Sometimes, as our colleagues from Tactical Tech Collective reminded us in Berlin, you need to practice the art of seeing sideways. Look directly at something long enough and it loses meaning. But look at the empty space around it, squint at adjacencies, or, in my case, hear new voices asking new versions of shared questions, and new insights will emerge.
Digital Impact Berlin, our third European convening and the sixth in a global series of conversations, overflowed with new insights. One of the core assumptions we’ve long made is that civil society in democracies needs some degree of independence from markets and governments. Together, the three Digital Dependencies panels we assembled in Brussels, London and Berlin brought together 10 different perspectives on this idea. How are we digitally dependent? What does this mean for civil society? What manifests those dependencies?
We considered this at the global level and in the local context of each city. We heard from scholars, government policy makers and agency heads, grantmakers, NGOs, digital rights activists and digital literacy trainers, user experience designers, coders, lawyers, and corporate-based policy experts.
One of the premises of these conversations was that civil society has lost its independence in an age of dependency on commercial and government digital infrastructure. The fat that there is a small, technologically elite minority that can carve out private digital spaces for themselves only serves to prove the point: private spaces for association and expression that are available only to the few are the antithesis of civil society in democracies.
The evolving conversation about this idea between Brussels, London and Berlin has helped me see an even broader and deeper set of ties that bind civil society in the digital age. Digital civil society is embedded within a nest of legal and extralegal, known and hidden monitoring and surveillance systems. These systems reveal financial exchanges, making it easier to track (and cut off) funding to charitable groups. They are spotlights on individual political activists and social movement participants, potentially curtailing people’s willingness and ability to act. These dependencies demand a degree of organizational capacity that we are nowhere near achieving. And the few well-crafted efforts to boost digital capacity through data science partnerships, pro-bono tools and software are in many cases making civil society more digitally dependent, rather than more skeptical and self-aware.
I’m convinced that civil society’s dependencies, digital and otherwise, are key factors in the closing of civic space that we see around the globe.
Civil society as a whole is clearly aware of the need to understand digital data better, but that understanding needs to reach further than just better use of statistical methods and data visualization. It needs to start with each organization’s mission and purpose, then re-shape (not just re-deploy) approaches to the collection, analysis, use and protection of digital data. Then it must be carried across the entirety of the organization. In other words, independence in the digital age will not come from outside. It must be generated from within, by how civil society organizations align their purpose, their incentives, and their practice to use digital data and infrastructure in ways that distinguish them from how these resources are used by governments and corporations. Merely copying the digital practices of other sectors will ultimately minimize the sector’s strength and value, not enhance it.
Accountability to many, in many forms
The Berlin participants presented a compelling case for civil society’s responsibility to hold government and business accountable. One aspect of accountability that we discussed throughout the day was the opportunities that exist for change from the individual level to the policy level. For example, the Transparency Toolkit aims to close the information gap between journalists and corporations. Simply Secure, on the other hand, uses software design as a change strategy to increase individual liberties. The decades-long German effort to shift its energy system from a monopolistic one to a more local, networked, and individually-enabled system was offered as a model for how civil society can regain its digital independence.
We discussed a second contour of accountability: how organizations see themselves in the digital age. Large international CSOs and small emergent digital organizing platforms alike are recognizing their responsibilities to individuals in new ways. Nina Hall of the Hertie School of Governance the latter are “of and for” organizations – they are accountable to their members and to each other. Minority groups have long demanded “nothing about us, without us.” Civil society organizations operating digitally are increasingly designing themselves to act this way, or at least being held accountable to do so. For larger CSOs, there is an ongoing shift from a mindset of “accountability as compliance” to one of “accountability as trust” for the people they serve. Digital communications and data connections both facilitate these types of relationships and require them.
The third element of accountability comes from how digital tools allow individuals to review and monitor civil society organizations. The bi-directional nature of digital communication makes it easier than before for members – or critics – of organizations to review, monitor, and make demands. This is now the rule rather than the exception, and it should be anticipated and planned for. In all, digital civil society organizations must hold themselves accountable to more audiences, because they themselves are being held accountable by both allies and opponents. They also have a role to play in holding digital infrastructure and tool companies accountable for their practices.
Finally, the sector’s dependence on digital infrastructure shed light yet again on the importance of the digital policy agenda – from access to open internet practices – for civil society organizations themselves. If civil society is digitally dependent (and these conversations affirmed the many ways in which this is true) then the rules of the digital sphere lays new groundwork for voluntary private action for public benefit.