Image: Access Now Grantees in digital civic space|The Technology for Democracy Cohort of the U.S. Summit for Democracy (S4D)

Digital civic space: how Access Now Grants built resilience in 2020

It is only by elevating the experiences, perspectives, and needs of communities closest to harm that we can achieve a full realization of digital rights. This focus guided the work of our Access Now Grants team throughout 2020.

In 2020, the spread of COVID-19 took an especially severe toll on grassroots organizations by further restricting civic space and shrinking direly needed resources. Despite the challenges of the year, digital rights organizations and activists rose to meet the moment. They responded urgently and forcefully to the new threats to digital rights that arrived with the pandemic and rallied to support those most at risk through a crisis that further exacerbated the existing inequality, discrimination, and violence they were experiencing.

We observed several key trends emerging from our grantmaking efforts. We offered more support for local digital security help desks, got more requests for assistance fighting internet shutdowns through grassroots organizing, and helped organizations working to mitigate human rights challenges related to social media platforms worldwide.

Following is a look at the organizations we supported in 2020 that are working on these and other fronts. If you have questions about our grant-making process, check out the Access Now Grants page for details, and reach out to [email protected] if you can’t find the information you’re looking for.

In 2020, Access Now provided $979,059 in direct financial support across 38 grants to 34 separate local and grassroots organizations working across 27 countries.

Total grants awarded in 2020 38
Total grantee organizations 34
Total number of countries represented 27
Average grant amount $25,765
Number of first-time grantees in 2020 15
Average grantee organizational budget $223,981
Percentage of grants going to organizations with $200k or less in their organizational budget 76%

In 2020, 76% of our support went towards funding grassroots groups with budgets less than $200,000. Such support has been an increasing priority, as grassroots organizations working in challenging contexts typically face significant obstacles in accessing funds. Many donors perceive risk in such contexts, and organizations working on behalf of marginalized communities can face additional barriers as they traditionally have less access to resources. Our goal is to empower such organizations to increase their profile, strengthen their organization and future sustainability, and achieve greater impact.

We also strategically fund larger and more established organizations. We often support such organizations to help them organize large convenings, work regionally or across multiple countries, improve digital security for human rights defenders and at-risk communities, build digital rights capacity within the broader civil society ecosystem, and help channel funds in high-risk and closed environments.

In 2020, 15 organizations, or 44% of recipients, were first-time grantees. There are no set benchmarks for new grantees. Rather, we seek a balance that enables us to provide sustained, multi-year funding and respond to emerging issues and support the expansion of the digital rights community. In 2020, we awarded funding to new grantees in several countries where we felt there were opportunities to push back on negative trends, or seize new openings for human rights work.

2019 Grants

[tab title=”A-F”]

Grantee Amount & Type Country Description
7amleh $84,000, Core Palestine Working with technology companies to end digital discrimination of Palestinians and bring policies and practices in line with international human rights standards.
7amleh $9,913, Discretionary Palestine Supporting Palestine Digital Activism Forum (PDAF) 2021, bringing together various stakeholders to discuss the challenges to digital activism within Palestinian civil society.
Acoso Online $22,000, Project Latin America Producing a regional report on how COVID-19 is affecting online gender-based violence in Latin America.
Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy  $49,718, Project Ethiopia Facilitating a year-long campaign on internet shutdowns and hosting a series of digital security trainings with journalists, activists, and human rights defenders on how to protect their online privacy during electoral periods.
Center for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi (CCG) $24,000, Project India Creating a legal fellowship program to help lawyers more effectively intervene in critical cases related to freedom of expression, internet shutdowns, and privacy in the digital age, and hosting convenings to build a community of legal professionals with digital rights expertise.
Data Privacy Brasil $10,000, Discretionary Brazil Monitoring new policies and regulations related to the COVID-19 crisis from a public health and digital rights perspective; identifying red flags and helping to ensure policies do not have a permanent impact on certain rights, particularly health data and privacy.
DIG/SEC Initiative $10,000 Discretionary Uganda Providing digital security training to participants from Uganda and Tanzania, developing a guide on digital security best practices in both English and Swahili, and maintaining an emergency Helpline to provide remote tech support and assistance to HRDs, journalists, and activists.
Digital Reach (Internet Law Reform Dialogue) $15,000, Project Thailand Publishing an annual report on the status of human rights and technology in Southeast Asia; researching digital contact tracing in Southeast Asia and hosting a corresponding virtual project launch event; hosting further events on tackling disinformation and the potential implementation of an internet firewall in Myanmar and Cambodia.  
Digital Reach (Internet Law Reform Dialogue) $32,828, Project Thailand Producing an annual report illustrating how technology has impacted human rights in the region and researching the impact of Facebook’s content moderation.
Digital Security Lab Ukraine $97,119, Core Ukraine Continuing long-term, ongoing support for high-risk Ukrainian organizations and providing rapid response to HRDs and journalists in the event of attacks on their communications or data.
Foundation for Media Alternatives $19,998, Core Philippines Core grant supporting organizational priorities, including monitoring of the new anti-terror act and its implementation, particularly around the surveillance of civil society and human rights advocates.
Fundacion Internet Bolivia $21,377, Project Bolivia Designing and implementing a secure helpline to assist women in danger of digital violence; developing comparative analyses based on legislative research of personal data protection laws, in coordination with municipalities and indigenous and Afro-descendant communities.

