The Regional Roots of Transnational Digital Activism

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Elisabeth Jay Friedman, author of Interpreting the Internet: Feminist and Queer Counterpublics in Latin America

Latin American digital border crossers have much to teach us about “the way transnational flows of people and ideas have shaped Latin America,” a theme of this year’s Latin American Studies Association conference. Such transnational flows have gone in both directions on the internet, as I have learned from the Argentine, Brazilian, and Mexican feminist and queer activists whom I interviewed for my book, Interpreting the Internet: Feminist and Queer Counterpublics in Latin America.

The conversion of a technology supposedly invented by the US military into a strategic tool for activists around the world is often taken for granted. But how did it happen? A closer look reveals that progressive computer engineers, programmers, and administrators, all dedicated to expanding digital resources beyond the politically powerful, economically fortunate, and socially advantaged, ensured that social change organizations and movements would be some of the earliest adopters. In Latin America, communities emerging out of the fiercely repressive regimes of the 1970s and 1980s embraced and expanded new communications technologies. For example, Brazil’s AlterNex became the first non-academic internet provider in all of Latin America, even before the military left power. Housed at IBASE, one of Brazil’s most important and durable civic organizations, it was connected to the public data network – run through the state telephone company. The company knew enough to be suspicious of IBASE’s oppositional efforts, and periodically would cut off their telephone service. But IBASE had enough clout to insist that it be restored.

In the 1990s, many feminists also seized on the still-evolving internet. They had been creating alternative media for well over a century, using it to connect transnationally: activists eagerly engaged extra-regional ideas while they contemplated their own pathways towards improving women’s status and rights. As in later periods, editors and writers often literally carried these ideas across borders in their suitcases. Take for example the 19th century Argentine writer Juana Manuela Gorriti, whose travels and passions led her to found both an Argentine and a Peruvian newspaper. In the late 20th century, contextually rooted border crossing continued. Projects such as Modemmujer in Mexico connected national audiences to each other and fostered transnational discussions through an early listserv, initially founded to monitor developments at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Throughout the decades since then, Latin American feminist and queer communities have interpreted the internet into their own vernacular. They have built chains of access across seemingly unbridgeable chasms of inequality, such as race, geography, and class. And they have hacked the intentions of popular applications, making distribution lists into interactive spaces and blogs into historical archives. Latin American activists have long taken part in transnational flows of ideas, and have appropriated global technology to serve their own ends.

Elisabeth Jay Friedman is Chair and Professor of Politics and Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Unfinished Transitions: Women and the Gendered Development of Democracy in Venezuela, 1936–1996 and the coauthor of Sovereignty, Democracy, and Global Civil Society: State-Society Relations at UN World Conferences.

The New Global Regulators

By Natasha Tusikov, author of Chokepoints: Global Private Regulation on the Internet

This guest post is published during the American Society of Criminology conference in New Orleans, which ends today. Search our blog for #ASC2016 to find other blog posts from our authors related to the ASC conference.  

In another disturbing example of pervasive corporate surveillance, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report in mid-October that showed Facebook, Twitter and Instagram facilitated surveillance against Black Lives Matter activists. These Internet companies allowed a Chicago-based social-media monitoring firm, Geofeedia, to access their users’ information, which it then sold to law enforcement agencies. Geofeedia’s information, which provides real-time data on social media users, enabled police to track protests and monitor activists. Following outrage from civil-society groups and Black Lives Matter activists, the companies have ceased operation with Geofeedia. Serious concerns, however, remain about the vast amounts of information social media platforms – and Internet firms more generally – gather on their users. What’s also interesting about the Geofeedia case is that it highlights the growing, but often murky role of mostly large, U.S.-based Internet firms as global regulators.

Tusikov.ChokepointsA key reason that these Internet firms, like Google, PayPal, Facebook and Twitter, are powerful global regulators is because they operate what security analyst Bruce Schneier calls surveillance-based business models in which they comprehensively track their users. The firms’ regulatory capacity derives in part from their provision of essential services, such as search, web hosting, or payment services, but also from their global platforms, significant market share, and sophisticated enforcement programs. Internet firms’ legal authority for setting and enforcing rules comes from their contracts with their users – the lengthy, (often unread) terms-of-use agreements that spell out users’ responsibilities and rights. Through these contractual agreements, Internet firms can set and enforce rules that govern hundreds of millions of people who use their services and monitor their platforms for illegal content. And they can do so without court orders.

The U.S. government has recognized Internet firms’ capacity to target online wrongdoing and have increasingly delegated responsibility to them to address social problems such as child pornography, illegal gambling, copyright infringement, and counterfeit goods. We may cheer corporate efforts to rid the web of child sexual abuse images and to deter fraud. But we should do so with caution. These companies have significant discretion to determine the legality of certain types of content, such as the kinds of images that constitute child pornography or copyright infringement. How comfortable are we with Facebook determining what images constitute illegal pornography, or with Google deciding what information should be defined as terrorism? While these companies have considerable power to determine all manner of wrongdoing on their platforms, governments have generally neglected to require oversight or accountability measures on Internet firms. The resulting regulation is largely opaque, unaccountable, and prone to error. Consequences of mistakes are serious as people may have funds frozen, be placed on ‘blacklists’ as criminals, or come under police investigation.

Who regulates the Internet and how are vitally important questions given its centrality to economic, social, and political life. We need debate in both the public and political arenas to consider how rules governing the Internet are made and enforced, by whom, and in whose interests.

NatashaTusikovphotoNatasha Tusikov a visiting fellow with the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University, and a former strategic criminal intelligence analyst with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Ottawa, Canada. She holds a PhD in sociology from the Australian National University.

Mark Twain On Top at Amazon

Autobiography of Mark Twain coverThe Autobiography of Mark Twain rose to the top of Amazon’s bestsellers list last weekend, and hit #3 on, prompting responses around the web from bloggers who feel Twain is very much at home in the internet age.

Gawker asked, “Was Mark Twain the ‘World’s First Blogger’?” and provided a list of pros and cons to examine the case. Entertainment Weekly‘s Shelf Life blog was “tickled to see Twain’s book at No. 1, where it’s edging out the new Rick Riordan novel and the latest entry in the Wimpy Kid series.” And Mark Twain shared a headline with none other than Angelina Jolie at the Hollywood Reporter online: “Angelina Jolie’s Bosnian Film Permit Reissued by Authorities. Plus: Mark Twain tops pre-order list 100 years after his death.”

Twain’s big weekend also included stories from CBS Sunday Morning, the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal, and FishbowlLA.

The autobiography officially goes on sale November 15, but you can pre-order it at, Amazon, Powell’s, or IndieBound.