Civil society is missing the boat on the issues that matter

(Note added as I finished drafting this: it feels like groundhog day. How many times have I written a version of this?)

For years now, I've been reading articles and books on the transformative effects of digital on business and on government. In almost everyone of these, just after making the case that industry and democracy will never be the same, the author invariably has a line something to the tune of "but nonprofits will step in." Why is the assumption that nonprofits will not be changed by the same forces changing business and government?

It may be because in the minds of some really smart people, nonprofits have become semi-synonymous with government contractors. In the U.S. this perspective is understandable - public charities report almost 33% of revenue from government sources. (Urban Institute, Nonprofit Sector in Brief, 2013)

Whatever the reason, however, recognizing the impact of digital activity - including concerns about privacy, freedom of association, and civil rights - on civil society itself, and engaging civil society organizations in the debates, discussions, and policy fights about the future of our digital environment - has never been more important.

(Photo: http://www.bostonreview.net/current-issue)

This point came home to me powerfully as I read the very useful discussion on Saving Privacy in the May/June issue of the Boston Review. In it, Reed Hundt, former Chair of the FCC lays out an argument for a new digital bill of rights. This is not a new idea, nor is it Hundt's original thought (John Perry Barlow may have written it down first, back in 1996). The last year of revelations about NSA surveillance, and the general public's increasing understanding of how corporations use people's data, has brought the idea back to general attention. In his article, and the thoughtful disagreements and discussions that follow from Marvin Ammori, Adam Kern, Richard M. Stallman, Rebecca MacKinnon, Archon Fung, Frank Pasquale, Jennifer Granick, Bruce Schneier, Jeremy K. Kessler, and Evgeny Morozov) there were:
  1. One call for collective, not individual action (Stallman)
  2. Two calls for independent civil action (MacKinnon and Hundt, in response to MacKinnon)
  3. One call for organizations committed to privacy and a broadening of their constituencies (Fung)
  4. One discussion of the role of trust (Schneier)
  5. One discussion of social movements (Granick)
  6. One discussion of the Fourth Amendment and a nod to First Amendment protections for "freedom of expression and thought" (Ammori and Kern)
  7. Two mentions of needs for "freedom of association" or for "secure digital spaces where [individuals] should be afforded the same privacy rights they would enjoy in the analog world" (Hundt)
I am grateful that these conversations (and the recent President's Commission on privacy) are beginning to connect the dots between digital communications, surveillance, privacy, and association.

What I hope civil society can do is see the connection between this tense terrain and its own existence. If you look at the policy or research agendas of associations that represent civil society you would think that the issues that matter are the charitable tax deduction, government funding, and the right to contribute anonymously to political activities.

Civil society fundamentally depends not on tax deductions and not on government funding. It depends on individuals' rights to a private space to form the thoughts we express publicly and the freedom to associate. In other words, civil society's existence depends on the very debates raging now about the future of digital connections, communications, governance, ownership, privacy and surveillance. But you'd never know it by looking at the nonprofit sector's stated policy interests.

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