1. The Technology and Human Rights Landscape

Digitalization and other technologies are bringing about a fundamental shift in our societies, especially in how rights and freedoms are perceived, valued, endangered and defended. In certainly the biggest and most rapid shift since the steam engine and industrialization, digitalization and network technologies have profoundly impacted and changed all aspects of our life, including work and leisure, culture and politics, but also our very definitions of self, community, value, and, perhaps most importantly, our visions of the future. Connections between individuals, social groups, and people and the state have been fundamentally and irrevocably altered and the speed of communication and data-exchange and the widening access to information and knowledge have changed, if not shaken, senses of identity, belonging, and purpose. The possibilities inherent in Big Data alone both to the benefit and detriment of individuals and society are of such magnitude and reach as to demand their own field of research and advocacy. Activists and everyday citizens alike now have to face the consequences of rapidly evolving technologies for their rights to privacy and their freedoms of information, expression, and association.

What was unthinkable just a few years ago, such as the possibility of mass surveillance of entire countries and continents, or the real-time tracking of every single citizens movements via their smart phones, is now reality. Curiously, such human rights violations are often experienced and framed differently from other rights infringements by both citizens and human rights violators because they take place in a different space: the digital world. What would provoke mass protest by citizens in “the real world”, such as the recording of all conversations in one’s own home, does not nearly create a similar level of outrage in the digital sphere. Even human rights activists often make a point of distinguishing between on- and offline privacy or free speech. This, we believe, is a fundamentally misleading standpoint. It has always been the strategy of human rights violators to qualify fundamental human rights as not applying to certain groups or certain circumstances. The “digital world” here is merely a new area in this long tradition. Accepting this distinction between online and offline human rights and civil liberties, as proposed by human rights violators, means losing one of the strongest arguments for human rights: their fundamental and universal character.

Still, and understandably so, human rights violations in the “digital world” are often perceived as being not quite as urgent as similar matters in the “real world” such as unlawful imprisonment of citizens and activists, racial and gender discrimination, or modern-day slavery. But even here, the “digital” and “real” world are intricately connected. To quote Cory Doctorow:

There are many fights more important than the fight over how the internet is regulated. Equity in race, gender, sexual preference; the widening wealth gap; the climate crisis – each one far more important than the fight over the rules for the net.
Except for one thing: the internet is how every one of these fights will be won or lost. Without a free, fair and open internet, proponents of urgent struggles for justice will be outmaneuvered and outpaced by their political opponents, by the power-brokers and reactionaries of the status quo. The internet isn’t the most important fight we have; but it’s the most foundational.1

How can we then help create an environment in which the internet and technology in general is rather used to promote and preserve human rights and civil liberties and to support open and free society than to enable suppression and persecution and to deepen social divide?

It is imperative that the problem is not addressed solely as a problem of (the lack of proper) technology, but as a social, cultural, and political issue that happens to be connected to the implications of certain technological developments. For this reason, any approach to technology funding as human rights funding must take into account the sociopolitical environment of technology and the motives and goals of the actors involved.

2. Necessary fields of engagement

In addressing the human rights impact of technology, several complementing strategies have to be followed simultaneously; the fields of engagement are interlinked, but may require unique approaches.

2.1. Telling the story

Often technology experts are not the best at communicating their concerns or findings, and journalists only rarely can fully grasp the details or implications of a technological development or its use and abuse by different actors. Much is lost in this process of translation, which is why we need to bring experts and journalists together more often so they can learn each other’s language. We also need to support those few activists fluent in both worlds, such as technology bloggers.

Most importantly, we need to help human rights organizations grasp and interpret the masses of information, including evidence of human rights violations through testimony or big data, which they are able to gather in and through the digital world. Standards of verification and empirical data analysis have to be upheld, and quantity of data should not be confused with quality of data. Only this will allow human rights organizations to give robust and convincing accounts of human rights violations.

2.2. Connecting the Actors

We cannot expect technology experts to be aware in every detail of the specifics and pitfalls of human rights work, just as we cannot expect human rights activists to be familiar with all aspects of technology. Nevertheless, technologists and activists need to work together in order to address the human rights impact of technology. This is why we need bridge builders of experience and expertise between the communities, most importantly bridge builders who enjoy trust in both communities. Many human rights organizations fear for the safety of their highly sensitive personal data (such as names of activists, etc.), and many technology experts are highly suspicious of all actors outside their own field (including NGOs and funders), both rightfully so. For this reason, trust built up over long-term cooperation is absolutely essential.

2.3. Supporting the Legal Fight

Whenever corporate, state or other actors violate guaranteed rights and liberties, the fight for these rights and for justice is a very difficult one, as it is often fought against the most powerful institutions. States’ and corporations’ resources in legal battles can rarely be matched by activists and watchdog organizations. We need to support digital rights advocates in every way we can, be it by offering financial help, by providing expertise in technological matters, by connecting them with other actors in the field, or by otherwise creating public awareness of the cases they fight.

2.4. Core Technology Funding

Privacy Enhancing and Censorship Resistant Technologies

We need tools and applications that allow users and activists to freely connect and communicate with each other, tools that protect their privacy online, and tools that allow them to access information freely, even against censorship. For the most part, this translates into funding of cryptography and anti-censorship technology.

Whistleblowing technologies

Building on privacy enhancing technologies, we need to develop specific whistleblowing technologies, providing a safe way for concerned citizens in government agencies or corporate entities to bring to the public violations of rights and liberties they have witnessed, who would otherwise have to face dire consequences ranging from losing their jobs to losing their lives. As in the case of privacy enhancing technologies, this has to be intimately linked with legal support.

