Tagged Guillén Torres

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Guillén at The Expert Session on Human Rights Defenders

Author: Guillén Torres

On Monday 9th of October, I was very happy to participate in the Expert Session on Human Rights Defenders, organized by Justice and Peace Netherlands. The goal of the event was to reflect upon the role that Data (Big and Small) can play in the defense of Human Rights around the world.

The workshop was also a platform for the presentation of the Index of Human Rights Defenders, developed jointly by Justice and Peace and the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. This new index aims to facilitate the identification of tangible actions that are needed to improve precarious situations for human rights defenders worldwide.

My intervention was centered on strategies to turn (Big) Data into policy recommendations, which is one of the interests of the DATACTIVE project. Since there is currently no general agreement on a specific methodology to achieve this goal, I decided to prepare an exploratory talk to share recent findings in academic research on the topics of evidence-informed public policy and Big Data. In addition, I proposed the participants to colonize the field of Business Analytics, which has been very productive in developing various frameworks for the production of Actionable Insights out of Big Data but focuses almost exclusively on the creation of economic value.

I was lucky enough to present next to Hisham Almirat, a research associate at Datactive, and Hyeong-sik Yoo, from HURIDOCS, who shared with the participants of the workshop thoughts and techniques on ethical data collection.

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DATACTIVE at the DMI Summer School 17 on the accessibility of open data portals

From the 3rd until the 7th of July, Guillen, Umberto, and Jeroen of the DATACTIVE team participated in the Digital Methods Initiative Summer School 2017. They conducted a one-week research around the question as to how to assess accessibility of government-facilitated open data portals. Just a glimpse of the final report (to be published soon on the DMI wiki):

Open Data Portals are one of the main ways in which data users and data providers interact. The goal of this project was to identify mechanisms to assess the accessibility of Data Portals using Digital Methods. The project was particularly focused on tracing alternative voices to the ubiquitous celebration of Open Data, for two reasons: on the one hand, searching for contestation by both users and developers was considered as a good starting point to locate the shortcomings of Data Portals, and on the other, we were interested in identifying what elements of the critical discourse about the Open Data phenomenon (such as that built by Jo Bates) could be specifically connected to Data Portals.”

For more information, please find the presentation on the topic.

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[blog] A RightsCon2017 Post-Mortem: Hot in the digital rights agenda

On March 29-31, three brave members of the DATACTIVE team—Davide, Guillen and Stefania, respectively—descended on the lively city of Brussels to attend RightsCon 2017. The RightsCon Summit Series, organized by the US-based non-governmental organization Access Now, is a yearly event bringing together digital rights activists and practitioners with the tech industry. Brussels 2017 was RightsCon’s 4th edition—earlier editions took place in Silicon Valley (2014 and 2016) and Manila, the Philippines (2015). The rich program of RightsCon 2017 counted 21 conference tracks (!), touching upon a wide variety of subjects that mirrored the complex ecosystem of actors and agendas striving for an open and free internet.

Throughout three busy days of this 2017 edition, we had the chance to mingle with activists, researchers, journalists, the industry and law enforcement gathered to collectively think about the future of the internet. We organized our own panel on ‘Resisting Content Regulation in the Post-Truth Age’ in collaboration with Vidushi Marda from the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India. The panel opened the track ‘The truth is out there’: full house and lively conversation, bringing together the industry, journalism, academia, and multilateral organizations like OSCE. (What this space: a dedicated post will be online soon!). But we also had two other goals in mind. First, we wanted to take advantage of RightsCon’s ability to bring under one roof people from all over the world, with different backgrounds and distinct visions regarding the interplay between the digital and human rights, to make the best of collective learning and look for potential collaboration. Second, we intended to listen to and collect the voices from various projects and organizations currently working towards a free and open internet—in particular, of course, we wanted to swap thoughts with data activists! While we are still re-elaborating the outcome of these conversations, here we provide some reflections on what bubbles in the great minds participating that gathered this year in Brussels. What were the hot topics of RightsCon 2017?

#1 Fake News Fake News Fake News
Although the topic of fake news was dedicated a conference track of its own, the debate was not confined to those panels alone—rather, it permeated several other discussions, too. This is not surprising given the close connection between this fuzzy notion and other topics discussed at RightsCon, such as algorithms, freedom of expression, openness, and transparency. Interestingly, participants seemed to agree on one starting point: what constitutes ‘fake news’ is extremely difficult to determine, and the very same label should probably be abandoned since neither tech corporations nor governments should decide what constitutes ‘truth’ today. In this sense, although the problem of fake news could be tackled both by platforms themselves (for example, by implementing algorithmic curation) or by state institutions (for instance, by creating regulatory legal frameworks), either solution could easily turn into politically motivated censorship. Our own panel, for one, argued that many amongst politicians, experts and the general public are in fact advocating for the wrong fixes to the problem, e.g. content regulation on and by platforms.

