The challenges and threat models in civil society impose specific requirements on its technical and digital infrastructure.
There must be equitable access for all; technological and legal structures that ensure safe participation; systems, applications, and regulations that protect human dignity; and oversight and governance mechanisms that embody the principles of democratic societies.
– PACS Digital Civil Society Lab
There is a growing conversation about these priorities, such as a cloud infrastucture that cannot be compromised or shut down by a corporation or government. For actors such as activists and journalists, this is a critical dependency.
Censorship takes many forms. Developing resilient and viable options for civic discourse, assembly, content moderation will reduce reliance on big tech and social media providers.
Everyday dependencies already compromise civil society. Software providers often intentionally create vendor lock-in, ensuring long-term dependencies and exercising outsized control over technical and strategic direction over budget constrained non profits and even well resourced organizations. To avoid such situations, civil society needs viable alternatives to major providers, long-term control and ownership over their data, and unconstrained access and portability of their assets.
These are specific vulnerabilities that arise from the nature of efforts in social change and justice. These organizations are also often compelled or coerced to accept solutions that are not in their long-term interests.
Future direction for such infrastructure may be utilize new technological advancements for distributed or decentralized networks, governance and privacy innovations, and enable forms of anonymity.
Such digital infrastructure and alternative technologies will be needed at all layers of the “stack”, and in many forms: hardware, data storage and computer infrastructure, standards and protocols, financial transactions, virtual and voice assistants, and more.
Promising near-term initiatives in this space include:
- Digital resources and connectivity as public utilities; the proposed Corporation for Public Software.
- Technical infrastructure that supports “chain of custody”, increasing transparencty and trust
- Algorithmic Impact Audits – mechanisms, approaches, and policies that mandate them.
These ideas enable digital infrastructure that is more trustworthy, affordable, and flexible, that is more resistant to surveillance and manipulation, and that reduces adversarial scenarios and exploitation patterns.
References and recommended reading
- Digital Civil Society Lab, “Reclaiming Digital Infrastructure for the Public Interest” (2020).
- Gunner, “Surveying the Landscape of Digital Lock-in Patterns from a Civil Society Perspective”
- Nadia Eghbal, “The Unseen Labor Behind our Digital Infrastructure” (2016).
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