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The Big Brother Awards gears up for a renewed assault on the privacy invaders

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By Simon Davies

Fifteen years ago today, while drinking with friends in a chaotic London pub, I came up with a whacky idea that somehow ended up taking off around the world. The initiative that emerged from that day – the Big Brother Awards – has caused more grief for invasive organisations than any single global privacy initiative I can recall.

The initiative that emerged from that day – the Big Brother Awards – has caused more grief for invasive organisations than any single global privacy initiative I can recall.

I thought it might be fun to commemorate that beer-sodden moment, to celebrate those who made it come to life and to seek some ideas from the talented readership of this site. It is time for the Awards to go to the next level.

The idea in 1998 was to establish an award ceremony to recognise the heroes and villains of privacy. There were so many unsung pioneers in that fledgling movement – but there was a far greater number of data thugs who were blatantly striving to ruin the foundations of the information age.

In that respect some things never change – though at least these days privacy is near the centre of the media radar screen. Corporations and governments in the 1990’s were feasting off the seams of rich data that the digital realm had created, and few people in the mainstream of public policy could understand the complexity of those new technologies.

Organisations are well equipped to obfuscate by way of clever language and false evidence, and so a blunt, uncompromising and irrevocable response was called for. A combative and photogenic award issued in perpetuity might be sufficient to make many governments think twice before engaging in bad surveillance. At the very least, being in a Hall of Shame might prompt an ethical debate within the nominated organisations.

Corporations and governments in the 1990’s were feasting off the seams of rich data that the digital realm had created

What was needed back then was a fun ceremony with memorable prize categories – most invasive project, most appalling technology, most heinous government agency, worst corporate invader – and of course, a Lifetime Menace award for the utter bastards of the digital age. Privacy International’s then Deputy Director Davie Banisar and I cooked up a powerful visual image that was to become the physical prize handed to winners – a life-size golden boot stamping on a golden head. This imagery was drawn from a line in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”.

And so it was that the Big Brother Awards were born, backed by Privacy International and initially hosted by the London School of Economics. The first event – the following October – set a template for what was to become a global movement. The following year Austria and the US established their own awards, and were joined in 2000 by Germany Switzerland and France. The number of participating countries then swelled quickly – Hungary, Belgium, Spain, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark. Each developed their own local award formula, though each followed a basic set of global parameters.

No ignoble privacy vandal was spared the naming and shaming – deceptive governments, greedy corporations, intrusive surveillance schemes, invasive and unjustified national security powers and idiotic laws.

Over the next two years this group expanded even further to include Bulgaria, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the Czech Republic and Italy. Dedicated activists and NGOs across the world worked on the event organisation and recruited a vast array of expert judges from all walks of life.

No ignoble privacy vandal was spared the naming and shaming – deceptive governments, greedy corporations, intrusive surveillance schemes, invasive and unjustified national security powers and idiotic laws. All were given the disinfectant of sunshine in a way that media found sexy and that recipients despised. In the early years Microsoft received several awards, which reportedly increased sensitivity over privacy within the company. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of multiple recipient the UK Home Office, which refused to reform its invasive mandate.

The award events themselves were – and still are – enormous fun. I presented both the Japan awards and the US awards dressed as Queen Elizabeth II. I was Michael Jackson in San Francisco, Dr Evil in Chicago and the Pope in Montreal. In Vienna the awards became such a spectacle that they had to be conducted in Austria’s biggest dance club. In some countries the BBA ceremonies became the most significant annual meeting place for campaigners from all points on the political spectrum. Artists, musicians, actors, designers, technologists and writers joined privacy activists to create spectacles that have been reported in most of the world’s major news outlets. More than 120 award ceremonies in twenty countries have now been conducted.

Some of the prize winners have tried to make light of the awards by pretending to join in the fun. The UK Home Office placed two of its awards in the Home Secretary’s ante-room. In the US the FBI had its award publicly collected by an agent. In the Netherlands, prize winners often attend the award ceremonies to argue their case.

This imagery was drawn from a line in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”.

But regardless of such PR tactics the awards have always been a serious matter. More important, they have become a litmus test of emerging issues, acting as an early warning system for troubles ahead.

The awards have slowed a little since then. So far this year ceremonies have taken place in the Czech Republic, Germany and Bulgaria, with BBAs scheduled before August in the Netherlands, France and Belgium. The awards are now a largely European movement, but this must change.

Such countries as India, Mexico, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines have expressed interest in holding BBA events, and the time is well overdue for that expansion. Governments are encroaching on rights with increasing zeal in those countries, fed by technology marketed by secretive Western corporations. And while Europe and a small number of other regions have regulators and privacy law, three quarters of the world has no such protections.

Over the next three months I’ll be working with present and past BBA organisers to strengthen and enlarge the awards and the network. Readers are welcome to contact me with ideas and proposals. Let’s make the next fifteen years huge!