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Beyond the Net 4 April 2016

How Canadians worked together to shape an action plan for online privacy

David Christopher
By David ChristopherCommunications Manager, OpenMedia

Revelations of mass surveillance by government agencies. Invasive new spying legislation. Emaciated and powerless oversight bodies. Canadians have pretty much seen it all when it comes to threats to their online privacy.

In particular, the scale of the privacy intrusions exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the threshold for getting trapped in the government’s surveillance dragnet is problematically low — anyone, at any time, could be a victim and not even know about it.

All this has led to the very real danger that the Internet, the greatest tool for connectivity that humankind has ever invented, will be turned into something it was never intended to be— a tool for governments to spy on the private lives of everybody.

But is that dystopian vision inevitable? Or can citizens, working together, shape a new and positive alternative — a future where we’re every bit as secure in our online homes as we are in our bricks-and-mortar equivalents?

That’s the question my organization, OpenMedia, set out to answer with our Canada’s Privacy Plan project, which was made possible, in part, through a donation from the Internet Society’s Community Grants Programme.

We wanted to see what happens when we gave citizens a real say in terms of how to better protect the online privacy of all of us in an interconnected, digital age. We aimed to better understand Canadians’ priorities and expectations, and use that understanding to work with  experts in creating forward-thinking policy recommendations to address our privacy deficit.

Our project succeeding in involving over 125,000 Canadians in every province and territory, whose input helped shape our final set of key recommendations, that we have since taken forward to key decision-makers in Ottawa.

What worked well?

At OpenMedia, we believe the future of the Internet should be shaped through transparent and participatory processes weighted toward the lived reality of those most affected. As an organization, crowdsourcing is baked into our DNA — we know from experience that the best ideas often come from everyday Internet users, rather than from the Ottawa bubble.

What worked best for us was ensuring that citizens’ input shaped the direction of the project from beginning to end. To achieve that goal, we launched the project with a crowdsourcing tool, to enable participants to rank their privacy priorities in order of preference:

Our accessible and easy-to-use crowdsourcing tool was created to ensure as many perspectives as possible were heard.

This tool asked Canadians what was most important to them in terms of developing effective privacy safeguards. Participants could simply drag-and-drop the priorities in order of preference, and then had the option of either submitting their input, or taking part in a more detailed questionnaire about a range of specific potential proposals to address the privacy deficit. We also gave everyone the opportunity to submit open-ended feedback about what mattered most to them.

The feedback from our tool was invaluable; it was clear from Canadians’ input that 3 issues were of most concern: requiring a warrant to spy on personal info, independent oversight and review of spy agencies, and ending blanket surveillance of law-abiding people. We used this feedback to directly shape the overall direction of the report, and to ensure the key recommendations met the needs of Canadians.

We also successfully engaged Canadians through many other mediums, including a lively Social Media Town Hall, a range of coast-to-coast in-person events in Vancouver, Montreal, and Halifax, ongoing conversations on our website and social media channels, and by working with top experts to create the final recommendations of the report.

Our Facebook Town Hall proved a particularly popular way of engaging Canadians on the issue, and even saw the participation of the official opposition critic on digital rights, the NDP’s Charmaine Borg.

How people responded?

Our small team was really impressed by how many Canadians took the time to participate in our project. Over 125,000 people engaged directly with our privacy work, and over 10,000 of those provided detailed feedback using our crowdsourcing tool.

We were especially pleased by how word of the project spread, as more and more groups and individuals helped share our tool on social media. We even received some help along the way from iconic Canadian author Margaret Atwood, who shared our tool with her over 1 million Twitter followers!

As the person responsible for collating and coordinating our engagement, I think there were some especially inspiring moments along the way:

Firstly, we led two educational events on privacy issues at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association annual event for 16-17 year old high school students. We delivered an interactive presentation outlining the key privacy challenges facing Canadians today. Following Q&As, we followed up with a pen-and-paper exercise that enabled all the participants to take part in our crowdsourcing initiative. Given how deeply embedded the Internet is in the lives of the younger generation, it was truly inspiring to see just how informed and engaged young people are when it comes to their online privacy.

Secondly, simply reading the open-ended feedback provided by Canadians who used our crowdsourcing tool was a remarkable experience. It was humbling to know how many people took the time to craft this often-detailed feedback, while also being hugely valuable in terms of providing an insight into just how personally people view these privacy issues. We received far too many open-ended comments to include all of them in the report, but you can get a flavour by checking out the sampling we included on pages 84-87 of the final PDF. Here are just a few great examples:

  • Maureen told us: “Our electronic mail should have the same safeguards as our physical mail has had for over a century. The government should require a warrant to read any citizen’s communication no matter the form of transmission of that communication.”
  • My name sake David argued: “A judge must be consulted each and every time a government agency wants to invade the privacy of individuals, and the judge must be free from government influence or interference.”
  • Robert emphasized the urgency: “In less than 25 years all privacy rights for Canadians will have vanished. If the people do not speak up now it will be too late.
  • One of our high-school participants Sal summed it all up by arguing that spying “is a threat to autonomy, trespass to the mind. Your most basic human right is your right to be yourself.”

How can other groups replicate this?

We believe the message from our project is clear: rules to better safeguard our online privacy should be created not behind closed doors, but through the participation of all citizens. The Internet can be a powerful tool for more participatory models of decision-making, and we also hope other groups benefit from the detailed methodology section we included in our published plan.

Although this project was both topic- and country-specific (“Privacy in Canada”), we believe our methods could quite straightforwardly be adapted for other topics and settings. While we advise that you check out the full methodology section, some key lessons we learned include:

  • Our low-barrier, interactive crowdsourcing tool was key to maximizing public engagement with the project. We worked to ensure that the questions asked and issues raised were phrased in a way that was accessible to the general (i.e. non-expert) public. We also ensured people could choose to submit their questionnaire at any point, rather than being required to answer every question.
  • From the outset we were clear in our public communications about the crowdsourced nature of the project, the role that participants would play, and the scope of the problem we were seeking a solution to. We explained why it was so important that as many people as possible take part.
  • To shape the questionnaire, we consulted a range of leading privacy experts and organizations, and we are particularly grateful for their assistance when it came to the wording of the more detailed questions about potential privacy reforms.
  • We helped ensure word spread about the tool by including a gamified element, whereby each user received a unique URL they could share, with the people who encouraged the most new participants being recognized on a leaderboard (and even winning privacy prizes such as a year’s free VPN subscription).
  • We worked to ensure the tool would be usable by participants on a range of devices, including tablets and smartphones. A separate version of the drag-and-drop tool was built for mobile device users, with a pull-down menu replicating the drag-and-drop functionality.
  • Publicity was essential: we rolled out a comprehensive communications plan to spread the word about the tool. This included a big push via our website and social media outlets, alongside media publicity and on-the-ground work. We intensified this publicity in the run-up to the deadline with a “last chance to have your say” message.

Our final 96-page report is available here, and readers can also ensure they stay in the loop about our privacy and digital rights work by joining Canada’s Protect our Privacy Coalition, and by following us on our websiteFacebook, and Twitter.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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