out, but anthropology.

3. Precisely because technology isn't merely technological, I don't think making technological solutions to complex problems like Syria is the order of the day. With everybody online and increasingly looking to coded solutions to every human need, there's a tendency to say "don't sell the technology to the bad government and then they'll be blocked from doing evil" or "let's all click on something." Even if this were true (and there is much to show that they merely go to China or elsewhere), by looking for technological fixes like this in the first place, you distract from the complexity of the problem of oppressive governments that need to be tackled in their own right.

The problem is the atrocious Syrian regime and its backers among some elites within Syria and some old regional and global allies and the weakness of civil society at home and abroad to withstand these brutal forces. Putting a technology lens on this knot of issues doesn't dissolve it.

When you constantly look to third-party technological solutions, you distract from the root of the problem -- the Syrian government and its supporters in this case, and distract from other routes to solutions not involving technology per se.


If every single person working or studying in Silicon Valley and its extensions around the world, and starting with many of them in Silicon Valley on this list, were to look up from their desks and ask the Russian, Chinese, or Indian student or engineer sitting near them why their governments are following the old communist foreign policy grooves and backing Syria's deadly regime -- and began to debate with them vigorously how to change the public chemistry on these issues in these countries -- it might have more lasting effect eventually than just shutting off a "kill switch" -- which of course the same people on this list are only to happy to deny our elected Obama, who might use it for good, in another setting.

Sure, debating people who are students and guest workers is uncomfortable and many would be quick to say they shouldn't be held accountable for what their far-off governments do. Why not? We are. Russia and China vetoed the UN resolution condemning Syria; India abstained, thwarting the West. Well? Life is made of such decisions and even civil societies in countries that have their own hard time can begin to change this algorithm.

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
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