The Divide Between Digital Participation and your Personal Privacy and Security

For a while now, I’ve talked about this thing called participation as it relates to the web. I want a web where people are free to express themselves, share ideas and collaborate with each other. Where people have the knowledge, skills and motivation to participate in creating a web that is for them. Actually this is quite common at Mozilla where we work hard to increase participation over consumerism when it comes to your digital life.

I also believe we have a right to our privacy online and that we, and our data, are not for sale. Individuals should have control and awareness over what, where and when they share. That they can freely share ideas or opinions without fear of harassment, bullying, and unwarranted negative consequences. Similarly, Mozilla also cares deeply for an individual’s digital privacy and rights while working hard to advocate for those where this is at risk.

Recently, I’ve had some hard conversations on the intersection of participation and privacy. These have been hard because while I want both of these things, I’m learning that sometimes they don’t live in parallel.

When encouraging people to take an active role in their participation online, this can mean putting their privacy and security at risk.

While I am aware of the risks online, I feel I am not preparing people for them. Our teams often share privacy basics and educate people on how to protect themselves online, how to properly share and have control over their data. What we don’t often talk about are the individuals who are more vulnerable than others online and what participation on the web looks like to them. This can be associated to geography, race, culture, gender, sexual preference etc. Similar characteristics that leave those marginalized in the real world can have an impact on the web. The web is supposed to be a global place that levels the playing field for anyone to contribute but rather, has shown us that our offline biases are only reflected online. Furthermore, greater inequalities can be shown by those who can’t participate or face concerns over participation on the web.

So what happens when you’re working to increase access and participation on the web to these marginalized communities when access and participation equals lack of privacy and security?

You hear stories like this.

Warning (Triggers! Triggers!), these are hard stories for some to read and are not to be taken lightly. They are real stories that I’ve heard from individuals and limited context is given to respect the privacy of the storyteller.

Story 1: When running a workshop for women, I ran a session on cyberviolence that shared ideas on how women can support each other online. I had a young women in the session raise her hand and tell a story about how a self-proclaimed feminist in the community was known to tweet regularly about issues regarding technology and women in her country. To some she was a role model because she vocalized the injustices that many of them faced. But recently on a popular local radio show the male host, who didn’t appreciate her comments, openly talked about how and when he would sexually assault her in graphic details. After that she shut down her Twitter account and was no longer vocalizing her thoughts online.

Story 2: When leading a workshop participants were discussing privacy as a core issue of a healthy Internet and how we need to encourage more people to participate online. An individuals raised their hand and asked ‘what happens when an individual blogs, shares info or discusses local issues and ISIS flags it? In my country if ISIS doesn’t like what you are saying you can be in serious danger. And they are there, online, recruiting people in our country.’

These aren’t the only stories and I’m sure there are many more out there like them. What happens when you are scared to say or create things online that matter to you because your personal safety is at risk? With risks this big, what would you do?

In this day and age, everyone is being watched whether it’s by organizations, governments or people. Does this mean that there is a large group of individuals who have to act in a closed manner that censors their participation to protect themselves?

As a facilitator, I have to be more aware of the risks associated with digital participation and what that can mean for individuals. I have to be more accountable. The Internet is a great tool but I know it can reflect the inequalities of the real world and that it is hard to navigate for many people. Since we know the Internet isn’t going anywhere and will only continue to become accessible or more intertwined in people’s lives, my role needs to shift to helping people navigate it. Especially those that need it most. Because while I am no longer naïve to think that participation doesn’t affect an individual’s privacy and security, I still believe we have the power to create a more inclusive, safe and healthy Internet.

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