Law in the Internet Society

Framing Free Software as Racial Justice

-- By VinayPatel - 19 Jan 2020

Racial Justice Framing

I often become more invested in issues framed as racial justice problems. Framing the problem of digital surveillance this may motivate others to act for the same reasons that it appeals to me. Having grown up post-9/11, when surveillance of brown-skinned people for terrorism was at a peak, I can easily connect surveillance and racism because the harm is concrete and personal. Additionally, I am strongly motivated to promote values of fairness, equality, and consistency which are undermined by racism. I also find racial justice issues interesting because there is a deep history to them which has not been fully addressed and is often erased, so there is a lot to learn. Ignoring the racial history and dynamics of surveillance may make it harder to protect populations which are at greater risk. This essay considers the racial dimension of American surveillance to highlight the disproportionate threat to racial minorities.

Populations at Greater Risk

Surveillance is a mechanism for people in power to control potential threats to their interests, and it does not affect everyone equally. In the US, surveillance traditionally operates as racial control, from plantation overseers and slave patrols to police and prisons. In the 1950s and 1960s, the FBI dedicated itself to the disruption and containment of the Civil Rights Movement using invasive and illegal surveillance tactics under COINTELPRO. Contemporary Black political activists still risk being targeted by the FBI for surveillance as “Black Identity Extremists” or “Racially Motivated Violent Extremists.” White people in power designed a system to protect White people’s interests, and people of color who do not wish to be exploited to serve those interests present a threat to social order which must be monitored and contained to control the threat. Racialized surveillance is a historical trend.

In the contemporary internet society, there continues to be a disproportionately large risk of harm to people of color. It may be more common for people of color to express views online opposing state institutions because we face violence from them, or to have our statements perceived as threatening, and then be marked as dangerous. It may be easier for advertisers to leverage the economic vulnerabilities of various communities of color to influence behavior. And, Russian interference in the 2016 Election provides an explicit example of an intelligence agency targeting racial minorities using social media and using race as a fault line in order to change political behavior. While these risks are present for everyone connected to the internet society, there is an especially high risk for people of color which is unintelligible without racial framing.

White people have a relatively lower stake in combating digital surveillance, and this implicates discussions to motivate people to address the problem. The apathy and inaction which allows spying to continue has a racial element. One manifestation of White privilege may be that White people feel more secure because they trust powerful surveillance institutions to protect them, or at least to not target them first. There could also be a more sinister sense among parts of White society that the surveillance is good because it constrains people of color whom they see as dangerous. Because the threat model for White people is weaker and less personal, there is less urgency to challenge surveillance.

Whose Surveillance Matters?

When the problem of digital surveillance is framed in universalized, race-neutral terms as if it is everyone’s problem, Whiteness remains the default perspective we use to understand the problem. The White perspective has historically been used as the standard for what is normal, rational, and good. White normativity dominates our social education, from writing of our history to the dictation of our values and to the design of our measures of success, so that we are taught to think from a White perspective as though it were a natural and neutral standpoint. If we do not make an effort to shift frames away from race neutrality, an audience will default to their original White perspective which assumes a threat model for White people. Thus, people of color also lose sight of the problem with surveillance because we learn to trust institutions which protect White interests as if they protected our own. We also feel relief that we will not be targeted because we are not the ones doing anything offensive; those wrongdoers deserve what is coming to them. Without interrogating the racial lens from which critiques of surveillance are articulated, those advocating change risk breeding complacency among those who are especially endangered by complacency.

A second problem with universalizing the threat is that it has the potential to dilute or diminish the gravity of the threat to people of color. Without the rhetorical tools to differentiate the threat of surveillance to different groups, we are left with a one-size-fits-all approach which is inappropriate. There are dangers of surveillance which cannot be understood or explained without racial analysis, such as predictive policing based on data from existing racially-biased policing. If the only response to a Black activist concerned with harassment under suspicion of being a Black Identity Extremist is that all surveillance matters, or that it affects everyone the same way, people cannot cognize the specific threats that they face and determine effective solutions. A universalizing approach creates a false equivalency between different surveillance threat models which people face on the basis of race, obscuring the grave dangers that some individuals face and diminishing their sense of urgency to protect freedom and privacy.

By providing a racial analysis, we can better understand and differentiate the unique threat models that people face, consider another contributing factor to our collective inaction, and develop a stronger historical context for surveillance. Racism is deeply ingrained in American society, and its connection to surveillance practices must be confronted to fully reckon with the problem. Framing the problem in different ways provides more opportunities to effectively persuade people based on their values. Developing a racial justice frame would work toward that goal and motivate more people to get involved.


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r4 - 19 Jan 2020 - 07:13:08 - VinayPatel
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