New Format, New World: Our Strategy Meeting 2021

By Nani Jansen Reventlow, 9th February 2021

A DFF tote bag reading 'Digital rights are human rights' and a face mask reading the same

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!

Towards the Future: DFF’s Upcoming Leadership Transition

By Nani Jansen Reventlow, 19th December 2020

The time has come for leadership transition at DFF. After a successful pilot phase, I believe it is time to look towards the future and to how the organisation can best support the digital rights field going forward.

From the very beginning, I have been keen to avoid “founder’s syndrome”, focusing instead on building a solid organisation with great staff, steady funding streams, and sound systems in place so it could be safely handed over to the next person. In December 2021, I will leave the Digital Freedom Fund. In January, we’ll start the leadership transition process, starting with the search for a new Director, who can take DFF to the next stage and continue supporting the field for the important work ahead.

From the very beginning, I have been keen to avoid “founder’s syndrome”

When DFF was founded in 2017, it set out to deliver two things: provide grants for strategic litigation to advance digital rights in Europe and facilitate skill building, collaboration and coordination between those working on digital rights in the region. Grantmaking started in the summer of 2018 and, to date, we have provided 42 grants to 28 grantees supporting 90 cases in 21 jurisdictions and 3 regional projects.

Importantly, now that we have exited our initial 3-year pilot phase, we will be able to start offering long-term litigation support, covering multiple instances, from 2021. This will allow grantees to engage in truly strategic, longer-term planning –– something we had wanted to do from the outset but were unable to as a startup organisation.

We will be able to start offering long-term litigation support, covering multiple instances, from 2021

Our skill building and convening work has spanned from organising strategic litigation retreats, where litigators can develop a case idea into a full litigation plan, to thematic gatherings to strategise around issues such as the GDPR, AI and human rights, harnessing the potential of antitrust regulation to take on “big tech”, and the digital welfare state. Underpinning this work has been a continuous strategy process that commenced before DFF was formally established and continues through our annual strategy meetings and other gatherings.

We have also gone beyond the original scope of grantmaking and convening by initiating an important and timely conversation about the need to decolonise the digital rights field. I am proud that, this year, we initiated this important process together with EDRi and even though we are only in the early stages, the first steps and recent gathering we hosted on this topic leave me encouraged of the potential for much-needed change.

Besides further building on the foundation laid over the past years, questions about the future need to be addressed. As the digital aspect of our lives continues to increase and the “field” will continue to expand, where should we be focusing our attention and resources, both collectively and as DFF? For DFF as an organisation, what is the best structure to allow it to scale its work, potentially expanding to a multi-regional approach, leveraging best practices across other parts of the world than Europe only? 

What is the best structure to allow it to scale its work, potentially expanding to a multi-regional approach?

The DFF Board has established a search committee for a new Director and will start looking for the ideal candidate to take the organisation to its next stage. I look forward to assisting them in their search and to working with DFF’s new leadership to ensure a smooth transition in the second half of 2021.

We are immensely grateful to everyone who has worked with us to help build and shape the Digital Freedom Fund –– we could not have done it without your time, energy and support. The list of all the people I want to thank is too long to include here in what is supposed to be a short blog post (and I should save something for when I do say goodbye!), but you know who you are and you will be hearing from me before I exit the building at the end of 2021!

The DFF Board has established a search committee for a new Director and will start looking for the ideal candidate

For now, please do give some thought of who might be interested in running a young digital rights organisation and ensure its continuous development. The search committee and I are happy to address questions from interested candidates following the publication of the ad in January.

 

Envisioning a Decolonised Digital Rights Field – and Charting Next Steps

By Nani Jansen Reventlow, 5th December 2020

This post was co-authored by Nani Jansen Reventlow and Claire Fernandez.

How do we create change? Numerous books, essays and TED talks have been dedicated to this question, and courses have been designed to equip us to change policy, workplace environments, and numerous other contexts.

A crucial ingredient seems to be having a vision of what that change should look like: what is the point on the horizon to set your compass towards?

This “ability to dream” and collectively envision a different future has also been a key question since DFF and EDRi started an initiative to set in motion a decolonising process for the digital rights field.

If together we had built a digital rights field in which all groups in society have their voices heard and which works to protect the digital rights of all, what would that look like? And what could such a decolonised field achieve?

This week, a group of 30 participants, working on issues of racial, social and economic justice, digital rights, and in philanthropy, came together to not only collectively imagine just that, but also to identify the building blocks for a process that might help us get there.

The gathering followed a series of conversations that commenced in March this year, where we started by speaking to organisations, collectives, activists, and others currently outside the digital rights field to understand how they engage with digital rights issues.

From the summer, we initiated similar conversations with digital rights organisations and funders, to learn more about the way in which they engaged with the digital rights of marginalised groups, such as people of colour, LGBTQI people, disabled people, or refugees.

“Blue sky visions” are not easy: we are used to seeing obstacles and challenges in the work we do. Stepping away from that to imagine something positive, without practical constraints is hard. It is especially hard in an online setting, even more so towards the end of a challenging year in which we’ve all had a few video calls too many.

However, with the positive energy present in the virtual room (nurtured by the excellent facilitation by Esra Tat and Natalia Lombardo from The Hum), the group managed to step away from current constraints and imagine the headlines that would dominate the news in 2040.

…the group managed to step away from current constraints and imagine the headlines that would dominate the news in 2040

The future looked bright: it was one in which visitors to the Silicon Valley Mausoleum could hardly imagine a past in which tech oligarchy had been the norm; digital rights, anti-racist, social justice, and climate movements were intertwined and working together; and we had shifted power structures from a system of capitalism to community. Social problems were addressed at the root and central to the field’s efforts, which were supported with ample resources. Other common themes were learning and commemoration, acknowledging that oppression has its roots in a history of domination and colonisation.

So how can we get to this  collectively imagined future? In the course of the following sessions, we took a closer look at parts of his question.

What are the building blocks for developing a decolonising programme for the digital rights field? What would the shared principles of such a collective effort be – to ensure participation, ownership and engagement in safety and collaboration? What do we need to do before starting this work, what do we need to map, research, know? What are the potential obstacles we might encounter and how can we address them? And: which other fields or factors should be ignited to undertake decolonising processes of their own?

What would the shared principles of such a collective effort be – to ensure participation, ownership and engagement in safety and collaboration?

Conversations on what should be part of the “design phase” –– the stage in which we collectively design a decolonising programme for the digital rights field (see illustration below) –– were incredibly rich, yielding many practical suggestions as well as deeper questions for further reflection. 

Our next task is now to harness the image of the design phase that has emerged from this week’s gathering, the over 50 individual conversations we had over the past months, as well as learnings from other decolonising processes. This includes taking into account some of the deeper questions to reflect on and other preparation needed before starting with this next phase of the work.

We operate in a difficult and adverse context where power imbalances and inequalities are growing. We will not get there alone

We operate in a difficult and adverse context where power imbalances and inequalities are growing. We will not get there alone. Social change is hard work. But this gathering has left us energised and even more motivated to work towards our collective vision.

We are deeply grateful to everyone who made the time at the end of a challenging year to engage with us and each other on these challenging questions in such a kind and open manner. We are especially grateful to those whose personal identity is at the center of this conversation, considering the energy it requires.

Claire Fernandez is the Executive Director of EDRi, an association of civil and human rights organisations from across Europe that defends rights and freedoms in the digital environment.

Artwork by Cynthia Alonso and Justina Leston