Dissertation

I defended my PhD dissertation at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in April 2018. The official degree conferral is scheduled for December 2018. I am embargoing the full text of the study until the end of 2019 while I explore publication options. Meanwhile, my FOCI 2018 paper, “From Russia with Crypto: A Political History of Telegram,” which is based on the dissertation case study, is available here. Other chapters may be available upon request.

Use Signal, Use Tor? The Political Economy of Digital Rights Technology

Abstract

This dissertation explores the political economy surrounding some of the new communications tools undergirding 21st century social movements, what I call digital rights technologies: tools that allow people to maintain privacy and/or access to the open internet. Governments are increasingly willing and able to surveil internet users and to control the flow of information within and across their borders, and Silicon Valley’s search for a business model has given rise to surveillance capitalism, an economic system is based on ubiquitous electronic tracking of citizens’ online and offline activities. Classical authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism are converging to give rise to networked authoritarianism, a political system that leverages ICTs and media regulation to carefully control the expression of dissent in a way that gives the impression of limited freedom of expression without allowing dissent to gain traction, with grave implications for democracy and human rights. In response, a transnational social movement dedicated to digital rights has emerged, with roots in early waves of contention over communication rights. Part of the digital rights movement’s repertoire of contention involves the development of digital rights technologies, and this study follows the activists and technology developers fighting for human rights in today’s digitally mediated world. This work adds to the current literature through four case studies of organizations producing digital rights tools (Psiphon, Tor, Signal, and Telegram). Drawing on over three years of participant observation in the digital rights space, the study further analyzes the trajectory of this social movement, its relationship to the U.S. government’s Internet Freedom agenda, and the impact of digital rights technologies on geopolitics.

Chapters

Introduction
Chapter 1 – Information controls, digital rights, and resistance
Chapter 2 – Methodology and ethical considerations
Chapter 3 – The digital rights space: Portrait of a social movement
Chapter 4 – A political history of U.S. internet freedom funding
About the case studies
Chapter 5 – Psiphon: Software for the soft war?
Chapter 6 – Tor: Peeling the onion
Chapter 7 – Signal: Bringing encryption to the masses
Chapter 8 – Telegram: From Russia with crypto
Conclusion

Privacy
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.