Putting Our Money Where the Internet Is

It’s time for a global fund for the internet. Civil society is the frontline for the defense of the internet and its users around the world. For years, the efforts of technologists, activists, and academics have kept the internet open and free; in many places today, these same people are best hope against balkanization and government consolidation of control. Despite their heroic and essential efforts, these groups remain chronically under-resourced. It’s time the internet supports its frontline defenders and the future of the net.

Over the past few decades, the internet has grown from a small network connecting a few academics and research institutes into a global network weaving together billions of people, cultures, and interests. Yet despite the rapid pace of growth and innovation, a significant issue has yet to be sufficiently addressed: How do we preserve an open, safe, and innovative internet landscape while avoiding fragmentation and consolidation?

In countries from the United States to the Philippines, from Brazil to Russia, from Jordan to Bangladesh, an active and vocal civil society has been critical in advancing freedom of expression and information, privacy, access, and innovation on and through the open internet.

But despite their successes, these civil society groups remain chronically under-resourced and unequally distributed.  They are perennially absent from many key forums and decisions at the national and global level; struggle to keep up with complex regulatory and technical developments; and often lack the might and resources to engage a wider popular constituency. And although an army of promising new groups have sprung up around the world to defend the internet and the rights of its users, many of them remain fragile and isolated.

To protect the internet from consolidation and control, we need an empowered civil society that can bring together their global resources and local expertise to influence policy and mobilize grassroots support for the internet. Otherwise we risk an internet that is fragmented, poorly regulated and governed by interests that would obstruct the free flow of information across networks and borders.

The next few years will be critical in determining both users’ rights and the business models that underpin the internet. And users face entrenched opposition: powerful governments pursuing their own foreign policy and national security agendas, a host of companies with billions of dollars of revenue on the line, operators willing to trade services and surveillance for the right price.

To address these inequalities protect the interest of users worldwide, civil society requires resources in the form of funding -- and lots of it. That’s why, as Dan Gillmor and others have recently suggested we need to rally resources to the cause. It is time for civil society to form a global fund to protect the open internet and defend the rights of internet users worldwide.

A central role for the fund will be investing in the ability of civil society to positively impact policy decisions at national and global policy forums, develop campaigning skills, build relationships with media for effective public communications, and create space for civil society to share their on-the-ground expertise, strategy and practice .

This new endowment must enjoy long-term funding for a sustained period, and commit itself to working globally. Through a fair, transparent, and inclusive process that is sensitive to participant’s needs and opinions, the new fund could develop three core program funding areas, as follows:

Firstly, Advocacy and Coordination: Funding here will be committed to increasing the coherence and effectiveness of civil society advocacy by providing resources to convene various groups ahead of key decision moments and forums. Programming will focus on increasing collaboration among civil society groups working in related areas; enabling the smooth exchange of information, best practices, and lessons-learned among civil society; and investing in evidence-based innovative policy research and development among civil society groups.

Secondly, Organizational Development: This funding program will build and strengthen civil society’s existing capacity and structures. At the moment, nearly all funding from major foundations, governments, and corporations focuses on specific programmatic outcomes, while neglecting the core infrastructure needed to run effective and healthy organizations. By providing support for core funding, the endowment will develop sustainable core capacities of civil society groups, increase training on issues such as financial management, strategic planning, and fundraising, and facilitate best-practice peer exchanges among the various participating groups. Our battles ahead require strong and resilient infrastructure.

Finally,  Campaign and Communication: An organization’s policy expertise and professional capacity is only as powerful as its ability to find supporters and allies. Funding for campaigns and communication will provide civil society groups with the necessary resources to educate and engage the public, instill the importance of an open internet, and mobilize users creatively both offline and online to protect their rights and freedoms. We need a multistakeholder global movement that can respond to threats as they occur, which is principled, powerful and above all effective.

An open internet is not out of reach. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and even certain governments have an interest in preserving an open and innovative internet that drives innovation, job creation, and economic growth. Private foundations have an interest seeing the groups they support flourish and succeed in their missions. A fund to protect the internet demands that all these players come together and support this effort. Keeping the internet open is the challenge of our times, because it will increasingly be the enabler of all our fundamental rights. The upcoming RightsCon Silicon Valleyin San Francisco provides an excellent forum to develop this idea, and turn it into a reality.

Feature image by Flickr user, Symplio.

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Brett Solomon is co-founder and Executive Director of Access (accessnow.org) and founder of RightsCon Silicon Valley. Access defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world. By combining innovative policy, user engagement, and direct technical support, the organization fights for open and secure communications for all.

Brett was Campaign Director at Avaaz.org, the world’s largest online activist community now with over 19 million subscribers in all 193 countries, and the founding Executive Director of GetUp!, an Australian grass roots online organization with over 600,000 members. Brett was Campaign Coordinator at Amnesty International Australia and prior to that worked at Oxfam Australia, where he founded the International Youth Parliament, an international network of young social change leaders from 140 countries tackling issues such as poverty, conflict and globalization.

Brett sits on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Future of the Internet. His organization, Access, was nominated and shortlisted for the prestigious Sakharov Prize at the European Parliament. Brett is an Arts Law graduate of the University of Sydney and holds a Masters of International Law from the University of New South Wales.