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To defend civic space, let’s get serious about cyberspace

Nathaniel Heller|

Since joining the Open Government Partnership steering committee this January, I’ve become increasingly immersed in the world of civic space or, more specifically, the nascent campaign to “defend” civic space. In the OGP context this manifests itself most concretely in the Criteria and Standards sub-committee’s work to carry out OGP’s new Response Policy, which affords civil society a mechanism for raising concerns over closing civic space in OGP countries. More generally, governments around the world have increasingly rallied to strengthen and defend civic space through forums such as the Community of Democracies, President Obama’s “Stand with Civil Society” efforts, and investments by aid agencies to create regional civil society innovation centers. All of these are laudable, important efforts that merit our support.

But the recent groundswell of attention around shrinking civic space has felt, to me, somewhat hollowed out and cherry picked. Why? While we’re indeed witnessing a concerted effort in some countries to restrict the ability of non-governmental organizations to legally register or receive financial support from abroad, we’re simultaneously witnessing a concerted effort by many of the key backers of the “defend civic space” movement to dismantle privacy and anonymity protections in cyberspace. This schizophrenic understanding of “civic space” is troubling and needs a course correction, quickly, if we’re serious about defending civic space globally. Here are a few ideas for how to accomplish that.

Bulk data collection efforts and the undermining of encryption standards need to be reined in. For anyone who’s ever worked with or for a civil society organization on edgy issues such as human rights or corruption, the ability to communicate with peers discretely and securely is as essential as oxygen. But as the Edward Snowden documents have made painfully clear, the methods we thought were traditionally safe for communicating and transmitting sensitive information about our work have been actively undermined by intelligence agencies, notably those in the US and UK. Not only were our favorite commercial email and peer to peer communication servers tapped and monitored on a bulk basis, but popular digital encryption standards were actively watered down by the NSA to allow for easier surveillance.  How can we “defend” civil society while actively dismantling the digital tools most crucial to the work they carry out? Do we expect civil society organizations to carry out their work by carrier pigeon in the future to avoid ever-increasing digital dragnets? The status quo is simply irreconcilable, in my view.  

If we’re serious about a genuine discourse around defending civic space, we need to include intelligence agencies, national security policymakers, and civil liberties advocates in the discussion. My hunch is that boosters of the current civic space discourse would generally agree with the above argument – that mass digital surveillance by their governments hurts their efforts – but lack the access and clout to reconcile the tension. It’s not often you see development agencies or even foreign ministries winning internal bureaucratic battles with intelligence agencies once the bogeyman of “terrorist threats” is trotted out. This is where civil society itself can play a proactive role in convening a broader discussion to weigh the civil liberties trade-offs inherent in decisions around bulk data collection. We need to explicitly tackle those tensions head on, and that starts with getting more people around the table, not simply our friends who are already transparency and open government proponents. A few leaders in key countries, notably Brazil (an OGP founding country) and Germany, have already made these issues a political priority, offering us initial momentum to build on.

Digital rights protections need to make their way into OGP Action Plans. I made a public call for this at the recent US National Action Plan kick-off event at the White House and I’ll do so again here. For OGP countries we know have been actively engaged in bulk data collection efforts (thus far, this includes at least the US, UK, New Zealand, and Macedonia), it’s crucial that future NAPs include specific, concrete commitments to rein these programs in and to balance them against the harm they produce to the civic space operating environment. We also need to push back on moves in some OGP countries, most recently Tanzania, to outlaw the publication of data that is not blessed by national statistical offices, a grave threat to the work of hundreds of non-governmental organizations and media houses that routinely generate and publish vital, credible third-party data assessing their countries’ performance on a range of indicators. I realize these are extremely sensitive topics that involve a host of loaded political and national security equities. I also know we can no longer bury our heads in the sand and pretend that “open government” doesn’t include digital rights protections; it does. It’s time to begin tackling these thorny issues in the context of OGP. 

Can we make progress this year on defending civic space? Absolutely. But if we’re serious about genuinely defending the ability of non-governmental and civil society organizations to flourish, we need to take a holistic, comprehensive approach, and that means bringing cyberspace into the civic space debate.

Photo Credit: JeepersMedia via Compfight cc

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