On Black Friday 2016, the Lush website went dark. Communications, shopping, and bathing were disrupted for one hour only, mirroring the government ordered internet shutdowns taking place across the digital landscape - shutdowns that are having a real impact in the physical world. One year later, the recipients of a £213,000 fund fighting for digital rights have been announced.
For small organisations and individuals in the digital rights sphere, finding funds can be a major barrier. Enter the Digital Fund: a pot of money supporting groups who are defending the open internet, and doing valuable work to protect and advance digital rights.
The Keep It On campaign set out to put digital rights on the agenda, and a petition calling on world leaders to commit to keeping the internet on reached 45,927 signatures. The campaign culminated in Lush and digital rights organisation Access Now delivering the petition to government leaders at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), held in Jalisco, Mexico, on 7th December 2016.
As this petition representing voices from 148 different countries was being handed to the UN, funds were being raised through the sale of the Error 404 bath bomb, and the Digital Fund was born.
Melody Patry is the advocacy director at Access Now - the organisation behind the campaign. She explains that the high number of applicants to the fund shows how much interest and concern there is in protecting freedom of expression in the digital era and fighting to keep the internet free, open, and safe.
“We need more people, in every part of the world, fighting to protect digital rights. And we need these people to have resources to fight this fight. The digital fund is getting much needed seed funding and small grants to these groups,” she says.
The winners span the globe, tapping into different areas of digital rights and using a whole range of techniques. In Germany, Tails is improving safety online by preserving privacy and anonymity through free software. Meanwhile, Social Media Exchange (SMEX) has been campaigning to restore mobile internet to the residents of Arsal, Lebanon, who have been unable to access 3G or 4G for two years. According to SMEX, mobile internet was finally restored in September 2017.
Education and awareness raising is another key component when it comes to digital rights. In Australia, Digital Rights Watch is piloting a series of short videos about Australia’s privacy rights and how they can be protected. On the other side of the world, the Association for Technology and Internet (ApTI) is developing an educational course for Romanian judges on Open Internet principles.
This is just a handful of the groups working to protect digital rights.
Defenders of digital rights
Following the launch of the Digital Fund in 2016, 146 applications from 59 countries were whittled down by the judging panel, with representatives from Lush joined by Access Now, digital rights organisation Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi.
These are some of the groups awarded a portion of the prize fund, and the projects the money will support:
Association for Technology and Internet (ApTI), Romania
Developing an educational course for Romanian judges on Open Internet principles.
Bahrain Watch, Bahrain
An investigative research project aiding critical internet users in the Gulf, who are being affected by government surveillance and hacking, which is leading to human rights abuses.
The Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT), Kenya
Producing explainer videos on Internet Freedom Concepts.
Digital Rights Watch Inc., Australia
A pilot for a brief series of short videos about Australia’s privacy rights and how they can be protected.
European Surveillance Case Law Database, UK
The development and launch of a European Surveillance Case Law Database, cataloging judgements, previously secret law, and witness statements.
Facebook Tracking Exposed, UK
A tool that provides researchers with data on Facebook algorithm behaviour, and gives users insights on the quality of their information.
The Hermes Center For Transparency and Digital Human Rights, Italy
Easy-to-use web authentication, which is encrypted and well documented. This is primarily for journalists, human rights NGOs, and activists.
Internet Democracy Project, India
Developing and promoting new resources to build awareness around risks related to surveillance in India.
A digital security campaign that aims to raise awareness within Panama about how to safely engage with the digital world.
Library Freedom Project, USA
Supporting outreach needs for anti-censorship trainers working with the Library Freedom Project in the Global South.
Point of View, India
Bringing digital rights closer to women’s lives through community-level workshops with women’s rights and sexual rights advocates.
Rudi International, Congo
Digital rights training focused on digital security, ICT policy & advocacy for at-risk groups.
Social Media Exchange (SMEX), Lebanon
A campaign to restore mobile internet to the residents of Arsal, Lebanon.
A web interface for translating the Tails documentation. Tails is an open source security-based operating system.
Research about internet access and internet usage in Yemen, giving insights about the internet status in the country.
Shutting down shutdowns
One year after the Keep it On petition was delivered, the number of internet shutdowns is still rising. According to data from the Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP), there were 61 internet shutdowns in the first three quarters of 2017. In 2016, the figure was 55 for the whole year.
Melody says: “Internet shutdowns are often early warning signs of human rights violations, which is why it is so alarming to see their number increase.”
Government ordered internet shutdowns threaten people’s safety when they cannot contact family members during serious situations; livelihoods are at risk when they cannot conduct business online; and lives are in danger when the emergency services can no longer communicate effectively.
“The situation evolves extremely rapidly, with states getting more creative in finding ways – and excuses – to disrupt the internet. In this fast-paced, rapidly changing environment, the fund has offered much needed flexibility to support not only fully registered organisations, but also emerging coalitions and activists,” Melody says.
Internet shutdowns are only one thread in the web of rights abuses facing internet users, but work from groups like those supported by the Digital Fund is another step towards defending digital rights.