The 2016 Internet Awards

OII Deputy Director Vicki Nash writes:

The Internet and Society Awards are a much-loved highlight of the OII’s calendar. They bring together so many of our valued friends, colleagues, students and alumni to honour the individuals and organisations who have played a pivotal role in shaping the Internet for the public good. During our fifth awards evening on 11 November 2016, we celebrated the achievements of lawyer, scholar and activist Lawrence (Larry) Lessig, civil liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti, digital government champion Mike Bracken, and social entrepreneur Juliana Rotich. In reflecting on their extraordinary work — and under an overall theme of “our digital rights” — we considered the power of code, of the importance of safeguarding our digital rights, of the opportunities provided by good digital government, and the power of people to create positive social change.

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From left: Mike Bracken, Shami Chakrabarti, OII Director Helen Margetts, Juliana Rotich, OII Deputy-Director Vicki Nash, Lawrence Lessig.

 

The evening began with an inspirational and humbling lecture from our Lifetime Achievement Award winner – Prof. Lawrence Lessig – honoured here for his outstanding scholarship and public advocacy, which has contributed so much to our understanding of how the Internet might be used to stimulate culture and creativity. This short lecture and the ensuing ‘In Conversation’ gave us the opportunity to look back at some of this scholarship and advocacy to appreciate its significance. We were, for example, able to reflect on Professor Lessig’s seminal text from 1999, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, to consider its incredible foresight in helping us interpret Internet regulation in an age where digital intermediaries play an increasing role. Perhaps most powerfully, in a very honest conversation about the injustices meted out to Aaron Swartz, Professor Lessig reminded us that our digital rights are often hard won, and sometimes at great personal cost by those who fight on our behalf. For those of us who conduct what appears at times, to be dry, impersonal academic research about the incredible opportunities the Internet offers, this is a vital and powerful message.

After drinks at the OII, we moved next door to Balliol College for the gala dinner and formal prize giving. Shami Chakrabarti needs no introduction for a UK audience, being an extremely visible and committed human rights lawyer and social activist, and an ardent and determined defender of human rights in the digital age. It would be hard for anyone with even a passing knowledge of privacy, cryptography and surveillance not to admire someone who has spent the past thirteen years standing up for civil liberties in the face of encroaching state power. While many of the political battles she fought during her time as Director of the civil rights campaigning organization Liberty were over non-Internet related issues such as terrorism, extradition and press regulation, she also made Liberty a champion of rights in the digital age, and has provided impressive and authoritative leadership on issues of privacy, surveillance and security.

Our second Internet and Society award went to Mike Bracken, co-founder and past head of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS), which has been internationally lauded for its innovative and significant impact in setting up the gov.uk platform and leading digital transformation of public services. Mike has a deep understanding of the transformative potential of the Internet within traditional institutions: its capacity to connect individuals and institutions, the accessibility it provides for information and services, and the open, generative code that ensures innovation can be shared and improved upon.

In creating a single coherent system based on the concept of “government as platform” not only were there substantial cost savings to government, but this determination to provide a clear, easy-to-use portal has undoubtedly made it simpler for UK citizens to access key government services and information, as is their right. Mike’s vision and leadership were central to this ambitious programme, and it for this reason that we were so delighted to honour him with this award.

Our final Internet and Society award went to Juliana Rotich: a programmer, blogger, business woman and social entrepreneur. Any account of Juliana’s achievements has to center on Ushahidi, the crowdsourcing platform that she co-founded to collect reports of post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. Since then Ushahidi’s open source mapping tools have been used to document evidence of much more than violence and corruption: supporting crisis responders in Haiti and Japan, documenting sexual harassment cases in Egypt, or mapping the impact of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Ushahidi again made the news recently, in deploying its software to monitor voter suppression and other irregularities during the US election. The word Ushahidi means “witness” or “testimony” in Swahili, and more than 6.5 million “testimonies” have already been provided through the system — that’s 6.5 million examples of citizen empowerment, of civic activism, in the hope of helping others or keeping the powerful accountable.

Our final award of the night is always the Lifetime Achievement Award. Several of Larry Lessig’s achievements are noted above. As our own student are aware, he is an exemplary scholar and inspiring public intellectual; his extensive and provocative work on copyright and creativity in the digital age have had an extraordinary impact. However it is worth remembering that this impact goes way beyond the theoretical to the practical and the political. As an attorney of law in the late 1990s, Larry took on a case that attempted to challenge a recent extension to the US copyright term. Although that case (Eldred v. Ashcroft) was ultimately rejected by the US Supreme Court, the campaign resulted in the birth of Creative Commons, a now global NGO that provides free legal tools to enable artists and creators to share their work online whilst choosing which rights to retain.

More recently, Larry once again embraced the responsibilities of public life when he decided to try to become a candidate in the US Democrat Party for president, running on a platform of campaign funding reform. Quite clearly, Professor Lessig is a scholar of exceptional intellectual caliber but, even more importantly, he is a man of great principle, devoted in every aspect of his work to shaping our world for the public good. Our award is a small gesture of recognition and thanks for his inspirational work.

The awards evening took place against a political backdrop (post-US Election) that has made many of us question the role played by the Internet and particularly social media in political campaigning, and the ethical challenges facing those who design and run our online civic spaces. But perhaps there is no better time to be reminded of what’s at stake here, insofar as it helps us reaffirm the core values of the OII: a belief in a free and open Internet, in the vital importance of innovation, research and exploration, and in the moral significance of hard work and aspiration tempered by a strong social conscience.

Larry, Shami, Mike, Juliana – thank you so much for the leadership, vision and aspiration you have shown in all of your work, and for being so willing to share your time with us this evening.

Victoria Nash, OII Deputy Director