Envisioning a Decolonised Digital Rights Field – and Chartering Next Steps

By Nani Jansen Reventlow, 5th December 2020

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 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.

Making Digital Technologies Accessible to All

By Alejandro Moledo, 3rd December 2020

Colourful laptop opening against black background

On 3 December, we celebrate the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, a day on which the disability movement comes together to call for the realisation of the rights of over 15% of the population.

This call is particularly necessary this year, as persons with disabilities have been one of the groups most affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. As for non-disabled people, the use of information and communication technologies (ICT) helps in coping with this situation. The difference is that for persons with disabilities, many tech products and services are not yet accessible to us.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by 182 countries including the EU and all its Member States, is the first international human rights treaty recognising access to ICT as a fundamental right to be ensured to persons with disabilities. Why is that necessary? We are early adopters of technologies because, when these are available, affordable and accessible to us, they are a gateway to social participation and independent living, employment, education, culture and leisure.

We are early adopters of technologies because, when these are available, affordable and accessible to us, they are a gateway

With accessible technologies we can indeed overcome some of the existing barriers we encounter in our everyday life. This is why we, the disability movement, ask for accessibility to be considered as one of the core aspects in the digital domain, such as privacy, data protection or security.

Accessibility refers to the extent to which ICT products and services are designed to be used by the widest range of users, regardless of their needs, characteristics or capabilities. In short, incorporating accessibility embraces human diversity, and rejects concepts such as designing for the “average user” or “one-size-fits-all”.

Accessibility is essential for persons with disabilities, but it’s beneficial to all. It increases usability, personalisation, adaptability to different contexts of use, wider compatibility, in the case of the web – better search engine optimisation, faster loading time, among others.

For example, having subtitles help to follow a video in noisy places, possibility to enlarge font-size or increase contrast are useful in very lighting environments (or when you forgot your glasses); if your mouse is broken, keyboard navigation is the only way; voice commands or text-to-speech facilitate multitasking. You can watch a series of very short videos about all these benefits at Web Accessibility Perspectives of W3C-WAI.

Accessibility is essential for persons with disabilities, but it’s beneficial to all

For over a decade, the European Disability Forum has been advocating at the EU to set up a legal framework, similar to that of the US (in this specific case, they are the best practice), to guarantee that accessibility is required in the main technologies people use in their everyday life. Thus, in 2016 the EU adopted the Web Accessibility Directive, covering websites and mobile apps of the public sector.

In 2018 progress on accessibility became mandatory in the Audiovisual Media Services Directive for TV channels and video on demand platforms. In the same year, equal access and choice was strengthened in the Electronic Communications Code, and, finally, in 2019, the EU adopted, after years of campaigning, the European Accessibility Act. To support all these laws, the EU has the most advanced and comprehensive technical standard on accessibility for ICT products and services.

Moreover, the European Accessibility Act is a Directive with a very strong ICT component. It covers computers and operating systems, tablets, smartphones, and smart TVs, self-service terminals (such as ATMs, ticketing machines, or payment terminals), e-books and e-readers, telephony and emergency communication (sadly and surprisingly, in 2021, there are still countries which consider fax an “accessible way” for persons with disabilities to call the 112 emergency number), e-banking and e-commerce services. In just a few years, therefore, the digital sector will consider accessibility as a legal prerequisite in order to place their products and services within the EU single market.

In just a few years, therefore, the digital sector will consider accessibility as a legal prerequisite

Not so many years ago, persons with disabilities had to buy separate screen reader software and set it up in their devices. Nowadays, this feature comes built in the device. And even though some persons with disabilities will still need to make use of certain assistive technologies (those specifically designed for us), accessible mainstream technologies must continue expanding its usability by a broader range of users.

We indeed witness many potential opportunities in emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, reality technologies, robotics or smart environments, however we do also see as well the risk of further discrimination and exclusion. Our publication Plug and Pray? explains it all.

Therefore, in order to succeed in ensuring that technology does serve our diverse societies, disability advocates and digital rights advocates must join forces in defending and promoting human rights, including accessibility, in the digital field.

Alejandro Moledo is Policy Coordinator at the European Disability Forum.

