Although it would be naive to think that the tide is turning, it’s heartening to see a few wins against government attempts to formalise and extend surveillance of their populations. The passage of the USA Freedom Act, however flawed and limited it may be, is one example. The various rulings against the UK government are another. While rightly celebrating these, it’s easy to overlook other battles being fought elsewhere, perhaps not so high profile, but just as important. Here’s one that has been fought for over a year in Paraguay, and which recently concluded in a victory, as the EFF reports:
On Thursday morning, the Paraguayan Senate defeated a mandatory data retention bill that would have compelled local ISPs to retain communications and location details of every user for a period of 12 months.
Paraguayan Internet users called the bill “Pyrawebs,” alluding to the digital version of pyragües, informers who monitored the civilian population’s movements, meetings, political preferences, religious beliefs, and more on behalf of dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled between 1954 and 1989.
The EFF post links to a fascinating interview with Maricarmen Sequera, the director and founder of TEDIC (Technology, Education, Development, Investigation and Communications), which describes itself as:
an NGO that develops open technology and defends digital rights for free culture on the Internet.
Along with Amnesty Paraguay, TEDIC played a pivotal role in defeating the data retention bill. In the interview, Sequera was asked what advice she had for other groups facing similar battles:
With these kinds of campaigns against mass surveillance, it is difficult to generate resonance on the issue without causing fear that paralyzes people and discourages them from getting involved. Drawing on the Paraguayan notion of ‘pyrague’ and giving it a modern (even comical) touch by adding “webs” helped give new life to a difficult subject, and also simplified it and made it intelligible to “non-techies”.
Another piece of advice could be to place the same amount of importance on community media as on the national press and radio. In the end, the community is who will promote grassroots action — and this kind of action is always one of a campaign’s goals. Additionally, getting international coverage will help to demonstrate the importance of the issue.
As well as community media, social media played its part too:
One of the most successful initiatives was the Twitter handle #Pyrawebs, which allowed us to send Twitter messages to every deputy in the Chamber, and call for them to reject the bill.
That hashtag served as a handy rallying-cry during the crucial last phase of the campaign:
#Pyrawebs trended for four days in Paraguay. On the day of the vote, seven million Twitter users worldwide were talking about it (more than the population of Paraguay).
Although it’s often said that Twitter in general, and hashtags in particular, never change anything, it’s seems likely that seven million people tweeting about #Pyrawebs made an important contribution to the final result. Another great thing about creating a memorable hashtag is that it can be wheeled out again, at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, that might well be necessary. As the EFF post points out:
the supporters of the bill may try to sneak it in again in the future. We will all need to stay tuned and help to fight any such move. The supporters of mass surveillance will try again, but if we stay united our fundamental rights will remain intact.