Technology and Repression

When scholars think of repression, they often think of the state as the repressor. This misses a tremendous amount of repression undertaken by private actors. Of course, this has always been true—from Pinkertons to the KKK—private actors have been critical repressive actors. But, the rise of digital technologies brings the role of private repression into even greater relief.

Case in point: a leaked game plan by International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), a music industry group, to police online music globally. A blog post from TorrentFreak summarizes the report.

Now, I realize that where the digital rights movement sees free culture, IFPI sees piracy. But, it is also the case that many of the platforms targeted by IFPI and other entertainment industry groups are also used for non-infringing uses that are important to the digital rights movement and in no way illegal. So, this global game plan gives a unique view into private repression.

Meanwhile, another case reveals the power of digital technologies to aid in the repression of dissent—this time by an unusual government repressor—the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). Digital technologies played a key role in the FDA’s surveillance of watchdog scientists who felt that political concerns were being put ahead of good science and public health. The NYT report on the surveillance is shocking. According to the Times, over 80,000 digital documents were put together based on screen captures, key logs, and flash drives connected to work computers. The story, and the rather tepid reaction to it, will certainly make other potential whistleblowers think twice before they try to blow the whistle.


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