This letter, titled White People Show Us, from Angela Glover Blackwell and Michael McAfee of PolicyLink makes central what many would prefer to push aside. Racism is a problem created by white people. People of color suffer, but white people are the ones who created it, benefit from it, perpetuate it, and, I believe, also suffer from it. None of us are free when some are not. It's not enough to say this, we need to act to change it, persistently and continuously.
Civil society - associational spaces where we voluntarily come together to do things for others - is home to some of the most powerful forces for equity and anti-racism work. Historically, it is here, in civil society, that political power is built, change is crafted, protest and alternatives are envisioned, and pressure on dominant governing systems - which in the U.S. have always been tools for advancing white interests - builds until those systems change. It is long, arduous, daily work and power never cedes without pressure.
Systems change is particularly hard when the same rules that protect the rights of people to focus on building an equitable society and fighting racism protect the rights of people doing the opposite. Free speech and assembly - two universal human rights (and Constitutionally protected rights in the U.S.) - apply to groups with a range of views. This is by design. As is often noted, freedom of speech only means something if it protects the "speech you hate," not just the things that are easy to say. The right to peaceable assembly applies to groups on both sides of an issue. And a right to due process to determine what is protected and what is not sits alongside these rights, to make sure that lines can be drawn and limits set. Violence and the intent to harm are not protected. Not all speech is protected, and when it is, it's protected from government interference, not private counter speech, or action by non-government actors to determine that certain speech is not to be supported. The right to association is for peaceable assembly - it is not a right to gather to cause harm.
Civil society depends on these rights. It is strengthened by the intentional divisiveness that these rights encompass. In majority run democracies there are, and always will be, many minorities. It is the right of these minority opinions to be expressed - safely and peaceable - that buttress and support and legitimize the actions of the majority-run systems. When any powerful actor (elected, appointed, or market-driven) limits the right of minorities to organize and speak, we fast track out of democracy.
One of the biggest challenges today is that the Internet is an underlying space for civil society but we haven't figured out how to enforce our nation-bound, values-shaped analog norms and rules in this global, hybrid commercial/public space. Internet intermediaries (at many levels) host our discourse, our efforts at organizing, and our protests. They are not democratically elected governments, not signatories to human rights declarations, not publicly accountable as agents of the people.
They may not have chosen this role, but they have it - they intermediate free speech and assembly for people around the globe. In order to exist, civil society's fight for these fundamental rights now takes place on two fronts, facing both governments and Internet intermediaries. While this recognition will be new to some, there are people and associations that have been working on these issues for years, have developed procedures and policies for dealing with these issues, and can help the rest of think this through.
It's painful and ugly to want those with whom we passionately disagree to have the same rights as we do. Passionate disagreement is one thing. Violence and intent to harm are different, and due process is required for determining when this is the case. The intention to exclude, harm, dominate, reject, subjugate, or abridge the rights of others matters. When speech or assembly prepares for, expects, and provokes violence, violence often happens, and lots of people pay attention.
That momentary attention is important, but this is not the only way that racism subverts our society, nor is it the most frequent or possibly even the most damaging. Systems and rules built on racist assumptions and designed to perpetuate inequity are all around us, all the time, doing damage and needing to be undone. Groups that gather armed and shielded, those that violently beat or murder people with whom they disagree, and actions taken to limit other people's rights to vote - these are all racist acts of violence. The first three are not acts of civil speech or assembly. The last one is not legal.
These are not easy issues. They are not limited to - or even fully exemplified by - horrific, public, violent acts of terror and physical harm. Civil society is home to many groups that know this best; thoughtful, informed experts who've worked to protect civil rights and liberties and those that work to fight racism and other hateful acts in digital spaces. It's time we recognized how much civil society writ large needs these groups, their work, and these rights.
The liminal space where two or more culturescollide
is often painfully obvious to those who are not part of the mainstream group and an invisible, unfelt line for those on the side with power. The edges where the two meet, or the quickness with which the dominant group’s demands, norms and laws slice into others is painfully familiar to those on the sharp side of the razor. Some of those holding the safety edge knowingly wield it for harm, some of them actively
seek to dull its sharp edge or hand it over altogether, and some fool themselves into thinking that, because it’s not pointing at them it is no longer sharp.
In other words, those who experience hate, marginalization, and discrimination on a daily basis know it when they see it. It’s not surprising that groups like this are well aware of new forms of old exclusions, know how to look beyond a shiny wrapper to see what’s really in the box, and are well attuned to – and have adapted to – the pervasive ways that digital tools replicate the same power dynamics of the analog world.
