The U.S. nonprofit sector often thinks of itself as being independent from government and markets. This self-image is held widely enough that one of the major trade organizations even calls itself Independent Sector. But independence in the digital age is...well...complicated. Almost all of the infrastructure used to transmit digital data is owned and monitored by the government and/or commercial firms that sell internet access, cloud storage, cell phones and mobile data plans, or that provide search functionality or social media by selling your data to advertisers, or that do all of the above. So if you're communicating key messages via social media, storing your donor and beneficiary files online, and using commercial software to send text alerts or work collaboratively on your program evaluations, just how independent are you, really?
Since the Presidential election on November 8, there have been a few impressive actions that recognize the
- The Internet Archive is making a copy of its entire repository (AKA, the entire internet) and moving it to Canada.
- The press has been full of "privacy for activists" articles. Even the NYT ran a series on privacy basics.
- Privacy and anti-surveillance nonprofit stalwarts, such as the Freedom of the Press Foundation, ACLU, EFF, and libraries are running full tilt offering workshops on safety and privacy for your tech devices. Here's a "how to" from AccessNow.
- Libraries - a living example of nonprofits that manage digital data within a code of ethical practice - are taking action.
- Nonprofits and foundations in far flung places looking for help with digital operations and governance questions? - ask your local librarian
- The San Francisco Foundation launched a Rapid Response Fund to support movement builders. The Kairos Fellowship, for digital campaigners of color, is going strong (and applications are open)
Even inlcuding the actions in the above bulleted list, I've been underwhelmed by the philanthropic and nonprofit community's response to our dependent digital state. With a few exceptions, most foundations and nonprofits - even those expressing real concern about their issues - are going about their business as if nothing fundamental has changed. They don't seem to get just how "un-independent" they long ago became and what that dependence means now and for the next few (?) years.
Nonprofits and foundations work on a lot of issues. Many will tell you they work on behalf of vulnerable people - children, the elderly, the sick, the poor. Others cherish and work on behalf of people specifically targeted specifically by the President-elect's campaign and its supporters, such as immigrants, Muslims, LGBT people, and women. The digital data that these organizations use every day - emails, funding information, text messages for outreach, photos, videos, web sites, program data, beneficiary information - is the lifeblood of their work. And every bit of it may be of interest to a government intent on "radical change" - which includes building registries, deporting people, "law and order," and building walls.
If your nonprofit or foundation works with or for vulnerable people, you should not make them more vulnerable. This was true on November 7. It's more true now. The incoming administration touts its plans to register Muslims. It banned selected reporters throughout the campaign. "Long memories" about political adversaries are proudly brought up by advisors to the administration. These are not normal actions or statements, and they don't bode well for the idea of either an independent press or an independent nonprofit sector.•
Your organizational ability to manage digital data safely, ethically, and effectively is not an optional concern. It is a core operational and governance capacity. You cannot be an effective nonprofit or foundation unless you are attending to your digital assets with the same integrity, alignment to mission, and dedicated expertise that you depend on your lawyers, accountants, and financial advisors to provide regarding your human resources and financial systems.
This isn't just about the effectiveness of your organization (though that's a fine place to start). It's about the independence of, the nature and role of, and the future of independent organizations and independent civil society. Such a sector is based on the real practice of free assembly, expression and privacy, not just a presumption of their conceptual existence. That practice begins with you and your organization. You may not be able to create a copy of yourself in Canada. But the question remains...what are you going to do?
*I'm not even going to go down the rabbit hole of the non-independence of the president-elect's own foundation, its acknowledged breaking of basic charitable laws, and the repeated ways in which it was used as a mere piggy bank for a range of political, personal, and business-related actions. If you want my thoughts on that hot mess, see #blueprint17 - coming December 14 at grantcraft.org/blueprint17
In The New Republic, Brian Beutler writes
"...we’re facing a moment that threatens equal protection, due process, free expression, democracy—. It’s not a drill."Social justice advocates, reproductive rights activists, racial equity leaders, librarians, civil liberties protectors, and journalists have been doing the hard work of protecting our rights for a long time. They have been in the forefront of protecting themselves (and us) in digital civil society against precisely the concerns being raised across the U.S. nonprofit, philanthropic, and activist communities.
Since 1990 and the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (or maybe 1985 and founding of FSF) many have been warning that these same protections are needed in the digital age.
The newly elected U.S. president boasts of putting legal limits on the press and continues to show a deft hand at manipulating it. He's hired a white supremacist to work alongside him in the White House. He ran on a campaign of xenophobia, misogyny, and bigotry. We should take him at his word.
Civil society needs to stand up. This means ALL nonprofits and foundations. At the very least, these organizations need to stand by the activists who will be standing up. This is not a message just for the organizations and people who voted against the president-elect. The threats he has made to a free press, peaceable assembly and privacy are threats to an independent civil society. They are threats to all independent action.
