Associations and Privacy: Big Shifts that Matter

In an era of associations of associations and billion- euro (or dollar) foundations, it is easy to lose sight of the most basic level of assembly – two or more private individuals coming together to do something that benefits others (and possibly themselves as well). Doing this – whether to feed the hungry, clean a neighborhood park, perform a play, advocate for better bicycle infrastructure, or protest major government initiatives – requires a certain degree of confidence that we control our choices, that we are not being watched, and that we are, in fact, making private choices to act publicly.

We are most likely to take these actions if we are certain that we can do them voluntarily, without retribution or fear. The American constitution grants the right to “peaceable assembly” in its First Amendment. European countries, for the most part, put the full force of their laws behind the right to individual privacy and enforce these protections on the Internet and in corporate behavior. In times or places where these rights are impinged upon, when private gatherings attract government attention, require bribery or secrecy, or are unsafe, civil society suffers. Voluntary, private associations cease to freely function.

Our current digital infrastructure shares certain elements with some governmental regimes, both present and past, which made associations and private voluntary action unsafe. The trails of evidence created through the use of digital tools are long-lasting, remotely stored, and not controlled by the users but instead by the owners of the digital infrastructure or network interface. The collection and storage of digital communications metadata is the equivalent of a tap on every phone or an intercept of every piece of mail. This can compromise users’ privacy and make digital tools unsafe. There is not yet global agreement on what digital information can be held by what companies, requested by which governments, and used for what purposes. European standards of information privacy exceed American expectations, whereas American standards of free speech and association lack European counterparts.

The nature of tools that allow for instant, global connectivity makes their use subject to multiple conflicting jurisdictions. Edward Snowden’s communications with the press clearly demonstrated that digital communications are not the place for private conversations or associations. Yet, we use them for these purposes all the time. One of the supposed success stories of digital philanthropy is the way that nonprofits and foundations use social media and digital video to tell their stories, build movements, and raise awareness. But what if, in doing so, they are jeopardizing their existence as private alternatives outside the public sphere? There is a strange irony in all of this and evidence that our associational assumptions of privacy are out of sync with our digital behaviors. And while privacy advocates and diverse groups of civil rights organizations seek legal redress, nothing may change until a scandal (or series of scandals) shatters the sense of freedom that comes when we feel protected by a sense of privacy and anonymity. What we need to ask here, across the various enterprises of the social economy, is how do the private materials, decisions, networks, and associations that make up these independent organizations remain protected and private in an age of perpetual data retention and cyber-surveillance? Are we really entering an age when new definitions of personal and associational privacy will become the norm, or are we in a moment of transition in which our laws, our norms, and our capabilities are all out of sync? What degree of information and associational privacy is critical for civil society to thrive, and how will we protect it? These are the first questions a digital civil society must address.

For the organizations that constitute digital civil society, these issues matter on two levels. First, they must consider their own practices regarding digital privacy. Second, their very existence – as independent enterprises constituted from the free association of private individuals – depends on the right of people to gather outside the bounds of the market or the state. As such, they also have an obligation to participate in shaping the rules and norms regarding digital privacy.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by GrantCraft using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Philanthropy and the Social Economy: Blueprint 2014.

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