Civil Society on the Internet, Onassis Centre, Athens

Talk at Onassis Cultural Centre, Athens: Civil Society on the Internet

About me

I am Jim Killock, the Executive Director, of the Open Rights Group

I have been campaigning with ORG for three years

Previously I worked for the Green Party. I’ve also worked in web design, using open technologies, which gave me an introduction to many of the issues I now work on.

So, who are the Open Rights Group?

We are a citizen-led organization. We were formed in 2005, inspired by the US Electronic frontier Foundation. The founders felt that the UK needed an organization to fight against threats to our digital rights. A pledge was started asking for 1,000 people to pay £5 a month to start ORG.

We now have 1,400 paying supporters and 31,000 campaign supporters

The Open Rights Group fights for our “Digital Rights”: that is, human rights and consumer rights in the digital age. These mean Privacy, free speech, government transparency, and innovation.

We want to secure the benefits of the digital age for citizens. We wish to protect citizens against government and corporations where necessary

Here are some of our key campaigns


We opposed and stopped e-voting in the UK. It is unsafe, open to fraud, impossible for voting to be anonymous and secure in current technology


A company called Phorm tried to sell equipment to ISPs, to intercept people’s web traffic and produce profiles for advertising.

The campaign, supported by ORG,
chased them out of the UK. The EU Commission investigated the UK’s laws because of the lack of enforcement.


We opposed the extension of Copyright term for sound recordings.

We argued that it will mean money for companies, not artists. We delayed, reduced, but did not stop the extension.

We Opposed the Digital Economy Act and organised a massive campaign against this bill for Internet censorship and discredited it. The Bill passed but repealing the DE Act was the most popular question to PM candidates on Youtube

And since then, Special Rapporteur on Free Expression, Frank La Rue condemned the UK in his Report to the Un Human Rights Committee.

On Mass interception, we fought off plans to intercept the communications of every UK citizen and collect “traffic data” from Facebook and Google, and other third party applications. Now the Communications Capabilities Development Plan is back, reviving the same idea.

How the Internet is changing civil society

What I hope to do is to share some of the experience we have had in the UK of changes that the Internet is bringing to the way that civil society works, in the widest sense.

Let’s start with some key ideas.

The first idea is that the internet has changed the balance of power.

For the first time, the public are truly a visible and powerful actor in the debate.

They do not need prior organization or permission to act.

People have the tools they need to self-publish and build their own tools, freely or cheaply.

There is a backlash, and attempts to control the tools are increasingly common.

The second key concept is the perceived and real threats that the Internet brings to vested interests.

The most commonly known supposed threat is that to copyright industries. In reality, the threat is about decentralized and cheap distribution, but the rhetoric is about theft and lack of control

The solution these industries propose is greater control of the market, by the current copyright industries.

Commercial data and surveillance

A second threat comes from the new companies themselves, as they gather data about their customers.

This changes the balance of power negatively, away from citizens, and towards businesses that hold the data. At its worst, we are surveilled and have little or no choice to put up with it. Privacy risks are borne by us but without true consent.

A third key idea is that the public have a great understanding of what has changed. They feel the power they have. They are able to intervene successfully, able to challenge, able to feel the weight of public opinion. This starts with sharing information, but becomes much more, even resulting in a sense of solidarity.

Some reactions to these changes are quite pessimistic. Not everyone from civil society views the changes as simply good.

A lot of people in the UK have been concerned by so-called ‘clicktivism’.

Groups in the USA and the UK use online petitions and email tools for people to contact their MP with a form letter.

The result has been that in some cases, vast numbers of people have contacted their MP, sometimes many hundreds, with the same letter.

Some people argue that this devalues the effect of contacting your MP, or that it makes it harder for new campaigns, who have to produce ever greater volumes of correspondence for the same political effect.

Others think that it creates a misplaced sense of ‘doing something’ where people think they have taken action, and that is enough.

It might create a rather passive sort of activist, who does not arm themselves with the information and confidence they need to really change society.

That could be true, if the organizations who use these tactics do not try to bring their activists forward.

ORG does use form letters – but we also train people to talk to their MP. We use simple actions to draw people in, but we do not seek to stop there.

Of course, if campaigners do not engage their activists, then really, that is the fault of the campaigners, not the Internet, and we should seek to replace their campaign organisations with better ones.

Another criticism, on an international level, has been from people such as Evgeny Morozov, who argues that oppressive regimes are perfectly capable of adapting to the Internet.

They can use the Internet for surveillance and can quite easily block content.

Thus the Internet can provide a greater illusion of freedom, while actually propping up regimes.

I am less sure, at least in the sense that ideas can change societies, even quite slowly. Degrees of open-ness also limit the range of oppressive actions, potentially.

Morozov also argues that US foreign policy is guilty of over-hyping the potential for change through the Internet. Worse, there is a level of hypocrisy, as the same governments tolerate the export of surveillance and censorship tools, and even push for the same measures domestically.

On this, I think the example of the UK supports Morozov’s argument.

Last summer, when the UK called for social networks and Blackberry messenger to shut down during riots, China congratulated the UK for being so responsible.