Free and Open Software Solutions

There is only one solution in terms of the technologies mentioned above: free and open source software. If it is not open source, there is no means of auditing it to ensure it works as promised and has no security flaws or backdoors built in for government agencies. If it is not free, it will not be available to everyone, especially not to those most in need of such technologies. The Human Rights area needs a transformation from passive users of whatever is available, to an active player that uses and forms technology to its benefits.

Infrastructure change

Despite the importance and the necessity of privacy enhancing and encryption technologies, of tools such as Tor and GnuPG, any action here only addresses the symptoms brought forward by our current network technologies. Ideally, there would be no need for further encryption tools because the Internet itself is created with such standards built in. At the moment, this is not the case; but there are several research and project initiatives (such as GNUnet) that promise exactly this: New technologies underlying our networked communications that are encrypted and censorship-resistant by design. Thus, despite the short and medium term importance of additional privacy and encryption tools, long term solutions can only be provided by addressing the root causes such as current Internet protocols. Only then will anonymity, censorship circumvention and secure communication not be dependent on all participants being up-to-date with all tools all the time (a setting already very difficult to achieve in activist circles, let alone in the general public); only then can we guarantee that human rights and civil liberties are being upheld in the digital world.

3. How do we support such technologies?

Having established that only free and open source technology can address the problems we face, simply cooperating with businesses in these areas, as some funders do, is no option. For the same reason, we cannot and should not expect of the tech communities to produce “marketable” products; the technologies we want to emerge from such groups are supposed to be and to remain free for everyone to use; it is thus highly unlikely that they will ever be financially profitable. Of necessity, this demands long-term engagement from funders in a way that strengthens the resilience and sustainability of tech activism. Furthermore, outside some research projects based at universities and other research institutions, the vast majority of free and open source technology is developed and maintained by small groups of technology and internet activists. Supporting and strengthening these communities requires appropriate, sometimes radically different approaches to funding.

3.1. Funding Tech Activists

In most cases, successful support of technology experts and communities consists of building and supporting an environment in which these individuals and groups can concentrate on what they do best: write code. In some cases, this may simply mean paying salaries; in most cases, however, technology activists have other sources of income and work on free and open technology as a passion in their free time. Professionalizing their “hobby” is thus often counter-productive. Instead, we mainly concentrate on taking organizational and other matters off their hands, for example in the following areas:

Equipment support

In some cases, all that is needed for activist groups to flourish is certain hardware or software equipment or infrastructure (e.g. high-speed internet access). All we need to do here is to provide the equipment or the financial means to acquire the equipment. In the case of hackerspaces as places for peer exchange and collaborative work, this can also mean supporting rental costs.

Organizational support

This includes help in setting up the appropriate legal structure for such communities, for example as nonprofit associations. It also includes help with the day-to-day organizational matters by providing, for example, planning and collaboration tools or experience. In the case of activist communities spread around the globe, as is the case with many of them, travel and conference support can also be vital; here we can arrange meetings and meeting spaces as well as take care of the travel arrangements. In many cases, bringing together different groups in one physical location in this way can provide immense boosts to productivity. Furthermore, this also includes supporting visa applications for technology activists who, oftentimes for personal security reasons, want to or have to relocate to safe countries.

Community Building support

One of the greatest tools of peer-learning about technology and technology issues are hackerspaces. Once brought together or set up by local activists, these hackerspaces, usually of a size between 5 and 50 people, can connect with and educate the local non-tech community. As part of a global network, hackerspaces are also ideal to share information and to jointly address common issues. Here we provide equipment support as well as training in various regions of the world.

Networking support

We keep up with developments and initiatives in the field and can thus put individuals or groups working on similar issues in contact with each other. Furthermore, we connect across fields: only by bringing activists, technology experts, lawyers and journalists together can we forge lasting and powerful organizations capable of addressing the most pressing issues in technology and human rights. Often the first step in this is establishing actual personal contact through us as trusted bridge builders.

Outreach to other activists

Technology and Human Rights funding does not only mean examining hardware and software for their implications on society. It also means taking into account all areas connected with human life, from working conditions in the electronics and electronic suppliers industry to the climate effect of power-hungry and ever-growing data centers. Here we connect the respective experts and activists in their fields.

Community Health

The fight for human rights and civil liberties in the digital landscape is never over. But the people fighting it sometimes need time to rest; too often, they go for years without pause only to collapse at some point and give up their engagement. In an environment already too often plagued by excessive progress reports, overly complicated funding applications and bureaucratic hurdles, we must thus ensure everyone can find the time to rest, relax, and gather new strength. This is why, aside from offering organizational support so that experts can concentrate on their work instead of paperwork, we also support retreats, physical and psychological care. It lies in the nature of this arrangement that we do not demand new ideas or projects to be developed during the retreat. We see this as a measure to create long-term resilience.

Diversity in Tech Activism

The tech world is dominated by white males. We are consciously tailoring fellowships and travel stipends to foster diversity.

3.2. Funding Initiatives

For the most part, our funding strategy thus concentrates on supporting and nurturing existing communities and structures. However, we also need to envision projects that no single community could hope to achieve on their own. For this reason, we also support bigger and bolder initiatives, such as institutes and think tanks.

For an overview of our initiatives, please feel free to browse descriptions of some of our own and our partners’ projects. This represents our past and current core initiatives – but we are always open for new projects in the future.