Elisabetta Ferrari, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
It is night time and the sky over central Hong Kong is dark. Thousands of people are gathering in one of Hong Kong’s central areas, in front of the headquarters of the Hong Kong Government. They are holding their cell phones towards the dark sky, illuminating the night with their screen lights. It is September 2014 and protesters are occupying this central square in opposition to the Chinese government’s proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s political system. These images were immediately picked up and circulated by both mainstream media and social network sites. CNN described the image, saying: “Photographed from above, the glowing screens of mobile phones held aloft by the sea of protesters have created an enduring image of the demonstrators’ solidarity” (Hume & Park, 2014). Quartzechoed this sentiment: “It was an image that fascinated the world—a sea of lights coming from thousands of Hong Kong protesters waving their lit up mobile phones in the darkness” (Lih, 2014). The iconic image of protesters raising their phones to the sky survived the demise of the Umbrella Revolution and travelled far away.
When thousands of people, led by student activists, started mobilizing in Hong Kong, footage and images from these pro-democracy protests spread across the world in mainstream media and online. It seemed to many as though the revolts, uprisings, and occupations that shook the Middle East, Europe and United States in 2010-2011 were about to make a forceful come-back – and in such an unlikely place as Hong Kong. The police’s decision to use tear gas on the occupation backfired, as powerful images – of protesters trying to protect themselves with umbrellas (Lee, 2015) –, circulated online. These images gave the movement its name: the Umbrella Movement. And yet, as iconic as the umbrellas became, it was another image – of phones lifted to the sky – that would be taken up by other social movements in very different countries in the following years.
This image first reappeared in Hungary, a month after the Hong Kong protests, when thousands of people mobilized to publicly protest a tax on internet consumption that was proposed by the conservative government. Lit phones were raised in the first demonstration that drew around 10,000 people to the center of Budapest, Hungary’s capital. However, it was the second demonstration in which protesters staged the most impactful version of the iconic image: this photograph captured 100,000 people crossing the Danube River on the massive Elizabeth Bridge in an aerial shot, as they lifted their illuminated phones towards the night. These protests and images of thousands made it clear to the world that there was great public support for the movement, and eventually the government withdrew the tax proposal. To read the full post, click here.
Even though they were conceptualized and steered by U.S. based organizations, the grassroots campaigns following the Snowden leaks featured an international roster of participants who to varying degrees contributed to the strategy and framings. A great deal of these US-based activists sought out privacy activists from the so called ‘Global South’ to share their experiences with surveillance apparatuses in authoritarian contexts. In turn, groups from Latin America, the Maghreb region, or East Africa saw great benefits in joining U.S.-led, international privacy campaigns.
The importance, especially for groups from those regions to take part in such campaigns should not be understated. For them presenting their case in the transnational arena is an indispensable tool to evoke reactions from authoritarian governments who are generally not responsive to domestic civil society claims. In turn, inviting activists from non-western countries to talk about privacy breaches in their national contexts were used as warning signs against unchecked surveillance in Europe and the U.S. However, these occasional encounters between activists from around the world have not led to the formation of a organized transnational privacy movement.
From the outset, the international privacy activist scene had all the prerequisites for evolving into a transnational movement. For example, many privacy activists see themselves as global citizens and had been heavily inspired by the international protest waves that rocked the world following the global political and financial crises in the late 2000s. They frequently characterized themselves as cosmopolitans caring about the privacy rights of all people not just those from their home country. As an activist described it, the privacy community was a “fairly international bunch of people and so it is natural for them to extend their concerns that way.” But the community’s support for international campaigns was less about their efficacy than about demonstrating transnational solidarity to the outside world. Their symbolic power seemed to transcend their ability to generate tangible legal results. As two activists from Eastern Europe put it, “the idea is that we are all across the globe sharing the same problems.” To read the full post, click here.