It is hard to keep floating when two people who have inspired you in life pass away within days from each other. I owe it to these two troublemakers to thank them for their great work and for the paths that they have opened to many of us.
Today the news came that we lost Özgür Uçkan. Özgür was a digital rights activist, as well as a professor, philosopher, artist, economist, and one of the founding members of Alternatif Bilisim, an association based in Turkey working on digital rights and freedoms. I have had the fortune of meeting a number of polymaths in my life, but few of them sustain an equal passion for working with people, as they do for their intellectual endeavors like Özgür did. The picture below from an anti-censorhip protest in Istanbul that Ismail Hakki Polat used in his eulogy says it all.
Özgür, in the brown t-shirt, is standing tall and proud, and most probably having some good fun at the front-line. Most importantly, he is surrounded by peers and some of the many young people he inspired, many of whom continue to be part of the struggle for digital rights and freedoms in Turkey. Within a year from the time that picture was taken, the same networks would organize large protests that would come to attract 60.000 people in over 30 cities within and outside of Turkey. People have argued that these series of actions were some of the stepping stones that led to the Gezi Park protests. After all, ruptures like Gezi are often the product of widely felt frustration as well as the accumulation of years of organizing. From where I stand, Özgür Uçkan belonged to the group of people who understand what it takes to create a collective vision, and then to organize and mobilize people around it. He worked relentlessly to capture the spirit of our times, to resist infringements upon our fundamental freedoms, and to do so in a way that inspired action and change.
There is another detail in that same picture which will bring me to Caspar Bowden, the other person who passed away this week. Next to Özgür Uçkan stands Yaman Akdeniz, yet another important academic, activist, and free-speech advocate. Caspar Bowden was the first person to mention Yaman’s name and work to me. Yaman Akdeniz and Caspar Bowden went way back. Here is a chapter in a book the two wrote together titled “Cryptography and Democracy: Dilemmas for Freedom” in 1999. The piece was written during Caspar’s time at the Foundation for Information Policy Research. While Yaman Akdeniz moved onto fighting government censorship as his prime area of activity, Caspar Bowden switched to Microsoft where he would later become the Chief Privacy Adviser. I met him during this time and was surprised by his commitment to promoting Privacy Enhancing Technologies given the title he was holding. Throughout the years, I witnessed how he leveraged all the powers and connections he had to push forward technical architectures and designs that would serve to protect privacy. He would encourage those of us working on such systems to continue our line of work, while also pulling us into rooms with policy makers and parliamentarians so that we could demonstrate the powers of encryption and distributed computation in the service of protecting privacy. When he parted paths with Microsoft and returned to his advocacy work, I saw him at first struggle with the legacy of his association with the company. But this being Caspar, he just held on to his grounds and pushed every channel possible to make it known to the public what Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA and GCHQ surveillance programs would eventually confirm.
Today, the loss of Özgür Uçkan and Caspar Bowden feels like two hard punches. Tomorrow, I can imagine gaining courage from the many inspiring memories we have of them and to dream futures informed by the principles they held true. As one wise community activist from NYC once said, “they rolled the ball over to us, it is now our turn to keep it rolling”.
For a collection of videos of interventions by and about Özgür Uçkan see Erkan Saka’s compilation.
For a sweet farewell to Caspar Bowden, see Malavika Jayaram’s post.
And, here is a video of Caspar’s talk at 31C3 which will allow you to enjoy his talk _and_ his infamous slides.