Eight years of #blueprints

Hey, check this out - The full #blueprint series to-date - all eight years - all in one place - free for downloading.

And yes, it's time to start thinking about number 9. 

I'll be working on #blueprint18 starting now. Please send buzzwords, trends, predictions etc. to me via twitter (@p2173) or in the comments.

How digital threatens civil society


(Photo: http://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/op-eds/2640-the-civicus-monitor-informing-the-fightback-against-closing-civic-space)

Governments around the world are shutting down civic space. They do this in a variety of ways for any number of reasons. Monitors of civil society have been documenting this for years, and attention and concern in the last few years has risen dramatically - the 2017 Civicus Report declares the situation an emergency. Where and how do issues of digital data fit into this phenomenon?

I'm thinking out loud here - let's break it down together:

How do governments close civic space? Generally by passing laws and/or using force to limit free expression, free assembly, and private spaces for planning collective action. Practically, this can happen in many ways:
  • Regulatory changes - stricter registration requirements of nonprofits, requirements on who can be on their boards/staff, more data required on activities, 
  • Financial pressure - either by raising fees that organizations can't afford or limiting the sources of funds that organizations can accept
  • Police monitoring of public assembly - laws limiting protests,* use of state force to break up public gatherings, violence against protesters
  • Limiting speech - forcing media behavior, owning all media, censoring media
(There are more - please add in comments)

So where and how does digital fit in? Look again at that list of bullets. EVERY SINGLE one of those actions is made easier to do in the age of digital data.
  • Reporting requirements? Easier to impose and enforce with digital data? Check. 
  • Financial pressure? Since most money is now digitally transferred monitoring financial transaction is easier than ever. Check.
  • Police monitoring of assembly? Easier than ever, thanks to digital surveillance, social media monitoring, cell phone tracking, etc.  Check.
  • Limiting speech? Digital puts all kind of pressure to consolidate big media and censor or confuse using social media. Check. 
And most of those examples are actually only second order changes - meaning our use of digital just makes it easier to clamp down in the old fashioned ways. Our digital dependencies also provide first order ways - new ways - to shut down assembly, expression, and privacy - thus introducing new ways for governments to shut down civil society. For example:
  • Shut down the Internet. Just turn it off. 
  • Manipulate digital records, foment disinformation
  • Limit access to the Internet - tiering the service (killing off net neutrality), starving out small voices***
  • Allow corporate policies on speech to take precedence over national law**
  • Sweep all Internet traffic into government databases and hold on to it forever 
  • Shut down VPNs, outlaw encryption
  • Manipulate the news, the feeds, the photos, the voices, etc. etc. 
  • Ubiquitous surveillance
(Again there are more - please add in comments)

Digital tools give governments - and corporations - many more ways to shut down or limit citizen actions than they had before. Digital infrastructure and data not only AMPLIFY old mechanisms for shutting down civil society, they also provide NEW MECHANISMS for closure.

When we talk about closing civic space we need to understand this. Efforts to maintain open civil society now require a much deeper understanding of how dependent we are on digital data and infrastructure, how digital changes civil society's relationships to state AND corporate actors, and action on laws about digital (and product-practices) that are new territory for civil society advocates.


*More than a dozen states in the U.S. are currently contemplating such laws.
** This is particularly challenging given the dominance, globally, of a few U.S.-based social media, shopping, and search companies. These companies are "governing" across jurisdictions and setting terms of service that serve their purposes but have nothing to do with democratic practice, human rights, or other norms for expression, assembly, and privacy.

Internet Health and Civil Society

(photo credit: https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/internet-health/)
Our behavior is changing the climate and our planet is in danger. Weather patterns are changing. Climate induced refugees are on the rise.

We know this. Even those (the few, the short-term stakeholders, the ones with power and money and influence that requires the rest of us to deal with them) who pretend not to know this, or believe, or care about it - actually know it. That's why they've spent so much time and money and political capital debunking the science and sowing "confusion" and doubt.

All of us depend on the health of the planet. Many of us are actively changing our behaviors, lobbying for new laws, inventing new technologies and new business models to try to turn the tide of global warming or find ways for humans to continue to thrive, equitably and for the long term. Others do small things to make a difference, aware of the impact of our choices. And most of the world (present U.S. President aside) are fully aware

We (people) didn't create the planet, but our actions influence it and how we, in turn, survive on it.
(photo: https://twitter.com/porfitron)
The Internet is not too different, except that we, people, created it. Like the planet, lots and lots of us - well beyond those who make the rules about the Internet - actually depend on it. It's something many of us - too many of us - take for granted. We think it's "just the Internet, it will always be there" or "it's just the Internet, what can I do about it?" or "It's the Internet, get me access to it already!"