I think that is not the sort of praise the UK wants.

Equally, the UN report by Frank la Rue is not the sort of criticism the UK wants. The story is, though, that the developed world are willing to play fast and loose with our human rights on the Internet, and that is setting a much more powerful example to oppressive regimes than wise words about the open Internet.

Some people ask if there will there be other side effects.

Should we expect a dumbing down of culture. Will people appreciate music if they can listen to lots of it, rather than small amount intensively.

Will Internet bullying reduce our ability to socialize.

Does twitter result in trivial and fleeting discourse and superficial analysis?

Frankly, these are fairly silly questions, by and large, akin to the usual sorts of moral panic about teenage behaviour we see in every generation.


Perhaps more profoundly, we should recongise that a different balance is not the same as a revolution.

It is still possible for politicians and big media to control the discourse.

Commercial and political entities are still powerful.

Campaigning still takes organisation and planning, and cannot always happen altogether spontaneously.

Human rights

I now want to analyse the impacts that the Internet has had on three key human rights: Free speech, free association and privacy. I will finally make some observations about copyright enforcement, as a malign driver for destructive public policy, and then make a few conclusions about the Internet and civil society from ORG’s perspective.

Free speech

Free speech gives us greater information, analysis and is the bedrock of the free flow of new ideas. This itself is core part of commerce and markets, as well as political and social development.

There are, nevertheless, limits to free speech. These are not new, but the law has not always been good at understanding the changes the Internet brings.

In the UK’s Twitter joke trial, the defendant had lost his temper while waiting to get a plane at Nottingham Airport. They tweeted:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

He was held to be “sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003”, was fined £1,000 and lost his job.

This seems a gross misinterpretation and misunderstanding of the context of the tweet.

Last week, another clearly offensive Tweet landed the author with two months in prison for incitement to racial hatred.

The tweet was vile, laughing at a black football player who had collapsed on the pitch, claiming he was dead.

But it’s difficult to say that a remark on Twitter is the same as leaflets that are published and distributed in order to create racial tension. The law and its punishments are designed for printed media.

A better response for society in general seems to be to deal with these sorts of remarks by rebutting them and showing the people up to be fools: meeting bad speech with good speech.

Libel and defamation are another area where the limits to speech are challenged by law.

In the UK, injunctions sought to suppress information about the people who wished to suppress public comment about personal stories.

These so-called “super injuctions” came about at least in part because the UK lacks a privacy law to cover cases like these.

But they did not work, and the information and stories leaked out.

While the law must strike a balance between the rights of different parties, the law does have to be realistic about what can be done. Once facts are known, and something is published, it is very hard to stop the information from circulating.

For ORG, the main worry we have is with private enforcement of the boundaries of free speech.

Technical enforcement is often fragile and inept. Overblocking is a constant worry, wherever it takes place.

In the case of child abuse images, the whole of the UK, more or less, was prevented from editing Wikipedia when one image on the site was put on the blacklist.

In another example, Facebook have been shown to take down user profiles for minor terms and conditions abuses, such as pseudonymous or organizational profiles, which are not allowed.

Many people suspect that the police use terms and condition reporting as a disruption tactic.

There are plenty of other examples. Domain registries such as Nominet in the UK are private organizations. London police have successfully persuaded Nominet to remove 3000 .uk domains on their advice. With no court, and no proper appeal, this has tremendous scope for abuse, incorrect take downs and mission creep.

Private enforcement is popular with governments, as it hands the problem to someone else, who does not have to prove that they comply with human right standards.

And best of all, it needs no legislation.

Bizarrely, the UK government thinks it is a private organization too, when it says it wishes to block terrorist supporting websites on its own estates.

It believes it can create a blocklist, without asking a court, use it in universities and schools. And then private ISPs could borrow this list, if they wish.

Lastly, I would like to let you know about the UK’s attempts to persuade private homes to switch on censorship of adult material.

Either by a choice presented to you at sign up, or as a default setting, adult content may be blocked.

Legislation would require ISPs to offer this choice to you, for child protection.

These blocks are already applied to mobile phones in the UK, by default.

The result, ORG has found, is that blocking affects the wrong websites, is too extensive and is often difficult to remove. For website owners, it is often impossible to know if you are blocked, and very hard to get off a block list.

Attemtping to apply blocks like this would not make children safer, because children need different levels of care and attention.

But it would make politicians feel like they had stood up for moral decency.

These are heavy-handed and unnaccountable approaches to free speech.

They are dangerous and we need civil society to be extremely watchful, if we do not wish the Internet to become a place where corporate and government vigilante justice rules the day.

Free association

Taking a step back, another key human right that we are able to exercise better is free association with other people with whom we share common interests.

The Internet allows us to act spontaneously, with others. It could even be argued to be the key change of recent years.

Forming organizations has always been expensive and difficult.

Historically, organizations have needed vast resources to maintain themselves.

Whether educational groups, trades unions, political parties or social clubs, organisation has been difficult.

Now it is much easier and cheaper to create new networks

They are however more fluid and arguably often very temporary.

Nevertheless, ORG itself is born from the Internet, from a website pledge, and all of our new supporters join and pay online.

