Game over for digital rights?

UK policy
Distracted boyfriend meme

I‘m entering my second month of job hunting and being generally bored out of my skull. There’s a great article in Politico this morning that explains why.

The piece by Vincent Manancourt, whose name I have always taken pains to pronounce correctly on Zoom calls, details the recent earthquake in the digital rights landscape which, unfortunately, has barely registered a ripple within the field, much less outside it.

To sum up, the two main philanthropic trusts which have traditionally funded digital rights work have both decided to pivot their focuses and funding streams. One is going on a big tech crusade, the other is shifting work to the global south. All of which is necessary and worthy work of course etc etc etc. But “pivoting” means that they’re taking that money out of existing work, including the work I was doing at my previous employer.

For digital rights as a whole, those funding sources (which, believe me, were not a lot – we’re talking just enough to cover basic noncompetitive salaries and nothing more) are now gone.

And people like me are watching a lot of Netflix.

That’s not good.

So what might the alternatives be to replace those funding streams?

Well, it isn’t membership and public donations, to be sure. With the best will in the world, you cannot fund meaningful and sustainable work, for a sustainable time period, on individual donations. The pandemic has killed that stone dead.

Nor can you attract the right people with the right experience to do these jobs, and pay them what they’re worth, based on the individual altruism of members or supporters. I’ve got a kid who wants to go to uni in a few years. I can’t plan for that, financially, on basis of an income which is the structural equivalent of a whip-round in a pub.

The logical answer should be for digital rights activists to seek company or corporate donations. But they can’t, and they won’t. There’s a pervasive toxicity in the field which associates any form of private company funding with complicity in digital rights abuses, if not being outright in bed with big tech, even if those donations come from the “good guys” in ethically minded companies who could form a viable alternative political bloc to the sheer power of big tech.

There’s also an army of Twitter shamers who don’t hesitate to scream bloody murder at any suggestion that digital rights activists are not wearing rags and eating gruel, or have fraternised with the enemy. Hold on, you appeared on a 45 minute Zoom panel discussion at RightsCon which also included someone from the Facebook Oversight Board? YOU VILE TRAITOR! Sigh.

Now the thing is, I could get a job in a heartbeat, because there is a lot of hiring happening out there, in two areas. The first is big tech. The usual suspects are hiring armies of policy specialists and experts, and they don’t have to do whip-rounds for member donations. Those hires, for what it’s worth, include some very, very good digital rights activists who have toiled for years in the third sector trenches, and have decided to try to effect positive change from the inside. They also absolutely deserve every penny of what these companies want to pay them, after years of living in poverty. That choice isn’t for me, but I respect anyone who wants to make it, or who needs to in order to pay the bills.

Also hiring armies of policy specialists are the UK’s barely independent regulators such as the ICO and Ofcom, as well as cabinet bodies like Nadine Dorries’ DCMS. They’re not hiring for sunshine and unicorns. They’re hiring because they are are tasked with the Conservative government’s deregulatory drive to strip away your privacy and freedom of expression rights in the financial interests of the domestic surveillance and stalkerware sectors.

So no, I’m not going to work for them either.

All of this has me wondering, with all seriousness, whether it’s game over for digital rights. You can work for EvilCorp, or you can work for the Department for Orwelling Up. That space in the middle, the civil society sector that holds them both to account, is rapidly falling away. The centre could not hold.

Nobody has any fresh ideas for how to renew funding streams for digital rights, on a sustainable basis, and to do so in a way that will pay people salaries that are respectful enough to keep them there. Nobody is talking about the need to engage with rights-minded companies working in the digital space to solicit their funding support, regardless of what the Twitter shamers may want to scream. Nobody is talking about the risks to digital rights, as a whole, which are being lost and forgotten in the vindictive obsession with two or three big tech companies. Nobody is talking about who is going to fight those battles, independently, outside a corporate lobbying shop or a team of government sycophants.

And, funnily enough, nobody is asking people like me what we think about any of this. There’s an irony to the notion of digital rights activists, who always try to place other people front and centre, being completely forgotten in all of this. Could we, perhaps, have a voice here too?

Vincent, to his credit, has nudged that dialogue towards a healthy start today. Let’s see where it goes.


Update, 26 October, 10 days after I wrote this post

When I said “let’s see where it goes”, I wasn’t expecting it to go like this.

Yesterday, while the news cycle was being dominated by Facebook Derangement Syndrome, I noticed that one of the philanthropic trusts which has cut funding for grassroots digital rights work, as noted in Vincent’s article, had tweeted this:

That, sadly, turned out to be the shot. This was the chaser.

In taking this in, I couldn’t help but recall Maria Farrell’s iconic essay, The Prodigal Techbro.

In that must-read piece, Maria describes the pattern by which seemingly repentant refugees from Big Tech have always sought to steal the limelight from digital rights activists, at the grassroots, who never sold out in the first place. Like recovering alcoholics, prodigal techbros – and daughters – want, and expect to receive, public credit and applause for their repentance narrative. (That expectation, fwiw, proves that they are just as sick and manipulative as they ever were.) Above all, in spinning their narrative arc of repentance and redemption, they seek to take credit for the facts, findings, and recommendations which grassroots civil society activists were making all along, on pittance wages or as voluntary work.

It was one thing, however, for prodigal techbros – and daughters – to steal the limelight from grassroots digital rights work. It is quite another thing for them to steal their money, by positioning themselves as being more worthy of subsidies than they were.

Especially when they made bank on a Facebook salary and crypto.

So if I sound like I’m spitting sour grapes, I can’t help but think that you would too, if you learned that your abrupt unemployment happened in order to pay for the globetrotting tour of a Prodigal Techdaughter and her VIP entourage.

And given how the operation that surrounds her seems very slick for an allegedly scrappy whistleblower, it’s worth reflecting on that a bit more maliciously.

After all, a crypto-comfy Facebooker raiding the coffers of the main digital rights fund to remove funding for grassroots and nonprofit civil society work, thereby silencing those initiatives and that expertise, is a masterful tactic.

The question is who played it.

The Author

I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. I'm currently searching for my next tech policy role, and you should probably sort that.

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