Access Now’s mission is to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk across the globe, and we have a history of advocacy on a broad array of technology policy and human rights issues that impact vulnerable and under-represented communities. In 2020, we are continuing that work globally and in the United States, while also shifting focus in some cases to deepen our engagement in areas where we hope to make an impact. Below, I describe the opportunities that our U.S. policy team will focus on in the year ahead.
Raising the bar for data protection and digital privacy
Privacy has always been a top priority for Access Now globally, and there is an acute need for stronger protections in the U.S. People in the U.S. want and need more protections, and have for years, yet Congress has largely failed to take action. It wasn’t until the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded and California pushed through its California Consumer Privacy Act that lawmakers began to take the issue seriously and affirm the necessity of comprehensive federal privacy legislation. As we have for the past several years, we will work with Congress toward developing a strong bipartisan federal privacy framework, drawing on the lessons we have learned in our work globally. We are focused in particular on securing civil rights protections, removing privacy burdens from individuals, and ensuring that people’s rights are at the center of debate on policy at the intersection of data protection and the use of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI)-powered systems and tools that use discriminatory algorithms.
In an election year, it remains unlikely that Congress will take action at the federal level, but in this digital privacy void, states have stepped in to take action and should continue to do so to protect their citizens’ privacy. Where we can and it is practical, Access Now will plug into those state debates to help improve state-level privacy protections. While we are ultimately working toward a national-level, comprehensive approach, we fully support states in their efforts to improve privacy protections as they see fit.
Connecting the disconnected through broadband access and adoption
Access to a high-speed internet connection is a foundational issue. Many of the other substantive rights that Access Now is fighting for can only be enjoyed if you have an internet connection. Less than 60 percent of the world’s population has an internet connection, and in the U.S., nearly 20 million people lack access to a high-speed broadband connection (where “high speed” is defined as a paltry 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload). That statistic likely does not reveal the full extent of the problem.
With that in mind, Access Now will focus on several issues specific to connect everyone in the U.S. to high-speed internet, with particular focus on under-represented populations like Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. First, we need accurate broadband deployment data to ensure policymakers know what areas of the country are served, underserved, and unserved. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) currently lacks that data; it is making policy in the dark. Second, it’s not enough for broadband to be available, it must also be affordable. People with a low income may physically be capable of connecting to a high-speed broadband connection, but they may not have true access if the cost associated is too high. The FCC does not collect broadband pricing data, and to date has refused to do so. Thus, we will focus on U.S.-based efforts to connect the unconnected, particularly through the FCC’s Lifeline Program, which focuses on connecting low-income people to the internet.
Access Now will also continue its work to ensure an open internet in the U.S. and globally. In recent years, we filed comments at the FCC to retain its Title II classification and with the European Union’s Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications. Current FCC leadership does not view regulations positively; therefore, much of the action has moved to the state level, where we will provide support where possible.
Protecting human rights in content governance and platform accountability
With the rise and weaponization of algorithmically curated services, and increasing concern about hate speech, disinformation, and other kinds of harmful content and expression online, pressure is building for the government and private sector to take further action to protect the users of online platforms. Historically, the U.S. government has taken a hands-off approach to platforms given the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It has also, through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), granted platforms liability protections for the speech of users and, in the case of CDA 230, for good faith efforts to remove objectionable content.
Addressing the issues content governance raises and the responsibility of platforms requires extreme care and nuance, particularly in the U.S. where the Constitution prevents Congress from dictating outcomes based on particular speech or the identity of the speaker. Access Now will provide guidance for implementing approaches that align with global human rights standards, while also working to ensure the Constitutionally protected right to free speech.
Reining in government surveillance and supporting encryption
Access Now has long been active on the issues of government surveillance and encryption, and we will continue to engage, particularly to defend strong encryption (especially given the recent U.S./U.K./Australia efforts to weaken encrypted systems) and reform the USA FREEDOM Act.
This is an ambitious agenda, and we look forward to engaging with our partners and directly with U.S. policymakers in the coming year to support the development of laws, policies, and practices that safeguard the digital rights of those at risk in the U.S. and all around the world.