But how we behave on it, protect it, rally around it, keep it available and functioning in certain ways, is as important to its future (and ours) as are our choices about climate change. Like the planet, there are vested interests, with power beyond their number, who have ideas about how the Internet should operate that work for their short term interests, but not for the rest of ours. Like the planet, each of
us can make a difference. Pretty much the worst thing we can do is think that Internet health is someone else's problem.

Mozilla has started a new effort, the Internet Health Report, to engage more of us in taking active steps toward protecting an open, interoperable, inclusive and safe Internet that works for everyone. First step is to come to some agreement on the components of health. You can join in that work. There's also a campaign to draw attention to the resource, the threats and the project.

Colleagues from the Internet Health Report joined us in Berlin for the recent Digital Impact event and made a solid and convincing case for civil society's dependence on the Internet and our collective role in protecting the resource. It's the digital version of Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, today's version of a free printing press, and the place where associational life happens. Civil society depends on the rights to expression, free press, and association. Just as we've protected those rights in the analog world, we've now got a role to protect them in digital space. The Internet Health Report is a great place to get started. July 12, 2017 is a day of action to save Net Neutrality from changes in U.S. law and regulatory action.

Civil society depends on the safe, ethical and effective use of digital data and digital infrastructure - for expression, assembly, and collective action. Healthy democracies depend on healthy civil society; healthy civil society depends on a healthy Internet. It's not someone else's fight. It's ours.

You can also join us at the Digital Civil Society Lab for a Digital Impact Virtual Roundtable to learn more about Internet health and the Internet Health Report. Check out the schedule at Digital Impact and sign up there to get notices of this conversation (September 27, 2017) and others.

Refugee tech and a future of resilience

I'm just back from a series of Digital Impact events in Brussels, London and Berlin. This is part of a multi-country learning effort I'm leading through the Digital Civil Society Lab and with local partners in each host city.

We're documenting that work here. I won't repeat those posts on this site. However, there will more to say than any one blog can hold so I'll try to capture additional insights and findings here.

Betterplace Labs in Berlin just completed a report on Refugee Tech that is important for everyone, everywhere. Worldwide, there are more than 65 million people moving from their homes for reasons of war, disaster, climate change, famine, or political violence (or a mix of these).* As we are all dependent on digital technologies now, the ways in which both the refugees and the receiving communities respond bear lessons for all of us. Tech is so familiar to all of us its now background, but this is the point at which really understanding the positive affordances of the technology and the political realities of data and digital infrastructure becomes key.

The Betterplace Labs report focuses on integration efforts - ways in which Germans worked over time to integrate their 1 million new neighbors into their communities. This prospect - welcoming, receiving, moving forward together - is our collective future. Lessons learned now, about the politics, social challenges, technological realities of building welcoming and resilient diverse communities is information we can all use.



*If you are reading this in the US, and have a hard time imagining what this kind of influx is like (either from the perspective of the refugees or those receiving them), I recommend new fiction by Omar El Akkad, American War. It brings the idea of forced migration and borders to life in landscapes (political and physical) that will resonate with US residents and some of our particular political historical baggage. It's not a happy tale, and the Betterplace Labs report shows us much more positive potential futures.

Assume digital - and question your tools

Assume digital. This is the first thing I say to people when doing presentations about Digital Civil Society. Digital data and infrastructure are here to stay and we have to learn how they work - and adapt our practices to protect our values - in order to really use "tech for good."

Here's a great video from a Danish consumer protection group (shared by friends @EDRI in Brussels) that shows just how out of sync our norms are with the defaults coded into our digital tools.


When the government attacks nonprofits

Nonprofit organizations are institutional manifestations of the desire of a group of people coming together to use their private resources and address a problem or a need they care about. This is true if you are the world's biggest foundation, the neighborhood food bank, or a group of protestors.

In order to do that - to come together and take a collective course of action - we depend on a certain set of rights and freedom. The nonprofit sector and broader civil society rests specifically upon the right to free expression, the right to association, and the ability to learn, think, and make decisions without being watched. If you erode the rights upon which the sector stands, you erode the sector.

