RightsCon is an annual human rights conference, run by Access Now. Alaa attended the first ever RightsCon in October 2011. Every year Access Now honour his work. In 2017, he was able to write a letter to the conference.
This week I start my fourth 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 five years of parole to follow, and who knows if you’ll be able to find a conference venue in a country that gives visas to people like me by the time I am allowed to travel.
I don’t mean to be too pessimistic; the best-case scenario is as probable as the worst. The real problem is there’s very little you can do to influence which 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 be a total embarrassment to organizers and attendees. 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 which views and actions of governments and giant tech companies manage to filter through state-controlled media. Not what people and communities are doing and saying.
You wouldn’t enjoy watching a Luddite ramble on about a terrifying dystopia in which labour 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, or 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 MapReduce?
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 centres 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 labour rights is irrelevant because we’ll all be paid a basic universal income, have unlimited credit lines, or run our own Bitcoin mining 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, Duterte, 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 finally retire 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, practise and defend universal rights and freedoms you have a lot of agency.
Unlike me, you have not yet been defeated.
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):
Fix your own democracy: This has always been my answer to the question ‘How can we help?’ I still believe it’s 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 it.
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.
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’m prosecuted: my oðine 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 US, to be Muslim and ostracized in Europe, or to be a coal miner in a world that must cut back on greenhouse gases. The internet is the only space where all different modes of being Palestinian 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?
Assert your right to be a creator not a consumer: We love tech because it allows us to be the performers in our own spectacle, the storytellers 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.
Written in Torah Prison
Delivered on 13 April 2017
On 6 November 2022, the first day of COP27, Alaa will stop drinking water. He has been on hunger strike in prison in Egypt for over 6 months. On April 2, 2022, and after years of unlawful imprisonment, mistreatment, and torture, Alaa shaved his head and started a hunger strike on the first day of Ramadan. On April 11, Alaa’s family announced that he had become a British citizen through his mother. Alaa is yet to receive a UK consular visit, is still denied the ability to communicate with his UK lawyers, and is still asking for a judge to investigate the complaints he and his family have filed over his unjust detention. Join us in calling on Egypt to #FreeAlaa, along with the thousands of other human rights defenders wrongfully detained in Egypt’s prisons.