When Climate Justice and Digital Rights Collide

When Climate Justice and Digital Rights Collide

By Daniel Simons, 30th March 2020

Protestor at protest holding sign saying 'No Nature No Future'

What do the climate crisis and digital rights have to do with each other? Are there things campaigners working on these two issues can learn from each other?

These were some of the questions explored at Digital Freedom Fund’s recent annual strategy meeting, where I was fortunate to be one of two representatives from an environmental organisation.

It became clear early on in the discussion that the two issues intersect in various ways, both positive and negative.

Climate change, and efforts to combat it, can impact negatively on digital rights. On the other hand, there is also scope for win-wins, and there are ways in which the digital rights community can help tackle the problem.

How Climate Change Threatens Digital Rights

Climate change threatens life as we know it, so it is a threat to digital rights too, albeit in ways that are difficult to foresee.

We are already seeing some direct impacts, such as the recent mobile network outages during Australia’s catastrophic bushfires, or the decision by California’s utilities to implement a series of planned blackouts late last year to avoid sparking wildfires.

Less directly, but more insidiously, governments are turning to surveillance and control technologies to monitor refugees and migrants, who are increasingly on the move as a result of climate change.

Action against climate change, while clearly necessary, may also affect digital rights. Taxes on electricity, for example, may cause power-hungry online service providers to pass the increased cost on to their users, whether in the form of higher bills or greater monetisation of their personal data.

Several participants in the strategy meeting remarked on the roll-out of smart meters, which help households reduce their energy use, and assist grid managers in improving efficiency and integrating renewable energy. But the data collected by smart meters can paint an intimate picture of a person’s household activities and lifestyle. It is therefore necessary that proper privacy safeguards are put in place.

…the data collected by smart meters can paint an intimate picture of a person’s household activities and lifestyle

Activists working on climate issues face a particular risk of interference with their digital rights. They are frequent targets of unjustified surveillance and hacking, both by governments and corporations. Even scientists may fall prey to this, as the 2009 theft of thousands of emails and other documents from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit showed.

Enlisting Digital Rights to Fight Climate Change

Last year saw “flygskam” (flight shame) become the latest Nordic word to enter mainstream English usage. Public awareness of how taking a plane contributes to the climate crisis is high. But should we also be experiencing “dataskam” – embarrassment about how our digital habits warm the planet? The IT sector, broadly defined, accounts for more than 2% of global emissions, which is in the same range as aviation.

In 2009, Greenpeace launched the Cool IT Challenge, a three-fold call for companies to provide emissions-saving IT solutions to other sectors, reduce their own carbon footprint by powering themselves with renewable energy, and advocate for strong political action on the climate. Facebook was an early campaign target: in 2011 it “unfriended coal” and became the first major IT corporation to commit to going 100% renewable. Many other leading companies, including Apple and Google, followed suit.

…should we also be experiencing “dataskam” – embarrassment about how our digital habits warm the planet?

Subsequent campaigns have pushed device manufacturers to go renewable, too. How IT corporations power their operations may not be a digital rights issue as such, but the digital rights community can, and I think should, help amplify such demands for the industry (including less well-known players) to go green – just as many employees of the IT companies themselves are speaking up.

Discussions in the strategy meeting uncovered some areas in which climate action and defending digital rights do go hand in hand. Measures to protect privacy can also be a win for the climate. Limiting the volume and duration of personal data storage also reduces power consumption, for example.

Apart from pushing companies to limit collection and storage of such data, digital rights campaigners can educate the public how to tighten existing privacy settings. The “right to repair” is another shared cause that has been championed by both digital rights organisations and environmental ones. Poor reparability of devices disempowers users and causes unnecessary manufacturing emissions, not to mention the growing mountain of e-waste. With the EU announcing new regulations to promote the right to repair, might this be an interesting area for future strategic litigation?

Parallels in Strategic Litigation

A well-attended session at the strategy meeting run by ClientEarth’s Amy Rose examined whether the digital rights field can learn anything from the way the environmental movement has used strategic litigation to combat climate change. It was noted that there are some parallels between the erosion of privacy and climate change: in both cases, the problem affects the public as a whole, leading to a degree of complacency.

As well as this, in both cases, a narrative has been promoted that responsibility to solve the problem lies with individuals, not companies. This narrative has been a useful tool for fossil fuel and IT companies to avoid accountability.

…in both cases, a narrative has been promoted that responsibility to solve the problem lies with individuals, not companies

In the climate arena, legal campaigners have used securities law to put a spotlight on corporations’ role, compelling them to start disclosing their exposure to climate liability as a risk to their investors.

Activists, and even cities and counties, have also tapped into academic research into which companies are the biggest contributors to the anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – the “carbon majors” – to hold these companies accountable for the resulting human rights harms, or for climate-related torts. Might securities law also be a tool to force companies to disclose their possible liability for privacy breaches? Would the concept of “data majors” have any relevance in defending users’ rights?

Continuing the Dialogue

There was a general sense at the end of the strategy meeting that the dialogue should continue. Apart from ensuring that we are not working at cross-purposes on issues such as smart meters, there is scope for joint campaigning between the environmental and digital rights movements. There is also a lot of scope for useful exchange of learning on how to do strategic litigation properly.

Daniel Simons is Senior Legal Counsel Strategic Defence at Greenpeace International.

Image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash