Civil society leaders aren’t thinking enough about technology. Technology leaders aren’t thinking enough about civil society.
In 2015 we launched the Stanford PACS Digital Civil Society Lab to unite these worlds. Our goal is to define the software, organizational and legal codes needed for private action for public benefit to thrive in the digital age.
Beyond all the dazzling disruptions of technology, we believe “what comes next” will be a wholesale re-imagination of the way private resources can create public benefits. We will get beyond the current excitement around changing products, and get into a deeper discussion about how we can change and improve systems.
What is DCS?
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.
The Digital Civil Society Lab is based on several premises:
Civil society – an independent space where individuals can act to benefit others – is essential to democracy.
Such activity requires that individuals can act independently – apart from government or the marketplace – and voluntarily – free from coercion.
Civil society depends on the liberty to choose with whom, how and where one meets or acts – freedom of association. It also depends on the permission to speak and communicate freely, to broadcast one’s views both internally to other associational members and externally to other citizens – freedom of speech.
Our world is getting more digital – networks of digitized data undergird more and more of our communications and connections and more of our analog assets are being digitized (text, video, audio, DNA, physical objects)
We are in a transition period where civil society actions are adapting digital tools and practices and where digital innovators are creating tools with civil society purposes – “the social is going digital and the digital is going social.”
We need to look beyond individual examples to see if and how the digital environment is affecting or altering the rights and abilities of individuals to voluntarily act privately for the public good; to consider the mechanisms for valuing, owning, and donating digital assets; and consider the governance, organizational, and policy implications of this sphere. Digital civil society does more than move freedom of association and freedom of speech online; it opens up completely new mechanisms for civil society activity, for example, the ownership and donation of digital assets.
Digital data are fundamentally different economic assets than time or money – the two resources around which civil society has previously been organized. We need to create new practices and policies to guide the governance and use of digital data within civil society and the creation of civil society in digital environments.
Digital civil society is not just the old, analog set of activities of civil society conducted online. The dazzling technological advances of the digital age have enabled a set of new behaviors and activities in addition to the conduct of civil society’s old activities in online environment.
Just as digital technologies have shifted business practice and forms, and as open data are beginning to change the nature of our relationships to government, we can see fundamental changes in how citizens organize to use our private resources for public good. Where this has been the province of philanthropy and nonprofits for the last century, we can already see signs that mobile self-organizing, crowdfunding, civic tech, global networks, and digital apps are setting the stage for new forms and practices in the decades ahead.
Consider, for example, the many ways that mobile phones and SMS messaging have become integrated across civil society. Examples include:
- The distribution of market information to rural farmers to improve their sales of goods [Frontline SMS];
- Organizing activists to protest (Tahrir Square, #Ferguson); using photo and video in smartphones to bear witness to and document political protest
- New data collection methods for service providers, and the resultant creation of new data sets to be used, shared, and protected (e.g. CrisisTextLine);
- Disaster relief efforts coordinated by governments and multinational relief organizations that rely on volunteers “bringing their own devices”;
- Direct deposit of money into mobile phone accounts for poverty relief (e.g., GiveDirectly); and
- Mapping of text messages by third parties to monitor health delivery efforts.
Mobile phones are, of course, only one digital technology changing the daily reality of civil society. Crowdfunding platforms, open data efforts, satellite imagery, drone deliveries, remote sensors – these are all digital platforms that provide people with new ways to use their private resources for public benefit. They also can be used to produce new types of public benefits, such as aggregate databases of social actions that may be useful to researchers, or mapping visualizations that can improve coordination or service delivery.
Two elements of the digital environment matter to civil society – the digital infrastructure (the systems that constitute our telecommunications infrastructure) and digital data (digitized bits and bytes of information) that move along and are stored on the infrastructure. The infrastructure – the cables, wireless spectrum, satellite transmission systems, cloud storage servers – constitute the “where” of digital civil society. How these “spaces” are owned, monitored, regulated, and made accessible have important implications for our abilities as private citizens to act on the public behalf.
Digital data and infrastructure should be seen as both a resources and an enabling environment for digital civil society. How digital resources are stored, accessed, shared, monitored, secured, and analyzed constitutes both what we are doing and how we are doing it. The generative nature of digital data and the metadata that each action generates, as well as the usually obscure, often proprietary nature of the algorithms used to make the data accessible or to analyze it, have additional implications for how we use digital tools for civil society actions.
So we live in a new age. And in this new age, we must confront both promise and peril; we must identify benefits and costs of digital civil society and determine how to weigh trade-offs. A familiar tension, for example, can be found in weighing the benefit of greater efficiency against a loss in privacy (e.g., accepting terms of service for email). As a general matter, we view the array of activities that take place in digital civil society as presenting opportunity and challenge.
Civil society’s voices have been largely absent from the research and policy debates on digital issues. For example, in 2014 the Obama administration held a series of public meetings on data privacy. The report that resulted from these meetings highlighted the socially discriminatory potential of algorithms, the inequities of broadband access in the U.S., and the social disparities exacerbated or accelerated by remote sensor technologies. In 2013, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced an initiative to make Internet access a basic human right. Where is the nonprofit world on these issues? Other than the nonprofit institutions that helped host the meetings and the few civil liberties or electronic privacy groups in attendance, these findings and calls for policy action have gone unheard (and thus unheeded) in civil society.