Guest essay by Andrew Lowenthal, expert in digital rights and open technology.
Hello readers, from the time my editor and I started The DisInformation Chronicle, we always planned to host essays from experts on corporate and government influence in science and medicine. Our first essay comes from Andrew Lowenthal who is the co-founder and former executive director of EngageMedia, an Asia-Pacific digital rights, open technology, and social documentary non-profit. Lowenthal is also a former fellow of the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the MIT Open Documentary Lab.
Most people now understand that something went terribly awry with censorship during the pandemic, and Lowenthal has a unique perspective on this. You can find more of his writing at Network Affects.Paul D. Thacker
The COVID-19 pandemic saw the greatest acceleration of online censorship in the short history of the internet. In response, the field dedicated to upholding human rights online—the digital rights movement—remained near silent to this massive government and corporate over-reach. Worse, digital rights activists sometimes even collaborated with censors in the name of protecting the public from “disinformation.”
I’ve spent more than 20 years in digital rights, freedom of expression and open technology communities, and co-founded an organisation dedicated to these ideas: EngageMedia. Over the 17 years I ran Engage Media, we built a team that stretched across 10 countries, from India to Australia—one of the biggest digital rights organisations in the Asia-Pacific, hosting hundreds of workshops and large events, and leading multiple international networks. In short, I’m not a newbie or outsider in this field.
But during the pandemic, I watched the digital rights movement lose its voice as champions of online freedom of expression. Instead, they began to echo the positions of governments and companies with far from stellar records on human rights and corporate integrity. This recasting of governments and corporations as allies, rather than institutions to be held to account, has perverted the mission of digital rights and harmed public health.
The Digital Rights Movement
Digital Rights is an umbrella term that captures multiple concepts from “internet freedom” to “open technology” to “digital public policy.” Over the past several decades, it has become a major force in advocating for online rights and freedoms. Hundreds of universities, institutes, and non-profit organizations work in this arena on every corner of the planet. Whilst I know of no exact calculations, funding for the field is surely in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually—sourced from a mix of liberal foundations, governments, and Big Tech itself.