Viewpoints

Digital Infrastructure for Civil Society: A Look Ahead

The concept of “digital civil society” is taking hold as a framework for leaders in philanthropy, nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations, digital capacity builders, tech funders and support organizations, policymakers, and scholars. The term itself is less important than the recognition of shared concerns and opportunities across these groups and the sense that they are all part of the same ecosystem.

Civil society cannot meet its aspirational roles in democracies without a much stronger understanding and adaptation to its dependence on digital data, software, hardware, and their political and economic structures – and the new opportunities and risks that come with these digital dependencies.

A recent small gathering at Stanford served as one point of reflection on the future of digital civil society. The Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society convened this group of the Digital Impact community and partners to reflect on several important transitions:

  • The recent evolution of the former Markets for Good program into Digital Impact
  • The expanding scope of civil society’s dependence on digital infrastructure
  • The new areas of shared risk and potential benefit for civil society in the digital age

Participants included longstanding actors in the Digital Impact community (giving platforms, funders, and digital giving innovators), newcomers from social good-oriented commercial platforms, experts in digital identity, entrepreneurs acting at the intersection of charitable and political giving, digital rights activists and capacity building organizations.

The group helped us map out a timeline to visualize the evolution of the digital infrastructure, data platforms, and data sharing tools for civil society and philanthropy. A parallel timeline helped us benchmark these important infrastructure milestones in the social sector against major changes in the broader digital political economy, including the emergence of tech “superstructures” such as new social media platforms, payment processors, and digital policy regimes that are shaping the landscape of philanthropy and social good in the digital age. You can explore the group’s timeline below, or here.

 

 

For simplicity’s sake, we used the language of digital infrastructure and emerging “superstructures” to mean the political economy of digital systems. This includes the ownership of structures that provide telecommunications access, the political domains of digital policy and regulations – such as intellectual property, access, spectrum use, broadband policy, etc. – and the behaviors of both individuals and organizations facilitated by this current set of structures, for example: mobile phone access has surpassed access to wired computers, consumers expect easy and relatively affordable access, convenience is more highly valued than ever, and there is growing awareness of the manipulated/manipulative nature of online information.

This exercise allowed us to consider a few important trends:

  • The rapid pace of change of the “superstructures” and the speed with which public expectations about information accessibility and trustworthiness have changed
  • The clustering around certain kinds of innovation such as online giving mechanisms and sector-wide data sources – the infrastructure built by and for the social sector now faces competition from commercial platforms with name recognition and user bases that allow them to offer these same services at low cost

The conversations that followed identified many additional risks and opportunities for the social sector in light of these trends. Participants noted that the risks were relevant to all types of civil society organizations, but that few (if any) were actively addressing these risks.

Opportunities presented by current digital structures

  • Efficiency
  • Scale
  • Fraud prevention
  • Opportunities for improved legislation, regulations
  • Funders increasingly collaborating around data
  • Emerging organizational models built around digital data
  • Ability for civil society to organize at global scale
  • Less friction in giving money
  • Giving that goes beyond traditional 501c3/charitable institutions (also seen as a risk)
  • Access to and use of government administrative data (comes with risks)
  • GDPR and rights-based regulation on personal data (also presents risks to business as usual for nonprofits)

Risks and distortions of current digital structures

  • Targeted attacks by malicious actors
  • Metrics that dominate existing biases and serve to exacerbate inequalities
  • Data breaches and lack of trust
  • Hype of innovation
  • Challenges to basic rights – privacy, expression and association
  • Legislative, regulatory regimes that close civil society
  • Risks of transparency
  • Data monopolies by commercial platforms
  • Commodification of privacy – privacy inequality that mirrors income inequality
  • Surveillance has become cost of pervasive access
  • Failure to carry principles of community-driven change into digital spaces
  • Peer to peer activity deinstitutionalizes NPOs and NPO sector
  • Tech edge (IoT, AI) presents new threat vector (also new opportunities to engage)

Six thematic opportunities for future collaboration

  • Institutional and process innovation: Emergence of trusted data intermediaries – opportunities to invent new institutions to manage and govern digital data for civil society purposes. Multiple types of intermediaries (repositories, process, analytic intermediaries).
  • New diverse, robust policy alliances: How to connect policy expertise across digital rights, intellectual property, and telecommunications to expertise in civil society, democratic process, civil liberties, and nonprofit law.
  • Advancing digital norms for civil society: How to expand the reach of rights-based, civil society-values regarding use of digital data and infrastructure, even to the point of influencing new digital norms.
  • Networking networks: Multiple layers and silos of communities – digital rights, digital tech, CSOs, policy, funding, alternative finance – presents opportunities to expand alliances and engage global concerns.
  • Collective civil society approaches to corporate allies: Opportunities to articulate civil society values and partner with corporate sector for support, scale and new defaults. Applies to existing dominant communications technologies and emergent ones.
  • Funding strategies for alternative infrastructures: How to build, support, and sustain hardware and software that mimics civil society values.

We look forward to exploring these six themes and others in the coming months on the Digital Impact platform and through the work of the Digital Civil Society Lab and its partners. Join us!

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