Debating digital rights at OrgCon North
Brian Pellot: Debating digital rights at OrgCon North
15 Apr 13

Digital rights activists from around the UK met in Manchester for Open Rights Group’s first ever ORGCon North on Saturday.

John Buckman, chair of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), delivered the keynote speech: “Britain, under the thumb of…”

He filled in the blank with references to the copyright industry, the new Royal Charter on press regulation, overreaching child protection restrictions, the EU, the US, and private web companies, all of which pose significant challenges to digital freedom of expression in the UK.

The rest of the day was split between four panel sessions and eight impromptu “unconference” sessions for which participants pitched ideas and convened small groups to discuss them.

I spoke on a panel about the right to offend, alongside ORG’s Peter Bradwell and The Next Web’s Martin Bryant. Overly broad and outdated legislation, most notably Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act and Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act, are regularly used to criminalise freedom of expression both online and offline in the UK. Despite a successful campaign to drop “insulting” words from the grounds on which someone can be prosecuted for offence under Section 5, the fact that neither of these provisions address the speaker’s (or tweeter’s) intentions continues to chill freedom of expression in the UK.

Also troubling is the fact that other states, India and the UAE for example, point to these and other British laws as justification to prosecute offensive expression in their own jurisdictions. I argued that protecting everyone’s fundamental right to freedom of expression is more important than protecting the feelings of a few people who might take offense to satirical, blasphemous or otherwise unsavoury views. For freedom of expression to be preserved in society, potentially offensive expression requires the utmost protection.

Another panel addressed the proposed EU General Data Protection Regulation, which intends to strengthen existing privacy principles set out in 1995 and harmonise individual member states’ laws on data protection. Provisions in the proposal around consent, data portability and the “right to be forgotten” aim to give users greater control of their personal data and hold companies more accountable for their use of it. Many companies that rely on user data oppose the regulation and have been lobbying hard against it with the UK government on their side whereas some privacy advocates argue it does not go far enough.

There were also discussions on the open rights implications of copyright legislation and the UK’s Draft Communications Data bill (AKA Snooper’s Charter), which looks set to make a comeback in the Queen’s speech on May 8.

The “unconference” sessions addressed specific causes for concern around digital rights in the UK and abroad. I participated in a session on strategies for obtaining government data in the UK and another on the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) Amendments Act of 2008. This Act, along with the Protect America Act of 2007 legalised warrantless wiretapping of foreign intelligence targets. Digital rights activists took notice of the laws because the rise of cloud computing means even internal UK and EU data is potentially susceptible to US surveillance mechanisms.

Other “unconference” sessions focused on anonymity, password security, companies’ terms of service, activism and medical confidentiality.

The full OrgCon North agenda is available here. ORG’s national conference will take place on 8 June and will feature EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow who wrote the much circulated and cited “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in 1996.

Brian Pellot is Digital Policy Adviser for Index on Censorship. Follow him @brianpellot

By Brian Pellot

Brian Pellot is Director of Global Strategy and Religious Freedom Editor @RNS. Formerly @indexcensorship & @onfreespeech.