[tab title=”G-Z”]

Grantee Amount & Type Country Description
Gisa Group $40,000, Project Sudan Formalizing and facilitating digital security and rights training and training of trainers (ToT) for youth in Sudan.
Haki na Sheria Initiative $23,981, Project Kenya Producing a report focused on the Huduma Namba litigation and the resulting enactment of the Data Protection Act; engaging in an advocacy campaign to raise awareness of digital rights violations, particularly among those populations most adversely impacted.
Hiperderecho $20,000, Project Peru Facilitating a digital security training program for women, LGBTQ activists, and organizations vulnerable to online gender-based violence.
I Freedom Uganda $7,487, Discretionary Uganda Supporting key member organizations serving the LGBTQ and sex worker communities in Uganda to set up secure virtual workspaces, enabling them to continue their critical work while following social distancing guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I Freedom Uganda $32,000, Core Uganda Core grant contributing to operational costs with a focus on improving monitoring and evaluation systems. Other priorities include creating an internet freedom talk show to stimulate debate and hosting a symposium on gender, sexuality, and the internet.
KRYSS Network $31,661, Core Malaysia Documenting incidents and analyzing impact of online gender-based violence in Malaysia and establishing a support desk and resource kit for victims.
Manushya Foundation $33,000, Project Thailand Fostering the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship to build solidarity, uphold online freedom of expression, and ensure protection and promotion of democratic principles in cyberspace.
Mnemonic $40,000, Project Syria and other countries Preserving documentation of human rights violations for use in reporting, advocacy, and accountability and mitigating the impact of content removals on human rights organizations and media groups in Syria and other areas of armed conflict.
Social Media Exchange (SMEX) $60,000, Core Lebanon Raising awareness of closing digital civic space in the MENA region through policy and advocacy campaigns, editorial content, and stakeholder engagement.
Sursiendo $70,012, Core Mexico Core grant supporting internal strengthening as well as organizational priorities, such as providing digital security accompaniment to grassroots organizations and raising awareness of surveillance practices in Mexico.
Tecnicas Rudas $35,000, Project Mexico Reinforcing capacity building and emergency response activities with local human rights activists in Mexico and Central America.
Vita Activa $9,675, Discretionary Latin America Creating a series of Support Circles on WhatsApp (‘Tejidendo Fuerza’ or ‘Weaving Strength’) meant to build safe spaces for vulnerable communities. Trained responders facilitate the group discussions and offer support, guidance, and resilience-building exercises.
Zaina Foundation $10,000, Discretionary Tanzania Providing a three-day digital security training for women journalists and one-day training for technologists / digital security trainers on how to classify, verify, and report internet shutdowns.
Zaina Foundation $24,000, Project Tanzania Providing digital security and ToT training for women journalists in Tanzania; monitoring internet shutdowns and running an advocacy campaign with a coalition of tech experts and local NGOs. The coalition will produce a report on internet shutdowns in Tanzania during the 2020 election period.

[tab title=”Confidential”]

Grantee Amount & Type Country Description

Organization in Azerbaijan

$10,000, Discretionary Azerbaijan Procuring secure hosting for website and taking steps to prevent other digital security threats.

Organization in CIS Region

$10,000, Discretionary CIS Region Monitoring, recording, and ensuring the general public is aware of government interference with the internet, including content blocking and internet shutdowns, particularly during and immediately following electoral periods.

Organization in Honduras

$24,900, Project Honduras Providing digital security services to human rights organizations and individual activists through webinars, workshops, and ongoing virtual support; raising awareness of digital rights through podcasts and community radio.

Organization in Latin America 

$40,000, Core Latin America Core grant to support organizational priorities including developing and launching a newsreader/Virtual Private Network (VPN) app that will help citizens access censored independent media sites.
*CONFIDENTIAL Organization in Latin America $24,977, Project Latin America Creating a forensic lab that will enable local communities, journalists and civil society to resist digital threats from cyber surveillance software and disinformation campaigns..

Organization in MENA region

$10,000 Discretionary Middle East and North Africa Scanning devices belonging to dissidents in order to find spying tools often used by state actors and gain a better understanding of the extent of digital attacks in the region.

Organization in MENA Region 

$20,000, Project Middle East and North Africa Promoting and enhancing the right to privacy and the right to personal data protection.

Organization in Myanmar

$21,360, Project Myanmar Continuing to monitor and document the violations of the right to freedom of expression and analyzing the use and impact of repressive laws.

Organization in Myanmar

$20,202, Project Myanmar Conducting an in-depth review of Facebook’s new policies on content moderation and analyzing the impact of those policies on the right to freedom of expression.

Organization in the Philippines

$15,000 Project Philippines Training and establishing a nationwide team of first responders able to provide assistance for digital security threats, cyberattacks, surveillance, and harassment.

Organization in Venezuela

$70,000, Core Venezuela Strengthening the capacity of civil society organizations in Venezuela, particularly on digital security and communication strategies.

Organization in Yemen

$42,760, Project Yemen Operating internet centers and offering technical support to NGOs, activists, and journalists in Yemen.