Digital Rights Must Step Up Efforts on Wellbeing

By Evelyn Austin, 9th October 2020

Colourful illustration of two hands clasped

This World Mental Health Day, we’re putting the spotlight on taking care of ourselves. How can the digital rights field better mind the mental health and wellbeing of everyone who works in it?

A few years ago, Bits of Freedom ran a survey that was sent around to participants in advance of a meeting. One of the questions asked was what respondents saw as the biggest obstacles to achieving their goals.

The most common answer – more than 60% of responses – was the risk of burnout.

Interestingly, however, neither burnout, mental health or wellbeing featured even once on the list of topics people wanted to discuss when coming together.

Interestingly, however, neither burnout, mental health or wellbeing featured even once on the list of topics people wanted to discuss when coming together

Our organisation has dealt with burnout itself, and is very aware of the personal and organisational costs of people’s wellbeing and mental health not being taken care of. Nonetheless, a self-initiated project that was supposed to provide an overview of wellbeing “good practices” and ideas about how to prioritise people’s wellbeing within organisations kept falling off our to-do list.

Instead, our attention was devoted to legislative (cookies! copyright!) and communications (donation drives!) dossiers that always seemed more urgent.

As a minimum effort “fix”, we started facilitating and hosting small sessions about wellbeing at conferences and meetings, joined by (too) many people who had experienced, or were on the brink of experiencing, burnout firsthand. Earlier in the year, we also had the opportunity to facilitate a conversation on wellbeing during the DFF strategy meeting.

What are people saying?

In our field of work, stakes are high, and people are extremely motivated.

For those of us volunteering for an organisation, our activism and advocacy is how we choose to spend our spare time, working evenings and weekends and with little to no structural support (like an office, time off, colleagues to chat and unwind with).

For others, we’re invested in our work as more than “just a job”, wrapping our sense of purpose and accomplishment up with the results we do or don’t achieve.

Regardless of our employment status, many of us find it difficult to put our work to the side, and struggle with achieving a healthy work-life balance, meaning that our relationships and social lives suffer.

When you’re invested in change that rarely happens overnight, and by nature a lot of your work is dependent on other people’s agenda’s, there’s always something you could be doing, should have done, or feel you need to do better.

When you’re invested in change that rarely happens overnight, and by nature a lot of your work is dependent on other people’s agenda’s, there’s always something you could be doing, should have done, or feel you need to do better.

Although there is a common understanding that this isn’t a problem of individuals but of organisations and even fields, many people we’ve spoken to feel their organisations are neglecting to tackle this issue with the same fervour they would others.

What strategies are being developed?

At DFF’s annual strategy meeting, we discussed some of the preventive measures organisations are deploying.

It turned out practices differ widely, with, unfortunately, some organisations doing little to nothing at all. Some good practices that were mentioned include:

  • Flexible working hours and a four-day week
  • Increased paid time off and paid sabbatical
  • Reimbursing staff for sports and mindfulness classes
  • Reimbursing staff for counselling, therapy and mentoring programs
  • Collective leave
  • Attention to sustainable on-boarding of new staff members
  • Fostering an open and safe environment, and strong relationships between staff.

What are we missing?

Despite there being a lot of shared ideas about what could be improved, many expressed the sense that we’re not addressing the core of the issue.

Ideas that came up during the meeting that could help address the problem more fundamentally include:

  • Acknowledge “wellbeing” as a fundamental part of your organisation’s operations, and hold management and boards accountable
  • Design wellbeing and remuneration strategies to ensure high levels of staff retention
  • Add a person to your organisation’s board with a background in wellbeing or mental health
  • Conduct research into the resilience and sustainability of the digital rights field
  • Publish a benchmark
  • Ask funders to require Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for wellbeing
  • Start a conversation with funders about what kinds of funding contribute to organisations’ wellbeing and what kinds exacerbate risks to wellbeing, and about what amount of work can be expected from organisations.

What’s next?

We’ve known for decades that there’s a strong link between activism and burnout, and, fortunately, mental health and wellbeing are becoming easier and easier to talk about.

However, that isn’t enough. As someone during one of these conversations stated: we need to take this out of a side session and into the plenary.

We need to take this out of a side session and into the plenary

That doesn’t just mean we need everyone in the room, but also that we need to be very explicit about burnout being a management failure.

And it’s not just people we’re failing. If our organisations don’t deliver challenging, fun and sustainable working environments, we’re doing irreparable damage to our movement and the causes we’re fighting for.

Evelyn Austin is the Executive Director of the Dutch digital rights organisation Bits of Freedom.

Tackling AI in the Time of COVID

By Jonathan McCully, 9th October 2020

How can we protect our digital rights amidst tech-solutionist approaches to combat the COVID-19 pandemic?

30 participants in DFF’s “AI in times of COVID” workshop examined this question from different angles over the past 3 days, joining for an online meeting from around the world.

The workshop built on the “Litigating Algorithms in Europe” workshop DFF and the AI Now Institute organised in November 2019. One of the desired follow-ups from that gathering was an international meeting on combatting the impact of AI on human rights through strategic litigation.

As we all know, the world has changed quite a bit since, which changed not only the format of the meeting, but also the scope.

