Canada, 2016. Director: Nicholas de Pencier, 90 minutes, PG, English/Portuguese
Toronto-based documentary filmmaker and cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier (Four Wings and a Prayer, Watermark) examines the complex global impact that the Internet has had on matters of free speech, privacy and activism. On the one hand, it has exponentially increased governments’ abilities to spy on their citizens and allowed businesses to do the same; on the other, the fact the Web is largely unpoliced has made it a godsend for protest movements, allowing them a channel to counteract government and corporate propaganda.
Remarkably, not many organizations have seriously considered the social and political ramifications of the Web. One of the few that has is The Citizen Lab spearheaded by Ron Deibert at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, whose work has ranged from assessments of the data released by Edward Snowden to uncovering Chinese hackers who had spied not only on other governments but on Chinese citizens, most notably Tibetans who had privately criticized the government.
While the implications of this kind of pervasive cyber-espionage are truly ominous (de Pencier evokes the shadow-realm aspects of the Web with footage of the private internet server that once housed WikiLeaks, where a massive bank of computers eerily thrums and throbs), the film also turns up moments of ironic comedy: the aforementioned hackers neglected to password-protect the data they pilfered, allowing The Citizen Lab to access almost all the stolen material and trace it to them.
On the other side of the ledger, de Pencier chronicles those who have made the Web into a weapon of the powerless, including activists in Brazil who use YouTube to humiliate and expose the police, the government and the right-wing media after a prominent activist is framed. What emerges is a complex portrait, both scary and invigorating, of a phenomenon that we still don't truly comprehend but which has transformed the way we live – perhaps permanently.