Digital Freedom Fund grantmaking – four years on

Digital Freedom Fund grantmaking – four years on

By Thomas Vink, 15th May 2023

Since launching our grantmaking in 2018, we are proud to have supported the strategic litigation activities of around 50 brilliant organisations and individuals in about 80 different cases working to advance digital rights in Europe.

We’ve funded successful litigation that has helped end the use of predictive policing risk-scoring tools, prevented the blocking of online information about sexual health and reproductive rights, improved the lives and working conditions of Uber drivers, stopped racist visa streaming algorithms, and held governments accountable for illegal secret surveillance. Our grants have supported organisations to prepare for litigation to challenge the advertising technology industry, stop the extraction of asylum seeker mobile data, and end the exploitation of sensitive personal medical data by commercial entities.

We are excited to announce another call for grant applications, continuing to expand our cohort of grantees in Europe and extend this support. Read on to find out more, learn about our recent grants, and steps for improving our grantmaking in the future.

When and how can I apply for a grant?

We will accept new grant applications from 15 May to 20 July 2023. Check out our grants page to find out more and prepare your application.

Any digital rights advocates seeking to protect and advance digital rights in Europe can apply. We fund not just digital rights organisations, but also provide support to racial, social, feminist, queer, environmental, migrant rights and economic justice movements and organisations working on digital rights.

We are working with a budget of around EUR 400,000 and anticipate approving around 10 applications this round. We aim to decide on the successful applications by October 2023.

How did the last call for applications go?

Our latest call for applications closed in February 2023 and was our most popular yet, with 34 applications received. In the previous four calls for applications across 2021 and 2022, we received between 18 and 27 applications each time.

We aim to have a decision on these applications in June 2023, and anticipate supporting 8-12 of them, worth around EUR 400,000 in total. We will put out another blog later in the year with more details.

What kind of applications did DFF receive recently?

In the most recent call for applications, the three most common topics were:

  1. Digital surveillance, including facial recognition, biometrics, online monitoring and border surveillance;
  2. Online hate speech and disinformation, including abuse of LGBTQI+ communities, racialised groups and against reproductive rights;
  3. Algorithms and automated decision-making, including the digital welfare state, the gig economy and targeting by Big Tech.

We also received applications on:

  • Data protection and privacy;
  • Freedom of thought and right to be forgotten online;
  • Encryption and spyware;
  • Procedural issues limiting access to justice;
  • Inequalities in access to technology and the internet; and,
  • Data retention.

The large number of applications we received in the latest call followed some small changes to our process. This included expanding the length of the application period from six to 12 weeks, and extensive outreach to potential applicants, including five “ask us anything” calls.

We were excited to see so many new groups. Twenty-two of the 34 applications were from first-time applicants, including groups focused on issues like LGBTQI+ rights, racial justice, children’s rights and women’s rights. This goes against a previous trend where the number of new groups applying for grants was decreasing over time.

The applications were spread across 20 different countries, including nine projects that are multi-country or focussed on a regional court. Countries covered in this round of applications include Azerbaijan, Turkey, North Macedonia, Georgia, Poland, Spain, Slovakia and the Netherlands, among others.

What about DFF’s earlier grant support?

Between 2018 and 2022 we approved around 80 grants, worth a total of over EUR 3 million, supporting the litigation and pre-litigation research projects of around 50 different organisations and individuals across Europe.

We regularly update our case study page and completed a revision of the page in early 2023 to install a more user-friendly filter and search function. For example, it is now easier to find all case studies related to a particular issue like platform accountability or mass surveillance, a particular target group like racialised communities, or a particular organisation or country. As of writing, there are 47 different case studies listed, some of which refer to multiple grants.

Across five calls for applications since the start of 2021, we received 120 applications, of which we will have approved around 45 by June 2023. The rate of approval for each call for applications has been around 25% at the lowest and 50% at the highest.

Most of our 2022 grants cannot yet be mentioned publicly, due to the timing or sensitive nature of the case. Some recent examples from 2022 we can publicise include Access to information about online political advertising, Illegal Data Sharing by Grindr, Predictive policing of minors, Inactive Data Protection Authorities, and Invasive surveillance by the German intelligence service.

Does DFF have any new plans for grants in the future?

Yes! At the start of 2023 we published our new strategic plan for the next four years. A key aspect of this strategic plan is decolonising our grantmaking to increase the accessibility of grants to all actors in the digital rights community, including smaller organisations and those outside the traditional digital rights space. We will actively explore and experiment with new types of funding, including post-litigation grants, community/movement lawyering work and more flexible forms of funding to work on litigation strategies and cases on a broader digital rights issue for an extended period.

We will consider changes to our process to decrease power inequalities and reduce the burden on applicants and grantees. This could include more participatory grantmaking methods, as well as shorter application forms, different application formats, more language options and reduced reporting requirements.

We will publicise more details soon, but in the meantime if you have any ideas or suggestions for us please let us know.

Thomas is the Programme Officer at the Digital Freedom Fund.