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Cyberspace Visionary: Ron Deibert in Conversation with Josh Bloch

Ron Deibert is one of the most important and prominent figures defending human rights and free expression in the rapidly shifting frontier of media and technology.

He is the director of the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies and the Citizen Lab research centre at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

Deibert has written numerous articles and books on technology and world politics including Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering (2008), Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace (2010) and Access Contested: Security, Identity, and Resistance in Asian Cyberspace (2011).

Josh Bloch spoke with Deibert in June 2012. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

J.B. How did you first get involved in freedom of expression and human rights?

R.D. I’ve always been pretty passionate about free expression and access to information and privacy. But it was only in the course of my research into what content governments can control online — a very practical and empirical question — did I begin to understand that the space which we call “cyberspace” is becoming an object of intense struggle. And the human rights which we take for granted online — which we think are kind of magically connected to the technology — are very fragile and under threat.

J.B. What made you decide to create the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto?

R.D. The aim of the Citizen Lab was to bring together researchers who had different skill sets from different disciplines to work on common projects under the rubric of human rights and cyberspace and global security. It was my first attempt to do something collaborative and practical and interdisciplinary. Up until that point, I had been a traditional academic who tended to work in a silo as a lone academic.

J.B. That was back in 2001, and Citizen Lab seemed to quickly gain momentum. What was that process like for you?

R.D. I am not so sure it was quick. At the beginning of Citizen Lab, we asked, “How do we exploit these new technologies to mobilize citizens to exercise their human rights?” But then we started getting into this almost forensic research. The people who came to the lab came with computer and networking skills, and I had an interest in security issues, especially in information technology surveillance and signals intelligence. We married those things through collaborative partnerships with other universities to build a research program on what I have described as lifting the lid on the Internet.

J.B. When did your focus turn to international issues?

R.D. There were a couple key touchstones. One would be the founding of the OpenNet Initiative which I helped build and create in 2002. The aim of that project was to document patterns of Internet censorship worldwide. That’s when we started doing our first reports on China and Saudi Arabia and Iran. I think the next big area for us was when we started exploring the tools that people use to get around Internet censorship. We developed a software called Psiphon which was released in December 2006. And shortly thereafter we released Everyone’s Guide to By-Passing Internet Censorship which was translated into different languages. Those, I think, put us on the media radar.

J.B. How has the battle to protect free expression and human rights online changed over the past decade?

R.D. The context has changed dramatically just in the last few years. Many more governments are now cognizant of cyberspace; they have cybersecurity strategies. Within the armed forces, they are maybe developing capabilities to equip themselves to fight and win wars through the medium of cyberspace. The cybercrime underworld has exploded because so many more people are sharing information and using new modes of communicating — such as cloud computing and social networking and mobile — that only three or four years ago were barely noticeable. All of that together has really changed the dynamics of cyberspace.

On top of that, you have a really concerted debate on the governance of cyberspace that is much more intense now than it was even two or three years ago. I think we are at a watershed moment when the rules of the road of cyberspace are being written. I fear that we may look back 10 years from now and say there was a brief moment when we had this open global platform for citizen-to-citizen communication, and it became progressively territorialized and nationalized.

J.B. What is the Canadian government’s role in this shift?

R.D. I think the Canadian government is slow to develop a comprehensive approach to cyberspace. We are not among the countries that are aggressively defending and debating a vision of cyberspace as an open and secure commons of information. It’s unfortunate because I think as a country we have a long historical experience with communications and telecommunications and communications theory. It goes back to Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan and William Gibson — the father of cyberspace. So it’s unfortunate that we are not more assertively defining and defending a vision of global cyberspace that protects human rights.

J.B. Is the biggest threat to cybersecurity coming from governments or corporations?

R.D. When it comes to threats, I’m not sure how one would weigh one institution against another. But we are delegating control over a large volume of personal data to private companies. [The situation] today is fundamentally different than it was five or 10 years ago. This very phone call we are having is likely being stored and recorded somewhere. However long it is archived really depends on the private company and its terms of service.

So our experiences are mediated by the private sector which owns the vast majority of cyberspace. If they don’t properly secure their networks, our private information could be vulnerable. But more importantly, if they are required to retain and share that information with law enforcement intelligence without proper oversight, our basic freedoms are put at peril. I think we have to very carefully understand the ecosystem that we have created and that we have consented to and that we participate in.

J.B. What are you doing next?

R.D. We just finished a workshop in Latin America. That was eyeopening for us because the context and the challenges in Latin America for human rights are very different. I can’t say it’s exciting. It’s horrific in some respects because the violence in that part of the world is so endemic. The threats to free expression in that part of the world — especially in Mexico and Honduras — don’t come from the government or the private sector; they come from organized crime. That’s a new challenge that we’re going to have to deal with.

J.B. How is Internet freedom an issue of freedom of expression and freedom to read?

R.D. Whatever vehicle we use to communicate to exchange information or deliberate, we need to ensure that it is properly structured and monitored in a way that creates the greatest latitude for free expression. The challenges are constantly changing. So in the environment that we live in today, where the primary means of communicating information are online and mediated by third parties now subject to greater government control, it’s essential that we try our best to monitor what is going on and then protect and preserve a vision of cyberspace that is decentralized and distributed as a bulwark for human rights worldwide.

Reprinted from Freedom to Read 2013