Future-proofing our digital rights at MozFest

By Jonathan McCully, 29th October 2019

Over the weekend, the Mozilla Foundation held its tenth annual MozFest. The festival brought together educators, activists, technologists, researchers, artists, and young people to explore, discuss and debate how we can help secure “healthier Artificial Intelligence.”

On Sunday, the Digital Freedom Fund co-facilitated an interactive workshop with the Oxford Information Labs on “Future-Proofing our Digital Rights.” This hour-long workshop brought together lawyers, academics, technologists and digital rights activists to consider the digital rights battles that may lie ahead of us and what steps we can take in the short and medium term to help steer us towards a future we would like to see.

The session centred around three questions: what digital rights threats or challenges might we see in five years’ time? In our ideal future, what do we want to see in five years’ time? And what actions should we take now to help mitigate the threats and challenges, and steer us towards our ideal future?

Participants identified a range of horizon threats and challenges, from increased uptake of Artificial Intelligence and greater deployment of biometric detection systems, to a growing digital divide and political participation being conditioned on the giving away of personal data. A number of groups converged on the threat that tech companies become the lawmakers, and increasingly write the rules by which they are to be regulated. The disempowerment of users by moving digital rights issues out of the public law and into the private law context would make it harder to obtain redress for digital rights violations.

When talking about ideal futures, participants identified a number of scenarios, including the banning of facial recognition technologies, having a diversity of online platforms with no dominant players, securing proactive and well-resourced regulators that are not captured by industry, and  promoting “white boxes” instead of “black boxes” ­– systems designed with accountability, transparency and contestability in mind.

So, what can we do now to help us prepare for these future threats and put us on track towards a future that better protects our digital rights? One group discussed the role that the education sector could play in improving AI literacy and awareness. Another group talked about how we could push for law reform that ensures that publicly funded technology cannot be privatised and benefit from trade secret protections. Participants also noted that law moves slower than technological developments, and that we should push for more forward-looking laws that safeguard against new technologies being applied in legal or regulatory gaps.

These conversations build upon the work we did last year on future-proofing our digital rights, which included an essay series that you can read here and a workshop we held in Berlin last September. It was exciting to bring this topic to a new audience, and it brought a number of interesting perspectives to the fore. If you would like to join in the conversation or write a guest blog about how we can future-proof our digital rights, get in touch! We would love to hear from you.