Will digital rights ever make it to the political mainstream?

Digital rights

Last month I attended the fantastic re:publica event in Berlin. It would be misleading to call it a conference, it is to a conference what Primavera is to a gig. This is the largest digital rights politics event in the world, thousands of attendees, hundreds of sessions. Art, music, culture, talks, sessions, technology, and some of the coolest people I’ve had the privilege of seeing speak to a live audience (I’m looking at you Randall Munroe).

But something struck me when looking at all of these people interested in digital rights subjects that included virtual reality, AI, TTIP, hacking and surveillance, just to name a few. The audience was overwhelmingly young, and there was undoubtedly a bit of a music festival feel to the event, with VIP lounges, beer stalls and merchandise stands. In my experience, seeing an engaged young audiences hearing about ethical hacking or the digital politics issues surrounding the Panama papers is a rarity, and it prompted me to think what is going on with the re:publica audience, is it really a sign of a generation that is more keen on digital politics, or is it just an anomaly caused by the modern Berlin society?

It is very difficult to measure the level of mainstream engagement with digital rights politics. In general, it is quite evident that topics such as net neutrality and digital privacy are not particularly high in the political agenda. Even the most note-worthy topics such as whistleblowing and surveillance do not seem to get the coverage that they deserve; large numbers of people have no idea who Edward Snowden is, and Julian Assange seems to be in most people’s awareness as that guy trapped in a South American embassy. But then again, successful digital campaigns against SOPA/PIPA and ACTA are still paraded as great examples of digital rights politics at their best. Similarly, the Pirate Party has been making waves in the European Parliament, with MEPs like Amelia Andersotter last term, and now with the fabulous Julia Reda. But are these success stories a temporary thing? Are they mostly the result of my filter bubble inhabited by those aware of digital rights? Does anyone care about digital rights outside of a few obsessives?

There is certainly an age divide, when I read what many of my contemporaries are interested in, I notice an increasingly conservative timeline that is uninterested with digital rights. On the other hand, the younger more digitally aware generations may be more technically aware, but they do not vote, which puts the conservative politicians in power. The great measure of this will be during the Brexit vote, with younger voters leaning towards remaining in the EU, while the older more conservative generations favour leaving the EU. As I have discussed elsewhere, a lot of important digital rights issues are tied with EU membership, so this will be an interesting measure of where we stand.

In the end, there may be an argument to be made against a wider engagement in digital rights, they are not as important in the larger scheme of things. Who cares about net neutrality when we are faced with corruption, inequality, terrorism and environmental disaster? But then again, one could argue that digital rights are at the heart of many of those issues. The fight against terrorism has an important digital element. We need to fight surveillance and to protect whistleblowing to fight corruption and inequality. Digital technologies may prove vital in making a greener world.

Digital rights then are a more important element to our overall rights than we may think.

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