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

How we spent $1 million for digital rights in 2017: empowering the grassroots across the globe

Good news: Access Now has finalized our last round of grants for 2017! We’re thrilled to support those organizations making a difference for the digital rights of at-risk users worldwide. So far we have provided $1.6 million through our program, and in 2017 we helped to support nearly 50 organizations and activists in 26 countries. Twenty-two groups received renewed support and 27 groups were new to the grants program. Our average grant size was $23,000 and the grants ranged from less than $100 to $77,000.

I’ll get to some exciting highlights below. But first I want to let you know that in addition to the central task of getting funds to the organizations best placed to fight for digital rights at the grassroots, we’re doing some important work to strengthen our program. We’ve improved on our processes to increase our accountability and get better community input for our work. We’ve undergone training to expand our financial assessment capacity and created new guides to help applicants better understand our application and reporting processes. We’re also bridging the gap between the digital rights and broader human rights communities through our engagement in the Human Rights Funders Network and our partnership with Lush Cosmetics on the Digital Fund.

Now, we’re on to the good stuff! We can’t cover every organization or project we supported in 2017, but there are some important themes we want to share. We’re updating our list of grantees here shortly, with the caveat that some have requested confidentiality for security reasons. Below, we share details that let you see how members of our community are working for digital rights. We can’t do justice to the complexity of the environment in which they work, the threats they face, the strength of the communities they fight for, and the depth of the strategic thinking that guides their work. We are honored to support them.


  • Fighting for a feminist internet

    Since our grants program began, we have prioritized support for at-risk communities, including women and others who are targeted for discrimination because of their gender. In 2017, we gave 14 grants to groups whose mission is to advocate for those facing oppression connected to their gender, gender identity, and sexuality. One project we are supporting aims to bridge the gap in access to justice for victims of non-consensual sharing of intimate images. is expanding its sex-positive Spanish-language platform to cover more legal jurisdictions and country contexts so more survivors impacted by this issue will have better options and avenues for remedy. The team behind this project will also engage with community groups offline, such as student unions and women’s groups, who often face this issue but don’t have the resources or expertise to inform their response.


  • Guarding digital civic space

    Elections and other incredibly important social and political moments have become increasingly ripe for violations of free expression and other human rights. Governments are imposing internet shutdowns and restrictions on social media platforms that harm democratic discourse, and engaging in hacking and disinformation campaigns in an effort to tip elections. In some cases the public has become wary of how the use of technology can influence elections, and in particular, wary of the impact of social media. In the rush to address these concerns, governments risk implementing policies that further damage human rights.

    In 2017 we supported several organizations working to ensure digital rights during elections. These include KICTANet, which worked to protect the people of Kenya from an internet shutdown during the recent election, as well as to monitor the use of technology in the election. We also supported the Bloggers Association of Kenya’s (BAKE) in its work training bloggers, women, and youth, so they could understand laws related to freedom of expression online and use tools to protect their engagement online during the election. Our support of Rudi International in the Democratic Republic of Congo is aimed at helping the organization raise awareness about digital security and internet shutdowns among journalists and youth rights advocates, in a country where citizen protests have been met with internet shutdowns, and the government has repeatedly delayed the elections that were scheduled for December 2016.


  • Protecting human rights advocates online, so they can do their work safely

    The internet and digital technology are increasingly ubiquitous in all aspects of our lives, and securing digital rights is vital for all human rights work. In 2017 we supported Asociación Campesina de Trabajadores de Argelia (ASCAMTA), a farmer- and worker-led social movement in an area of Colombia where community leaders are at great risk, despite the ongoing peace process. There is limited internet connectivity, which hampers the community’s ability to communicate about threats and keep each other safe. Responding to death threats and killings of its members, the movement is building a secure autonomous communication infrastructure to complement its collective physical security strategy. We also supported Sursiendo in Chiapas, Mexico, where strong social movements mobilized to defend indigenous communities have been met with violent repression. Sursiendo is helping to provide strategic advice and digital security assistance to grassroots movements that are defending land and territory against destructive extractive industries. The organization is leveraging the increased awareness of the use of spyware to target activists in Mexico to conduct research to provide insight on the digital environment and digital threats for human rights movements in Chiapas.


This past year has been difficult for all of us working in human rights. Civil society is facing unprecedented threats, including the criminalization of anti-surveillance tools like VPNs, the use of malware for targeted attacks, increasing internet shutdowns and censorship, threats to the free and open internet, and a crackdown on NGO operations and public mobilization efforts, carried out by authoritarian and democratic regimes alike. We know the fight ahead will be be long and hard. Yet we are energized by the resilience of the community we serve, and we stand ready to support the grassroots globally as groups and individuals work in their own communities to defend our fundamental rights online. We will keep providing flexible, general operating funding whenever possible, and when they need it, connecting our grantees with Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline.

As always, we welcome your input on how we can better support and empower civil society in the digital age, pushing back on the global trend of shrinking civic space. Your fight is ours, and if you see a way we can help you defend and extend the rights of users at risk, please feel free to contact us. And if you’d like to be a part of furthering the important work of these grassroots activists, you can make a contribution to our grants fund here.