The Republican Party, the FCC, and this presidential administration are actively destroying Americans' rights to privacy. The latest step in this direction is their decision to allow people's search histories to be put up for sale. If you can't search for information privately, well you can't do much.

They are also attempting to curtail people's rights to associate freely in person or online - as evidenced by state legislative proposals aimed at preventing peaceful protest and FCC declarations to leave broadband access to the whims of telecomm duopolies.

And they are conducting a massive head fake regarding our freedom of expression, decrying "fake news" while delegitimizing informed debate, casting multiple voices as a falsely oppressive form of "political correctness," and seeking to quiet voices of disagreement. Proof here lies not only in the President's attacks on the press and news media but in efforts by the CBP and Homeland Security to identify dissenting voices on social media and the FCC's determination to end net neutrality.

Surveilling and putting up for sale all the data we generate by doing anything online or on our mobile phones. Making collective action illegal. Allowing the internet to become as tilted a playing field as the rest of the economy, making it ever harder for the little guy to be heard. These action and others all point to a deliberate effort to weaken civil society and the nonprofit sector.

The U.S. nonprofit sector is on thin ice, facing threats on many fronts.  But make no mistake - the current administration and ruling party is one of the biggest threats to the basic rights and freedoms upon which civil society in the U.S. stands. Our government is undermining our democracy.


Where and how do we give for good?

When we "assume digital," we recognize that the data sources for understanding how people use money to support change are quite numerous. In addition to making sense of formally reported information from organizations, we should look to the platforms that move the money to better understand how and where people put their money where their values are.

Here's the opportunity I think we have:


So the question is - can we ask new questions and find new answers by analyzing data from credit card transactions, social media platforms, payment processors, AND officially reported data from government agencies to understand how we actually put our money to work for the things we care about?

And what does it look like around the world? Here's info from one platform in China:

 Millions of people giving with a single shake of their phone



"We need to ask new questions" (@afine)

Strategic threats to the nonprofit and philanthropic sector in the USA

Civil society in the U.S. is being deliberately undermined. There are several federal and state level regulatory and legislative actions underway that aim to dismantle civil society as we know it. Just as current attacks on a free press are both deliberate and purpose-built, so, too, are these attacks. And the importance of an independent space for voluntary association to a democracy is as great as that of a free press (It's not an accident that both are constitutionally protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution).

  • Efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Repealing this (already rather weak rule distinguishing between advocacy and partisan action) would affix charitable nonprofits into place as money laundering handmaidens to electoral politics. 
  • The proposed budget cut to the IRS, especially alongside the possibility that this administration will be in a position to swing all 6 FEC Commissioners to the right. Count out any oversight of either charitable or political nonprofits. 
  • The surveillance state and the reigniting of the "crypto wars," in which government claims unfettered reign to peer into our lives while limiting individuals' ability to encrypt and protect their own data. A digital environment where you can't have a conversation or organize a meeting without government/corporate awareness is the definition of a system without civil society. It means there is no place for private conversation, private learning, or free expression in digital spaces - our democratic values and rules don't apply there.
Already, an independent civil society only exists in a small corner of the internet, where the technological elite know how to use, have access to, and the means to keep hopping one step ahead of both business and government surveillance. Most every nonprofit and foundation has compromised their independence (knowingly or not) by setting themselves up on commercial software, servers, cloud systems, and devices without considering how the default values of these systems counteracts  their organizational missions.  Public libraries provide the only place of protected access for the rest of us. (Note to self - keep an eye out for challenges to libraries)

There are more threats than just those listed above. Every action to weaken people's ability to communicate without being listened to, to come together voluntarily, and to maintain a private space for learning, assembly, worship, or action is a threat to our basic rights. These rights are the raw  materials from which we've built an independent civil society.

It's important to note that the above list doesn't even include familiar arenas such as the tax code or corporate law - two central frameworks for U.S. nonprofit advocacy. This is a wave of major change, coming in from the edges. Individually, these threats are not new to readers of this blog or of the Blueprint series. But the simultaneity of the proposed actions should not be underestimated - these actions are not coincidence. These are considered challenges to the presence and strength of a functioning independent civil society as a bulwark of democratic life.

