The infrastructure behind the infrastructure

Lucy Bernholz

The digital space is the infrastructure that we all depend on. But for civil society to secure its freedom of thought and action is a major challenge


Support organizations are not the only kind of infrastructure that philanthropy and civil society depend on. Increasingly, underpinning the work of both – in fact of all organizations – is the digital technology they rely on. That brings its own problems and is something that philanthropy support organizations need to pay attention to.

Every foundation, donor, non-profit, or civic association which uses email or cell phones is digitally dependent. These organizations and the people who constitute them – staff, volunteers, board members, beneficiaries – connect to each other via software, hardware and digital infrastructure. Whenever we act out our associational, expressive, or privacy rights using digital networks, we are operating in digital spaces. The policies and regulations that govern these domains – including software licensing, telecommunications, consumer data, privacy, intellectual property and others – and the corporate practices that shape them now dictate the where, the how, the who and the what of civil society, just as national and international legal frameworks, cultural and religious traditions and norms have always done.

The organization is, for all intents and purposes, holding its meetings in Google’s house.

Let me provide a few examples. Non-profits create and share documents via inexpensive (often free) cloud services, such as Google Drive. In doing so, they may (or may not be) aware that Google has full and complete access to everything written in those documents. The company’s Terms of Service allow it to scan the content of those materials for Google’s own purposes (selling advertising). The full and complete contents of the documents – be they board materials, internal performance reviews, strategy or fundraising plans are visible to Google. The organization is, for all intents and purposes, holding its meetings in Google’s house.

Another organization, perhaps a public foundation, uses Facebook to publicize its activities, do outreach for events and raise funds. Here too, the organization has ceded control over all of the data about these activities – who saw the information, who responded to it, who gave money – to Facebook. Everything the foundation knows about its interactions with its public and funders is also known – and stored and used – by a giant company based in California. In a third example, neighbours in an urban slum may advocate successfully for public works improvements, including sidewalks, better roads and perhaps an antenna to improve cell services in the area. What they won’t know to advocate for, however, are limits on the city’s use of the antennas to monitor the community, via cameras or analysis of social media exchanges. Without that understanding, the community has made a Faustian bargain – better cell signals in exchange for even closer government surveillance. And then there are rural communities, cut off from any affordable digital access. Lacking a sophisticated level of digital literacy or legal advocates on their side, they may choose the financially free infrastructure offered by a commercial company, unaware of the data privacy price they’ll be paying.

In places where data plans are expensive, broadband access is non-existent and wireless service is spotty, people’s ability to organize, communicate and participate is limited. This digital environment is a barrier to a robust civil society and should be addressed as such. However, in places where data plans are cheap and fast wi-fi is ubiquitous, digital expression and association happens easily, but is governed by a set of commercial actors whose primary commitment is to profit, not to human or democratic rights. In places where technological access is easy but legal protections are few, people are living their digital expressive and associational lives under the relentless eye of government surveillance. These things, too, are barriers to free, independent civil society.

Digital rights are existentially important to civil society, regardless of whether the community in question is aspiring to digital connectivity or awash in it.

These scenarios capture the current situation in most parts of the world. Digital access is expensive and unavailable, or it is cheap and privatized, or cheap and under government surveillance. None of the scenarios is conducive to the associational, expressive and private rights that are fundamental to both civil society and philanthropy.

In the physical world, civil society is aware of the financial, contractual and accountability bonds that tie it to the public and private sectors. Much of the policy work that civil society and philanthropic infrastructure groups do is negotiate these rules and norms. The passage of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is a globally important step towards a policy regime that protects individual rights to association, expression and privacy. Numerous digital rights groups, each a part of civil society, played important parts in getting the rules passed. Ironically, the organizations that did this work are not generally recognized as part of the philanthropic or civil society infrastructure. Digital rights are existentially important to civil society, regardless of whether the community in question is aspiring to digital connectivity or awash in it. Now is the time to strengthen civil society’s understanding and advocacy of digital rights and to recognize the role of digital rights groups as part of civil society’s infrastructure.

Lucy Bernholz is a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) and director of PACS’ Digital Civil Society Lab. Email

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