Creating Conditions for a Decolonised Digital Rights Field

Creating Conditions for a Decolonised Digital Rights Field

By Laurence Meyer, 31st March 2021

This post was co-authored by Laurence Meyer and Sarah Chander.

During the DFF strategy meeting 2021, participants organised two sessions on “decolonising digital rights.”

A public panel discussion on “Decolonising Data” was also held on the sidelines of the strategy meeting, made possible largely because the strategy meeting happened online for the first time. Here are some reflections.

Since 2019, DFF and EDRi have been working to initiate a decolonising process for the digital rights field. Reflecting on the increased challenges to our digital rights, we realised how imperative it is that the field truly reflects everyone in European society. This means improving representation in the digital rights field, but more crucially undoing the power structures preventing us from protecting digital rights for everybody.

We discussed with participants of the DFF strategy meeting how to take this forward. In particular, in a session led by Roxanna Lorraine-Witt of Save Space e.V., we took a deep dive into how to take practical steps forward in the decolonising process. 

Making digital rights real 

Thinking back to our first decolonising digital rights gathering in December 2020, we realised how important it is to have a vision for change to work toward. 

One major aspect of this vision was to make digital rights real – for digital rights to be clear, tangible and relevant to everyone in society, not just to a privileged few. Part of this vision was for the digital rights field to be firmly situated in broader social justice fights and to be actively working with other movements. 

Hopefully, this will help us to realise more ambitious goals, like defunding surveillance tech that targets racialised communities and re-directing resources to communities, or ensuring everyone has access to technology on their own terms and in a manner that takes into account the environment we live in. 

Hopefully, this will help us to realise more ambitious goals, like defunding surveillance tech that targets racialised communities

Even this process of constructing goals with a wide range of actors – racial and social justice activists, technologists and digital rights organisations – was an attempt to make a small shift in the practice for the field. 

The process of how we might realise this vision of making digital rights real for all – that’s where decolonising comes in. 

The pre-conditions for change

Colonisation as a process and colonialism as a reality are about occupying space, displacing/replacing people and extracting resources. Colonialism is also very much about excluding some people from the benefit of rights even though we all share the same space.

Asking these questions is an essential pre-condition for change. There are no simple answers, both because they demand that we review and interrogate ways of doing and thinking that seem natural, and because the discussions that they require emotionally engage us. It requires extra work, extra care, extra patience, extra humility. 

It requires extra work, extra care, extra patience, extra humility. 

Approaching digital rights through the lens of decoloniality invites us to interrogate how digital space is occupied, the people who are displaced, and the mechanisms of extraction it requires to exist. We should ask these same questions of the digital rights field.  

During the strategy meeting, participants reflected on some of the barriers to decolonising that need to be questioned and addressed as a pre-condition for change within the field. 

First, participants noted the challenge in articulating and discussing decolonisation of the digital rights field.  Due to the magnitude and the essence of the work, finding the adequate wording to describe what a decolonised digital rights field looks like can be difficult. A lot of the language that will allow us to envision with more precision what is possible is still to be invented.

Many participants also outlined the disconnect between what are considered top priorities in the digital rights field as it stands and the practical issues that marginalised groups face on a daily basis.

For example, for many communities the primary digital rights issue is getting access to digital technology and/or electricity to be able to use it. 

Participants also observed that some digital rights organisations approach systemic injustices from a merely technical perspective, rather than situating these issues within the broader reality of how human rights harms are pervasive online and offline for certain groups and communities. This can lead to digital rights issues being viewed as mere technical issues with technical solutions, rather than harms that interrelate and intersect with other human rights violations. 

This can lead to digital rights issues being viewed as mere technical issues with technical solutions

The discussion also focused on the difficulties faced by grassroots movements in building constructive relationships with established organisations and institutions, due in part to a lack of a common language and understanding, as well as an imbalance in institutional power relationships.

This can reinforce the exclusion of many grassroots organisations from partnerships and proposals for funding, which could be overcome to some extent by more participatory structures of funding. 

Finally, we discussed the challenge of the emotional toll decolonising work can take on members of affected communities.  Many referenced the book “Pleasure activism: the politics of feeling good” from Adrienne Maree Brown as an inspiration for developing resilience tools.

…we discussed the challenge of the emotional toll decolonising work can take on members of affected communities.

The participants also agreed on the centrality of creating a community to cover collective needs and structures and processes to prevent exhaustion.

While we highlighted so many challenges to decolonising the digital rights field, the determination, enthusiasm and readiness to work toward concrete solutions was the overwhelming conclusion of the session.

What’s next?

In our next phase of the decolonising work, a collaborative design process that will lead to a plan for a multi-year decolonising process, we will attempt to foster the pre-conditions for change. In the design process, we will aim to build a decolonising community of people with different disciplines, areas of expertise and experience to collectively design a programme of activities to engender change in the field. 

Some of the pre-conditions we will need to establish include: mapping what needs to change, developing a common language and understanding, and putting in place the necessary structures to ensure this work will be sustainable. 

The determination to engage in a process of decolonising the digital rights field and the acknowledgement of the challenges it entails will be key to our success moving forward. It will require a frank acknowledgement of where the field is now, and where it needs to go to see meaningful and genuine shifts. We are excited to embark on the next phase. 

Laurence Meyer is Social and Racial Justice Lead at the Digital Freedom Fund. Sarah Chander is Senior Policy Advisor at EDRi (European Digital Rights).

Image by Montecruz Foto