Speaking Freely: Ron Deibert

Deeplinks 2023-11-29


Ron Deibert is a Canadian professor of political science, a philosopher, an author, and the founder of the renowned Citizen Lab, situated in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He is perhaps best known to readers for his research on targeted surveillance, which won the Citizen Lab a 2015 EFF Award. I had the pleasure of working with Ron early on in my career on another project he co-founded, the OpenNet Initiative, a project that documented internet filtering (blocking) in more than 65 countries, and his mentorship and work has been incredibly influential for me. We sat down for an interview to discuss his views on free expression, its overlaps with privacy, and much more.

York: What does free expression mean to you?

The way that I think about it is from the perspective of my profession, which is as a professor. And at the core of being an academic is the right…the imperative, to speak freely. Free expression is a foundational element of what it is to be an academic, especially when you’re doing the kind of academic research that I do. So that’s the way I think about it. Even though I’ve done a lot of research on threats to free expression online and various sorts of chilling effects that I can talk about…for me personally, it really boils down to this. I recognize it’s a privileged position: I have tenure, I’m a full-time professor at an established university…so I feel that I have an obligation to speak freely. And I don’t take that for granted because there’s so many parts of the world where the type of work that we do, the things that we speak about, just wouldn’t be allowed.

York: Tell me about an early experience that shaped your views on free expression or brought you to the work that you do. 

The recognition that there were ways in which governments—either on their own or with internet service providers—were putting in place filtering mechanisms to prevent access to content. When we first started in the early 2000s there was still this mythology around the internet that it would be a forum for free expression and access to information. I was skeptical. Coming from a security background, with a familiarity with intelligence practices, I thought: this wasn’t going to be easy. There’ll be lots of ways in which governments are going to restrict free speech and access to information. And we started discovering that and systematically mapping it. 

That was one of the first projects at the Citizen Lab: documenting internet censorship. There was one other time, that was probably in the late 2000s where I think you and Helmi Noman...I remember you talking about the ways in which internet censorship has an impact on content online. In other words, what he meant is that if websites are censored, after a while they realize there’s no point in maintaining them because their principal audience is restricted from accessing that information and so they just shut it down. That always stuck in my head. Later, Jon Penney started doing a lot of work on how surveillance affects freedom of expression. And again there, I thought that was an interesting, kind of not so obvious connection between free expression and censorship.

York: You shifted streams awhile back from a heavy focus on censorship to surveillance research. How do you view the connection between censorship and surveillance, free expression, and privacy?

They’re all a mix. I see this as a highly contested space. You have contestation occurring from different sectors of society. So governments are obviously trying to manage and control things. And when governments are towards the more authoritarian end of the spectrum they’re obviously trying to limit free expression and access to information and undertake surveillance in order to constrain popular democratic participation and hide what they’re doing. And so now we see that there’s an extraordinary toolkit available to them, most of it coming from the private sector. And then with the private sector you have different motivations, usually driven principally by business considerations. Which can end up – often in unintended ways – chilling free expression. 

The example I think of is, if social media platforms loosen the reins over what is acceptable speech or not and allow much more leeway in terms of the types of content that people can post – including potentially hateful, harmful content – I have seen on the other end of that, speaking to victims of surveillance, that they’re effectively intimidated out of the public sphere. They feel threatened, they don’t want to communicate. And that’s because of perhaps something t



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Jillian C. York

Date tagged:

11/29/2023, 15:56

Date published:

11/29/2023, 14:06