Sally Burch: “Digital Data Should Be Owned by the Community that Generates It”

08/08/2022 |

By Capire

Journalist Sally Burch gives interview on the challenges and achievements of the agenda for the democratization of the internet

Treating internet monopolies as something that is not natural is the first step to struggle for the democratization of this virtual space that we use for so many tasks in our lives. Changing the internet model to make it sovereign, community-based, and accessible is fundamental to democratize communications and build processes of grassroots feminist communications from collective struggles. We invited the journalist Sally Burch to share stories and perspectives about international grassroots organizing for the democratization of the internet. Sally spoke about processes of struggle from the 1980s to this day. She also shared the challenges posed to tackle big digital corporations and the digital transformation of labor, social relations, health care, and agriculture.

Sally Burch was born and raised in England. She then moved to Canada, where she studied journalism and started to organize with the feminist movement, taking part in the establishment of the Latin American Information Agency (Agencia Latinoamericana de Información—ALAI). ALAI was established in 1977 in Canada by journalists in exile from the dictatorships in the Southern Cone, and it has been active since, publishing articles, magazines, and other materials from a Latin American perspective.

Sally lives in Ecuador since 1983. Since the early 1990s, she has been contributing to the militant discussions and uses of the internet. With ALAI, she has supported the creation of the first email node of Ecuador, fostering the use of emails in feminist organizing efforts. “It was a very interesting process, because it was the first experience of using new digital technologies to connect organizations, so that they could organize with each other and learn more about what each one was doing. Women took a leading role in this,” she argues. She is currently part of the group that promotes the Citizen Internet (Internet Ciudadana)initiative.

Could you talk about the story of organizing for the democratization of the internet? How has this process happened over the years?

ALAI has always been concerned about fostering the right to the democratization of communications. Since the early 1990s, we have been building a movement around this along with other grassroots outlets. This is what has allowed us to, among other things, create a global campaign around the World Summit on the Information Society and allowed us to take a rights approach to it, as it had been originally conceived from a very technological standpoint.

Also, we have always been part of the movement for communication rights in Latin America, with legislation such as the one passed in Ecuador, which recognized communications as a right in the Constitution. In 2013, with a group of organizations, the Forum on Communication for the Integration of Our America [Foro de Comunicación para la Integración de NuestrAmérica—FCINA) was established—the World March of Women also took part in it. The forum’s pillar was the democratization of communications and regional integration, and it is still active. It was the FCINA that first started to promote the Internet Ciudadana initiative, around four years ago.

While twenty years ago we were thinking about how to connect and use the internet as a factor to democratize communications, now our concern is, above all, to stop digital technologies from becoming a factor of privatization of communications through big platforms. Our spaces of communication, organization, education, and work are completely controlled by these big corporate platforms.

The digital is changing everything, not just communications: it is changing politics, our relationships, science, health care, education, and agriculture.

Regarding the universe of censorship, disinformation, monopolies, and control, you were talking about how several sectors of life are ruled by big corporations. Can you pinpoint specific agents?

The powerful sectors are always aiming to control communications, because this is a way to control people’s minds and hearts. This is what the United State actually says, so that we cannot build resistance against the policies and the economic model that affect us. For these sectors, democracy is not important. Democracy serves them as long as there are people to legitimize them, but it is not real, participatory democracy. For these powerful sectors, democratizing communications represents a big threat. Fifty years ago, at UNESCO, there was a proposal to acknowledge communication rights as human rights. In face of that, the United States and the United Kingdom withdrew from UNESCO, because they considered it unacceptable.

It is clear that those who have more economic resources have greater capacity to manipulate both media spaces and the cyberspace, using trolls, surveillance, and many other forms. This often happens for political reasons, aiming to influence voters’ decisions, and they do not care if it means spreading lies, as long as they reach their goal.

Currently, more than governments, the sectors with political power are the big technology companies, known as GAFAM: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. Sometimes these companies’ interests coincide with the interests of powerful governments, particularly the US, but deep down what we say or do on the internet does not matter much, as long as they can continue to gather more and more data, which is the basis of this economic model. Facebook has realized that scandal and hatred on its platforms generate more reactions and, therefore, more data. It is a new economic model that is usually called surveillance capitalism, and it is trying to shape our behavior.

And from our side, how do you see the relationship between building grassroots communications and working through the internet evolving? How can we connect struggles and establish this relationship without losing sight of a critical view?

