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Freedom of Thought in the Digital Age - a provocation by Susie Alegre

At our April Meetup we were joined by Susie Alegre. Susie Alegre is an international human rights lawyer and writer, Associate at Doughty Street Chambers and a Research Fellow at the University of Roehampton working on digital rights, in particular the right to freedom of thought in the digital world. She has published widely in academic journals and international media and her work on freedom of thought was featured in the Radio 4 Documentary “Forum Internum.” She is currently working on a book on the topic for Atlantic Books.

Susie opened the talk with a bit of background about how she became a human rights lawyer. She discovered human rights law while studying philosophy and noted that it was just like ethics, except it had teeth: it's ethics that governments and companies have to comply with.

However, the right to freedom of thought was never really looked at by anyone in the digital context, including Susie, until the concept of large-scale microtargeting was introduced to the world by way of Cambridge Analytica. The commentary around this scandal was all about privacy and data breaches. But this went way beyond an invasion of privacy — it was more like an invasion on your thoughts and feelings. This is because Cambridge Analytica were learning and analysing things about citizens via Facebook, and using that information to understand and change behaviours.

The right to freedom of thought has two parts to it:

  1. The right to think and feel things freely in your head

  2. The right to express those thoughts or feelings — such as practicing your religion or expressing your ideas.

So far, human rights lawyers and policy makers have been working with the assumption that this right comes naturally; that it's impossible to infringe upon. Therefore, there are no clear protections in place for freedom of thought. Spinoza was the first philosopher to look at this right in detail, and highlight how important it is to protect:

“If men’s minds were as easily controlled as their tongues, every king would sit safely on his throne, and government by compulsion would cease; for every subject would shape his life according to the intentions of his rulers, and would esteem a thing true or false, good or evil, just or unjust, in obedience to their dictates. However, we have shown already (Chapter XVII.) that no man’s mind can possibly lie wholly at the disposition of another, for no one can willingly transfer his natural right of free reason and judgment, or be compelled so to do.”

So, it would be tyrannical if the government could get inside our minds, but they can't — so we shouldn't worry about it too much. The problem is, Cambridge Analytica's whole offering was that they could get inside our minds, and move the furniture around. It actually doesn't matter whether or not Cambridge Analytica truly had the ability to do this, the point is this was their proposition.

This is key, because having freedom of thought is an absolute right, which means, in the context of human rights law, there is no justification for interfering with it.

The only other absolute rights are the freedom from torture and degrading treatment, and the freedom from slavery. All three are key to our humanity. In practice, the right to freedom of thought means:

  1. You have the right not to share with anyone what you're thinking of feeling: spanning from your sock-colour preferences, to political ideology.

  2. The right to be free from someone manipulating what's in your mind.

  3. The right not be penalised for your thoughts: you may be prosecuted for something you say or do, but you can never be prosecuted for something you think or feel.

Current online targeting practices certainly cross the line at point three: it's widely understood that browsing behaviour is a great window into what someone might be thinking or feeling, and highly consequential algorithmic decisions are made based on these behaviours.

Furthermore, in the case of Cambridge Analytica, what we were unknowingly exposed to was the analysis of our collective 'likes' and other Facebook behaviours, in order to get an assessment of our political persuasions — and then being vulnerable to targeted manipulation. _________________________________________________________________________

Yep, we're interrupting an article talking about the perils of data and surveillance capitalism and it's manipulation over your freedom of thought to ask you for your email address. We hear ourselves. So please make a conscious, thoughtful decision as to whether you want to receive the countless benefits to being in our community or if you'd prefer to remain super uncool.


Susie pointed out a crucial part of this mechanism: on voting day, someone may be scrolling through their feed, feeling a little bored and tired, and Facebook has the power to identify this and their political leanings. So the newsfeed could throw out things that they will likely find especially entertaining or distracting, like funny cat videos (or something). Couple this very convenient bit of entertainment with how they were already feeling, and suddenly they decide not to go out and vote that day. So it's not always about swaying people to change their minds; it's actually often just voter suppression.

Just as Shoshana Zuboff says in Surveillance Capitalism, it's not the content of our posts and messages that matter, but the inferences drawn from the metadata of those posts and messages — these are how companies are able to 'look in our heads'.

Susie ended the talk by asking: If the right to freedom of thought is at the heart of what it means to be human, how do we protect that? Coming at it from this angle is very different from taking a more privacy-focused approach. Susie looks at privacy as a 'gateway right'; it's something you need in order to uphold the right to freedom of thought.

The loss of the freedom of thought would also be a massive threat to innovation in technology: if technology is only being used to control people, then new innovations would be impossible. Therefore, we need to start thinking about how we can protect our right to freedom of thought, so that the future of innovation is preserved. @susie_alegre


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