Did real damage to Amazon’s surveillance empire
In 2021, we made headway in the fight against Amazon’s surveillance empire. We kicked off the year campaigning to end workplace surveillance at Amazon, helping to break the story at CNBC on Amazon’s vans turning into mobile surveillance machines that simultaneously surveil drivers and our neighborhoods. And we worked with Senator Markey (D-MA) to organize a letter to demand answers about this new mobile surveillance system.
As we approached the one-year anniversary of Amazon’s moratorium on selling facial recognition tech to the police, we launched the Eyes on Amazon campaign along with the Athena Coalition, MediaJustice and other civil rights groups, calling for a permanent ban. Within two weeks of launching the campaign, Amazon announced an extension of its moratorium ‘until further notice.’ The concessions didn’t end there. After years of campaigning, meeting with shareholders, and holding protests across the country, Amazon announced that it would no longer allow law enforcement to privately ask Ring camera owners for video footage. It also imposed limits on geographic location, number of inquiries per incident, and restricted video requests related to lawful events like protests. While this is a huge concession, this policy shift does not change the fundamental dangers or racial profiling that accompanies widespread use of Amazon’s interconnected cameras in homes, mailboxes, and vehicles.
Launched the first major grassroots campaign against palm scanning
Built one of the largest coalitions in support of data privacy
We’ve been educating lawmakers, civil society, and the press about the root causes of Big Tech’s harms: surveillance capitalism, algorithmic manipulation, and monopoly power. Our work on this has been cited by the New York Times, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, CNBC, the Washington Post, and other outlets. As Congress debated how best to address the dominance and harm of Facebook in the wake of whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony, we quickly launched HowToStopFacebook.org with 70+ human rights organizations. Our campaign page included a mind blowing design from our designer, Vasjen Katro, and demands Congress use its subpoena power to launch a full investigation into Facebook’s harms and a real federal data privacy law that makes it illegal for companies like Facebook and YouTube to collect the enormous amount of data they use to power their harmful and personalized recommendation algorithms.
The campaign received widespread media coverage and showed the overwhelming consensus among civil society groups that a strong federal data privacy law is critical to reducing the harms of platforms’ algorithmic manipulation.
Organized a Massive Coalition To Protect Free Expression & Section 230
We continue to be a leading voice educating and advocating around the human rights and free expression implications with changing Section 230, and we are one of the few organizations consistently raising concerns about the ways that platforms content moderation regimes and algorithmic manipulation suppress marginalized people’s speech. In 2021, we organized a letter from 70+ racial justice, human rights, LGBTQ, harm reduction, and social justice groups opposing the repeal or gutting of 230 and calling on lawmakers to pass the SAFE SEX Worker Study Act to study the public health impact of SESTA/FOSTA before making further changes. Our view is that lawmakers should pass this bill and investigate the harm done by their last change to Section 230 before making more changes.
We’ve led opposition to the misguided Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act as well as a poorly written medical misinformation bill, and explained why measures like privacy legislation and antitrust would do more to address online harms than any changes to 230. We’ve also been active in conversations around online harms to children, and the need to ensure that policies respect the rights of young people to use social media to connect, find support, and organize to change their world.
We’re seeing more and more news coverage that acknowledges the human rights concerns around poorly thought-out efforts to punish Big Tech. So far, we have kept bad legislation at bay, but bills from both Democrats and Republicans continue to be a threat, and we’re always wary of bills like the EARN IT Act, which could pop back up and move very quickly. To keep educating people around what’s at stake, we created whatissection230.org.
Drew First Blood In the Fight Against Facial Recognition in Public Places
The tides have truly turned against facial recognition, and it’s in no small part due to our ongoing organizing to ban it. Need an example? Earlier this fall Facebook/Meta announced plans to end its massive facial recognition program. Even if this is just a PR move, the fact that the company chose to focus on facial recognition is a testament to how successful we've been in making this technology politically toxic.
This year we expanded our focus beyond government and law enforcement use of the technology to call for a ban on facial recognition in all public places. We’ve continued our two-pronged strategy: make the tech so politically toxic so that we slow down widespread adoption, while building the swell of support to win policy that bans the technology. For the first prong we focused on retailers, and led a coalition of more than 35 organizations to launch the first major campaign to ban facial recognition surveillance in retail stores.** **So far we’ve gotten 19 retailers, including Walmart, Home Depot, and Target, to confirm they don’t use or plan to use the technology. After Macy’s confirmed and doubled down on its use of facial recognition, we rented a mobile billboard and drove it outside Macy’s locations in D.C. to draw attention to the company’s use of facial recognition, especially on kids.
