Take #3: Building a Global, Inclusive Digital Rights Movement

By Nani Jansen Reventlow, 25th February 2020

Last week, DFF’s annual strategy meeting came back with a bang. Our third meeting was our biggest to date, and we were fortunate enough to be joined by members old and new from around the world. Attendees hailed from Argentina, the UK, Estonia, Serbia, Ireland, Bulgaria, Hungary, the US, the Netherlands, South Africa and beyond.

In three days of working sessions and consultations, we dove right to the heart of digital rights: from ongoing questions around AI and algorithms to emerging conversations, such as the field’s parallels with the climate struggle and labour rights.

Despite the gravity of challenges facing human rights in the current era, the experience of coming together to brainstorm and discuss ways forward was an inspiring one. By the time we’d wrapped up, the walls of our lovely venue in Village Berlin were plastered floor to ceiling in rainbow sticky notes that promised future collaboration on projects.

Continuing Conversations

In digital rights, some conversations crop up over and over. We discussed at length the rise of facial recognition technology use by states, honing in on cases stretching from Europe to China to Latin America. We discussed the smart-video surveillance system currently being rolled out in Belgrade, Serbia, while also hearing details about the evolving situation in the UK, where facial recognition has been permanently deployed by police in some regions.

The subject of algorithms and algorithmic decision-making were also omnipresent: we heard, for example, about a case being fought in Spain to demand transparency in the algorithms being used by public authorities. Then, in a rich debate about filters, blocking and private censorship, we discussed potential solutions, ranging from reforming the AdTech business model, to platforms requiring consent from users for filters.

On Friday, we hosted a focused consultation session on AI and human rights, and how we can effectively work on litigation in this area. We asked questions including: what value can be added by technologists in this kind of litigation? Where are the knowledge gaps when it comes to AI/machine learning and the law? 

Emerging Perspectives

There were fresh and new perspectives shared as well. Climate change was a hot topic: with the environmental crisis at tipping point, the junction at which climate issues and digital rights meet is hard to avoid. One conversation looked at how digital rights activists can borrow strategies from the climate change struggle, while another focused on the intersection between the two fields – including the targeted surveillance of climate activists, and the monitoring of energy consumption through smart meters.

The digital welfare state also proved itself an inescapable, and rapidly escalating, issue. We looked at the exponential digitisation of social protection provision, and asked ourselves what tools or strategies we can adopt to challenge the technology that monitors, profiles and punishes one of society’s most vulnerable groups: welfare applicants. On Friday we hosted a fruitful in-depth consultation on developing a litigation strategy to tackle this rising problem. We tried to conceptualise and define the issue, while also mapping stakeholders already working in the area.

Zooming Out

As well as tackling digital rights’ challenges old and new, we took time to zoom out and consider the broader power structures at play. In light of DFF’s recent decision to focus on decolonising the field of digital rights, we discussed concrete steps for making that a reality – and, crucially, why it matters. Ideas for effecting change ranged from changing the way we write job specs when hiring new candidates to ensuring that we create space for discussions around decolonisation in the workplace.

Labour rights were also high on the agenda, and we explored the issue of collective bargaining, a particularly pertinent issue in the gig economy. We also sought to address the working conditions of content moderators, who often work in extremely challenging circumstances.

Against the backdrop of these profoundly difficult human rights challenges, one topic resonated deeply in the room: burn-out. It’s no secret that work in the field can be mentally and emotionally taxing, and it was refreshing to see the prioritising of individual well-being and mental health.

Safe to say, we were left feeling inspired and galvanised. At DFF, we’ll be striving to harness this momentum: we’ll be organising follow-up focus meetings and running a blog series featuring new ideas shared at the meeting. The invaluable knowledge gained will inform and lead our work going forward – so watch this space.