Shrinking Civil Space: A Digital Perspective

Shrinking Civil Space: A Digital Perspective

This paper looks at shrinking civic space in terms of the digital, in particular the role that digital technologies can have on restricting the spaces of civil society organisations and their activities.

When it comes to digital rights, repressive laws have proliferated, negatively impacting freedom of expression and the privacy of politically engaged actors. This is matched by increased surveillance and more arrests and legal prosecution based on internet behaviour. Current debates largely treat digital technologies as one of the many pillars of restrictive methods on the side of governments and non-state actors – while largely ignoring how digital technologies are intertwined in all our social, political and economic interactions. Whether through smartphones, computer devices, smart cities, CCTV cameras or government surveillance, technology provides the infrastructure with which governments and third parties attempt to limit political participation.

The escalation of attacks on civil society organisations (CSOs) and on the spaces for political and civic participation, in parallel with a resurgence of populist politics and parties and their rise to power in some countries, calls for concern. The attacks are no longer confined to what were traditionally known as countries with compromised democratic systems. Nowadays, shrinking spaces are not only affecting local NGOs and CSOs but also international organisations such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International. The trend can be seen in denials of funding as much as in the government-sponsored spread of stigmatising misinformation (as seen in the case of US reproductive rights groups like Planned Parenthood), restrictive laws and police incursions (such as raids of NGOs in Hungary) and the criminalisation and confiscation of resources (exemplified by the Italian government’s impounding of a migrant-rescue boat belonging to a Spanish NGO).

The increasingly normalised surveillance and analysis of troves of citizens’ data by governments and the private sector also contributes to the shrinking space of civil society. Data about individuals and communities is collected from sources ranging from social media activity to Smart City and IoT technology and CCTV cameras. The ways that members of CSOs communicate with others, express their views, organise events, mobilise support, build solidarity, and process, create, store and exchange information are all inevitably part of the digital sphere. Consequently, data-driven practices – either by governments or corporations – significantly impact activists, CSOs and social movements. To ensure their safety and wellbeing, activists need to navigate a trade-off between visibility and anonymity due to risks and threats from state and non-state actors.

Beyond the surveillance and monitoring of data and activities by governments and private companies, activists and CSOs have experienced an escalation in covert attacks using malware, phishing and spyware. In Egypt for example, CSOs were the primary targets of an organised phishing attack. Such attacks are not restricted to so-called “countries of risk” but can extend globally. Amnesty International was the target of Operation Kingphish, which involved the creation of a fake social media persona by an unknown actor, who, according to a report by a senior technologist at Amnesty, used phishing attacks to gain access to “dozens of journalists, human rights defenders, trade unions and labour rights activists, many of whom are seemingly involved in the issue of migrants’ rights in Qatar and Nepal.”

With this landscape as the backdrop, this paper focuses on the threats, risks and implications of shrinking civic space from a digital perspective. We examine how tech platforms, data collection, surveillance and other digital means can threaten, restrict or curtail the work of CSOs and the spaces for political and civic participation. It is important to understand this landscape because many CSOs depend on tech platforms and tools for their work, including their outreach and research. Furthermore, their activities generate data that is collected and can be used to undermine their causes, and in certain cases, affect individuals’ wellbeing and personal safety. Though technology and digital platforms have helped CSOs expand their efforts, they have also expanded the area of risk and led to an increase in the invasiveness of the methods used.

Visit Project Website

Related content

A Voter's Guide: 7 Tips to Detox Your Data

Our Voter’s Guide explains how personal data is collected and used by political parties and candidates – and what voters can do about it. The seven tips are now available in both English and Dutch.

→︎ Read more

Event Promotion for Organisers

This new chapter of the Organiser's Activity Book from our Data & Activism project looks at event promotion. The playful activities, aimed at organisers, campaigners and human rights defenders, explore the consequences, risks and benefits of using tools like social media in terms of personal data.

A Fistful of Privacy Tips: Tech at Protests

Whether you’re expressing your disapproval on the web or on the streets, technology will play a role in how you protest. This Data Detox guide will help activists and protesters stay vigilant when using smartphones, social media, and messaging apps.

The Organiser’s Activity Book

The Organiser’s Activity Book is a new self-learning resource from Tactical Tech’s Data and Activism project. The book is a collection of playful exercises for organisers within civil society who work with the personal data of human rights defenders, investigators, campaigners, and others who are taking part in social or political action.

→︎ Read more

La technologie est stupide : comment choisir la technologie pour le travail à distance

Cet article aborde les questions de savoir quelle technologie est bonne, sûre et appropriée à utiliser en ces temps complexes si nous voulons agir et travailler de manière responsable et à distance. Comment décider de la technologie à laquelle nous devons faire confiance ? Il examine également ce qui pourrait être fait à l'avenir pour répondre à cette question beaucoup plus facilement qu'aujourd'hui.

→︎ Read more

How to Manage Your Sources

From Exposing the Invisible The Kit: Start building your own contacts, learn how to develop, interact with and maintain sources and how to enrich your investigations with their cooperation.

Retrieving and Archiving Information from Websites

In this chapter from Exposing the Invisible - The Kit, Wael Eskandar and Brad Murray explain ways to find and retrieve historical and ‘lost’ information from websites, to serve as evidence that something existed online, and ways to archive and preserve your own copies of webpages for future reference.

Activism on Social Media: A Curated Guide

There has been a lot of resources written on safer use of digital technologies and social media platforms for CSOs, grassroots groups, activists and politically-active individuals. Here we present a curated list of resources, a pool of links that can help you respond to existing risks and threats.

Data Baggage, Travel and Activism

At every stage, travelling means giving away an immense amount of data that is either required by governments or by companies that provide travel-related services, or that can be automatically generated in the background. This article gives insight into the data you give away when travelling.

On Weaponised Design

Weaponised design is a process that allows for harm of users within the defined bounds of a designed system. This article takes a look at how it can be faciliated by designers who are oblivious to the politics of digital infrastructure or consider their design practice output to be apolitical.

Quantifying Homosexuality: A Critique

This article examines a few moments related to the history of homosexuality and its categorisation. It starts with recent facial recognition algorithms to distinguish straight and gay faces and ends with Alan Turing’s questions about gender and The Imitation Game.

Holistic Security: The Trainer's Manual

The Trainer's Manual is the counterpart to the Holistic Security Strategy Manual for Human Rights Defenders. It reflects on further learnings and best practices grown out of Tactical Tech's engagements with experts and trainers on the overall protection, digital security, and psychosocial well-being for human rights defenders between 2013 and 2015.