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.

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