To look back in history a bit, since the 1990s it has been observed that the new possibilities offered by the internet for communications at a larger scale and with cheaper and more accessible geographical reach could create conditions for true democratization. Not just the alternative and grassroots communications movement took a new direction, but also many social organizations realized how important it was to adopt this technology. The internet has really been fundamental to building regional and global social movements—the World March of Women and La Via Campesina actually started to have forms of connections. Before that, there were just sporadic contacts between organizing experiences from different countries.

In this sense, the establishment of the Information Minga[1] of Social Movements [Minga Informativa de Movimientos Sociales] was significant to think about and develop joint practices. It was an opportunity to discuss communications in grassroots movements. In this conversation, it was pointed out that it was necessary to move from means to ends. To understand that means of communication are not ends themselves, but means to achieve the ends of the organization.

This involves thinking about communications from the perspective of policies and strategies. How do we influence the battle of ideas? With what discourse? Using what kind of language? And who are we aiming to reach? For women, for example, how to include a gender perspective into the public conversation? How to understand what patriarchy is and why it is important to fight it?

The Minga has also been important for being a shared platform, which expanded our visibility, and our own space, controlled by ourselves, for safety and autonomy. But what is happening now? A significant part of grassroots communications is now moving to the so-called digital social media. This is no longer our own space, that we control. This implies depending on the visibility granted by the platforms. We are forced to use the techniques that the digital social media experts recommend to us. We lose control, do a very ephemeral communication, and risk our historical memory and ability to reflect on social and political processes. And when our struggle becomes significant and takes space on social media, they delete our account.

At Internet Ciudadana, what we propose is that grassroots organizations explore the use of free technologies in their internal communications. They are safer, offer more privacy, and don’t steal our data. But that does not mean disregarding that, if we can raise awareness of this control through technology, it will also be possible to consolidate free platforms as a space for broader discussion and interaction as well.

Do you think the internet should be a common good? How can we achieve that?

The internet was created with this character of being a common good. Well, it was born in a military space, but it was developed by the academy and social entities by the end of the 1980s, and then it was distorted by corporate appropriation. It is true that companies managed to make it more friendly as technology, and this has allowed it to expand. But today it is becoming a key space for information, communication, education, and much more. This is why it must be considered a public good, and it should be managed as such, but how to get there remains a complex challenge. There are some precedents, such as common lands and the knowledge, but the digital is very new and responds to different parameters.

We believe that the law should consider that data should be owned by the community that produces it. And in the case of private data, they should be individually and inviolably owned. How can we achieve legislation in this sense? The first challenge is to raise more awareness of this. To start a broad social conversation about this topic, which the peoples should take on: the data is ours, not theirs.

In these struggles to democratize communications and the internet, how do you see the contributions of women and feminism?

When preparing for the World Conference on Women in Beijing, in 1995, along with many organizations, we proposed that we should not only be concerned about the image of women on the media, but more than that, women must be the protagonists of communications. We must be actors, and not just subjects of communications.

We, as women, can take on a relevant leadership role promoting the use of free technologies, we can campaign against hate speech, we can struggle for our digital rights and the internet as a common good. We need to think not only about how the internet affects women, but how, as women, we can have proposals from a feminist perspective for society.

Are women more strongly undertaking the task of being protagonists in grassroots communication collectives and alternative means of communication?

I think so. The fact that now, in the past twenty years, a convergence has been achieved between social movements—the fact that the World March of Women works very closely with La Via Campesina, for example—has led to greater permeability between demands from one movement to the other. The Continental Campaign Against the FTAA, for which there was a lot of work between different sectors, also contributed to that. When we have greater permeability, it becomes easier for women to take on greater leadership positions regarding different topics.

To build this international and grassroots agenda for the internet, do you think the concept of technological sovereignty should be strengthened, as well as proposals for food sovereignty or energy sovereignty built by grassroots movements?

This is certainly one of the demands we are putting forward. Technological sovereignty has both an individual—that is sovereignty itself— and a collective meaning. In Latin American countries—maybe in Brazil at some points, in Argentina at others—, there have been efforts to develop technological sovereignty. When we addressed the challenge of regional integration at the FCINA, one of the challenges we addressed was thinking about technological sovereignty, so that we would not have that dependence.

Most communications through the internet in Latin America go through the United States. When I send you a message, it is triagulated in the United States and surveilled including by its security service. Therefore, the least we should have is a South American fiber-optic network, so that communications happen within the region, but not even that has been achieved. We need regulations for that, and the data to allow sovereignty to become concrete. Otherwise, it is just a new form of colonization: a digital colonization.

[1] “Minga” means community collective organization in Quechuan language, spoken by peoples in the Andean region.

Interview conducted by Helena Zelic
Translated from Portuguese by Aline Scátola
Original language: Spanish

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