Digital Civil Society Lab

Mapping the Policy Infrastructure of Digital Civil Society


There's no civil society without digital rights

Lucy Bernholz delivered the keynote address at the Digital Social Summit in Berlin in February 2019. “The 21st century agendas for civil society are broadband access, net neutrality, intellectual property, consumer protection, state surveillance and the digital rights agenda.”


Digital Civil Society Policy Consultation

Why and how should experts on digital issues and civil society come together to make the digital world work for all people? This May 29 convening is part of a new initiative to strengthen, expand, and diversify connections between digital policy expertise and civil society organizations.

Report: Integrated Advocacy: Paths Forward for Digital Civil Society

Civil society organizations need targeted support and learning platforms to enable them to advocate effectively on the digital policy issues that shape modern societies. Read the full report here.


This research project investigates how digital public policy implicates civil society in democracies and how to strengthen, expand and diversify the practical connections between civil society support organizations and digital policy experts. The initial focus of this work is on the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Europe.

Civil society is increasingly dependent on digital data and infrastructure. This reality creates new parameters for civil society action, which is now shaped by corporate rules on data ownership, government digital surveillance, regulations on data privacy and ownership, and even corporate concentration among telecommunications, content, and internet media firms.  

While the nonprofit sector has begun to understand these digital dependencies, and has taken steps to improve digital security, data governance, and data use, there has been little action by traditional civil society infrastructure groups to address the policy issues created by this growing digital dependence.  

Digital policy issues – the realm of rules and decisions about how digital data are managed, from intellectual property law to broadband access, net neutrality to data protections – are broad, diverse, and addressed in multiple disconnected public policy spheres. Although many of the key advocates and stakeholder groups active in these issues are themselves organized as nonprofits or advocacy movements, the broader nonprofit sector is relatively inattentive to these issues.

The primary goal of this planning initiative is to articulate the current landscape and develop possible paths forward toward a stronger, more systemic understanding with a set of joint actors who can represent the interests of civil society and philanthropy in the digital age.  


This project is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Research Questions

Key driving questions of this work include: 

  • What are the current and emergent policy realms that shape civil society in the digital age?
  • What groups are working on digital policy and how are these buckets of work organized by topic (digital security, closing civic space, tech for good, etc.)? 
  • How is the digital policy that shapes civil society made globally?
  • What makes new connections and alliances last beyond an initial policy issue?
  • How can organizations that exist to work on behalf of civil society commit to engaging on tomorrow’s digital policy issues, over a long time horizon?
  • How can funders engage with traditional civil society and philanthropy infrastructure groups on policy?


Activities will include desk research, interviews with key civil society and policy groups, an in-person convening of select funders and infrastructure groups, a virtual public conversation via the Digital Impact platform, participation in three top global digital policy conferences, and the expansion of the Lab’s non-resident fellows program to include a digital policy practitioner.  

Outputs will include a public, web-based visual ecosystem map and narrative analysis of the current policy domains and actors; an in-person convening of leading policy groups, infrastructure organizations, and funders; a livestreamed virtual conversation on the Digital Impact platform highlighting key emerging digital policy opportunities for civil society; and a series of recommendations about how to strengthen ties between civil society and policy communities.