Geeks: The Unexpected Champions Of Human Rights

20th November, 2015, in Geeks, Free Speech, Privacy, Human Rights.


Normally it’s ‘the prisoners’ who want the vote, or ‘the criminals’ who can’t be sent back to their country, or even ‘the terrorists’ who just want to know the evidence against them who are paraded alongside emotive newspaper headlines blaming 'human rights'.

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Needless to say, those minimum rights normally get shot down in flames by some newspapers under the impression that their articles will be well received by their readers because of the ‘unworthy’ champions paraded alongside them. But what if you switch champions? What about the geeks, nerds and weirdos? 

You see, the secret thing is, when someone we trust - someone who set up a social app, or who uses one exactly the same way we do – when they challenge something it’s easier for us to empathise. We listen to the things that the founders of Google, Wikipedia and Apple have to say. We like their stuff. We like their ethos. And if they say something's wrong, we can instantly understand why it's wrong when it's embeded in the things we are familiar with and use everyday.

Where the geeks lead within these companies, the companies follow, and then we will follow them.

When the US tried to introduce the Online Piracy Act (OPA) so they could shut websites down willy-nilly for potential copyright infringement, Aaron Swartz, one of the founders of Reddit, was key in leading the charge in the STOP, or the ‘S’ in SOPA, campaign. A true geek who saw the future before most of us could ever hope to, and who saw immediately the draconian effect of this proposed legislation on the right to free speech. Not a prisoner, a terrorist or a criminal but a key player in one of the biggest social networking and media apps around. A geek, defending the right to free speech. Others soon followed.

Online information giant Wikipedia, which made up whole percentages of all web traffic on its own, went black - it actually stopped working. Google blacked out its logo.

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Fearing a mass public outcry (i.e. a massive drop in popularity) the Bill, which had previously enjoyed enormous support in the Senate, found senators flipping sides almost overnight. Tragically, faced with a Federal Prosecutor hell-bent on prosecuting him for downloading legal cases, material that he thought should be freely available, Aaron committed suicide aged just 27 years old. (If you want to know more, “The Internet’s Own Boy” documentary on Netflix is a good place to start). You see, where the geeks had led, the big companies that they ran or worked with followed, and the electorate followed them.

We even try ourselves. Just look at the number of people who posted this copyright notice on their Facebook page, a notice relating to their privacy. It doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but look at the millions that did it anyway.

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The real issue here, of your right to your own information - or data privacy - became the very basis of a case the whole world heard about bought by Max Schrems (who has ten thousand twitter followers) when he challenged Facebook’s right to send our data back to the US, based on Edward Snowden’s leak that intelligence services can access whatever they like whenever they like (Edward Snowden incidentally has 1.65 million followers).

So why is any of this important to the UK?

Here's why: the government says it is necessary to introduce the #IPbill (Investigatory Powers Bill) which will require companies like Apple or Facebook to record our every move on the internet and mobile apps for up to twelve months.

Tim Cook, Head of Apple, said it will 'hurt' good people and Edward Snowden has said it is the ‘most intrusive and least accountable surveillance regime in the west’. The Bill might even have the side effect of banning apps which use encryption like iMessage and WhatsApp, things that we use everyday.  We can hardly expect the geeks not to speak out. 

And when they do, we tend to listen.

"If your culture doesn't like geeks, you are in real troube." - Bill Gates



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