All our civic action - from philanthropy to protest, from petitions to polling - now takes place on a digital infrastructure. Every organization that is dedicated to helping the vulnerable, to free expression, or that understands it is simply an institutionalized form of our right to peaceable assembly and private action for public benefit should realize now that their existence depends on the rights now threatened. As civil society has closed elsewhere, so has it now been directly, overtly, and rather unabashedly threatened from the people elected to lead our government.
First, protect yourself and your organization and strengthen your partners.
Protect yourself - go to or host a #CryptoParty. Read these tips from The Intercept. Try these tips from the Electronic Frontier Foundation - Surveillance Self Defense
Train your staff - See resources and workshops provided by the Library Freedom Project, From Aspiration and from TacticalTech Collective. Access Now offers a multilingual round-the-clock service free, 24-hour Digital Security Helpline for activists and civil society organizations.
Audit and improve your organizational governance policies and practices - DigitalImpact.io. Find colleagues you can work with at the Future of Privacy Forum. Organizations that provide capacity building, consulting, governance training, and technology support need to address digital governance and practices. It is not optional, it's integral to running a safe and effective organization.
Invest in your nonprofit partners' capacity through the work of TheEngineRoom, Benetech and the Center for Media Justice. Tools from Freedom of the Press Foundation, research from Data & Society and the Equal Future newsletter - check them all out.
Report acts of hate to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has been tracking it for years and has seen a drastic increase since November 8, 2016. Ushahidi is also working on this. The American Library Association has these resources for safe actions by and for young people.
Second, realize that your organizational existence - to say nothing of your rights as a citizen - depend on free expression, freedom to associate, and the right to act privately. The laws that protect these rights are the bedrock upon which your organization exists. Fight for them. Nonprofit peers such as EFF, ACLU, Center for Democracy and Technology, EPIC, Public Knowledge - these organizations are on the front lines of the policy issues that matter to digital civil society.
Third, Share additional resources - send me comments, links, tweet me @p2173. Global friends - help us understand the global situation.
That democracy depends on an independent civil society is a bedrock assumption in political theory. In the USA, we've just held an election that will test this theory against reality.
Like so many people, I've spent the last few days trying to reconcile my feelings, my fear, my skills, my political beliefs, my social commitments, and my morality with the immediate and longer-term future that millions of my countrymen just voted for.
I believe we have to take the elected campaign at its word. The intention of the incoming administration is to take the USA back in time in terms of economic policies, racial equity, social justice, and its interactions with the rest of the globe. That's what the "again" meant.
Accepting that this vision has been handed the reins of power is daunting, but the past provides some perspective. We know how these types of choices have played out in the past. We can learn from history, our own in the U.S. and others' around the globe. We can look to previous generations and contemporary societies.
We who disagree with all of the above intentions of the incoming administration need to fight against these plans at every level. We need to protect ourselves and our neighbors from already escalating street level violence while also working for structural change that could actually provide justice and opportunity.
Civil society in the U.S. will be tested in terms of its ability to hold the newly elected administration accountable, to stand for the rights of those who didn't support the election victors (in this case, the majority of voters), and to remain steadfast protectors of our individual and collective rights to free expression, free press, free assembly, and privacy. Again, there are things we can learn from and build with allies in the U.S. and abroad. What has happened here is not unique, it has unfortunate parallels and amplifiers in many places around the world, here and now.
But, there are elements of this moment that have no easy historical analogues. The role of cyber attacks and cross national government/NGO manipulation may have antecedents, but in today's versions we see the dangers of the scale, rapidity, and decentralized nature that are also our digital systems' great strengths.
We know our policies and regulatory frames are not ready for these challenges.
We know that most NGOs and nonprofits and civic associations are not equipped to manage and govern their digital resources in safe, ethical, and effective ways - either to protect themselves and the people they serve or to prevent themselves from becoming puppets of forces they cannot see.
Civil society doesn't have the luxury of time. The structures of civil society have been upended by the digital age - and not in ways that position us well to take on the tasks at hand. We knew what the demands were for digital civil society - and of democracies in the digital age - on Monday. But back then, we mistakenly thought we had time to bring our institutions and legal practices closer in line with the nature of digital action. Today these demands are clearer to more people - and more pressing. And we've lost too much time already.
The blog HistPhil is running a series of pieces by each of the volume's contributing authors. My chapter uses the development of the Digital Public Library of America as a case study of philanthropy and nonprofits seeking to fill the liminal space between markets and governments. This role is not new. But filling such space when the resources to be managed are digital, the founding leaders are disbursed, and the ideal of the decentralized internet holds strong as a governing metaphor is not only the DPLA's story but a model of enterprises yet to come.
My contribution to the HistPhil series can be found here. The book is available here. If you are in the Bay Area, please join several of the book's contributors and me for a book launch at Stanford on October 27. Information is here.