Over the course of the year, I met with people in eight countries about the shape and meaning of digital civil society, with a few more big trips on the horizon in 2018.
I spoke with nonprofit leaders and philanthropy infrastructure providers, data scientists and free speech experts, people who use blogs and social media to organize at the community level, lawyers, researchers, and engineers from the companies that the EU refers to as GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple), as well as Microsoft, Atlassian, Salesforce, Twitter, Tencent, and several others.
I met with scholars studying encryption; engineers building open source tools for national security; foundation presidents, board members, and professional staff; individual donors; crowdfunding platform analysts; and national and state regulators of nonprofits.
I talked to nonprofit leaders from the arts, venture capitalists, and people who volunteer their time; to security experts for communities of color, Muslims, and transgender communities; and to as many people who voted for Donald Trump as I could reach.
This is not a scientific sample, and these weren’t research interviews, they were conversations. Here’s what I learned.
- Personal control over our digital data is becoming a more widespread concern. The attitude “I don’t care what they do with my info” still dominates, but more and more people are aware of and concerned about the ways in which governments and corporations collect and use their personal information.
- Mechanisms to establish personal control over one’s data are necessary preconditions to developing meaningful ways to donate data (what is being called data philanthropy).
- Personal and/or community ownership of our data is an equity issue. Many people know this. Civil society organizations need to catch up.
- Nonprofits, funders, and civil society organizations are increasingly aware that the data they collect on people is a sensitive resource, which if not well managed can quickly become a toxic asset. That said, they don’t have the resources they need to handle it well. These resources include expertise, time, flexibility, and money.
- Digital platforms that focus on nonprofits, foundations, and associations are not monolithic in their approaches to civil society’s values. Some software developers are deeply committed to building values-specific (e.g., privacy-enhancing) tools. Others see cost-competitiveness as their primary offering to the sector. And many software providers refuse to distinguish civil society organizations—and their values— from the rest of their customer base.
- With a few exceptions, companies that run “[name of company] for Good” initiatives have developed these programs with a minimum of imagination. They mostly provide free or low-cost access to software/hardware. This is a missed opportunity to create solutions that offer values-driven sector-specific data defaults and protections.
- Misunderstanding or ignoring the political economy of digital software inhibits civil society’s influence on relevant policy matters.
- Civil society advocates remain largely isolated from digital rights expertise.
- Nonprofits and civil society organizations outside of the United States are aware of, and concerned about, the dominance of products and services from US companies.
- The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), scheduled to take effect in May 2018, will set a global default for corporate data practices.
- Even as some organizations’ understanding of “data” improves, the sector as a whole lacks a recognition of the way the political economy of digital systems influences civil society.
Read the rest of Philanthropy and Digital Civil Society: Blueprint 2018 and see our roundup of top predictions for the trends shaping digital civil society in 2018.