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Digital Impact: Reflections from Brussels

The European leg of the Digital Impact event series kicked off in Brussels on 13 June.

Not surprisingly to those who follow EU policy, the emerging European digital policy landscape permeated the day’s discussions. We were fortunate to have participants and speakers from digital rights groups and corporate policy offices to share insights on the many ways that European policies are shaping digital organizations. As one participant noted early in the day, “today every business is a digital business and every nonprofit is a digital nonprofit.”

From this perspective, we identified a range of specific policy domains that shape the work of civil society organizations, including: digital rights and liberties (expression, assembly, human rights), intellectual property law, transnational financial exchanges, corporate registrations and anti-fraud laws, consumer rights, data protection, algorithmic interrogation, internet access and shutdowns, and data privacy. Panelists were quick to note that digital data are also regulated within specific spheres of education, finance, agriculture, and health, and that a two-by-two matrix was probably necessary to track all of the relevant policy issues.

Within this broad frame we quickly identified the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), coming into effect in May 2018, as being the most pressing policy challenge for civil society. There was a general sense that despite the intensive work of advocacy organizations, many in the nonprofit and philanthropic community are not sufficiently aware of the policy’s implications and are largely unprepared for the deadline. A number of nonprofit technology assistance groups (Belgian and international) are seeking to develop and pilot a set of low-cost tools to help small organizations comply with the policy. The Digital impact convening facilitated some of these connections, and also introduced the technology nonprofits to a pro bono legal effort that could amplify their work.

The GDPR is a real-world problem that highlights an important characteristic of today’s digital civil society: organizations focused on digital policy and digital skills are not well-connected to their peers that focus on traditional nonprofits, philanthropy and civil society.

There is mutual benefit to be found by strengthening ties and collaboration. Digital policy groups like the European Digital Rights Initiative have the necessary expertise on policy issues, but they lack strong ties to other civil society advocacy work and to foundations and philanthropy infrastructure organizations.

On the other hand, civil society and philanthropy infrastructure organizations are the go-to source for much capacity building and policy work, but they have work to do in understanding how digital dependence changes the sector.

The potential for collaboration between civil society and digital rights advocates was clearly visible when viewed through the lens of corporate policy expertise.  The fight to protect net neutrality provides an important example of aligned corporate and civil society interests around digital policy. Where digital rights and corporate policy interests do not align, it is even more critical for digital rights groups and civil society organizations to identify their common interests. Given the sheer number of policy domains to understand and monitor, alliances between these groups will be ever more important.

From this macro view we moved one level down to organizational practice and cross-sector relationships regarding human capital and digital data. The still undefined (and therefore unregulated) practice of data philanthropy provided a case study for participants to imagine the future contours of digital civil society. Specifically, thinking about data philanthropy allowed us to examine the prominent role that corporations and governments (often the holders and users of large data sets) play in shaping how nonprofits and foundations use (or don’t use) digital data. We challenged oursevles to imagine a future civil society in which:

  • Digital data are routinely managed as a philanthropic resource (like money or time);
  • New organizational practice – and new organizations – exist to facilitate digital data exchange, sharing, or donations;
  • Leaders have the managerial skills needed to oversee digital data exchanges that involve public, private and civil society enterprises; and
  • There are commonly-understood organizational policies and practices, and possibly regulatory systems in place to incentivize and monitor these exchanges.

Together, these two conversations led to at least two tangible outcomes. First, they sparked a commitment to further dialogue between philanthropy infrastructure and digital rights groups. Second, the pro bono legal and citizen advocacy groups, along with the technology capacity builders, began imagining how they might work together around the GDPR. This was particularly exciting as the full implications of the GDPR are likely to be determined by litigation and case law. As EU regulations often apply to and set standards for global norms, these developments matter to civil society around the world.

Two other threads of discussion framed the day. First, civil society organizations’ growing dependence on digital data and infrastructure is changing the nature of the work at many levels. The participants identified the following “tiers of change”:

Of these levels, two that received a lot of attention were the innermost: professional skills challenges and sector-wide policy. Everyone in the room felt the need for greater digital literacy and understanding at their own organizations and in general for civil society staff and board members.

A discussion about bias, and about the organizational responsibilities for data and algorithmic analysis, highlighted common challenges. While only a few organizations are currently collecting, modeling, analyzing and using digital data and algorithms at scale, everyone felt that their work and the issues they care about were being shaped by these phenomena. While many civil society organizations are struggling to get online or use social media in safe and effective ways, some groups are pushing far beyond into the areas of algorithmic governance and its implications for trust and integrity in civil society.

The functional challenges of using digital data well were seen by many as both capacity building and organizational development issues. Framed as such, digital skills align with the existing stated concerns of many foundations, and the potential for change seems real.

The second level of concern – sector wide policy – seemed both more abstract and more concrete at the same time. Identifying the overlapping interests, skills, and capacities of digital rights organizations and civil society groups revealed the knowledge gaps on both sides while also making the potential for working together clear.

At the same time, the lack of understanding of these issues among funders and the general abstraction of policy advocacy left participants doubtful that there would be much proactive work. Even though the advent of the GDPR has sparked efforts to “get up to speed,” it hasn’t incited the next level of proactive engagement in policies to protect and sustain civil society. There is clearly space for more collaborative work between digital rights groups and philanthropy/civil society organizations.

Brussels proved a fascinating and intense launch for the Digital Impact convenings in Europe. Many of the questions raised here will be carried onward, not just through Europe but globally. Follow along as we continue to learn from civil society leaders in London, Berlin, Brisbane, Cape Town, New York City, São Paolo and beyond!