I have always been passionate about the promise of technology: It can connect, educate, and empower us, on both an individual and societal level. But as with any powerful and transformative phenomenon, the knife cuts both ways.
Just as the internet can facilitate the exercise of rights, it can just as easily quash them. More and more, we’re becoming painfully aware of this double-edged sword: online trolling, hate speech, misinformation and “fake news”, government moves to break secure systems, and massive data breaches seem to be becoming routine. This is what’s kept me in Brussels for so many years, working for internet policies that advance a healthy internet ecosystem and work for – and not against – the interests of users.
The tension between the speedy pace of technology and the bureaucratic processes of law-making – mixed with complex social and economic challenges – means that the laws regulating technology require a thoughtful approach. This approach must be grounded with a clear problem definition, feature technological expertise, and include transparent negotiations where all stakeholders have a say. You don’t have to be a Brussels insider to know that this is rarely the case.
Often, the relationship between the laws that govern technology and the exercise of digital rights are at odds. The causes are varied. Sometimes the legalese doesn’t translate seamlessly into user rights. Sometimes enforcement is either weak or insufficient. And sometimes the law infringes on digital rights like freedom of expression or the right to a private life. This is frequently the case with sweeping government surveillance laws, such as the UK’s Investigative Powers Act.
With the scale and complexity of challenges on the rise, it’s more important than ever that our laws truly do serve the public interest. When they don’t, we should be able to reform them, or even strike them down – especially if they are out of step with democratic norms. Strategic litigation can be a useful intervention to advance or enforce digital rights, from issues like net neutrality and data protection to the regulation of speech.
This is where the Digital Freedom Fund comes in. DFF’s mission is to support and expand a growing field of digital rights litigators, to facilitate a community driven strategy, and, of course, to fund cases. The organisation itself will not do any litigating; instead, it will serve as an engine to drive strategic litigation efforts across the continent.
In my view, this couldn’t come at a better time. In the area of impact litigation, there are many actors in the field, already launching cases to challenge laws and to enforce consumer rights. But litigation is often expensive, and thus a risky endeavour for most non-profit actors. Cases can go on for years, a disincentive for groups unable to commit the resources for such an extended period of time. And it’s not just about winning the case; building the advocacy around it to ensure that it can’t be ignored or disregarded is another key element. Further, simply determining which cases to engage with can be a lengthy and resource-intensive process.
I believe DFF has the potential to meaningfully support impactful litigation in the EU and, in doing so, advance the field of digital rights in Europe. As Chair of the Board, I am honoured to be a part of this organisation, and very much looking forward to getting to work. I will participate in the upcoming stakeholder meeting in Berlin at the end of February, which will draw on months of extensive consultation with actors in the field to forge DFF’s 2018 strategy. If all goes well, we’ll be ready to provide grants by April 2018.
If you’d like to participate in this process, please feel free to reach out to DFF and help us figure out what strategic litigation in Europe should look like.
Here’s to a new kid on the block.