Mainstream nonprofits struggling to understand how and why they must investigate the technology on which they depend for its “values fit” would do well to turn to such groups for guidance. Aboriginal archivists who’ve built customized, affordable, controllable digital systems
that align with their communities “access controls” and information management systems know how to align software, hardware, and purpose
. Political activists who live on the knife’s edge between mass organizing, community cohesion, and digital surveillance know how to pick, choose, use, and abandon off the shelf software
to maximize their impact and mitigate the risks.
Journalists trying to hold both governments and corporations accountable, even as their own livelihoods are being undermined by their digital policies and practices, find ways to network expertise, protect sources, share insights, and get their work paid for (sort of). We heard from several of these groups at Digital Impact: Brisbane
, and learned that (some) are finding (some) ways to pay for it, mixing volunteer time, donated space and software and community donations. But none of those are structural or sustainable.
All of us
who use off-the-shelf digital tools operating in these liminal space where our values and cultures intersect with and are persistently shaped by the value choices embedded in our software and hardware. Think of it this way - nothing that comes out of a tech company hasn't been designed within an inch of its life. Usually to persuade you to do something. Your software is shaping you
This is as true for organizations as it is for us as people. Our nonprofits, foundations and associations extend from the board room to the software licenses we run on. Aligning the organizational mission with its tech stack and alleviating these internal values conflicts is in our own best interest.
Hey, check this out - The full #blueprint series to-date - all eight years - all in one place - free for downloading.
And yes, it's time to start thinking about number 9.
I'll be working on #blueprint18 starting now. Please send buzzwords, trends, predictions etc. to me via twitter (@p2173) or in the comments.
Governments around the world are shutting down civic space. They do this in a variety of ways for any number of reasons. Monitors of civil society have been documenting this for years, and attention and concern in the last few years has risen dramatically - the 2017 Civicus Report declares the situation an emergency. Where and how do issues of digital data fit into this phenomenon?
I'm thinking out loud here - let's break it down together:
How do governments close civic space? Generally by passing laws and/or using force to limit free expression, free assembly, and private spaces for planning collective action. Practically, this can happen in many ways:
(There are more - please add in comments)
- Regulatory changes - stricter registration requirements of nonprofits, requirements on who can be on their boards/staff, more data required on activities,
- Financial pressure - either by raising fees that organizations can't afford or limiting the sources of funds that organizations can accept
- Police monitoring of public assembly - laws limiting protests,* use of state force to break up public gatherings, violence against protesters
- Limiting speech - forcing media behavior, owning all media, censoring media
So where and how does digital fit in? Look again at that list of bullets. EVERY SINGLE one of those actions is made easier to do in the age of digital data.
And most of those examples are actually only second order changes - meaning our use of digital just makes it easier to clamp down in the old fashioned ways. Our digital dependencies also provide first order ways - new ways - to shut down assembly, expression, and privacy - thus introducing new ways for governments to shut down civil society. For example:
- Reporting requirements? Easier to impose and enforce with digital data? Check.
- Financial pressure? Since most money is now digitally transferred monitoring financial transaction is easier than ever. Check.
- Police monitoring of assembly? Easier than ever, thanks to digital surveillance, social media monitoring, cell phone tracking, etc. Check.
- Limiting speech? Digital puts all kind of pressure to consolidate big media and censor or confuse using social media. Check.
- Shut down the Internet. Just turn it off.
- Manipulate digital records, foment disinformation
- Limit access to the Internet - tiering the service (killing off net neutrality), starving out small voices***
(Again there are more - please add in comments)
- Allow corporate policies on speech to take precedence over national law**
- Sweep all Internet traffic into government databases and hold on to it forever
- Shut down VPNs, outlaw encryption
- Manipulate the news, the feeds, the photos, the voices, etc. etc.
- Ubiquitous surveillance
Digital tools give governments - and corporations - many more ways to shut down or limit citizen actions than they had before. Digital infrastructure and data not only AMPLIFY old mechanisms for shutting down civil society, they also provide NEW MECHANISMS for closure.
When we talk about closing civic space we need to understand this. Efforts to maintain open civil society now require a much deeper understanding of how dependent we are on digital data and infrastructure, how digital changes civil society's relationships to state AND corporate actors, and action on laws about digital (and product-practices) that are new territory for civil society advocates.
*More than a dozen states in the U.S. are currently contemplating such laws.
** This is particularly challenging given the dominance, globally, of a few U.S.-based social media, shopping, and search companies. These companies are "governing" across jurisdictions and setting terms of service that serve their purposes but have nothing to do with democratic practice, human rights, or other norms for expression, assembly, and privacy.