In this Edition:
Subscribe
Change Edition

The Double-Edged Digital Pen

Photo: Shutterstock

The first complete piece of writing I authored was a four-stanza poem about the seasons. I was seven. In middle school, I started a family newsletter, the Kumar News (it lasted two issues) and wrote 150 pages of a novel about a fantasy land called Mystica (then writer’s block struck). In high school, I worked on television production. I couldn’t wait to study journalism in college.

When orientation day finally arrived, about 12 fellow freshmen and I sat in a stuffy computer lab and signed up for our university email addresses. Immediately, our orientation advisor told us to go to www.thefacebook.com and sign up for an account. “You don’t have to,” he said, but he quickly added that everyone on campus used it.

A few days later, I sat on my bed and scrolled an entire evening away, looking for people to Friend and Groups to join. Because who wanted to start college with a blank profile and empty Wall?

Move-in day came and went, and interspersed between dorm hallway introductions and dining hall conversations came Friend requests. Shortly after the semester started, Facebook rolled out the Photos feature. Now, it wasn’t just about who you (or Facebook) knew, but what you did with them (or how you documented what you did with them).

The first photo I was tagged in was a group picture with eight other students at a leadership club retreat. Three months later, I uploaded my first set of photos, depicting two friends and me checking out cars at the Washington, D.C. auto show.

Initially, my posting habits were restrained — one album for freshman year, one for the summer, another for sophomore year—each carefully crafted to show that I went to basketball games, beach trips, and the occasional night out in the city. But junior year offered more opportunities to share. I posted pictures of a cocktail party held at my apartment (and dealt with some uncomfortable family conversations after my mom found a photo of the drink menu— despite my strict privacy settings  ), as well as several albums showcasing weekend trips I took while studying abroad.

But by senior year, my photo-sharing stopped. Facebook, at that point open to anyone with an email address, wasn’t simply a repository for college shenanigans. I wondered how much I really wanted to keep feeding my life into it. I liked being able to stay in touch with hundreds of people, but I also found it unsettling that any of them could scroll through my profile and read my conversations with friends or see how I spent my weekends.

While my social media use waned as I moved through college, my love of writing deepened. Where class papers and articles for various campus newspapers helped me hone my skills, keeping a blog helped me hone my voice. I had similar privacy concerns about putting information on these platforms, but I felt more in control since I only wrote what I felt comfortable saying in public. Not that I needed to worry, since my audience never reached double digits (except once when a popular media blogger linked to a post of mine about a guest lecture from one of my journalism classes).

After college, I continued lurking on Facebook but adopted Twitter as my social network of choice. I remained fascinated by social media’s meteoric rise from niche to ubiquity, but I was particularly interested in people’s willingness and apparent comfort with sharing information about themselves online. This propelled me into a graduate program in information science to better understand the role that networked digital technology plays in our lives today.

One of my first assignments, a research paper on information policy in Iran, quickly signaled that concerns related to Internet and Web use stretched far beyond parents seeing Facebook pictures. Iran, China, Russia — these were places where governments actively worked to monitor their citizens and block what they could see online.

Weeks before I started an internship that involved researching online censorship and surveillance, I picked up Rebecca MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked. Two lines from the book stick with me to this day:

  • “[N]either Flickr nor any other commercially operated service is required to uphold the First Amendment for American users or Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free expression, for its global users.”

  • “It has also become common practice in Iran to torture people for their Gmail, Yahoo, and Facebook passwords.”

In short, the stakes are high.

During the first week of my internship, the Guardian and Washington Post published bombshell accounts of massive government surveillance based on documents they obtained from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

I was shocked. I’d grown up learning about the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and press, the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unwarranted search and seizure, and the Fifth Amendment’s protection of due process. But it seemed like digital technology was giving each of those protections an asterisk. Put another way, use of digital technology, which had helped me grow as a writer, also threatened the sanctity and security of people and their voices.

I’ve been on the Internet since I was a child. I got my first email address in middle school, and I had awkward, slightly inappropriate tween conversations on AOL Instant Messenger. I was part of the first class of students to have Facebook through my entire college experience. Conventional wisdom says we shouldn’t share anything online that we wouldn’t want the world to know. But the truth is that I’ve grown up online, and I’ve written, posted, shared, and uploaded things I don’t want the world to see. So have most people I know.

Yet all that information is scattered in servers and databases around the world, and I have no idea who can access it. To my knowledge, no one has used the information against me, and I’m grateful for that. But the same isn’t true for others.

Consider Ethiopian blogger Zelalem Workagegenhu and his friends Yonatan Wolde and Bahiru Degu. They spent nearly two years in prison for, in part, planning to participate in an online training about social media and leadership, or, according to the Ethiopian government, a “training operation to terrorize the country.” While Wolde and Degu were acquitted, Workagegenhu was convicted and will be sentenced this month. Or consider Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed, who faces a death sentence for writing an article that was posted on a news site in December 2013. (The site’s editor says the article, which was removed a few days later, was posted mistakenly.) And in Bangladesh, nearly 20 bloggers, activists, and writers have been killed since 2014 (many hacked to death with machetes) for voicing their beliefs.

The Internet and the World Wide Web have made it easier to publish and share information. They have also made it more dangerous. The work I do for Ranking Digital Rights is personal for me because every single person on this planet deserves the right to communicate without fear of reprisal, to communicate as safely and as freely as I did when I wrote that first issue of the Kumar News.

Author:

Priya Kumar was a research analyst with the Ranking Digital Rights project, where she examined online freedom of expression and privacy and helped to manage project-related communication and data.