What is digital civil society?
Digital civil society encompasses all the ways we voluntarily use private resources for public benefit in the digital age. While civil society is often conflated with nonprofit organizations and philanthropy, it is (and always has been) much broader than that – including informal networks of volunteers, mutual assistance associations, and political activists. Digital tools have been taken up quickly by many elements of civil society, even going so far as to spark the creation of a new subset of nonprofit organizations focused on supporting “civic tech” – or those who dedicate their time to improve municipal or other public services.
We view the scope of digital civil society as the intersection of six domains: nonprofits and philanthropy, market solutions for social good, political action and campaigns, informal associational life, digital data, and digital infrastructure.
Each of the six contributing elements operate in distinct ways, under different and, in some case, emerging and/or contradictory regulatory structures. For example, in the United States, political contributions over $200 are required to be reported and made transparent, whereas philanthropic donations (of any amount) can be anonymous. In the digital realm, we are learning, true data privacy or anonymization is difficult, if not impossible. Where these behaviors intersect – in online individual giving to politically active nonprofit organizations – we find one example of this new territory called digital civil society.
To understand the dynamics of using private resources for public good we must consider the interactions of nonprofits, philanthropy, crowdfunding, social welfare and political organizations and their donors, social businesses, corporate social offices, and impact investors. In transnational contexts the role of development aid becomes critical. And with digital tools and the exchange and application of digital data the likelihood that many of these partners (plus commercial firms, especially telecommunications and internet companies, and government agencies, especially those with rich data sets) will be in the middle of the mix.