Director Ron Deibert was interviewed by The Varsity, the University of Toronto’s student newspaper. Deibert mentioned that one of the Citizen Lab’s goals was to redefine “interdisciplinary” research, which he described as an educational buzzword. Rather, Deibert suggested that Citizen Lab is engaged in “field-building,” by exploring how political power is exercised in cyberspace. He said: “There is a problem, in my opinion, with the way that universities are structured around disciplinary silos, and you often hear a lot about interdisciplinary research, but usually that means little more than there is an office with a sociologist next to a computer scientist. But here, there is truly interdisciplinary research going on; the way we approach the topics, the methods we employ, it’s all a mixture, it’s like alchemy.”
Identifying the underlying political structures of cyberspace is often uncomfortable for the actors it exposes. Thus, the risk of backlash is sometimes a concern. Deibert said that the risks involved in doing this type of work is twofold: the first being obvious physical risks of “pulling back thick drapes around agencies who would rather stay behind those curtains.” Secondly, there is legal liability. Deibert said that the particularly “plaintive friendly” legal environment for defamation and libel in Canada means that research must be as “rigorous, transparent, and peer reviewed as possible.”
Deibert also said that it would be valuable for the University of Toronto to issue a transparency report on the sharing of private user data. Only one other university has done this to date. This would answer questions such as: “How often does law enforcement come here and ask for data on faculty or students?”
When asked about whether people should be optimistic about the Internet, or proceed with healthy cynicism, Deibert responded: “The way I look at this machine is that we’ve created this wonderful thing that can be terrific for lots of goals we have… but we haven’t thought through all the downsides to it and the unintended consequences to it are getting more and more serious, on multiple levels.” He expressed concern that most people are oblivious to these issues.
When asked if he wanted to share anything else, Deibert concluded the interview by saying, “Trust no one.”