Building a Global Privacy Movement
In the 1990s privacy was often maligned as a ‘rich Westerner’s right’. We were told often that the poor didn’t need privacy, and non-Westerners had different cultural attitudes and would greet surveillance policies and technologies — often exported from the West. Global civil society was composed mostly of people like us: a few individuals with no resources but great passion. The larger and more established NGOs, such as consumer and human rights organisations were less interested in ‘digital’ and ‘technology’ issues.
Yet the expansion of surveillance continued exponentially outside of the ‘West’, unconstrained by domestic scrutiny.
What we did
Our earliest work was in the Asia-Pacific region as we worked on pushing back against identity systems that were being deployed in Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. We worked with local advocates and media to build resistance and engage policy-makers, while exposing the companies who were promoting these systems.
From the late 1990s we conducted research across the world on the state of privacy and surveillance. We conducted global surveys of encryption policy, data protection law, and communications surveillance — often in concert with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in the US.
By the early 2000s, along with Bits of Freedom in the Netherlands we decided to start a pan-European NGO, European Digital Rights, to help support the existing and emerging groups from across Europe.
In partnership with the International Development Research Centre in Canada, from 2008 onwards we looked towards Asia again. Starting with 9 countries, we found national experts and NGOs, many of whom were only starting to be interested in privacy. By 2010 we were able to fund and support research in Asia. In 2012 we expanded our network of partner organisations, and the funding we could make available to them, to countries in Latin America and Eastern and Southern Africa. By 2014 we expanded our work with the support of the Swedish development agency and in 2016 with support from the Ford Foundation — supporting projects with a wide variety of focus areas: advocacy on communications surveillance, research on data-intensive systems, and cybersecurity.
Where things stand now
Our partners in our Privacy International Network are now national and global leaders as researchers and advocates. Their research is being disseminated to key stakeholders in their countries to increase awareness and inform policy-making. Their advocacy is reaching policy-makers domestically and globally to inform the direction of innovation and law.
What we learned
Privacy is an international human right that has meaning to people everywhere. The meaning may vary based on the context and the specific forces the individual and the group are facing, but privacy provides both a framing and the right to push back.
The risks arising from this work are immense, and the resources are far too limited. Every day our partners and PI face challenges in continuing this essential work, particularly as the stakes go up.
We encountered various risks along the way. Governments have placed immense pressures on our partners. Partner organisations have fallen short of having the right processes and policies in place. We had to learn how to identify and respond to risk. And we had to learn to let our partners identify the top issues in their countries and their risk appetites, rather than only prescribe what we were comfortable with.
Genuinely working with people across the planet in diverse circumstances requires intense focus on their needs and in-depth cooperation. We weren't always ready, and we sometimes used the wrong methods.
What we are doing now
We continue to work with the dynamic network of partners across the world. We continue to find new organisations who wish to increase their understanding of privacy and identify opportunities for shared research and advocacy projects. And we continue to fund, support, and build the capacity of our partners. We are also looking to new regions where the stakes are higher, but so are the risks.