Digitalcourage Reveals: You are Not a Free Person

An introduction with commentary by Ralph Keller

digitalcourage (they spell their name this way) is an activist group based in Germany that advocates for and aims to protect what they perceive as the fundamental rights of free people in a digitally-connected world. It is an interesting group because digitalcourage understands the issues that arise in a capitalist society whose individuals are connected through the internet.

Although, as will be seen, the main aim of the activists is to manage life under capitalism as opposed to fundamentally changing that life, some beginnings of revolutionary thought can be identified in digitalcourage’s activism. This is because the group recognises that networked individuals in a capitalist society struggle against a new form of domination, which I am terming alienated digitalization and networking. But first things first. I will start with an overview of the group’s themes.

The group’s website states the following in English:

About digitalcourage

Digitalcourage works for a liveable world in the digital age. Since 1987, digitalcourage (previously named FoeBuD) advocates for fundamental rights, privacy and protecting personal data. We are a group of people from a variety of backgrounds who explore technology and politics with a critical mindset, and who want to shape both with a focus on human dignity.

We do not want our democracy to be “datafied” and sold out. We work against a society that turns people into targets for marketing, regards them as dispensable in times of a shrinking state, and places them under suspicion as potential terrorists. We stand for a living democracy.

Digitalcourage informs through publicity, speeches, events and congenial interventions. Every year we bestow the German Big Brother Awards (“Oscars for data leeches”). We contribute our expertise to the political process– sometimes without being invited.

The key statement of interest is that ‘[w]e do not want our democracy “datafied” and sold out. We work against a society that turns people into targets for marketing … and places them under suspicion as potential terrorists.’ This is also a summary of digitalcourage’s themes, which revolve around fighting unwarranted retention and non-transparent use of personal data. The following list provides a more detailed summary. (Unfortunately, the articles referenced from digitalcourage’s website are only available in German.)

  1. Data retention without consent by German telecommunications service providers. “Zombie-Law—back from the dead”; the German High Court as well as EU High Court have both ruled summarily against data retention. And yet conservative politicians are still trying to implement such a law (https://digitalcourage.de/vorratsdatenspeicherung).
  2. Networked health data. Worth billions to insurers and the IT industry: (https://digitalcourage.de/gesundheitsdaten).
  3. Public video surveillance. Who records and who receives the data for what purpose? Penalties for misuse and data protection breaches are laughably small (https://digitalcourage.de/videoueberwachung).
  4. Online/internet data. ‘Personalized’ ads, ‘location’ services, and ‘scoring’ of people—‘big brother’ is watching (https://digitalcourage.de/google-facebook-co).
  5. ‘Radio Frequency Identification’ (https://digitalcourage.de/rfid) refers to miniature chips with an antenna. This technology enables ‘smart everything’ (https://digitalcourage.de/smart-everything), for example product identification. After sale, the chip remains active inside the product and allows more tracking.
  6. Schemes and intrigues of the secret services (https://digitalcourage.de/staat-und-geheimdienste). Surveillance and monitoring are justified using spurious arguments. Brave whistleblowing has laid bare worldwide espionage activities, especially by the US services, often in cooperation with the German services.
  7. Free trade agreements (https://digitalcourage.de/handelsabkommen). The aim of establishing privatised jurisprudence and jurisdiction involves extensive use of private data. Data trading stands above data protection. digitalcourage argues instead that fundamental liberties are not negotiable. Civil liberties must be protected from being sold out.

 

A commentary on these themes

“Zombie-Law—back from the dead” is a rather appropriate title of the article cited aboe on data retention by telecommunications providers. Although two courts have ruled summarily against conversation-data retention, some German politicians are still trying to implement a ‘conform’ law. So why do these politicians keep trying to make a law that legitimizes conversation-data retention? Is the fight against terrorism and other crime the true reason? Is it really that ‘security is a super-right’, as Germany’s interior secretary, Hans-Peter Friedrich of the very conservative Christian Socialist Union party, has claimed?

digitalcourage has serious doubts, but an alleged super-right does not seem to be the real issue here. What seems to matter more are people’s personal liberties, as the court rulings have made clear. The simple formula of the rulings was that blanket data-retention, without probable cause, places everyone under general suspicion of being a criminal—a fact that is irreconcilable with the long fought-for freedom of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. This freedom is so fundamental that is has become the cornerstone of Western criminal codes! The court rulings have therefore sent a strong message back to Friedrich that there is no such animal as a ‘super-right’, as his mantra of ‘security’ claims.