On the legislative front, we got the Federal facial recognition moratorium reintroduced in Congress and continued to support local efforts to ban facial recognition (like in King County, Washington - the first county to ban the technology). In the end, we know that Federal (and even global) policies are needed to prevent a biometric surveillance dystopia, but we see this work as part of a broader strategy to slow down commercial adoption and cultural normalization of this technology, to give us time to fight for the prohibitions we need.
Forced Apple to Postpone and possibly abandon its SpyPhone plan
In August Apple announced plans to install photo and message scanning software on all iOS devices as a way to address the spread of CSAM (Child Sexual Abuse Material). Photos saved to iCloud would be scanned and compared to a hash of known CSAM images, and messages sent with iMessage would be scanned for sexually explicit images. This on-device scanning would create a backdoor on devices unlike anything other tech companies have done by bypassing end-to-end encryption to establish a new precedent for law enforcement to access information on personal devices, and it would actually endanger children and vulnerable communities.
In the wake of the announcement we led the grassroots response. We worked with a coalition of digital and human rights groups to collect more than 60,000 petition signatures and delivered them to Apple in a virtual press conference with our friends at EFF, S.T.O.P., OpenMedia, and security expert Bruce Schneier. Then we organized protests outside Apple stores in cities across the country. At first Apple said it would postpone its plan in order to address civil rights’ concerns, but the company has quietly pulled references to its spyPhone plan off its site, suggesting it’s abandoning it!
Laid the Groundwork for a Net Neutrality Victory
When FCC Chair Ajit Pai repealed net neutrality in 2017, we knew it would take a major effort to win it back. Since then we have organized some of the largest online protests in human history in response to the repeal, and our work is paying off.
In 2021, we helped organize grassroots activists to send nearly 200K messages to lawmakers via Battle for the Net (our longstanding hub for net neutrality organizing), demanding the Biden administration nominate champs to the FCC who don’t have ties to the telecom industry and for the Senate to swiftly confirm them. We celebrated a victory in November when Jessica Rosenworcel (the acting FCC chair for most of 2021), as well as friend-of-the-org and champion of net neutrality and Broadband access Gigi Sohn were nominated to fill the open spots at the FCC. Rosenworcel was successfully confirmed, and we’re working both publicly and behind-the-scenes to make sure Sohn gets confirmed to ensure we have an FCC majority in favor of reinstatement of net neutrality. Evan also made the case for swift confirmation in a Vice op-ed linking the importance of net neutrality to the urgent need to rein in the monopolistic power of Big Tech.
We’ve also continued to build momentum for legislation enshrining net neutrality into law, helping to organize a Congressional briefing about the importance of net neutrality and Title II protections at which Senator Markey announced plans to introduce net neutrality legislation. In early May we had some vindication when the New York Attorney General’s office announced proof that the nation’s largest broadband companies funded a massive campaign of fraud that flooded the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with fake comments using stolen names and addresses to influence the agency’s net neutrality proceeding in 2017. We were the organization that first helped expose the flood of fake comments. We know that as we get closer to winning back net neutrality there will be more and more of these kinds of attacks. But we won’t back down when any industry tries to fake their way through the process to undermine democracy, and we won’t stop fighting for net neutrality.
Called out human rights issues with Apple's app store monopoly
While the Epic vs. Apple trial was underway, we launched abolishtheappstore.org, which was covered by the Washington Post and others. We highlighted how the “stranglehold” on the App Store not only hurts competition and innovation, but also represents a human rights problem because it gives authoritarian governments around the world a chokepoint to ban or censor apps.
Next, we organized a Pride Month action where we partnered with Great Fire, a non-profit organization that monitors the status of websites censored by the Great Firewall of China, to document instances of removal, unavailability, and censorship in App Stores around the world for apps specifically catering to LGBTQ+ content, community building, social networking, entertainment, mental health, counseling, and fitness.
We’re encouraged that some provisions in the House antitrust package of bills take aim at Apple and Google’s app store policies, and are starting to build out a coalition of organizations that understand the importance of fighting for the right to run whatever software you want on your own devices.
Defended decentralized technology against misguided legislation
When Congress snuck provisions into the big infrastructure bill that would crush the cryptocurrency ecosystem, expand surveillance, and endanger human rights, we fought back. We drove more than 40,000 calls to Senators and facilitated tweets reaching more than 20 million users, helping to delay the vote and generate the introduction of two competing amendments in less than a week. The campaign generated massive press attention including the front page of WaPo, NPR Marketplace, The Hill, and dozens of other articles.
