In today’s world, the exercise of democracy and human rights relies on access to secure, uncensored participation in the digital space. As society continues to move into the digital realm, the fight to defend human rights and civic space is expanding into this new territory. Technology and the internet hold the potential to democratize access to information and to opportunity, while at the same time carry the risk of being instrumentalized to further exacerbate unequal power dynamics. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this tension strikingly clear. Activists, independent media, and other democratic actors have been forced to take their activities online with technology offering, for those who have access to it, the opportunity to maintain free and fair access to information, to communicate and collaborate with one another, and to advocate for policy changes. But navigating the internet and these digital technologies in secure ways has also become more difficult. We have seen the global reach and implications of surveillance efforts, cyberattacks, and increasingly prevalent internet shutdowns– with marginalized communities the most at risk, facing targeted hacking, surveillance and online violence.
Democratic actors, human rights defenders, and other vulnerable groups in repressive environments rely on a range of resources that are built to protect internet freedom and support them in achieving their goals. Internet freedom can be understood as the same fundamental rights and freedoms that we fight for offline, as they exist in the digital world: the free flow of information, free expression, digital security and privacy, association and assembly. The Open Technology Fund (OTF) is a global leader in supporting internet freedom technology projects that are focused on counteracting repressive censorship and surveillance and protecting security online. OTF has seen a rising demand for these tools– today, over 2 billion people around the world rely on OTF-supported technologies to openly and safely access the internet.
With the support of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), NDI and the International Republican Institute (IRI) have been able to join OTF in supporting a variety of these tools. Our recently published list, Free, Open Source Tools for Internet Freedom and Cybersecurity, showcases the innovative ways that these tools are making it possible for people on the ground to do a range of important things. The resources are each in various stages of development, and are categorized in this list according to the needs that they are working to meet.
The list spans from technology tools to avoid surveillance, like Tella– a mobile application for secure data collection that allows users to hide and encrypt sensitive material on their devices– to organizational digital security resources like the Secure UX Curriculum. This curriculum will present a modular guide to implementing secure, human-centered design and human rights policy into the development or use of technology tools for at-risk groups. As another organizational resource, Localization Lab responds to the critical need of making these secure tools accessible to local communities. Through a community-oriented process of translation and localization, Localization Lab works to ensure tools are both linguistically and culturally relevant.
For those looking to strengthen website security, the Eclips.is platform provides secure hosting for users who manage their own websites and a development space for new technologies, or eQualit.ie’s Deflect offers a website protection service for any website that wants to protect itself against cyberattacks. In the aim of providing users who are facing internet shutdowns or targetted censorship with a way of bypassing the often government-controlled networks and sharing information, groups are developing innovative alternatives to commercial VPNs and secure peer-to-peer file-sharing or communications applications like qual.net or the CENO Browser. Also in the category of censorship circumvention tools is OONI Probe, the Open Observatory of Network Interference’s (OONI) censorship monitoring tool that provides users with a list of websites and apps that are blocked in their area, those that are accessible, and a measurement of the overall network performance.
All of these tools are free and open source– which means that anyone can access, use, and contribute modifications to the software code. The qualities of being free and open source, as opposed to the commercial model, are essential to software’s ability to embody the values of security, privacy, and putting the needs of local at-risk groups front and center in the development process. The strength of these internet freedom tools comes from the extent that they are designed through community-driven and iterative processes, integrating usability testing and incorporating user feedback at every stage. Typically starting from a more narrow scope of users and scaling allows the tools to meet the localized needs of groups on the ground and provide for community ownership in the long-term.
Of course, tools on their own are not a fix. Each of these internet freedom tools come with their own security advantages and limitations. An understanding of the user’s local context for socio-cultural sensitivities and for the specific threat model and objectives they face is the first step to knowing whether a tool is helpful in a given situation.
The partnership between the internet freedom technology community and the democracy and human rights activists on the ground determines the development of effective tools, and the adoption of these tools. There has historically been a gap between these two communities, and at NDI we see our new partnerships as an opportunity to bring more democracy, rights and governance groups around the world into the development and localization of internet freedom tools, raise awareness of the tools that are available, and support internet freedom experts across different regions.
Do you have thoughts about the space at the intersection of internet freedom and democracy, rights and governance? We’d love to hear from you! We are looking forward to continuing to find new ways to enhance the collaboration across these communities.