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Deji Bryce Olukotun: the life of an activist and writer

What’s it like to spend your days fighting for social justice? Deji Bryce Olukotun has spent most of his career doing just that. Here’s a glimpse into his life as not only the senior global advocacy manager at Access Now, but also a published novelist.

How did you get to where you are now?
I've been fighting for social justice most of my career. I'm a lawyer by training and I'm an avid fiction writer - I published a novel called Nigerians in Space, with a sequel coming out in 2017. My most recent social justice work was at PEN America, a literary and human rights organization, where I founded its digital freedom programme and supported writers in Haiti, Myanmar, and Nigeria. I don't see activism and writing as opposed to each other - I strongly believe that creativity can help us imagine our own futures and advance justice in the world.

Why the interest in digital rights? And what led you to Access Now?

We're living in the digital age, when technologies shape our lives in profound ways. I previously worked as a more traditional human rights lawyer, and I learned that the online space was beginning to drastically affect free expression, privacy, and our personal lives. Access Now has been at the forefront of this discussion since its founding in 2009, and offers a free, 24-hour Digital Security Helpline to empower and protect activists and vulnerable people around the world. 

What does your role at Access Now involve?

As a member of the advocacy team, I manage Access Now's global campaigns to fight internet shutdowns, protect the open internet, and ensure that our fundamental rights are respected online. This means coordinating with my colleagues - and other organisations - all over the globe, to identify and advance campaigns that support digital rights. This could be anything from running online petitions to meeting with officials at the UN and in legislatures. With #KeepitOn, I work with a coalition of more than 100 organisations to anticipate, track, and develop solutions against internet shutdowns. It's a brilliant group of grassroots activists in nearly 50 countries. And there are many, many extraordinary colleagues at Access Now who are working on fighting internet shutdowns on any given day - we rely on each other and support one another.

What’s your proudest achievement with Access Now?

I feel tremendously lucky to work with such talented colleagues from so many cultures, so I'm excited to go to work most days. In 2014, we learned that the telecommunications company Verizon was tracking the browsing habits of mobile users in an insecure and creepy way with "supercookies." Our tech team quickly built a tool to allow people to test whether their own phones were being tracked, and we discovered that it wasn't just a U.S. problem - it was happening all over the world. More than 300,000 people tried our test on their phones. Our work led to major media coverage from India to Spain and Holland about this practice. And in the U.S. - thanks to our efforts and the efforts of other great organizations like Pro Publica and EFF - Verizon was fined by the Federal Trade Commission for $1.35 million for violating the privacy of its users.  

Have you ever personally experienced an internet shutdown?

Thankfully, I haven't.  I am usually on the other side -- trying to communicate with users at risk and journalists who suddenly find themselves plunged into darkness. Shutdowns are awful, instantly cutting you off from family and friends. What’s inspiring is how resilient and inventive people are during shutdowns -- they come up with creative ways to get the information out. But anyone understands the frustration of the internet not working when you need it most. Now imagine all that, while human rights atrocities are happening around you. 

What can people do to get involved in the fight against internet shutdowns?

Digital rights are human rights. They are indivisible and inalienable. You can take action at to pressure world leaders to commit to keeping it on. 

What are your fears for the future of digital rights?

Digital technologies have empowered people with incredible new communications tools that allow them to hold the powerful to account - and to innovate. My fear is that these technologies will be eviscerated through a combination of governments censoring what we say and do online; leaders waging cyber wars across borders; criminals exploiting vulnerabilities in code; and corporations advocating for policies that trample on our privacy and our free will, turning us into predictable automatons who can't think for ourselves. That's why I'm thrilled that organisations like Access Now - and many others - exist to protect our human rights. They need our support, and we're thrilled Lush has joined us in the fight.

You can follow Deji on Twitter at @dejiridoo

Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan

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