Thoughts of a prairie lawyer at RightsCon

Someone recently used the analogy for me as the prairie lawyer, the newcomer with the basic questions that can elicit wise answers. As someone new to the digital rights world but bringing (hopefully) from my work at Crisis Action some knack of asking the right questions to unlock effective collection action, that description is something I’ll happily aspire to.

Last week, at RightsCon I had the chance to really play the part of the prairie lawyer, and I came away with some reflections — about power, organising, and leadership.

It was my first time at RightsCon, arguably the main annual convention on human rights in a digital age, organised by the brilliant and tireless team at

. In this space where human rights defenders and tech geeks collide in a unique fusion, I was a true newbie. So, true to my role, I observed and I asked.

It will shock no-one when I say that power in the digital rights space is concentrated — particularly in Facebook and Google. This was tangible at RightsCon: when they’re in the room, conversations tended to the cosy; when they weren’t in the room, all the frustrations came out — but that truth wasn’t landing with the powerful.

Their power comes in many dimensions, but in particular, these three: connections, resources, and information (including data on us). Civil society shouldn’t expect to get equal on any of these fronts — but we can think about how to get smart. And nor should we be thinking about power only in an adversarial way — but some power will need to be taken, as well as shared. Here are some of my thoughts; I’d welcome yours.

Starting with the connections, civil society can’t match Facebook and Google on the heavyweight political connections they can draw on. But we can organise. If we are smart in how we use our collective weight, prioritising ambition and impact, then we can stack up to more than the sum of our diverse parts. Currently the political conversations are dominated by two parties: the companies and the (often rabbit-in-headlights) governments. We can change that.

We can’t match the big adtech companies for resources, either. Last week there were valid appeals for the donor community to step up in both funding quantities and strategy (I found these thoughts from

 to be super helpful). But there’s more we can do as civil society, too. Inspired by Be More Pirate, I keep coming back to mutinies: smaller victories that demonstrate that bigger changes are needed — and that we can organise in a way to make them happen. We will need new allies, so let’s inspire them to join us.

Some of those mutinies might centre on the third power imbalance: information. Organised and mutinous, we can secure greater transparency from the companies, revealing information in a way that doesn’t overwhelm, but empowers citizens and civil society to demand further changes — and so the mutinies will grow.

From policy to power

Quite understandably, the civil society debate is largely not about power, but about policy — which is complex, nuanced, and shifting. At the same time, though, politicians are experiencing what one participant described as ‘moral panic’: reacting — and regulating — in the face of public outrage at child abuse, terrorism, disinformation. Each of these issues demands debate, but the policy making won’t wait for those debates to draw neat conclusions.

So how do we take this policy and make it powerful? The guiding star for Digital Action is democracy, and democracy is not an end-state; it is not a fixed utopia but a process. A process of accountability which, in a democracy, requires informed, mobilised citizens: citizens, not simply users, able to engage the companies and governments. It won’t be sufficient, but it may be a necessary step for civil society to make the policy debates and human rights concerns tangible to citizens, resonant with their experiences. This can make policy wonkery more politically powerful, and can generate ongoing accountability for those in power.

(On the subject of utopias, Motif Institute ran a great creative storytelling session about feminist futures; if you ever get the chance, go).

Leadership isn’t about you

Perhaps it doesn’t need saying, or perhaps it really does: preserving our democratic rights in a digital age cannot be achieved by one organisation acting alone. It will take new collaborations — and the right kind of leadership.

The leadership that impressed me at RightsCon was exemplified by Lea Endres at Nation Builder. We’ll need more of her kind of leadership: ambitious for the cause not (just) for the brand, actively inclusive of other perspectives, and above all, seeking to inspire more leaders.

So, inspired by the many brilliant minds I had the genuine privilege to encounter at RightsCon, those are my initial thoughts on power, organising, and leadership to strengthen democratic rights in a digital age. Please share yours: where have you seen power most effectively mobilised in the democracy-and-digital world, and how can we replicate the organising, funding, and leadership how that made it possible?

Nick Martlew was Strategy Director at Digital Action.

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