Fighting COVID-19 Digital Rights Violations: Our New Litigation Fund

By Thomas Vink, 8th June 2020

On 8 June 2020, DFF launched the COVID-19 Litigation Fund. The fund supports rapid response strategic litigation that challenges digital rights violations committed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We started this fund because measures brought in by politicians, authorities and businesses in response to the pandemic will have ramifications for digital rights for years to come.

Some of these measures have a detrimental impact on our human rights in the digital sphere: our right to privacy can be violated by invasive “Corona apps”, our right to access information is hampered when the free press is limited or even silenced, and the use of AI to help allocate health resources could lead to discrimination and unequal access to essential services.

Strategic litigation, alongside advocacy and other efforts, has a major role to play in challenging the most egregious measures. The fund enables activists and litigators to start bringing legal challenges now to halt or limit the impact of digital right-infringing measures.

COVID-19 – A Crisis for Digital Rights

Back in April, we called the COVID-19 pandemic a crisis for digital rights. This crisis shows no signs of abating.

Back in April, we called the COVID-19 pandemic a crisis for digital rights. This crisis shows no signs of abating.

The rapid nature of the pandemic response has empowered governments to rush through policies and emergency measures with little to no legal oversight.

Many states have used the pandemic as an excuse to censor critics and filter information online in their favour. Countries are rolling out contact-tracing apps and biometric technology to track citizens’ movements, communications and health data in relation to the pandemic. And as governments reduce lockdown restrictions, new risks are emerging with the introduction of measures that increase inequalities related to freedom of movement, access to public spaces, and the ability to work and access essential services.

There are already examples of strategic litigation being used to halt digital rights violations taking place during the pandemic. In Israel, human rights organisation Adalah successfully challenged the tracking of cell phones by the Israel secret service. In France, judges banned the use of surveillance drones to monitor public compliance with coronavirus-related restrictions after La Quadrature Du Net and La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme filed a lawsuit against the Parisian police. In the UK, Open Rights Group are preparing a legal challenge to the National Health Service’s coronavirus test-and-trace programme.

In Israel, human rights organisation Adalah successfully challenged the tracking of cell phones by the Israel secret service

But these cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Activists and litigators need more resources to take litigation to mitigate the negative consequences of the human rights violations occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic. We set up the COVID-19 Litigation Fund for this purpose.

What is the COVID-19 Litigation Fund?

DFF has been working with digital rights litigators and activists across Europe since 2017, and providing grants to support strategic litigation to advance digital rights since 2018. We fund cases that demonstrate potential to bring about legislative, policy or social change, and to have an impact extending beyond the parties directly involved in the case.

The digital rights violations occurring under the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented and need to be challenged as a matter of urgency. Thanks to support from the Open Society Foundations, we were able to create a dedicated fund to support activists and litigators to take rapid response strategic cases related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first call for applications under the COVID-19 Litigation Fund will close on 28 June, and grants will be contracted with successful applicants in late August 2020. Grants will support litigation through the whole process, from first instance to the final appeal stage.

Funding is not limited to digital rights organisations. We also encourage applications from other organisations

Recognising that there is a “digital divide” that limits access to justice and increases hardship for some people, DFF will prioritise applications that focus on addressing the negative impact felt by the most vulnerable groups in society. Funding is not limited to digital rights organisations. We also encourage applications from other organisations, where digital rights violations have occurred in the context of other work, such as health, social justice or poverty.

Applying for a Grant

The call for applications under the COVID-19 Litigation Fund is open from 8-28 June 2020. If you have a case challenging digital rights violations related the COVID-19 pandemic we encourage you to apply.

The call for applications under the COVID-19 Litigation Fund is open from 8-28 June 2020

Of course, you may have identified an issue but you are not yet ready to litigate. We are working on mobilising resources to allow for a second call for applications later in 2020, but are unable to confirm that at this time. So continue to watch this space. And: if you have an idea for a case or for litigation not related to COVID-19, please head over to our main grants page and apply for a grant now!