My dissertation, “ ‘Use Signal, Use Tor’ ? : The Political Economy of Digital Rights Technology,” engages with the growing literature on information controls and Internet freedom through a participatory research approach. Participatory research is grounded in the idea that knowledge jointly produced by the community and the researcher documents, deepens and validates community knowledge by emphasizing the development of communities of shared inquiry and action. Much of the academic literature on Internet freedom and digital rights technology centers on the role of nation-states, corporations, and other institutional actors, meaning that experiences and worldviews of the digital rights community are insufficiently represented.

In addition to the introduction, conclusion, and methodology chapters, my dissertation will consist of three main sections: a theoretically informed chapter on the conditions that create the demand for circumvention technology, a historical section that situates the circumvention tech movement at the juncture of the free/open source software movement and the human rights movement, and an empirical section comprising two sets of related case studies, each addressing efforts to thwart a particular type of information control: censorship and surveillance. These case studies will rely on interviews with the programmers and activists who build, disseminate, fund, and use digital rights technology.

The four organizations/tools selected for my case studies are:

  • The Tor Project/Tor
  • Psiphon
  • Open Whisper Systems/Signal (includes WhatsApp)
  • Telegram


As a researcher and digital rights activist, I take the privacy of research participants very seriously. The University of Southern California’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) has approved this study and its data protection protocol. You can read more about how I protect participant information by reading this Informed consent facts sheet.