In light of a very different year, DFF is preparing for a very different annual strategy meeting.
As we get ready to kick off the fourth instalment of our yearly gathering, we’re reckoning not only with a new format, but with a rapidly changing digital rights landscape.
Since the first meeting DFF hosted in Berlin in 2018, we’ve been lucky to receive an ever-growing number of participants, from increasingly varied organisations and geographical locations to jointly discuss current issues in digital rights and collaboratively plan and strategise for the months ahead.
And while we are luckily seeing this trend continue for our 2021 meeting next week, where we’ll be welcoming our biggest number of new participants yet, this meeting, like everyone’s meetings and conferences at the moment, will be online.
Instead of huddling together in a hip Berlin bar for welcome drinks, we’ll now endeavour to mix some cocktails and mocktails at home and dance to the DJ’s tunes in our respective living rooms.
Digital rights organisations suddenly had to divert their attention towards a stream of new threats, such as invasive “Corona apps” or governments abusing lockdown emergency laws
These changes notwithstanding, we are very excited to virtually come together with so many old and new friends and collaborators next week –– there certainly is a lot for us to discuss, strategise and share information on.
In 2020 the context for digital rights was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As I wrote in April last year, the COVID-19 pandemic also posed a crisis for digital rights.
Digital rights organisations suddenly had to divert their attention towards a stream of new threats, such as invasive “Corona apps” or governments abusing lockdown emergency laws to expand digital surveillance. Thermal scanners were being brought into airports, workplaces and schools, artificial intelligence is being used to allocate health resources, and there are reports of health apps or digital certificates becoming mandatory to access food and medicine.
Organisations across the digital rights field and beyond have been actively advocating for governments to tackle the pandemic in a way that ensures the use of digital technologies is in line with human rights.
There were some positive examples, such as when Germany developed an open-source contact tracing app that does not track users’ locations or store data in a centralised location.
There were some positive examples, such as when Germany developed an open-source contact tracing app that does not track users’ locations
However, indications are that examples like this are the exception, rather than the rule. As governments reduced lockdown restrictions over the summer, new risks started to emerge with the introduction of measures that increased inequalities related to freedom of movement, access to public spaces, and the ability to work and access essential services.
The first COVID-19 vaccines approved in late 2020 will hopefully bring relief for some countries in the course of 2021, but this, too, could pose further threats to digital rights. One example is the uptake of digital vaccination certificates that may be required to travel or access certain places and services, which could risk further marginalising millions of people that do not have access to smartphones or live in places that have delayed access to vaccinations.
In circumstances that were unprecedented for most, in which home working, schooling and care duties had to be combined, the digital rights field has been impressively quick to rise to the challenge. Even in the early stages of the pandemic there were already examples of strategic litigation being used to halt digital rights violations, including a successful challenge of cell phone tracking in Israel and a ban on the use of surveillance drones in France.
Even in the early stages of the pandemic there were already examples of strategic litigation being used to halt digital rights violations
In the UK, the threat of judicial review was enough to see the UK National Health Service admit they began a coronavirus test-and-trace programme without carrying out a privacy assessment, and for the UK government to stop use of an unfair grading algorithm.
We expect digital rights issues as they intersect with health and education to be high on the agenda next week, as well as the need to make progress with a decolonising process for the digital rights field, which was a topic of discussion at previous DFF strategy meetings, and initial steps have been taken on last year. We hope more generally that participants will be able to bring a decolonising lens to many of the digital rights topics we’ll discuss, be it data protection, platform power or e-government services.
Other topics that will be central in the field’s work this coming year are follow-up to the European Commission’s “white paper on artificial intelligence” and proposal for the new Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act.
Facial recognition technology promises to be an ongoing area of focus in 2021. In July, the UN Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, E. Tendayi Achiume, published a report assessing how emerging digital technologies perpetuate racial discrimination on a structural level. The call for the banning of technologies with a clear discriminatory impact, such as facial recognition, continues.
In that context, it will be interesting to see how we can build on the victory Liberty obtained in the UK in August 2020, with the courts ruling that the South Wales Police’s use of facial recognition technology violates privacy rights, data protection and equality laws.
…we have dedicated space on the agenda to reflect on well-being and sharing best practices for resilience in these strange times
Mindful of the fact that we are fighting all these battles (and more!) in circumstances that are challenging to us as organisations, teams, and individuals, we have dedicated space on the agenda to reflect on well-being and sharing best practices for resilience in these strange times.
We look forward to connecting with many of you next week and will work very hard to make it an inspiring and energising experience, even online!