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Digital Power – We don’t need to be ‘geeks’ to make a difference!

 Vera Franz – advisory member of Ariadne’s new Digital Power initiative – explains how tech is used by corporations and governments to undermine social justice and human rights, and shares how grantmakers can support civil society in its fight back.

I am very excited that Ariadne’s Digital Power iniative is up and running and kicking off with its first event, the Grant Skills Week (28, 29 September and 1 October 2020).

Digital power has two dimensions. First, it vests corporations and governments with growing and often unaccountable power, allowing them to undermine social justice and human rights, and second, it gives civil society powerful tools to fight back.

I’d like to focus on the first dimension of digital power in this blog, not least because this is what I’ve concentrated on for the past 15 years working at the nexus of social justice, technology and philanthropy. While it’s helpful to understand some basic technology concepts, for me this work was never about understanding technology at a granular level. We don’t need to be geeks to make a difference! Instead, this work is about understanding how technology impacts human rights and social justice and shapes two things in particular: how we make sense of this world, and how we treat people and communities in our societies.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal was a key event that woke up the world to the fact that how we make sense of the world is being manipulated in a way that is deeply harmful for open society, and it shone a light on how the most powerful private corporations such as Google and Facebook have become the arbiters of truth. Events this year have shown how a health crisis can be used by governments to rapidly expand a surveillance infrastructure which often exacerbates discrimination of the already vulnerable in our societies.

Many in the progressive community around the world look to Europe to anchor our digital societies in social justice and fundamental rights. This year, the European Commission has laid out an ambitious plan to put fundamental rights at the centre of our digital worlds. This plan includes the ambition to regulate artificial intelligence, address disinformation and rein in the power of big tech. We need to seize this opportunity by supporting civil society the best we can so it can meaningfully shape these new rules in the coming years. To succeed, we need to pay particular attention to the following:


  • It is crucial that the digital rights field reflects the society it works to protect and advance. For grantmakers, this means supporting the field through the process of challenging structural causes of oppression, so that all voices are heard and the field works to safeguard the digital rights of all. I have to admit that as a white, straight woman, I do not always know how to best engage in de-colonization work and I am worried about making mistakes. But I also know that not knowing means being complicit in oppression. Reading Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy with a small study group over these past months has been a partly painful but ultimately incredibly empowering personal journey and I can’t recommend this book enough. I feel more confident engaging in de-colonization work and it is these personal journeys that turn us into better grant-makers.


  • We need to look beyond Europe. Achievements by the digital rights field in Europe are being undermined in trade policy and technical standards setting bodies. This is where the US and China are fighting the European model of a rights-centered digital society. We need to support the field to more effectively engage in trade and technical standard setting fora which, admittedly, are much harder for civil society to influence than, for example, the European Parliament. In a recent conversation with OSF, EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said that she is very supportive of the vision presented, but she was also clear that in a world where China and the US can exploit data much more indiscriminately than Europe, there is a strong geopolitical argument against this vision. We need to support our grantees to take on this geopolitical fight along with the other fights.


All of this is to say that the world urgently needs our wisdom, humility and passion right now. I am incredibly grateful to Ariadne for hosting the Digital Power initiative, to Adessium, Mozilla, Ford and Luminate for co-funding it with OSF, and to Alix Dunn and Maya Richman for their great energy in bringing all of us along on this journey. Last but not least, I want to thank Sahar Yadegari, Raegan MacDonald and Allen Gunn, who I met many years ago when this was a very lonely space. They were the best allies I could think of. Together we seed-funded some of the first digital rights groups and brought a growing circle of funders together. It’s this allyship that allows us to move mountains, now with many more of us.

The Ariadne Grant Skills Week will debut programming and the overall set of activities that will be on offer through the Digital Power Programme. Click here to register to the online sessions and here to view the agenda.


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