However, we did not leave the conference without any suggestions to tackle such a pressing issue. On the contrary, some of the proposals were actually quite far-reaching. For example, it was suggested that although fake news is not entirely a new phenomenon, they have recently turned into a powerful money-making machine due to the fact that economic incentives promote ‘clicks’ and quantity over quality. How can we promote change in the ‘market’ of the Internet, if we are to prevent the spread of information that is specifically meant to deceive? A second productive approach aims at empowering the user and the citizen: ultimately the problem of false or manipulative information spreading on social media is one of digital literacy. Hence, long-term education, more than algorithmic fixes or regulation, is the key answer to the problem. In sum, the problem is socio-technical in nature (rather than solely ‘social’ or solely ‘technical’)—and thus requires a socio-technical response.

#2 Internet infrastructure between censoring and sensing technologies
The fundamental layer of the digital world we experience is the technological infrastructure of the internet. Two recurrent, somehow complementary themes, which appeared to be central to RightsCon 2017 are internet shutdowns and ubiquitous surveillance technologies. It is interesting to consider them together for two reasons. First, they both bring to the surface the importance of the lower layers of communication technology, in an era dominated by ‘apps’, ‘clouds’ and other intangible metaphors. Second, they represent complementary strategies of politicization of data flows: stopping the flow on the one hand, and somewhat multiplying the flow on the other.
In order to keep the internet free and open, one must first keep the internet running. This is an increasingly serious concern, given the often political use of internet shutdowns, ad hoc censorship and network manipulation, to prevent people getting their news or mobilizing to protest. As an example, some noticed a clear connection between the growth in internet shutdowns and the general increase of activism particularly in South East Asia. Consequently, some initiatives emerge in order to test, monitor and report internet shutdowns and censorship. The Open Observatory for Network Interference (OONI) is a spinoff of the Tor Project, which set the stage for “a global observation network for detecting censorship, surveillance and traffic manipulation on the internet”. Another brilliant project along these lines is TurkeyBlocks, which monitors “wide-scale internet slowdown and shutdown incidents using a combination of digital forensic techniques”, with a focus on the delicate Turkish situation.

Next to censoring, another much-debated theme is that of today’s omnipresence of sensing technologies. Alongside the many promises of simplifying life and empowering people, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is bringing surveillance technology literally in every corner of our daily life. While activists (and sometimes governments and companies, too) advocate for “privacy-by-design”, the IoT is objectively promoting “surveillance-by-design”. Moreover, especially with the advent of smaller companies in the market, these technologies present not only a higher number of vulnerabilities, but also kinds of vulnerabilities that can hardly be patched, thus representing a permanent threat to individual and group privacy. Consequently, one should not only focus on whether or not this technology is currently used by government to spy on citizens; the urgent need to regulate the market of surveillance products comes from their potential uses, as it is impossible to anticipate their trajectory from country to country, from government to government, and from present to future uses.

#3 Digital Rights in the Global South
Nowhere else in the world is the number of internet users growing more than in the Global South. Unfortunately, this positive trend is usually not adequately accompanied by the creation or reinforcement of the necessary legal frameworks to protect digital rights. Many activists at RightsCon 2017 shared the problems they face when defending their privacy, resisting surveillance and generally struggling to exercise their rights in the Global South. On a positive note, however, the creativity abounds. In Brussels, activists shared the strategies they use to make their voices heard by both states and corporations. A cluster of Latin American organizations emerged, where groups and individuals are pushing for a regional strategy for the defense of digital rights since they have identified that not only the challenges they face are similar, but also that the tools available to overcome them can be mobilized at the transnational level. Among the problems highlighted by the attendees to RightsCon was the perception within governments in the Global South that digital rights are a matter for developed countries, which results in a generalized lack of political will to engage with civil society actors to develop adequate policies. In addition to that, there seems to be a strong historical and cultural connection between the exercise of basic rights and personal data collection policies implemented by institutions. Telling examples are Argentina, where a longstanding tradition of identification has produced countless databases with personal information, whose management is unclear and far from transparent, and Venezuela, where citizens need to surrender their biometric information in order to access basic services like food distribution. Among the strategies showcased by activists to address these issues, strategic litigation in national and international courts was presented as one of the most efficient tools to force governments and corporations alike to respect internet users’ rights. Therefore, a few organizations in South America, led by the Fundación Datos Protegidos, are calling for the creation of a regional network for strategic litigation related to digital rights, with the goal of triggering a process of knowledge transfer among peers in different countries.