As we wrote earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic also created a crisis for digital rights. However, the transborder nature of the pandemic also created an opportunity: if we are seeing similar measures –– COVID apps, health trackers and other tech solutions –– being rolled out around the world, how can we make sure we push for standards that protect our human rights? Can we leverage positive results in one jurisdiction in another? And: what best practices and tactics from the pre-COVID world can we draw upon to successfully fight these battles?

…what best practices and tactics from the pre-COVID world can we draw upon to successfully fight these battles?

Trends in Tech-solutionism

We started the first day of the workshop by listening and learning from participants across the globe who have been monitoring the “tech-solutionist” measures that have been rolled out during the pandemic both in and outside of Europe. They explained the issues they had been spotting and which litigation actions they were considering taking in response.

Reflecting on these sessions at the outset of day 2, participants noted that “tech inevitability” was a common thread across different jurisdictions and asked the question how we could counter the narrative of governments framing technology as the main way to solve the health crisis.

Pushing for Transparency
 

One of the key issues in challenging automated systems being used is knowing that they are being used in the first place. There often is a lack of transparency of what type of algorithmic decision-making is being deployed, as well as when and how.

One way to push for greater transparency is by using freedom of information requests. After hearing experiences from different participants in using this tool, we co-created a checklist of what litigators could be asking for.

One way to push for greater transparency is by using freedom of information requests.

After that (as well as a joint coffee break to top up the levels of caffeine), participants looked at what could be learned from successful cases in a non-COVID context. Lawyers who had worked on the Dutch SyRI case, the challenge to police use of facial recognition in the UK, and lawyers who had taken on a Medicaid algorithm that reduced care to disabled patients and the COMPAS risk assessment system in the US shared their stories, tactics, and lessons learned.

Best Practice Brainstorming

Following a round of participant-proposed best practice brainstorming sessions on day 3, which looked at best practices for communicating the impact of COVID technology to sceptical judges, strategies to safeguard against repurposing COVID tech after the pandemic, how to solve tech inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, and tackling machine and human bias in automated systems, we revisited the potential cases we started the workshop with on day 1 to see how the strategies and tactics discussed between that first and this last session could be leveraged.

…we looked at best practices for communicating the impact of COVID technology to sceptical judges, strategies to safeguard against repurposing COVID tech after the pandemic, how to solve tech inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, and tackling machine and human bias in automated systems

It is unfortunate that the group were not able to meet in person during these exceptionally challenging times, but it was truly uplifting and inspiring to virtually connect, discuss and brainstorm with an amazing group working hard to safeguard our digital rights during the current health crisis. There was plenty of food for thought, and ideas shared for further collaboration and information sharing, and we look forward to seeing this invaluable work progress.

Graphic Recordings by Blanche Illustrates and TEMJAM

Join Our Virtual Litigation Retreat!

By Jonathan McCully, 24th September 2020

We are very excited to be bringing back DFF’s litigation retreat in an online format between 12 and 18 November 2020 (excluding the weekend), and we welcome applications from litigators across Europe working on digital rights issues to join us.

In 2018, we ran litigation retreats in Montenegro and Belgrade. You can watch a video of our first retreat here. These were great opportunities for digital rights litigators to spend time together, sharpen their litigation skills, and share knowledge, experiences and tactics that others could use in their own litigation.

During these retreats, a variety of cases were workshopped from challenges to police use of facial recognition technology to litigation against Facebook’s censorship of user content. 

At our retreats, we aim to create a co-learning environment where participants can concentrate their time, energy and attention to further developing and working through challenges in relation to an ongoing piece of digital rights litigation.

Through creating this space, and holding focused discussions, we hope that participants can come away from these retreats with an enhanced litigation strategy and plan for their cases. As a participant from a previous retreat said: “it is a unique opportunity to stop and reflect on what can be done better when you’re trying to achieve change using strategic litigation.”

…“it is a unique opportunity to stop and reflect on what can be done better when you’re trying to achieve change using strategic litigation”

We have remodeled our previous retreats in order to hold this one virtually. It will include strategic litigation training and workshopping components in a collaborative online environment. The four-day programme will comprise sessions on building skills for developing a litigation strategy, case planning, and advocacy, and will include dedicated sessions on thematic areas relevant to litigating digital rights cases in Europe.

Built into this agenda will be dedicated group work, where participants will work on strategic litigation plans for case studies that they have brought to the virtual retreat. We will also have some time to get to know each other with some informal online social activities.

The four-day programme will comprise sessions on building skills for developing a litigation strategy, case planning, and advocacy, and will include dedicated sessions on thematic areas

As with past retreats, the aim of the four days is to give participants time to do deep work on their case studies. Therefore, even though the online sessions across the four days will be short and intensive, we encourage those attending to use the rest of the time across these four days to disconnect from other ongoing projects and think through aspects of their cases in light of conversations they will have with the group. Therefore, we would recommend that all those who attend treat the four days as a real retreat, away from other work pressures and external realities. 

If you are interested in joining us, please get in touch with us and we will send you a short application form to fill out. The deadline for applications is 16 October 2020.

The main thing we ask for is that all participants come to the retreat with a digital rights case study – whether existing or hypothetical – that they would be interested in litigating. Ideally, the case study would fall within DFF’s thematic focus areas, which you can read more about here, but we are open to other strategic case ideas as well. 

We hope you will be able to join us!