Here We Go Again: Our COVID-19 Litigation Fund Takes Two

By Thomas Vink, 16th September 2020

A smartphone that displays DFF Covid-19 litigation fund is surrounded by floating viruses.

As the pandemic blazes on, DFF has reopened applications for its COVID-19 Litigation Fund.

The second round comes on the heels of the first, which saw applicants seeking to challenge digital rights violations across the spectrum, from the growing use of thermal scanners to the security of tracing apps.

In June 2020, DFF launched the COVID-19 Litigation Fund. The fund supports strategic litigation that challenges digital rights violations committed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We established this fund as it became increasingly evident that the pandemic was not only a public health crisis, but also a crisis for digital rights. The scope and nature of the digital rights violations that have been caused by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented and need to be challenged as a matter of urgency.

The scope and nature of the digital rights violations that have been caused by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented and need to be challenged as a matter of urgency

The fund aims to ensure that activists and litigators have the resources to start bringing legal challenges now to halt or limit the impact of digital rights-infringing measures during this time.

What cases are we supporting?

The cases we are currently supporting under the fund include challenges to the growing use of thermal scanning technology in the UK, data protection and privacy claims against the rolling out of COVID-19 apps across Europe, and litigation on the right of women to have access to online sexual and reproductive health information and services in Spain.

Check out the case study page on our website to find out more about the different cases we are supporting through the COVID-19 Litigation Fund.

Although many governments have ended the most restrictive lockdown measures, ongoing responses to the pandemic continue to threaten our digital rights. The list of these threats is long, but includes the growing use of facial recognition technology, the roll out of immunity passports and travel apps, the use of tools to recognise whether people are wearing masks, the use of algorithms to prioritise hospital appointments, and tools to monitor quarantine breaches.

Although many governments have ended the most restrictive lockdown measures, ongoing responses to the pandemic continue to threaten our digital rights

Strategic litigation is an important tool for upholding people’s right to privacy and data protection, ensuring equality of access to information online and pushing back when technology does not meet human rights standards.

Early litigation successes include the banning of surveillance drones in France and preventing the tracking of cell phones in Israel. More recently, in the UK, the threat of legal action helped force the government to scrap an unfair grading algorithm that was being used to provide students with academic qualifications in the absence of exams. In Brazil and Slovakia there have been important court rulings that limit the sharing of telecommunications data to track contacts of people infected with the virus.

A second call for applications

To help support more organisations in taking legal action against digital rights violations exacerbated by the pandemic, we have launched a second call for applications under the COVID-19 Litigation Fund. The second call will be open until 30 September, and grants will be contracted with successful applicants by December 2020.

Recognising that responses to the pandemic can have a particularly severe impact on groups that are already experiencing discrimination and marginalisation, DFF will prioritise applications that focus on addressing the negative impact felt by the most vulnerable groups in society.

DFF will prioritise applications that focus on addressing the negative impact felt by the most vulnerable groups in society. Funding is not limited to digital rights organisations

Funding is not limited to digital rights organisations. We also encourage applications from other organisations, where digital rights violations have occurred in the context of other work, such as health, social justice or welfare.

If you have a case challenging digital rights violations related the COVID-19 pandemic, we encourage you to apply.

Fighting COVID-19 Digital Rights Violations: Our New Litigation Fund

By Thomas Vink, 8th June 2020

A graphic showing a smartphone location and a virus.

On 8 June 2020, DFF launched the COVID-19 Litigation Fund. The fund supports rapid response strategic litigation that challenges digital rights violations committed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We started this fund because measures brought in by politicians, authorities and businesses in response to the pandemic will have ramifications for digital rights for years to come.

Some of these measures have a detrimental impact on our human rights in the digital sphere: our right to privacy can be violated by invasive “Corona apps”, our right to access information is hampered when the free press is limited or even silenced, and the use of AI to help allocate health resources could lead to discrimination and unequal access to essential services.

Strategic litigation, alongside advocacy and other efforts, has a major role to play in challenging the most egregious measures. The fund enables activists and litigators to start bringing legal challenges now to halt or limit the impact of digital right-infringing measures.

COVID-19 – A Crisis for Digital Rights

Back in April, we called the COVID-19 pandemic a crisis for digital rights. This crisis shows no signs of abating.

Back in April, we called the COVID-19 pandemic a crisis for digital rights. This crisis shows no signs of abating.

The rapid nature of the pandemic response has empowered governments to rush through policies and emergency measures with little to no legal oversight.