At the last minute, politics got in the way and our amendment didn’t pass. But while the provision was ultimately included in the final infrastructure bill signed into law, we aren’t giving up. Lawmakers have already introduced at least three standalone bills that aim to override most of the bad provisions in the infrastructure bill. We’ll build support for these bills at DontKillCrypto.com and are updating the scorecard as legislators show their commitment to supporting a fix.
We see real potential for decentralized technologies, and we want to ensure that any policies governing them or responding to legitimate concerns (like climate, scams, etc) don't undermine human rights or disproportionately harm marginalized communities. Stay tuned for much more from us on these issues in 2022!
Launched an Attack on Child Surveillance
Children are increasingly subjected to surveillance, and we are committed to protecting them. In partnership with our friends at Parents Together, we launched a campaign to End Child Surveillance and held a livestream panel of parents sharing stories of their kids being harmed by surveillance.
We also launched a campaign to ban eproctoring in schools. Eproctoring, which surged in popularity during the pandemic, is essentially spyware that students are forced to install on their devices in order to complete their courses. There has been a massive student backlash, and we are working to pressure schools to end the use of the invasive, biased, and ineffective technology. Our campaign has already gotten 14 schools to say they won’t use eProctoring, and we co-wrote an op-ed with our friends at Encode Justice that recently ran in Teen Vogue.
Stopped Spotify from Surveilling Your Emotions
Called B.S. On Using Intellectual Property Restrictions to Deny People COVID Vaccines and Digital Books
From Fight for the Future’s beginning, we have fought against efforts by copyright maximalists to control and censor content. This year, we’ve joined forces with the new Library Futures project to champion and defend public libraries in the digital age and called out Amazon’s attacks on libraries. Our work to sound the alarm helped lead to major coverage and a Congressional letter. We also pushed back against academic journals that sought to install spyware to punish students for using free and better websites to access research papers.
We were among the first to speak out against the duplicitous Journalism, Competition and Preservation Act (JCPA), legislation that would basically funnel Facebook money into News Corp hands, while eroding fair use law and leaving local independent journalism out in the cold.
Copyright became a major issue when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine, testing, and treatment, with organizations like the RIAA ghoulishly lobbying against a WTO measure to waive intellectual property rights in order to make lifesaving COVID vaccines and treatments available globally. So we organized a “No COVID in our name” letter from more than 70 artists, authors and entertainers including Kathleen Hanna, Stephen Fry, Debra Messing, Alyssa Milano, and Neil Gaiman, and continue to gather more signers to refute these claims that stopping the spread of COVID is bad for creators.
Finally, we launched EndCreativeMonopolies.com. This hub site is the foundation of our growing work in the movement to reimagine our laws to serve the interests of creators and the public, not mega-corporations and their investors. End Creative Monopolies starts with the public’s growing understanding of the harms of monopolies and big tech, and applies that lens to the myth of the starving artist across creative mediums—from musicians and authors to streamers and photographers.
Pushed back against the expansion of Government Surveillance
In the wake of the January 6 Capitol Attack, we warned against attempts to exploit the crisis to expand surveillance programs and authoritarian policies that disproportionately target and silence communities of color and marginalized social movements.
We also celebrated the one-year anniversary of the expiration of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, participating in a day of action and helping to drive more than 13,000 signatures to Congress in support of privacy rights via StopThePatriotAct.org.
In solidarity with immigrant rights groups, we helped initiate a letter against calls to create a “smart wall” that would exponentially expand surveillance technology at the border.
Finally, we continue to support the Fourth Amendment is Not for Sale Act, legislation that would keep the government from purchasing your personal data that it would otherwise need a warrant to acquire.
Shared Our Playbook
One of our goals is to share our strategy of using the power of the Internet to build movements online. At the start of the year, we partnered with Georgia-based Women Engaged to support their digital strategy and comms during the Senate runoff. We helped them create a hub for their voter engagement work, advised and supported a weekly livestream, and helped elevate their Gen Z voices in the media.
As the Biden administration started to staff up, we launched NoBigTech.org with influencers including Mark Ruffalo, and drove actions and organized influencers to keep big tech out of the administration. We also continued our work with the Poor People’s Campaign, helping to create the Season of Nonviolent Action campaign page.
We’ve also been involved in advising the newly formed Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, who have been running a powerful Justice at Spotify campaign and recently organized distributed protests led by independent musicians around the world.