Internet Freedom in 2017: Challenges and Opportunities

A snapshot of the Internet Freedom communities for this year.

As corporations and governments around the world start to implement more sophisticated surveillance and censorship strategies, Internet Freedom communities faces a variety of complex challenges. The biggest question facing us has become:

How can we create a communal vision that incorporates the conflicting need for simultaneous security and openness, while making sure that Internet Freedom advocates can sustain themselves?

In 2017, the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF) partnered with ThoughtWorks to answer that question. In a three-hour research workshop, more than 50 international journalists, activists, frontline defenders, programmers, and government officials worked together to identify areas for improvement. Below is a summary of the top challenges identified, as well as suggestions on how to overcome them.

Our intent is to keep this project alive and are open to submissions of opportunity ideas to solve each of the challenges. If you have any suggestions for opportunities, let us know at team@internetfreedomfestival.org

Challenge 1:

There Is A Disconnect Between Policy Makers, Tool Developers, and Activists

According to workshop attendees, policy makers in the area of digital rights and Internet freedom tend to be out of alignment, and at time, at odds with activists and tool developers.

The gap arises from a lack of direct, quick, and frequent communication: reaction times in technology tend to be faster than those of policymakers.

The first users of innovative technologies end up being almost exclusively tech-savvy ones. Once the tech can be used by wider audiences, legislators set up laws that limit the evolution of the technology. At the same time, the participants of our workshop believe that policy makers are sometimes out of tune with the most important current tech issues. Policy must become more flexible while still protecting people from restrictions of their rights.

Opportunities:

  • Make the Internet policy making process inclusive by seeking out input from Internet freedom activists and technology makers.
  • Host policy advocates as fellows at Internet Freedom tool projects to bridge the gap between tools and policy spaces.
  • Involve the Internet Freedom community in local and national politics.

Challenge 2:

Creators of Current Solutions Don’t Fully Grasp The Context of Use

A significant percentage of designers of free speech and online freedom technologies don’t live in the same countries and/or context as their most vulnerable — and many times — key end users.

This means that it can be difficult for tool makers to fully grasp the use cases. In fact, in sometimes tools are developed that may not be needed by users.

Workshop participants called to identify bigger needs around the world, starting with the issue of ownership of key technology platforms. The attendees especially seemed concerned about reaching a consensus about global needs and more actively involving final users in the tool creation process. They’re interested in creating flexible tools that can adapt from audience to audience. Alternatively, they want to embed security practices into software development in corporate settings.

Opportunities:

  • Use more tool-creating techniques that actively involve end users.
  • Empower end users to create their own tools.
  • Address needs from the ground up, infrastructure to add-ons.

Challenge 3:

Power Structures Don’t Reflect Context of Use

Closely related to Challenge #1, one topic front and center in the participants’ minds was the significant cultural and socioeconomic difference between various actors in the Internet Freedom community. Participants expressed concern about the lack of participation of affected individuals from the Global South in decision making, particularly on policies that impact them directly.

That “distance between two worlds” exists as part of a larger global ecosystem of access to technology. Even so, participants argued that decision-makers and power brokers need to increase participation from the Global South. It is important to our community to leverage the uniqueness of every actor involved in the strategy-making and tool-making process.

Opportunities:

  • Empower community leaders from the Global South to participate in setting internet freedom strategies.
  • Alleviate barriers to participation of individuals from Global South in global internet policy spaces.
  • Increase localized tool development capacity that can address differences in immediate needs.

Challenge 4:

Duplication of Efforts Is Common

Not only are solution creators disconnected from their users’ needs, but many times they are disconnected from each other. IFF can bring actors in the field together to talk about common interests. However, the deeper challenge is to avoid duplication of ideas, and to prioritize which issues to focus on.

Additionally, it’s hard to keep track of significant advancements in efforts and documentation. This means that, on top of efforts commonly being duplicated, there are blind spots in documentation that facilitate that redundancy.

Opportunities:

  • Make tool development efforts across the world more visible.
  • Curate annual priorities and paths of work.
  • Offer central hubs for documentation.

Challenge 5:

Funders Sometimes Bottleneck Sustainable Innovation

Participants stated that funders can be a bottleneck for sustainable innovation. Some felt that a large percentage of funding goes to the “new shiny thing,” instead of providing stable support to initiatives that have proven their value to users.

Time cycles of funding don’t necessarily match the needs of long-term projects, or leave projects isolated right before they could ramp up to bigger audiences. In the words of one participants,“funders are reactive rather than proactive.”

Opportunities:

  • Increase the funding pool available to support long-term sustainable Internet Freedom projects.
  • Diversify funding to include more innovative funding models.
  • Organize more roundtables with funders.

Challenge 6:

Corporations Should Reframe Their Accountability

One final challenge is directing the leverage that big corporations can have in their relationship with policymakers.

Participants mentioned that that leverage expresses itself in two ways: 1) through lobbying policymakers themselves, and 2) through big corporations being seen as the go-to sources for expertise and opinion on surveillance and security online. In this way, whether directly or indirectly, big corporations end up driving policy, no matter their level of connectedness with the fast pace of the grassroots community using tools around the world.

Opportunities:

  • Ensure governments hold corporations accountable to their human rights obligations.
  • Educate policymakers on the diversity of perspectives existing in the Internet Freedom community.
  • Encourage transparency in policy making processes and civil society oversight to counterbalance any undue corporate influence.

Acknowledgments

Workshop: Bridget Sheerin, Dongin Shin, Andrea Morales Coto (ThoughtWorks)

Report Content: IFF Team and Andrea Morales Coto (ThoughtWorks)

We hope to expand this research by implementing similar sessions in other gatherings around the world. Our goal is to form alliances with partners and create programs that improve each area of impact. You can contact us at team@internetfreedomfestival.org to be a part of the project.