Many states have used the pandemic as an excuse to censor critics and filter information online in their favour. Countries are rolling out contact-tracing apps and biometric technology to track citizens’ movements, communications and health data in relation to the pandemic. And as governments reduce lockdown restrictions, new risks are emerging with the introduction of measures that increase inequalities related to freedom of movement, access to public spaces, and the ability to work and access essential services.

There are already examples of strategic litigation being used to halt digital rights violations taking place during the pandemic. In Israel, human rights organisation Adalah successfully challenged the tracking of cell phones by the Israel secret service. In France, judges banned the use of surveillance drones to monitor public compliance with coronavirus-related restrictions after La Quadrature Du Net and La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme filed a lawsuit against the Parisian police. In the UK, Open Rights Group are preparing a legal challenge to the National Health Service’s coronavirus test-and-trace programme.

In Israel, human rights organisation Adalah successfully challenged the tracking of cell phones by the Israel secret service

But these cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Activists and litigators need more resources to take litigation to mitigate the negative consequences of the human rights violations occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic. We set up the COVID-19 Litigation Fund for this purpose.

What is the COVID-19 Litigation Fund?

DFF has been working with digital rights litigators and activists across Europe since 2017, and providing grants to support strategic litigation to advance digital rights since 2018. We fund cases that demonstrate potential to bring about legislative, policy or social change, and to have an impact extending beyond the parties directly involved in the case.

The digital rights violations occurring under the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented and need to be challenged as a matter of urgency. Thanks to support from the Open Society Foundations, we were able to create a dedicated fund to support activists and litigators to take rapid response strategic cases related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first call for applications under the COVID-19 Litigation Fund will close on 28 June, and grants will be contracted with successful applicants in late August 2020. Grants will support litigation through the whole process, from first instance to the final appeal stage.

Funding is not limited to digital rights organisations. We also encourage applications from other organisations

Recognising that there is a “digital divide” that limits access to justice and increases hardship for some people, DFF will prioritise applications that focus on addressing the negative impact felt by the most vulnerable groups in society. Funding is not limited to digital rights organisations. We also encourage applications from other organisations, where digital rights violations have occurred in the context of other work, such as health, social justice or poverty.

Applying for a Grant

The call for applications under the COVID-19 Litigation Fund is open from 8-28 June 2020. If you have a case challenging digital rights violations related the COVID-19 pandemic we encourage you to apply.

The call for applications under the COVID-19 Litigation Fund is open from 8-28 June 2020

Of course, you may have identified an issue but you are not yet ready to litigate. We are working on mobilising resources to allow for a second call for applications later in 2020, but are unable to confirm that at this time. So continue to watch this space. And: if you have an idea for a case or for litigation not related to COVID-19, please head over to our main grants page and apply for a grant now!

Everything you always wanted to know about DFF funding but were afraid to ask – DFF’s first “ask us anything” call

By Thomas Vink, 23rd July 2019

On 4 July, DFF held its first “ask us anything” call. This was a chance for organisations and individuals to informally connect with DFF staff and discuss anything they wanted to know about DFF grants for strategic litigation and how to submit a successful application.

Some of the questions that came up included the timeline for processing an application, DFF’s position on covering external counsel’s legal fees, and how to find out more about grantees DFF is supporting. We provided guidance to a current applicant on changes that might be made to their application in light of recent developments in their jurisdiction. One other organisation discussed their plans for a new case and asked questions about whether it would be a good fit for DFF grant support.

The call was a great opportunity for DFF to meet new digital rights litigators and for individuals in the digital rights field to meet each other. Following the discussions, we invited one of the organisations on the call to join a strategic litigation workshop we are organising later in the year.

This “ask us anything” call comes almost exactly one year after DFF’s grantmaking process was formally launched — in the summer of 2018. DFF continues to provide grants to support strategic litigation to advance digital rights in Europe. We now have a case study page on our website where you can see examples of the cases we have supported so far. Our first case study highlights a case by Panoptykon, who are supporting Polish civil society organisation SIN to file a lawsuit against Facebook.

In early 2019, we asked organisations we have engaged with so far to provide feedback on our grantmaking and field building activities. Overall, we were pleased to see that the feedback was very positive. However, there were some areas identified for improvement. In particular, a number of people described confusion about aspects of the grantmaking process and in deciding what kind of information to include in their application. Based on this feedback, we have developed supplementary resources to help demystify the application process and explain what a strong application for DFF support looks like. Our website now has a frequently asked questions section and application guides, describing how to fill out our grant application forms. We will continue adding to these resources based on your feedback, including what we learn from the “ask us anything” calls.

DFF plan to host another “ask us anything” call on Tuesday 10 September 2019. Please do spread the word, let us know if you want to join and we look forward to talking to many more of you then.