Photo by Lenin Estrada from Pexels

Supporting Long-Term Impact: Announcing Changes to DFF’s Grantmaking

By Nani Jansen Reventlow, 29th November 2020

DFF is coming to the end of its first 3-year strategy cycle, what we informally have referred to as the “pilot phase”. The end of our pilot phase also means the closure of our current grantmaking process.

DFF will not accept any further grant applications in 2020 as we are working to finalise a new, revised process, which we are looking forward to launching in early 2021.

DFF has changed significantly since we were first introduced to the world in October 2017. Based on input from the digital rights field, we established a strategy and priorities for our funding, we launched a grantmaking process, coordinated annual strategy meetings, facilitated strategic litigation retreats, and held field building workshops on topics like the GDPR, algorithm use, and competition law.

We were very happy that a recent external evaluation concluded these activities are seen as adding important value to the digital rights field.

While we were able to take important first steps in supporting the digital rights field during the pilot phase, there are areas where we can do more to make sure we are best serving its needs. One area of particular importance is our grantmaking.

The current grantmaking process was launched in July 2018, after being developed in dialogue with the digital rights field. By the end of 2020, DFF will have approved more than 40 grants, worth a total of over €1.5 million, supporting the litigation and pre-litigation research projects of 30 different organisations and individuals across Europe. Many of these projects are detailed on our case study page and in our annual report, with more to be published over the coming months.

By the end of 2020, DFF will have approved more than 40 grants, worth a total of over €1.5 million

Building on the participatory approach taken in developing the initial grantmaking process, DFF has continued to revise its grantmaking throughout the pilot phase. We actively sought feedback through regular surveys, outreach, and conversations with applicants and grantees. In response to questions about the scope of our grants or what we expected to see in applications, we published guides and a frequently asked questions page to help organisations prepare their applications.

When we received feedback that the application process took too long, we developed a “fast-track” application process for grantees moving from one grant to another. We have also sought to add value in other ways: for example, in 2019, we developed a new framework to better capture the outcomes and impacts of strategic litigation.

We are proud of the many great projects we have been able to support over the last three years, and hope that the efforts we made to improve our processes during that time managed to address at least a good part of the needs of our grantees. But: there are some major limitations we can only overcome by changing the scope of the grantmaking process itself.

There are some major limitations we can only overcome by changing the scope of the grantmaking process itself

For example, many organisations have requested support for adverse costs – costs to cover possible court orders to pay the fees of the opposing party in the case of a loss – noting these costs are a major barrier to taking public interest litigation. While recognising that this was a welcome type of support, we also wanted to do justice to the complexity of the issue. How do you help litigators absorb the negative impact an adverse cost order might have on their operations, but without disincentivising courts to take the public interest into account and without, through funding support, incentivising frivolous litigation – the very thing cost orders are supposed to discourage?

We also wanted to make sure we adopted an approach that would be equitable across all of the geographical region DFF serves, and not just certain jurisdictions. Following detailed research and consultations, from 2021, applicants will be able to include adverse costs in their grant applications under certain conditions. Our new policy seeks to maintain a balance between helping to mitigate the impact of cost orders on digital rights litigators, while making sure DFF doesn’t unintentionally encourage the practice itself.

…from 2021, applicants will be able to include adverse costs in their grant applications under certain conditions

The biggest limitation of DFF grantmaking during the pilot phase was our inability to support long-term projects over multiple litigation instances. 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, this kind of impact often takes more than one instance of litigation to achieve. While providing this type of support was envisaged from the very early stages of DFF’s development, DFF being a young organisation made this impossible to implement from the start.

We are working to change this in 2021, when we hope to launch a new grantmaking process allowing organisations to apply for grants that support multiple instances of litigation. We are in final discussions to ensure the process carefully balances the demands of the field with operational constraints, and gets support from our funders and the DFF Board.

…we hope to launch a new grantmaking process allowing organisations to apply for grants that support multiple instances of litigation

The new process will also build on the lessons learned from the COVID-19 Litigation Fund, which was our first time providing grants of this nature. 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.

The end of the current grantmaking process will not affect current grantees, whose projects will carry on until they are completed. DFF will continue to move the small number of remaining active applications through our current process, with final decisions to be made before the end of 2020.

Look out for more details from us later in the year and please get in touch if you have questions or comments in the meantime –– as always, we welcome your feedback and input. We look forward to supporting more strategic litigation efforts to advance digital rights across Europe in 2021 and beyond.