How digital threatens civil society


(Photo: http://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-resources/op-eds/2640-the-civicus-monitor-informing-the-fightback-against-closing-civic-space)

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:
  • 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
(There are more - please add in comments)

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.
  • 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. 
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:
  • 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***
  • 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
(Again there are more - please add in comments)

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.

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