The Problem of Digital Rights: "We are still 30 years in the past"
By Dzof Azmi September 28, 2021
- Issue of Digital Rights yet to be clearly defined, says founder of The IO Foundation
- Technological innovation needed so govt policies can leverage on solutions
Privacy rights advocate and activist Jean Queralt is not one to sit still. My interview with him has gone into its third session in more than an hour, while he interpolates our chat with a meeting with a prominent NGO. "I'm talking with Amnesty International, so I can't really drop them right?" he jibes.
Now, Jean is bringing that same brand of blunt truth as the founder and CEO of the IO Foundation. The organization advocates Human Rights from a digital perspective, which Jean believes needs to be on par with other established human rights. To summarise, Jean believes not only should you treat others as you would treat yourself, but that "others" includes their data as well.
He also believes that most organizations are looking at the problem upside down.
"What civil society is doing wrong right now is that they remain at the policy level, all the time," he protests. "I was just yesterday, having a meeting about facial recognition privacy, and I was already pulling my hair – virtually, because everyone keeps looking at the same thing."
"There was one guy who said, it's clear that this is not a technical problem - it's a political problem," he recalls. "What? How can you say this is not a technical problem?!!" fumes, Jean.
From Europe to Asia
Then again, Jean says he has been looking at this problem for the last twenty years. With a Spanish father and French mother, he shuttled between the two countries as he grew up ("the French system was designed back in those days to make you think... whereas in Spain, the system was about, "Don't disobey!").
Eventually, he dropped out of university and bounced between a wide array of startups and companies, from an online dating company, to a medical software company, an SMS-based contest system, and eventually a University in Alicante, Spain.
He focused on pragmatic technical solutions for real-world problems. When told to push out a weekly bulletin for students, he created friction by asking why. But office politics wasn't his forte. "The job got very, very stressful and in the first year I ended up going to the psychologist," he recalls. "It's a large political play, it was disgusting."
He needed to find an escape valve, and a new outlook on life. "I ended up spending about two months plus of the year, backpacking around Asia," he says. "(Eventually) I decided that moving to Asia was the way to go," he recalls. "And that's what I did at 35 years old. I technically retired, and I moved to Asia."
After considering factors such as the cost of living and ease of access, “Malaysia was a very obvious option,” he temporarily headquartered himself there in early 2017.
But it wasn't long before a life of leisure wore thin. In his words, he "started becoming bored", and started to find things to do to fill his time. "I scheduled my whole week with volunteering activities, and I was doing all sorts of stuff, from soup kitchens with Kechara, to walking dogs in animal shelters, and I was also an STI screener at Community Health Care Center."
It was during this time that he found himself working with NGOs in the Philippines, spending six months there till Dec 2017, and witnessed first-hand how they would compete for government funding by amassing as large a database as possible.
"What happened a lot of times, the organization would get the money but then nothing was done [in terms of program promised]," he fumes.
He started “obsessing” as he describes it, on how he could return control of data back to users who would then give it to the NGOs only if they were actually going to create programs that would benefit users.
Somehow, he strongly felt that users should have control of how their data was used, and hopefully in turn that would create accountability. "If you [the NGO] don't give me the resources and the help that you have promised me, then I can just tap a key, and my data will be deleted automatically from your database."
Advocacy and change
From that seed grew a need and then an urge to evangalise. "I was working on just a concept and an idea and it wasn't framed into a specific advocacy," he explains. "I had to put together a lot of pieces, and try to find exactly what the foundation was."
Pretty much a work in progress in the early days, Jean uses the analogy of an explorer in a jungle walking around the vegetation trying to figure out, “how big the temple that we just discovered was.”
The IO Foundation now runs advocacy programs (for initiatives like a Universal Declaration of Digital Rights), as well as TechUp, a monthly meetup looking to engage with programmers and make them agents of change.
Firstly, Jean wants to establish a common taxonomy for digital rights, so it's easier for people to talk and understand the issues. For example, an NGO working on the problem of human trafficking is immediately understood. "You've been hammered with movies, documentaries, radio, newspapers, you have a certain idea about it, even if you don't know all the intricacies."
"The problem when it comes to digital rights is that we are still 30 years back in the past," he continues, adding, people still don't quite understand even the fundamentals.
In parallel, he also wants programmers and developers to innovate solutions to enforce and ensure privacy. In other words he believes that Digital Rights should be hard coded in where coders should innovate solutions to secure privacy, and governments can just use those solutions/standards to implement policy. Government shouldn't be in the business of dictating solutions, especially solutions that government doesn't really understand.
He likens this to how automotive players in the US introduced airbags that were initially in certain cars, until they became mandatory by regulation. Here, policy came in with government just leveraging an already invented product.
Nevertheless, one thing Jean is certain of is that digital privacy is still in its infancy. "I would argue that is rather new. I don't think that anyone else is doing it, not, not in the way that we are trying to," he says. Even the boundaries are yet to be determined.
"A lot of the time I think of ourselves as the person who discovered this new place. He knows that this place is big, and he is going around with a machete, and he's got no idea how big it is," he explains. "You're still figuring things out, and that's pretty much where we are [with digital rights]."
Jean Queralt kicks off a series on Digital Rights from this Friday, in the hopes of driving further conversations and discussions and debates around what constitutes our Digital Rights and how we should own it.
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