You can join a coalition campaign against the repeal of the Johnson Amendment here. You can learn about the Equal Rating challenge (action to maintain access to the internet) here. Action against the other threats is going to requite even broader coalitions.


It's a spied on, spied on, spied on world

One of the theses of the Digital Civil Society Lab is that digital policies matter to civil society. We've been working since 2013 to map and understand the intersections of laws and regulations on telecommunications, intellectual property, consumer privacy, digital rights and liberties, free speech, and privacy with laws on nongovernmental organizations, nonprofits, and philanthropy (in the U.S. and 9 other countries around the world).

We want to understand these domains and their intersections to

  • inform our theoretical understanding of digital civil society, 
  • identify partners and allies around the globe working on related issues, and 
  • connect "digital" and "civil society" advocacates and researchers to each other. 
All of our work is geared toward making space - literally, figuratively, legally, and technologically - for civil society when our digital spaces are owned by corporations and overseen by governments. We're trying to create and protect park benches on the internet where people can meet, talk, and organize.

I'm about halfway through Jenifer Granick's book, American Spies, and I find myself thinking that maybe all of the above has just become a small subset of surveillance activities. The growth of the surveillance state, its transnational capacity, and the ties between state and corporate actors are so extensive that perhaps we've already lost any digital space in which we can have private conversations. If this is true than there is no room for association beyond the purview of the state. This is troubling. Civil society depends on this associational space being widely available (and not just to the elite few who can pay for or hack their way to privacy) and democracies depend on civil society.




Not in my name (or my email or mobile number)

I will march, protest, call my representatives, vote, mobilize, and resist. As of Jan 3, 2017 the U.S. government - House, Senate and soon to be White House - is taking a broad swath of actions that I do not support and will not allow to happen in my name. I will do everything I can to let elected officials know that, to resist their actions, and to work toward democratic representation at the federal level that mirrors the votes and political demands of the majority of U.S. voters.

But I am not going to do this digitally. I can't.*

Why, you ask? Aren't you, Lucy, getting emails and tweets and text messages galore about petitions to sign, groups to join, emails to send, and hashtags to use.

Yes, I am. More than I can count.

And the vast majority of them want me to sign up, to send them my friends' email addresses and my cell numbers or follow them on Facebook to learn more and participate. I won't do it.

First of all, I don't use Facebook. Second, while there's good reason to believe that many of these requests and calls to action are coming from legitimate groups, whose missions I support, and to whom I might give my (but not ever my friends') contact information, there's also good reason to assume otherwise. The otherwise takes at least two forms 1) the legitimate nonprofit or political group is using third party software to collect my name and cell number, and that software company is going to package up my personal info. Sure, they'll  sell it somewhere. But, more important, I know they'll hand it over when the government asks for it and there's nothing I can do about it or 2) the whole thing is just an email/cell phone farming exercise wrapped in the guise of issues I care about.

It's not just that I don't want commercial companies holding all that information on me. I am working to resist the policies of my government. The U.S. government has access to all of that information once it's online. Yes, I will hit the streets to protest. But I don't plan to call the police or immigration services or Donald Trump and tell him my plans, where I will be when, and with whom. And I don't intend to do the digital version of that and hand the very forces I'm resisting the equivalent of that information in fine-grained digital form.

If you want to know how to deal with this reality regarding your own data and ability to take action then I suggest reading Dragnet Nation, everything else Julia Angwin has ever written for ProPublica, using the materials from EFF's Surveillance Self Defense, and checking out this blog post that points you to other wonderful tools for being smarter about your digital self. Take a training, ask an engineer, attend a cryptoparty, ask a librarian, find another way.

For the political groups, the coalitions and nonprofits, the march organizers and the rally folks - your job is just as important. Don't make me vulnerable to digital enclosure - give me options I can trust in order to work with you. Are you using Facebook for all your outreach? Then count me out.

The challenges are numerous and the questions are tough. Some answers exist - check out digitalIMPACT.io and help get more answers and more tools to more people and organizations, sooner. We need this. These data threats may well be the biggest risk civil society and independent nonprofits now face. What's your digital risk mitigation strategy?

Yes, we can use digital tools to help us protest and resist, to organize our communities, to make good philanthropic investments, and to reestablish a democratic government that represents the majority of voters. But first, we need to design and use digital strategies and data models that align with our democratic and philanthropic missions.



*Yes, I get the irony of blogging this on software owned by Google. Think about what info I've shared here and what I haven't.