ORGCon 2012

I attended the Open Rights Group Conference (ORGCon) this year.

We are at a weird moment where the Internet and the associated digital technologies it has spawned and supported are wreaking changes to the social, cultural and economic environment that don’t easily fit the current models of law and governance. Cory Doctorow makes this point more completely and more eloquently here (Lockdown: The coming war on general purpose computing).

As a result we are seeing law and regulation that is driven much more by lobby groups rather than politicians. The politicians that understand these changes are few and far between and made more notable for that irrespective of their party allegiance (For example Tom Watson and Francis Maude). I am heartened by the ORG as they represent the other side of the coin from the industry lobby groups.

ORGCon 2012 was an interesting experience, It was fascinating to meet the people energised by these issues and encouraging to see their passion and intelligence. Cory Doctorow was as usual a brilliant speaker and Lawrence Lessig was interesting, definitely an entertaining style of presentation.

However, I did come away from the conference disappointed. The majority of what I saw was the politics of protest and the politics of rejection, the politics of trying to hold onto the pre-digital past without discussion of what the digital present and digital future changes for the better. I can understand that the rash of industry-driven laws recently has focused the groups involved into a rear-guard action attempting to limit the damage caused to their nascent digital civil rights. I was hoping for more.

I was hoping for the politics of engagement, I was hoping for an understanding of both sides of the debate and an attempt to paint a picture of the future that meets everyone’s needs and desires. Big data by default and cheap pervasive monitoring offer benefits and downsides, all I heard about were the downsides. The only exception was a workshop on Hacktivism where the benefits of the open social networks to allow for a wider reach for activists was discussed alongside the risks of identification by law enforcement as the originator of activist material. That was an interesting balanced debate.

It may be that ORGCon wasn’t the place to forge such a vision, maybe that is the gathering where the troops are rallied for the next years fight. I can see that need I just wish it had been the place where the citizens are empowered to think bigger and better.

The other surprising thing was that I didn’t come away learning anything new, this likely contributed to my sense of disappointment. I think for those of us involved in building and securing big systems for government and commerce, we consider data protection, we consider lawfulness and legality, we consider proportionality on a daily basis. We worry about the worst that can happen and try to balance it against the best.

I wonder if security consultants as a group are more informed and educated about digital rights issues than the average citizen or even the average knowledge worker? Maybe more so than we realise ourselves. If so I wonder why there were so few of us at ORGCon? I’m glad ORGCon happens but I don’t think I’ll be going back. Maybe that”s why.