This February, we hosted our third annual strategy meeting, bringing together a group of 60 actors from across Europe and beyond to discuss recent developments in digital rights, strategise on new initiatives, and also reflect on how we can better work together as a field.
Besides offering an opportunity for participants to interact in person with their peers, the strategy meeting sparks new action and informs DFF’s activities. How? Let’s take a look.
Focus Areas for Grants and Support
DFF’s thematic focus areas were determined based on the priorities expressed by the field. Following a strategy process that commenced before DFF’s formal founding, the first annual strategy meeting was an opportunity to collectively take stock of the current state of play for digital rights in Europe and what the priorities were for key actors in the field.
The mappings and conversations at the meeting were then distilled by the DFF team into three thematic focus areas for its work: privacy and data protection; the free flow of information online; and transparency, accountability and adherence to human rights standards in the design and use of technology.
Whether these thematic focus areas continue to reflect the field’s needs and priorities is tested on a continuous basis, through individual exchanges, litigation meetings, and developments in DFF’s grantmaking work. But the annual strategy meeting remains a key moment to test and verify that we are still providing support to the field with the right focus areas in mind.
Skill Building and Litigation Sessions
In 2018, we organised two strategic litigation retreats together with SHARE Foundation to help litigators sharpen their strategic litigation skills and develop case ideas into a concrete strategic litigation plan.
During the strategy meeting that year, participants identified a need for more skill-building and -sharing around strategic litigation: people wanted to exchange with peers on specific casework and learn from each other.
Following the strategy meeting, a number of follow-up calls and exchanges with members of our network helped determine in more detail what would be most useful, on the basis of which the programme for the retreat was created. The two retreats in 2018 were positively received, with requests for new installments, which DFF plans to organise in the fall of 2020.
A number of cases also sprung from the retreats, some of which DFF was given the opportunity to support.
Strategy meetings have also led to litigation meetings focused on specific thematic work. The GDPR meeting organised by Access Now and noyb in May of 2019, sponsored by DFF, is an example, as is the training on using the competition law framework to advance digital rights, held in December 2019. DFF’s current work on developing a litigation strategy on the “digital welfare state” follows from the consultation UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston held for his thematic report on the issue. We hosted this consultation as a side event to the 2019 strategy meeting.
The need to focus on litigation on the negative human rights impact of artificial intelligence and automated decision-making also followed from that strategy meeting and, in addition to a litigation meeting co-organised with AI Now Institute in November 2019, had concrete follow-up during the recent one.
Resources for Strategic Litigators
Several resources have been developed based on conversations at the strategy meetings. The Model Ethical Funding Policy followed from discussions on the problematic aspects of funding digital rights work. A Short Guide to Competition Law for Digital Rights Litigators was created following the explicit request made in the report-out following a small group discussion for more training and resources on using the competition law framework to advance digital rights.
We continue to listen to discussions during our strategy meetings to get a sense of what resources or tools we can help build to better support the field.
Last, but definitely not least, the strategy meetings have been an opportunity for litigators to connect and explore ways to collaborate on cases, either by sparking new ideas for future work or finding allies for existing projects.
One piece of cross-border litigation sparked from the 2018 strategy meeting, when representatives from Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte in Germany and epicenter.works in Austria had a conversation about the EU Passenger Name Record Directive. That conversation led to joint action to challenge the Directive on data protection grounds, which you can read more about here.
The NGOs leading the challenge to the SyRI risk assessment system in the Netherlands, PILP and Platform Bescherming Burgerrechten, found an ally for their case in 2019, when they invited UNSR Philip Alston to submit an amicus brief. With success: the case was recently won.
Another example is organisations working on challenging the AdTech industry, who updated the field on their ongoing work and held space for multiple conversations strategising on the topic at the 2019 strategy meeting, which then fed back into the litigation work they were developing.
The February strategy meeting ventured into previously unexplored territory on a number of fronts, amongst others by looking at what we could learn from the work in other regions, such as Latin America, and exploring parallels in tactics with climate change litigation.
However, the conversations at the meeting also showed that, overall, the thematic priorities of the field remain focused in the same areas as before. This makes sense: these are not minor, short-term issues, but ones that require a sustained and concerted effort to tackle.
The thematic conversations on, amongst others, AI and human rights and the digital welfare state will feed into the dedicated convenings that will take place on these topics in the spring and summer. Further activities will surely follow from that.
And what about cases? We are certain new collaborations have emerged and fresh ideas were brought to existing projects. We look forward to highlighting them here in the months to come!