We've reached a point where all of our civil society actions have digital components or counterparts. We can organize, petition, volunteer, donate, associate, raise funds, raise awareness, protest and serve our communities using digital tools. Some things we will do digitally and offline, other actions, such as creating a voluntary global encyclopedia, signing petitions, and crowdfunding will rely ever more on digital tools.
This raises a few questions:
- How will we assure our ability to freely and privately volunteer and associate with others, when our digital communications are being stored and tracked by companies and governments?
- What practices for doing good digitally really work?
- What data from the nonprofit and philanthropic sector should be open?
- How should nonprofit organizations collect, manage, use, and protect data in ethically responsible ways?
- What should individuals expect from nonprofits in terms of how they use data about us?
- Can I, as a person or a company, donate data for social good?
- What are philanthropic foundations doing with all the digital data they collect? How could it be used as a public resource?
- Do corporate or government data policies violate an individuals' Constitutional right to "peaceable assembly?"
- If I donate my DNA sample to a nonprofit organization, can I be sure they'll use it in accordance with my wishes, the way they would if I were donating money?
Clearly, we've all moved beyond the superficial choices (should I use Twitter?) to substantive questions about how we as private citizens come together to benefit our broader communities in a digital age. We are inventing digital civil society by our everyday actions. We need to be deliberate about the practices and rules we develop to guide this work.
This is what we're working on at Stanford's Digital Civil Society Lab. We're thinking about these questions in three ways:
- practical experiments with NGOs to help them and help us learn from the real world,
- scholarly research in many disciplines, and
- policy thinking to preserve our right to use private (digital) resources for public benefit.
Our first research papers are now available for download. We'll be discussing the policy briefs at the Independent Sector Conference on Saturday. The full set of papers includes: