Atlas Lab – Breaking the Black Box of Law & Tech

By Jonathan McCully, 18th January 2021

Just over a year ago, Aurum Linh and I spoke about our plans to develop a tool to demystify two processes that can seem daunting, even elusive: machine learning and human rights litigation.

We believe that understanding these processes a bit better can unlock opportunities for collaborative action in challenging the human rights harms that are perpetrated or contributed to by technologies that are often referred to as “artificial intelligence” or “AI.”

To help break open these processes, we wanted to build a tool that can deconstruct what it means to build a machine learning system and take a human rights case to court.

Today, we are launching Atlas Lab — a project that seeks to build a knowledge base that lawyers, activists and human rights defenders can use when working on the front lines of AI and human rights litigation.

As automated decision making becomes a routine part of our everyday lives, it will also play a role in critical litigation around privacy, labor, due process, and other human rights issues. We need strong precedents to ensure our rights are protected and promoted.

There are, however, limited resources to bridge the gap of these disciplines and we hope our site can go some way towards doing that. The site consists of a library of explainer articles on machine learning and litigation, and a small database of summaries of court decisions that are at the intersection of these two worlds.

The process of building Atlas Lab has been a long but fulfilling one, and we have benefitted hugely from those already taking action to protect our rights against wayward machines.

Aurum and I worked on this project through a Mozilla Fellowship, with Aurum being hosted within the Digital Freedom Fund. Over the course of the Fellowship, we had the opportunity to put a prototype of the tool to an experienced group of lawyers, technologists and activists already exploring the legal implications of machine learning and similar tools at DFF’s annual strategy meeting in 2020. We were also privileged to listen and learn from computer scientists, litigators and individuals who have been affected by these technologies across several events, including our dedicated RightsCon session, and DFF’s meeting on COVID-19 and AI. These conversations have greatly enriched the site, but any errors or omissions remain our own.

In the coming months, unaffiliated to the activities of DFF, Aurum will be organizing an event series focused on the voices of those whose lives have been affected by algorithmic decision making. The series will revolve around the criminal justice system, immigration agencies, and child welfare services.

We hope that this resource can help lawyers, public interest technologists and activists in developing their work at the intersection of emerging technologies and human rights litigation. We know that it is in no way complete, so if you notice any anything that is incorrect or missing from our explanations, please let us know! We welcome any input that can help make the content of the site as useful and informative as possible. To stay updated, reach out to us on our website and follow along on Twitter and LinkedIn!

Artwork by Cynthia Alonso and Justina Leston

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