Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah was sentenced to five years in prison for “organizing without a permit a public demonstration” that criticized the military trials of civilians. Every year at RightsCon, Access Now honors his work. This year, he wrote a letter to the RightsCon community from behind bars.
Following is that letter, sent from Tora Prison.
This week I start my 4th year in prison. I might be released in October, if my appeal is accepted. But then I might not. I might be released in March 2019, when I have served my full sentence. But then I might not. They have other, pending, cases against me. If released I might be able to attend this conference, but then I might not; my sentence comes with 5 years of parole to follow, and who knows if you will be able to find a venue for this conference in a country that gives visas to people like me by the time I am allowed to travel.
Now I don’t mean to be too pessimistic; the best case scenario is as probable as the worst. The real problem is that there’s very little you can do to influence which of them will come to pass.
But that’s not really what worries me; we live in hugely reactionary times. My defeat was inevitable.
What worries me is that by the time I manage to make it to this conference or another like it I will simply be a total embarrassment to organizers and attendees. You see, in my isolation I can only build a fragmented picture of what the world outside looks like. And when it comes to tech that picture is solely based on what filters through state-controlled media of the views and actions of governments and giant tech companies. Not what people and communities are doing and saying.
Now you would not enjoy watching a Luddite ramble on about a terrifying dystopia in which labor rights are trampled by startups that don’t even plan to make a profit (or pay taxes) but are somehow able to raise enough capital to flood markets, overwhelm regulators, influence policy, litigate perpetually and still have enough left to spend on PR that spins all this as the glorious disruptive effect of the gig economy. A dystopia in which free debate in a shared public sphere, rooted in a commonly experienced very decentralized reality, is replaced with a newsfeed, selected by an obscure algorithm based on one’s circle of friends and choice of celebrities.
I can see you rolling your eyes already while I fret over the bot that will determine which news is not fake, the bot that will determine which policy is better and the question of who owns the data, who controls the cloud and how did it come to pass that we replaced the mystical notion that we are born with all the knowledge of the universe already within us to the no less mystical notion that the only learning we need is Bayesian and that the only abstraction we need is map reduce?
Now lest you think me too pessimistic I will admit that this dystopia is as probable as the utopian vision that insists the killer drones will turn out to be like the good terminators, that Facebook will defeat fake news with a truthbot and its human companions who are happily employed in glorious state of the art call centers as content moderators. That Elon Musk will solve the world energy problem, Bill Gates will end hunger, Google will find a cure for cancer and Uber or Foxconn’s effect on labor rights is irrelevant because we’ll all be paid a basic universal income, have unlimited credit lines, or run our own Bitcoin minting operation. The counter-revolution never happened, the naive dreams of early internet communities and the free software movement are not lost they have just been updated, cleaned up and stripped of any hint of ideology to make them more universal. And no, the fact that nobody pays tax any more is not a threat to democracy because they all give so much to charity. Yes this utopia is probable too, as probable as the vision of a coalition between Trump, Sisi, Doterti, Orban, Modi, Erdogan, Putin, Bin Salman, and who knows maybe even Le Pen, leading the civilized world into a new age of prosperity and security and stability and sustainable growth. Yes it could happen. Millions upon millions believe it and they can’t all be wrong, right?
However, you do have a chance to influence where in the broad spectrum between these equally unlikely (or likely) scenarios the future lies.
Yes, on the simple question of how to stop using the hashtag #FreeAlaa you have little if any agency, but on the question of whether the internet is a space in which we come together to enjoy, assert, practice and defend universal rights and freedoms you have much agency.
Unlike me, you have not been defeated yet.
I don’t have much to say by way of advice. I am, after all, out of touch and slightly outdated. The best I can do is repeat themes I used to touch upon when participating in conferences like these in the past. (The last time was 2011 I think):
1. Fix your own democracy: This has always been my answer to the question “how can we help?” I still believe it is the only possible answer. Not only is where you live, work, vote, pay tax and organize the place where you have more influence, but a setback for human rights in a place where democracy has deep roots is certain to be used as an excuse for even worse violations in societies where rights are more fragile. I trust recent events made it evident that there is much that needs fixing. I look forward to being inspired by how you go about fixing it.
2. Don’t play the game of nations: We lose much when you allow your work to be used as an instrument of foreign policy no matter how benign your current ruling coalition is. We risk much when human rights advocacy becomes a weapon in a cold war (just as the Arab revolutions were lost when revolutionaries found themselves unwitting and unwilling recruits in proxy wars between regional powers). We reach out to you not in search of powerful allies but because we confront the same global problems, and share universal values, and with a firm belief in the power of solidarity.
3. Defend complexity and diversity: No change to the structure of or organization of the internet can make my life safer. My online speech is often used against me in the courts and in smear campaigns, but it isn’t the reason why I am prosecuted; my offline activity is. My late father served a similar term for his activism before there was a web. What the internet has truly changed is not political dissent but rather social dissent. We must protect it as a safe space where people can experiment with gender and sexual identities, explore what it means to be gay or a single mom or an atheist or a christian in the Middle East, but also what it means to be black and angry in the U.S., to be Muslim and ostracized in Europe, or to be a coal miner in a world that must cut back on green house gases. The internet is the only space where all different modes of being Palestininan can meet. If I express this precariousness in symbolic violence, will you hear me out? Will you protect me from both prosecution by the establishment and exploitation by the well-funded fringe extremists?
4. Assert your right to be a creator not a consumer: we love this tech because it allows us to be the performers in our own spectacle, the story-tellers in our own narrative and the philosophers of our own discourse. Not an eyeball for advertisers or a demographic for pollsters. Keep it that way please. Keep it that way.