All in all, RightsCon 2017 was an enriching experience for the DATACTIVE team—and it was mostly due to all the people we got to meet and to the excellent organization (thanks, Access Now!). We would like to acknowledge everyone who dedicated some of his/her precious time to talk to us: you know who you are, See you at RightsCon 2018, in Toronto, Canada!

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[blog] Taking a look at institutional resistance to citizen empowerment

By Guillén Torres

(Image copyright: Bob Mankoff)

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in July, 2016, ProPublica, a U.S. nonprofit newsroom, published a long essay titled Delayed, Denied, Dismissed: Failures on the FOIA Front, in which several journalists detailed their frustrating experiences when requesting government data from U.S. institutions. In the comments section of ProPublica’s website, a reader captured the general feeling of the article as follows:

“To summarize: byzantine internal processes governed by antiquated laws operate with insufficient resources and no sense of urgency or accountability, and are shepherded by sometimes incompetent or dishonest public servants to produce documents that often have self-serving redactions or outright denials (sic)”.

This grim picture of the U.S. Government’s openness -with recent concerns related not only to Trump, but also Obama– is not an isolated case, unfortunately. Around the world, other governments have been accused by journalists and activists of discursively pushing openness forward, despite effectively making the use of government data difficult. For example, the Mexican government takes pride in having one of the most advanced transparency legislations, yet is currently discussing a new General Archives Law that will leave in the discretional and unaccountable hands of the Ministry of Interior the decision of what information should be preserved, and hence what data exists to be accessed. Moreover, the federal government is still struggling to make a buggy National Transparency Platform work, almost a year after it was presented as the main tool to guarantee Mexican citizens’ right to information. In the opposite side of the world, India’s recent public consultation to draft its License for Open Data use ended with a blatant disregard of the advice given by citizens, producing a regulation that does not offer any warranty against errors or omissions in the data held by the government, and transfers the liability for misuse to the citizens (instead of the data controller).

These examples point to the existence of a reactive process to citizen empowerment, in which some governments have found institutional ways to resist civil society’s access to data, hindering its ability to influence political processes. The research I will be conducting within the DATACTIVE project aims to locate empirically and frame theoretically this institutional reaction to citizen empowerment, to describe how it influences the configuration of the power relation between the State and citizens, and more broadly, how it affects the practice of data activism. To do so, I will start with a question originating in my own experience as an activist in Mexico: what if institutional resistance to public use of data is a political strategy, instead of the result of non-political flaws in the regulation related to Government Data?

By not taking for granted the State’s compromise to openness, I will explore whether the sociomaterial practices related to the production, dissemination and use of Government Data might make possible not only the empowerment of citizens, but also the State’s monopoly over some political issues which, according to the ideals of modern democracy, should be subject of collective discussion. The point of departure will be the work of proactive data activists who, while looking to mobilise Government Data to strengthen their attempts to influence public policy or oversee governmental action, have struggled to get the information they seek. In a second stage, I will look at how institutional actors deploy their resistance strategies, tracing the regulatory and material components involved in the process. Finally, I will develop a similar analysis over the strategies used by activists to counter institutional resistance. In the process, I hope to contribute to the study of the role played by data in configuring the power relation between citizens and the State in the age of Open Government, as well as helping to identify (and ideally produce) formal and informal mechanisms that activists can implement to keep rogue institutions under citizen control.

I am always interested in hearing about instances where public institutions do not follow through on their claims of making data effectively open and accessible to interested activists. If you have any examples or experiences, please drop me a line: guillen@data-activism.net

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Change of Team, welcome to Guillén Torres

Over the last couple of months, there has been a steady flow of changes in the team composition.

First of all, our dearest Mahsa Alimardani has left for Canada. Her research assistant position has now been filled by Jeroen de Vos, who is taking care of the practical operations at the backend of DATACTIVE. Secondly, Frederike Kaltheuner is joining Privacy International in London, she will stay connected as research associate. Moreover, we are warmheartedly welcoming our two new associates: Hisham Almiraat, the founder of the Digital Rights Association and Miren Gutiérrez, Prof. at the University of Deusto and Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute.

Most importantly, our team will be strengthened by a new PhD candidate: Guillén Torres. For the past years, he has been working on transparency, public sector information and open data, through different projects within two NGO’s: ControlaTuGobierno (which means Control Your Government) and PIDES Social Innovation. As a preliminary plan, he will devote his time to investigate how data plays a role as an intermediary between citizens, the state and other emerging organisations, and how the politics around the process generate asymmetries of power, producing relatively exclusive scopes of action. Welcome Guillén!