More research, more questions! Values, design and labeling

The research continues! The people to whom I’m speaking are continuing to be very generous and helpful, and there’s a lot of interesting data coming out. In particular, it’s really interesting to get a sense of how the Tor Project has changed over the years, and the different benefits and challenges that the trend towards more formal and organised structures have brought. It seems to be a really exciting time for Tor, with a lot of new technological developments (such as Next Generation Onion Services), various changes within the organisation and the increasing prominence of surveillance issues in public discourse. This, however, is against a background of troubling political rhetoric around encryption – the escalation of calls for backdoors in encrypted software and crackdowns by high-profile politicians (including the UK Prime Minister) in recent weeks reflect increasingly securitised and authoritarian discourse around questions of how to deal with crime online.

A common theme among the people I’ve interviewed is the idea that “Tor is a tool” – that you can’t blame infrastructure and technology for the uses to which it is put. I personally agree with this argument, and I think that this raises really interesting questions about how and why technologies get labelled as criminal or deviant. As one might imagine, Becker’s Outsiders study on how drug use and users becomes labelled as deviant is likely to be of particular relevance.

I’m finding that people talk about this in two ways. Firstly in terms of the the public image of a technology, which seems to be rooted in the groups of users it becomes associated with, the uses people associate with it and the way it is discussed by advocates, the media, politicians and the general public. This is linked to, but not “determined” by the second component – the material properties of the object, which reflect design decisions made by its creators, discussions about what the “intended use” or “point” of the technology is, and the “possibility space” of different uses it can have. As the Tor network is at its heart communication infrastructure it has a massive range of possible uses – in effect it exists to facilitate action rather than to act itself –  and as such it has more in common with a road network or the internet itself than with a tool designed for a given set of uses.

The capacities that Tor provides its users for unsurveilled communication operate in no more deterministic a way than the capacities provided by the internet itself for mass networked communication, linking people up across the world, or indeed for mass surveillance. People exist in complex relationships with technologies, both shaping and being shaped by them, and the material properties of technologies don’t operate in deterministic ways when they encounter the social world. The frustration that the Tor community experience when their network is labelled as criminal or deviant is, therefore, very understandable – it is no more so than the internet itself. How people try to influence the “meaning” of the technology (both in terms of how it is perceived and in terms of its material properties) is particularly interesting, and I hope that through further interviews I can continue to explore how people’s understanding of these issues, and their personal values and hopes for the technology, shape the design, maintenance and operation of the different components of the Tor network.

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