This past year was rough. We saw a sharp increase in internet shutdowns globally, pressure to weaken encryption and legitimize mass surveillance, rampant government hacking, and other developments that put the most vulnerable people and communities — dissidents, activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and marginalized people — at risk for surveillance, censorship, and other attacks on their fundamental rights.
But that’s only half of the story. The other half is you — our supporters, international partners, and grantees who achieved real progress last year. You’re still going strong, and getting stronger. It’s going to take some serious collaboration to slow or reverse some of the trends we’re seeing — and that’s exactly what we’re hoping to do. We’re excited to work with and beside you for a better world in 2017.
To help you get a sense of what we’ve been working on and how we might work together, here’s a look back at 2016 and our first take on what’s ahead. The list isn’t comprehensive, but it does provide insight to our goals — or New Year’s “resolutions” — for the year.
Resolution 1: Keep global civil society secure
In 2016, we handled more than 800 requests for assistance through our free 24/7 Digital Security Helpline. A single case can take weeks and involve dozens of people to reach resolution. We help journalists protect their documents and sources; activists manage their social media accounts and safeguard their online identities; bloggers set up secure communications channels; and much more. We also help civil society organizations audit and harden their communications infrastructure, and offer digital security clinics at conferences across the globe. Our helpline staff can provide assistance in eight languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Tagalog, and Arabic. And no matter where you are, or when you contact us, we always respond within two hours.
We thank everyone who donated to support the helpline last year. We dearly need, and deeply appreciate, every bit of that support.
We believe our work at the helpline has never been more important. A critical issue right now is the abuse of personal data in targeting users-at-risk in the Arab world and beyond.
Many people and NGOs are contacting us for the first time, and we are sure to have even more cases in the year ahead. So we’re developing more resources like A First Look at Digital Security. We welcome your help in getting those resources out to communities worldwide, such as by translating the booklet into other languages. Let us know if you’re willing to help.
Access Now also works to keep civil society secure through our grants program. In 2016 we reaffirmed our commitment to supporting those in our community who are most at risk, and most in need of resources —- such as those courageously defending their rights to freely express their sexual and gender identities. We provided technical and financial support to LGBTI and feminist/women’s rights organizations to strengthen their digital rights capacity and join the movement. Our grants program will grow significantly in 2017 and we are committed to identifying those most in need of support and responding to the needs of the communities we serve.
Resolution 2: Keep fighting for a secure and open internet
Government attacks on encryption and the integrity of our private communications aren’t about to stop. Nor are governments backing down from the secret hacking that ought to be banned globally.
Neither will we back down from our resistance to these unacceptable policies and practices. We can’t allow any government to mandate encryption “backdoors” to our technology, legitimize mass surveillance, or hack into our networks and devices without a way for us to understand or limit the damage to our digital security and our rights.
In 2016, we pushed back to defend encryption globally, including our ongoing efforts to prevent or oppose backdoor mandates in Europe, Africa, the U.S., and elsewhere. We fought new government proposals for indiscriminate surveillance, and identified strategies for reforming existing laws. We also published a report outlining ways to limit government hacking to protect human rights.
One way we’re going to ramp up this year is by working with the global digital rights community to translate our government hacking principles to practice. We’ll keep working with local groups to beat back “cybercrime” and “cybersecurity” proposals that put rights at risk, as well as leveraging our special consultative status at the United Nations to advocate for fundamental rights at the international level. And we are pushing for urgent, necessary, and achievable human rights reforms to mass surveillance under Section 702 in U.S. law — which impacts the rights of non-U.S. persons — by the end of 2017.
Resolution 3: Keep the internet on, and safeguard free expression, globally
Last year, through our #KeepItOn campaign, we recorded 56 internet shutdowns in more than 20 countries around the world — more than double the number in 2015. But even as shutdowns increase, the global resistance is growing. We now have more than 100 civil society organizations from 51 countries in the campaign, and our partnership with Lush has created a Digital Fund for grassroots action against shutdowns that will allocate up to £200,000 to the community in 2017. We expect shutdowns to become more targeted — down to the level of city blocks or even neighborhoods — but at the same time, circumvention tools will get more sophisticated. So too will the push-back from all stakeholders, including telcos, tech companies, users, and even governments that oppose this pernicious practice.
We’re fighting other kinds of threats to free expression as well, detailing the ways that governments and companies can harm expression and other human rights through programs for countering violent extremism (“CVE”), or by instituting and implementing laws on the “right to be forgotten” around the world (see our policy guidance in English, Spanish, and Portuguese). Digital divides remain, leaving vulnerable communities without open access to the global internet, which we’ll promote over restrictive business models like zero rating that threaten free expression. Net Neutrality needs constant vigilance and defense, including in the U.S., where the next administration appears ready to roll back the progress we’ve made there. These are all live issues in several countries, and they are likely to be among those that will have a significant impact our freedom to speak and access information in the year ahead.
Resolution 4: Keep protecting our privacy (read: our freedom)
Even if you live a relatively privileged life and believe you have “nothing to hide,” your data can be exploited in ways that harm you. It’s a constant battle to keep control of our data, protect our privacy, and ensure that we can exercise the rights that privacy protects (like the freedom of expression, association, and assembly). It’s not only governments that are implicated here. Companies like Google or Facebook, and internet service providers, have access to our private data. This gives them tremendous power, and with it, tremendous responsibility to do business in a way that respects our rights.
Last year we fought on many fronts to protect privacy, including rallying against the E.U. Passenger Name Records Directive and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s policy of collecting foreign travelers’ social media account information at the border. Our policy work on data transfer arrangements like the E.U.-U.S.Privacy Shield, and proposals like Smart Borders and the e-Privacy legislation, will continue in 2017, as we strive to ensure that data are adequately protected regardless of where or how the information is collected, transferred, or stored. Through Access Now Grants, in 2016 we also provided funding to grassroots organizations in India, Colombia, Paraguay, and Nigeria that are leading the fight to enshrine the right to privacy in their respective countries.
Resolution 5: Keep collaborating with you, and supporting your work
Every year, we hold the RightsCon summit to bring together the leading experts in tech and human rights, including people from the private sector, government, and civil society, to map challenges and collaborate on strategies for keeping the internet open, free, and secure. In 2016, we brought together 1,100 people from more than 80 countries in Silicon Valley. Among these were digital rights lawyers eager to join our new impact litigation network, and general counsels from the world’s top tech companies — all looking to add legal capacity to civil society’s toolkit. This year, at RightsCon Brussels on March 29-31, 2017, we’re aiming to increase the opportunities for smaller, face-to-face meetings to help facilitate more direct collaboration. We hope you join us (and we encourage you to get tickets before we sell out).
In 2016, our grants program gave over $730,000 to 36 grassroots digital rights organizations around the world that are doing critical work as part of our larger community. We’re excited to exercise our mandate in 2017 to give $1,000,000 to grassroots civil society organizations and campaigners around the world. Together, we can make a difference for digital rights before the year is through.
We’ve only just scratched the surface of what it’s going to take to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world in 2017. If you’d like to stay updated on our work, follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, or subscribe to our newsletter here. We want to connect with you!