DFF’s New Grantmaking Process: Better Supporting Digital Rights Litigation

By Thomas Vink, 25th January 2021

A black DFF tote bag reads Digital Rights are Human Rights, sitting on a wooden floor looking over Barcelona

Over a 2.5-year period, DFF has approved more than 40 grants, worth a total of over EUR 1.5 million, supporting the litigation and pre-litigation research projects of 30 different organisations and individuals across Europe.

Last year, we finished our first 3-year strategy cycle, what we informally have referred to as the “pilot phase.” The end of our pilot phase also meant the closure of our first grantmaking process.

For the next phase, we have revised both the types of grants we provide, and the grant application process. We will continue to support strategic litigation to advance digital rights in Europe, only now we are happy to provide grants that can cover long-term projects over multiple court instances. 

…now we are happy to provide grants that can cover long-term projects over multiple court instances. 

Starting March 2021, DFF will provide two types of grants:

  1. Litigation track support

Support for litigation of a case through multiple instances, from first instance through to the final appeal, including filing the case with regional courts.

Example: a challenge before the European Court of Human Rights against police use of facial recognition technology.

  1. Pre-litigation research support

Support for activities to prepare for litigation. This could include legal research, evidence gathering, forum selection or identifying claimants and project partners.

Example: a comparative study between three EU jurisdictions to determine which one offers the best opportunities to address a specific issue under an EU Directive.

Going forward, DFF will only accept grant requests following a call for applications. The first call will be open from 1-31 March 2021. Potential grantees will be able to submit applications through an online platform that will open on 1 March.

Going forward, DFF will only accept grant requests following a call for applications. The first call will be open from 1-31 March 2021

See our website for the full application process, and check out our updated application guides to see what an application entails. We recommend that all interested applicants make use of the guides to start thinking about their applications in advance. We also plan to host open consultation sessions in early March, for people to ask questions about the process.

Why these changes?

DFF was established to provide grants supporting strategic litigation, i.e. litigation that has an impact beyond the parties involved in the case and that leads to legal, policy or social change. However, during our pilot phase, we were unable to provide grants supporting long-term projects over multiple litigation instances. This will now change.

Through the new grantmaking process, which builds on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 Litigation Fund and was the first time we provided grants of this nature, organisations can apply for grants to go through as many instances of litigation as they need.

We hope the new process will allow applicants to more effectively plan their cases over a long period, with the confidence that they will be able to see a case through to the highest level necessary

We hope the new process will allow applicants to more effectively plan their cases over a long period, with the confidence that they will be able to see a case through to the highest level necessary, and also provide an incentive to invest in building long-term strategies, coalitions and campaigns with other partners.

Keep your eyes on our website and social media over the coming weeks for further updates, including the revised application guides and dates for the public consultation sessions. If you have any questions in the meantime please do get in touch with us.

Atlas Lab – Breaking the Black Box of Law & Tech

By Jonathan McCully, 18th January 2021

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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.

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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.

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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.