I’ve had access to a computer and the Internet since about age nine. If you’re young, that probably doesn’t seem like a big deal. I’m 30-years-old, though; not many of my fellow Americans were going online in the mid-90’s. From day one, I was obsessed. While other kids were sneaking out of the house, I was sneaking online.
Getting grounded from friends didn’t really bother me very much. I just wanted my sweet, sweet internet access. My mother knew this, so the internet became the first (and often only) thing I was grounded from whenever I got in trouble. If you asked 18-year-old me what the best part of being an adult is, I probably would have told you that it’s not being grounded anymore. Finally! I had unlimited access to fandom chats, reading and writing terrible fan-fiction, message board role playing, and the internet friends I treated better than my real-life friends.
For all my love of my computer and the internet, though, I never got into the technical side of things. Not because it didn’t interest me; I just assumed it was beyond my capabilities.
My husband, on the other hand, is really into the technical side of things; both professionally and “just for funsies.” When he insisted I go with him to the Chaos Communication Congress, I tried to weasel my way out of going. I didn’t think there would be anything there that would interest me. Well, I’m happy to report (because who wants to spend 3.5 days absolutely miserable?) that I was mostly wrong! There were plenty of talks about societal issues, politics and ethics to hold my interest.
The most interesting talk that I attended was given by Mahsa Alimardani. She is an internet researcher doing PhD research at the Oxford Internet Institute. Her talk focused on her work over the past 6 years on the politics of Iran’s internet, and censorship by the government. It was interesting to see how the censorship page Iranians encounter when visiting a blocked page has changed over time. It has gone from being explicitly religious in nature to something more secular. She also touched on the social media stars in Iran that were arrested last year for “promoting un-Islamic thoughts.” If you’re following the current protests in Iran, I would highly suggest watching her talk (for free) here.
I also really enjoyed Katika Kühnreich’s talk on China’s social credit system. Currently optional, but becoming mandatory in 2020, this system is similar to a credit score; instead of rating your credit, though, it rates you as a citizen. Users offline behavior, work performance, and “attitude towards littering or ignoring red lights” all contribute to their social credit score. Your score is also tied to your friends and family, so if you are associated with someone with a low score, it can bring your own score down. A low score will be able to effect the employment, housing, etc. options for Chinese citizens once it becomes mandatory. In other words, for over 20% of the world’s population, Black Mirror is about to become reality. You can watch the talk here.
Tijmen Schep gave an interesting talk on social cooling. As he pointed out, we aren’t too far away our own version of China’s social credit system; in many ways, it’s already here. His talk focused on the social consequences of society’s growing awareness that their personal data is being collected and sold to companies; namely, people self-censoring themselves (such as not clicking certain links or not voicing their opinions) because they’re afraid of the real-life consequences. It’s not just marketers, after all, who might want to look at your personal data; it’s also your potential new boss. You can watch his talk here.
Hendrik and Kathrin from the NGO Lugend Rettet gave a talk about the Luventa, a rescue vessel that was seized by Italian authorities in 2017. They also bugged the ship while it was in international waters. It was the opinion of the speakers that many governments “dealing” with refugees would prefer they just stayed in their war-torn countries or drowned quietly, instead of being rescued. You can watch their talk here and decide for yourself.
I was also fortunate enough to get into a talk given by Robert Tibbo and Edward Snowden. The talk focused on the refugees that helped Snowden hide from authorities for two weeks in Hong Kong, before he finally made it to safety in Russia. The Hong Kong government has been systematically oppressing them, and their children, ever since. The government of Hong Kong has been threatening to send these people back to their countries of origin. While still in Hong Kong, they have been harassed, had their food stamps taken away, and their children were even denied access to education. You can donate to the Snowden refugees here, and watch the talk for yourself here.
The last talk I attended was by Allison McDonald, a “PhD student at the University of Michigan working…on issues [related] to technology, privacy, and society.” She presented research on how undocumented immigrants in the USA (specifically, 16 undocumented immigrants from the Midwest) use (or don’t use) social media. Her talk touched on the hostile environment many undocumented immigrants are currently facing (both online and off) after the election of Donald Trump. However, I really appreciated that she didn’t let President Obama off the hook, either; as much as I miss President Obama, there were many oppressive policies towards immigrants in place while he was president. Of course, they obviously pale in comparison to the current policies of Cheetolini. You can watch her talk here.
Aside from the talks, there were a lot of really impressive things on display that attendees had built themselves. I (of course) didn’t understand how anything worked, but (like the very young children there) I was fascinated by all the shiny and/or moving parts.
The fact that the Chaos Communication Congress is run entirely by volunteer work is very impressive. That said, I wish they had been able to hire professional translators for the talks in German. I’m not sure how good the translations were for French or Spanish, but the English translations weren’t very good. One of the translators did a great job, but she often traded off (mid-talk) to other translators who didn’t have half of her skill. I’m grateful that they even had translations available, but I often found myself thinking that I had wasted my time sitting in on the talk. If anything, though, this definitely provided motivation to improve my German!
If I could give one last critique, I wish they hadn’t made all of the restrooms unisex. I’m happy to share a bathroom with anyone who identifies as female or non-binary. However, I would have preferred not sharing with straight cis men. I realize they were the majority at this congress; therefore, this was likely an attempt to keep bathroom queues as short as possible. However, there were a lot of bathrooms and they could have dedicated just two of them for female-identifying attendees.
Overall, I enjoyed the Chaos Communication Congress and I’m glad I decided to go. I don’t think I will want to go again next year; but, it’s likely I will go again in two or three more years.