Who Can Protect Democracy in Digital Spaces?

Much of our lives are now online, but do our democratic rights carry over into digital space? That's where the Citizen Lab comes in.

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“Early on, when I started Citizen Lab, I described the aim to become a kind of counterintelligence for civil society. Now, 15 years later, the old adage comes to mind: careful what you wish for. Because I think we’re at that point now where we’re performing that role.”

Ron Deibert is the Founder and Director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, and he’s been watching as the world has grown into an increasingly digital place. Smartphones and internet connectivity are now an integrated part of our daily lives, and that brings up a lot of potential issues at the intersection of information technologies, human rights, and global security and privacy.

“The way that politics is being done around technology is absolutely inadequate,” adds Christopher Parsons, research associate at the Citizen Lab.

“And the companies are not helping. As everything has moved to a digital environment, everything we do — we buy our groceries, we find our partners — everything is online. And that’s where we form our communities now. That’s where we talk now. That’s where we’re engaged in democratic activities.”

There is a lot of power in a hub like that. What people see on the internet influences their lives so profoundly that there needs to be oversight.

“From a government standpoint, I think we’re lucky here in Canada,” says Irene Poetranto, senior researcher at the Citizen Lab. “We have privacy laws. We have a democratically elected government. And even then we face challenges here in Canada, and certainly our neighbour, the US.”

Certainly, even with a democratic society, there are many threats to how information is presented online. It’s such a vast repository of information that social media and search engines shape what people are likely to see.

“There’s also an expectation that social media companies are also the judge, and jury, and executioner, let’s say, of what conduct should be permissible online,” adds Poetranto. “Is that ideal? Is that really the kind of society that we want to have? I think we need to have these debates.”

Equally important in the debate is the question of the things that people don’t see, and how that control influences society.

“At Citizen Lab, we mostly look at information control from the perspective of censorship,” says Lotus Ruan, researcher at the Citizen Lab. “That means keyword filtering, website blocking, and image censorship on social media.”

The Citizen Lab blends together many researchers from different disciplines to create powerful tools. From political science to computer science, they are lifting the lid on the black box of the internet to uncover abuses of power.

“Everything is connected digitally,” says Deibert. “All of these devices are communicating, and they’re giving off evidence, if you know where to look, if you know how to find it, and you know how to gather it. So you can uncover some pretty powerful things, which we’ve done over now a decade and a half.”

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Ronald J. Deibert is professor of political science and Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto. The Citizen Lab undertakes interdisciplinary research at the intersection of global security, ICTs, and human rights. He is a former founder and principal investigator of the OpenNet Initiative (2003-2014) and a founder of Psiphon, a world leader in providing open access to the Internet.

Deibert is the author of Black Code: Surveillance, Privacy, and the Dark Side of the Internet (Random House: 2013), as well as numerous books, chapters, articles, and reports on Internet censorship, surveillance, and cyber security. He was one of the authors of the landmark Tracking Ghostnet cyber espionage (2009) and Great Cannon (2015) reports, and co-editor of three major volumes with MIT Press on information controls (the “Access” series).

The reports of the Citizen Lab are routinely covered in global media, including 25 separate reports receiving front page coverage in either the New York Times, Washington Post, Globe and Mail, or Toronto Star over the last eight years.

He is on the steering committee for the World Movement for Democracy, the advisory board for PEN Canada and the Design 4 Democracy (D4D) Coalition, and previously the board of advisors Access Now and Privacy International, and on the technical advisory groups for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. He is Co-Chair of the University of Toronto’s Information Security Council.

In recognition of his own work or that of the Citizen Lab, he has been awarded the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer award (2015), the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (2014), the Advancement of Intellectual Freedom in Canada Award from the Canadian Library Association (2014), the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Vox Libera Award (2010), and the Northrop Frye Distinguished Teaching and Research Award (2003).

In 2017, he was named to Foreign Policy magazine’s Global Thinkers list. In 2013, he was appointed to the Order of Ontario and awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee medal, for being “among the first to recognize and take measures to mitigate growing threats to communications rights, openness and security worldwide.”

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