The legal rulings should also have been a strong enough message for any other policy-maker. So why are some of them still at it? There may, actually, be a reason besides the proclaimed prevention of terrorism and other crime. digitalcourage does not say this in the context of telecommunications data-retention, but the other reason may be the benefits associated with having people’s communications data at one’s disposal. One of the recent scandals in this respect was revealed by Edward Snowden. Specifically, he revealed that US secret services monitor the phone calls of Germans, for the purpose of industrial espionage—despite the conversations being spied on having nothing to do with security. When seen in this light, it is my view that the secret services may not listen to the conversations themselves, but may ‘just ask’ for the data to be made available by the telecommunications companies. Communications data can then be sold to the highest bidder, while no one knows what is happening with the data. This, if true, would constitute a criminal offence under German law.

Similarly, and this is what digitalcourage says itself, digitalized personal information is used commercially without the consent of people. This is the case with health. Add to this “Radio Frequency Identification” for goods legally purchased. This identification allows location tracking, scoring, personalized ads–all without the person’s consent. Or take Facebook or email data, which is worth billions to some buyers; or the free trade agreements which also make extensive use of personal data. This covert trading goes on without the person whose data is being traded ever giving consent nor getting paid a penny for having his or her data ‘taken’.

Many people do not worry, or even care, about these issues. But a statement in digitalcourage’s article on video surveillance hits the nail on the head: “One who is being watched is not free” (my translation, emphasis added). This is true even if one does not care; it is the simple reality of the capitalist society we live in.

But why is this the case, why is one not free? The answer seems obvious in a way. But in another way, drawing on Marx’s thinking about alienated labour, the answer is less obvious. This form of alienation means that, when workers do not own the means of production, they have control over neither the process of production nor the product of their work. This lack of control creates a condition in which process and product increasingly dominate powerless workers—they thus become alienated from product and process.

I argue that the same experience arises from the issues that digitalcourage struggles against. Expressed differently, it can be concluded that individuals in a capitalist society increasingly struggle against a new form of domination, which affects their lives but over which they have no control: people are being controlled and dominated by, and thereby alienated from, digitalization and networking. To recognize that “one who is being watched is not free” might, therefore, be considered revolutionary thinking. But is this really the case? To answer this question, a look at the methods with which digitalcourage fights this new form of alienation is required.

 

A commentary on digitalcourage’s methods and activities

The group’s website explains these methods and activities in some detail. Specifically, digitalcourage is currently planning a constitutional complaint (Verfassungsbeschwerde) against the so-called ‘State Trojan’, a piece of snooping software from the German secret service that is—secretly, without the user’s consent—installed on personal computers. Making a constitutional complaint is, therefore, an example of digitalcourage’s activity of taking legal action in the public interest. The objective of this method is to force policy-makers to act in the users’ interests, which constitutes an example of managing life under capitalism. Further examples along those lines are listed, in English, at https://digitalcourage.de/en/:

  • Supporting political engagement
  • Building a Europe-wide Network of Activists
  • Participation in Congresses and Conventions

These methods and activities appear to be non-revolutionary because they intend to preserve the status quo but in a format which satisfies people’s interests. In contrast, however, one of the listings on digitalcourage’s website does not do so: Self-Defence and Education. This activity aims to empower people to help themselves; it is about giving people the tools and the knowledge to defend themselves against data collection and use without their consent. digitalcourage writes, in English:

We provide information, recommendations and practical advice for digital self-defence to make people’s digital lives more private and free.

The idea that people should take care of their own affairs indeed constitutes a beginning of revolutionary thinking, because it moves away from the current reality in which political parties or elected representatives should—but do not—act on behalf of people’s interests. digitalcourage’s themes, as discussed, clearly show that this reality is a barrier to the interests of those who oppose alienated digitalization and networking. Empowering people to defend themselves, and thus enabling people to represent their interests by themselves, is clearly a new way to approach the use of technology.

Putting the empowerment of people into practice shows a beginning of revolutionary thinking also in another sense: overcoming the separation of thinking and doing that is so pervasive under capitalism. Instead of having an ‘elite’ group of people that does the thinking, and then having another group of people for the doing, empowered people both think and do themselves—there is no separation. These are the seeds of the kind of society which Marx and Engels had envisaged in The German Ideology. It is a society in which digital infrastructure in particular—and the instruments of production in general—no longer dominate people; people instead control these instruments and the infrastructure. This is a society in which human beings truly are free.

However, to present truly revolutionary thinking, one would have to acknowledge that the capitalistic use of digital communications and network infrastructure must be uprooted. This requires a fundamental change away from the private ownership that enables value production and, therefore, the insatiable striving for profit. digitalcourage has not arrived at this insight, but has seen the consequences that arise from the capitalistic use of digital infrastructure: you are not a free person.

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