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Evening conference - Deciphering Crypto-Discourse

Articulations of Internet Freedom in Relation to the State

Held as part of EPE6706 Éthique, vie privée et information

(The conference will be held in English, followed by a bilingual question period.)


Conférencière Isadora HellegrenSpeaker: Isadora Hellegren, MA Communication Studies, Department of Art History and Communication Studies; Research Assistant, Centre for Medical Education, McGill University

When: Monday February 27 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Location: Saint Paul University, 223, Main St., Ottawa, room G103

Cost: Free. Open to the public

Contact person: Julie Paquette (



The understanding of what constitutes “Internet freedom” varies between countries and cultures. In Internet governance debates, myriad actors are invested in defining the meaning of “freedom” in relation to Internet-specific technologies. A central component in meaning-making processes about Internet-specific technologies and their functions is the constant negotiation of online rights, such as personal privacy and freedom of expression. In the process of these and other contestations over what should or should not constitute Internet freedom, this study explores how a specific community of participants in the Internet governance debate, namely public-key cryptography advocates, has constructed a discourse in which “crypto” (encryption software) serves as an enabler of freedom. While the design of “crypto” aims to render online communication illegible to anyone but its intended recipient(s), the representation of crypto serves as a battlefield in a larger discursive struggle to define the meaning of Internet freedom.

This presentation investigates how crypto-advocates, and in particular Cypherpunks, have articulated crypto-discourse: a partially fixed construction of meaning that establishes a relationship between “crypto” and a negative conception of Internet freedom, in relation to the state. The Cypherpunks formed as a community when privacy-concerned and technology-interested individuals gathered on the electronic Cypherpunk Mailing List in 1992, to discuss and develop encryption software in order to protect their online privacy. Several events led up to their formation as a discourse community and others reinvigorated their discourse at later stages.

To decipher crypto-discourse, I map key discursive events pertaining to the articulation of “crypto” among interrelated discourse communities of cryptographers, hackers, online rights activists, and technology journalists during a period of 40 years (1975–2015). I present the Crypto-Discourse Timeline as comprised of three periods: the origins (1975–1990), crystallization (1990–2000), and revitalization of crypto-discourse (2000–2015). For each period, I draw on Laclau and Mouffe’s theory of discourse to analyze key discursive artifacts, such as political manifestos produced by Cypherpunks and journalistic accounts produced by Wired magazine technology reporters. The timeline provides an overview of the complexity and contingency of crypto-discourse.

The implications of this research call for a more contextualized debate about the role of democratic governments in upholding privacy rights and freedom of speech online.

I argue that crypto-discourse excludes other possible positive meanings of Internet freedom. In so doing, the discourse removes responsibility from democratic states to secure online rights and freedoms for their citizens.



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