However, here again free association can be disrupted, for instance by private action against facebook groups. And we must, as civil society be extremely aware of the perils of handing much of the way we network to private parties.

Whether Facebook, Meetup, or twitter, a great deal of our social capital is locked up in these services. This has a direct effect on our ability to organize, and the way we organize. We should be cautious about letting ourselves be too dependent, for many practical reasons, and also be cautious about the ability of these private organizations to act in the interest of our freedom of association, when it is threatened.


Threats to our privacy are a major threat, to our free association, our free speech and therefore to the way we exercise and enjoy the benefits of the Internet.

Threats to our privacy undermine our trust.

They shift the power balance between us as individuals, and the state or private companies

Private companies present a specific threat, as they now see data as a commodity. They desire to gather as much information as they can, and to hoard our documents, diaries, social lives, in order to make themselves indispensible to us.

We get these services for free: and we pay with our data. But how many customers of google and Facebook really sat back and understand the loss of privacy that they would face?

The reality is that nobody reads terms and conditions. The company Games Station famously inserted into their terms and conditions, just over two years ago:

By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul. Should We wish to exercise this option, you agree to surrender your immortal soul, and any claim you may have on it, within 5 (five) working days of receiving written notification from or one of its duly authorised minions.

But what do customers do when companies change the rules in ways they don’t like?

It is important that was citizens retain control of our data, our social lives, and yes, indeed, our souls.

This is one area where regulation can actually help.

The new Data Protection Regulation tries to create rules where users can:

  • Get their data back from a service; and
  • Delete their data from a service;
  • Group together with an organization like ORG in order to complain about privacy abuses;
  • Expect serious fines for data breaches
  • Expect the same rules across Europe, avoiding the race to the bottom where the UK and Ireland try to attract US companies through offering weak data protection


The state is another threat to our privacy. As I write, ORG is engaged in a campaign against the CCDP – the plan to capture details of who we talk to online, from Facebook, Google and elsewhere.

The plan may force these companies to hand data over to the government in real time, turning these services into a vast platform of government surveillance.

The justification is that paedophiles and terrorists are caught using communications data.

But frankly, civil society and the more clear thinking of MPs have grown wise to these arguments.

Yes, if you suspect someone, then looking at who they talk to can be very useful and help build a case against them.

But no, you cannot take that principle and apply it to everyone whether or not they are under investigation.

These plans are the latest idea to surface from the UK’s Home Office, which pushed EU-wide data retention of communications traffic data, for the same reasons.

They tried to push for huge databases of communications data under Labour and failed. The Conservatives and Liberal Democracts opposed the idea in opposition, but now seem to be being pushed into the same sorts of plans by the same officials and surveillance technology companies.

This is depressing, but the strong and determined reaction of civil society in the UK is not. Already, thousands of people are contacting their MPs and signing petitions. Large coalitions are gathering without prompting.

People know what surveillance is, and that online surveillance is especially dangerous. Left or right, even in the UK, they do not like it.

Frankly, we had enough of it under Labour. ID cards, giant health databases, DNA databases.

The coalition may have promised austerity, but it also promised an end to expensive and intrusive surveillance.

We have not forgotten.


For civil society, loss of privacy is not merely a loss of control, it threatens some of the fundamental aspects of free speech.

Under the CCDP plans, for instance, it may be possible for a low ranking police officer to investigate who has contacted a journalist.

They could also, potentially, look at the contacts made to an MP.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to see how politicians could avoid being the targets of surveillance, or how whistleblowers could avoid detection.

Traditionally, we think of cases like this as critical for free speech. Are we really going to allow some over the top rhetoric to justify the erosion of our fundamental rights?


I have one last broad topic to cover. That is copyright enforcement

Copyright enforcement is a specific commercial threat to the Internet we know. I say this, while wishing every success to content producers. Yet, as a customer, I know the way you sell goods is to package them attractively, improve the services, and advertise them thoroughly.

Yet movie and music lobby groups treat the Internet as an existential threat, because it allows copying. Their solution is a lawyers’ solution: to create greater regulation of copying.

Everything we do on a computer involves copying. From loading a web page, to moving a file, it is all about copying.

Industry solutions are all about stopping your computer from copying, from DRM, through to special encrypted TV plugs.

Lobbyists’ solutions are also about monitoring what you copy over networks, and censoring websites. The lobby groups propose attacks on the infrastructure of the Internet, to create centralized controls on DNS and domain names.

The result is increasing pressure for state control, censorship and surveillance. This plays ever so well with politicians who have desires for other types of control.

The result is a very dangerous and powerful lobby.


So, is society changing for the better? Is civil society better off in the UK for the Internet? We must conclude that it is.

However, we must look at the Internet from a rights framework.

Otherwise, the Internet can become our prison, it can be censored and controlled.

However, as I’ve tried to show, the value that society ascribes to these new relationships offered by the Internet is extremely high and very obvious.

While street protests, for instance about ACTA, come as a shock to EU politicians, they should not be a surprise.

People have new power and they want to defend it. For this reason, I believe civil society will win the fights we are engaged in to defend our rights.