The cavalry have arrived. But not for long.


Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
UK policy
Vegetable sprouts

Breaking my blog hiatus – my brain really is in a sludge, folks – to expand on some recently tweeted thoughts.

In recent weeks I have been blown away by the outstanding advocacy work that two brilliant digital rights professionals have been doing to defend privacy and freedom of expression, here in the UK, within the UK’s current legislative and political context.

(That context is, of course, year thirteen of Conservative rule, year seven of the Conservative psychodrama, and year six of a legislative programme aimed at “taking back control” of the Internet, copying the Brexit playbook.)

The professionals in question are Meredith Whittaker, who leads Signal, and Rebecca MacKinnon and her team at the Wikimedia Foundation. And their policy interventions have been nothing short of the cavalry arriving over the hill.

For Signal’s part, Meredith Whittaker has delivered some astonishing clarity on the risks to privacy posed by the Online Safety Bill. (here, here, here, and here). I do love her tone which, while still professional, is the exact opposite of the middle-England sanctimony which has been given a free pass for too long. (Well I would say that, as a Glaswegian not adverse to dropping the occasional firework in a crowded meeting, wouldn’t I.)

For the Wikimedia Foundation’s part, Rebecca MacKinnon’s leadership has generated some great thought pieces on the unintended consequences of the UK’s imminent mandatory age gating regime, as well as the likely requirement to censor articles on topics like eating disorders or migration. Wikipedia has been in the UK’s sights for some time, and they have not shied away from that; at no time have they rolled their eyes and said that these legislative requirements are a British problem, nor have they claimed that as a global platform, UK law would not apply to them. More need to follow their example.

Both of these policy interventions, from very different organisations, have been a breath of fresh air in a landscape rather starved of oxygen.

And yet. At the same time.

It says something about how brittle UK civil society has become, and the digital rights movement in particular, that the weight for our burdens has to be carried from the US.

And that is not a criticism of either of them, personally or professionally, or of their organisations and the fantastic work they are doing.

Indeed, having two outsiders with no personal skin in the game that is the UK Tory psychodrama has magnified their impact. The fact that their organisations are both nonprofits working in the public good, without any corporate taint, is equally critical.

But.

This is not a sustainable way of doing things.

The slow, deliberate death of the UK digital rights movement

For those who missed the memo: in the past three years, the funding pool for digital rights work within UK civil society has been deliberately removed. Funders pivoted to the global south, which is a noble cause, and the big tech crusade, which is not. That is not to say that big tech is not a problem. It is to say that there are countless other funding sources which can, and do, cover that work.

(In reality, ‘funding the big tech crusade’, by removing grassroots digital rights funding, took the form of paying for makeup artists and fashion editors for celebrity big tech whistleblowers. Because an entourage apparently adds legitimacy to policy stances. Or something.)

I experienced the end consequences of this myself when I was back on the job market in autumn 2021, after the funding for my role at a digital rights organisation was cut for the sake of the above. In the months that followed, I received a handful of emails from network contacts offering me research-type consultancy gigs for their funded projects on

deep bored sigh

… big tech.

None of which held any personal interest or even professional relevance for me.

And all of which is the kind of work being duplicated by dozens of other organisations in dozens of other countries.

The only other offers I received were on EU policy, from organisations centred in Brussels doing projects centred in Brussels. And as much as I wish I still had a foot in that game, those words have been literally removed from my passport, which I haven’t used in three and a half years. Cheers for that, plague.

The thing to note there is that the offers were on big tech and EU policy. That was it. No funding, and no work, exists anymore for the problems we have right here and right now.

Shift forward to summer 2023, and I’ve now been on the market again since the week the Queen died, after being hired for a piss-take by a cryptobro boys’ club pretending to be a legitimate privacy startup. In all that time, and that has been a long time folks, I’ve received one consultancy offer on any topic.

Full stop.

Cast back pre-psychodrama:

Six, five, four, three years ago, I had consultancy offers on all sorts of interesting topics, and short-term gigs on really neat projects, landing in my inbox like rain, even when I was full up with work. I could pick and choose.

Now?

The work out there has atrophied to the big tech crusade or nothing; and that work, in turn, is crafted not around social, political, or regulatory impact here where we are, but around front page headlines sniping around people and problems elsewhere.

And that has reached the point where the informed critical opposition has to be done from the US, by US based organisations led by fantastically capable leadership.

And again: that is not a criticism of either of those leaders or their organisations. It’s a damning indictment of the brittle state of the digital rights movement and civil society in the UK on a whole.

This is not sustainable.

I’m speaking out because I can

The fabulous Rachel Coldicutt has been a lone public voice on the issue:

I say “lone public voice” because if you speak to people behind the scenes, this line of thinking is indeed shared rather widely. But those people cannot and will not risk the meagre project funding they do have by biting the hands that feed them, and speaking out in public, about the leftover scraps they’re told to call a feast.

Fortunately for me (?!), I have no skin in any game at the moment, so I’m taking this opportunity to speak up about this issue because I can.

And again. None of any of this is a criticism of anyone working in the fields that have been funded, on the sort of work that funders currently want to pay for.

At the same time, if that’s you, it is important for you to check your privilege here, and understand that the funding you have is in your hands because it was taken away from other equally valid work, and other equally valid professionals. So you have a role to play, here, in advocating for a restoration of the balance that you and everyone else used to take for granted. The world is wide enough for the both of you.

Until then, the funding binary that passes for a movement in 2023 should not exist.

Because there is plenty of money going around, somewhere.

It should be going around.

Brilliant thinkers like Rachel should not have to explain this to the highest ranks of power, year after year.

Activists like Sahdya Darr should not be the only people out there who understand the intersectionality between DCMS and the Home Office, in ways that should be keeping everyone up at night, year after year.

Maria Farrell should not have to point to the sign every time a new white savior emerges out of nowhere, on a mission to spend the millions they banked in sunny California working for the bad guys, hoovering up the four- and five-figure grants that used to form the living wages of people who were grafting here all along in the British winter rain, year after year.

People like me should not have to explain, to journalists, the difference between internet regulation and platform regulation, while awkwardly explaining that I have no institutional affiliation or employer to accompany that press quote, year after year.

And none of us should be growing grey having the “you do know that the internet is not big tech?” conversation with high-ranking officials who blink at us as if we’re speaking Kenari, year after year.

So it’s great that the cavalry has shown up, from the US, to fill the gap that used to be perfectly funded, and staffed, from here in the UK. More power to your Yankee elbows.

But what comes next?

Where does the funding for tomorrow’s digital rights challenges – which are, at the end of the day, civil rights and human rights challenges – come from, in a funding culture built around one specific crusade, to the binary exclusion of all else?

How do we fight the good fights in an environment increasingly dominated by affluent white saviour celebrities who understand public relations far more than they understand technology?

What happens when the US gets tired of bailing out our backsides, doing the work for us that we are seemingly incapable of doing, carrying the loads we are seemingly unable to carry ourselves?

Indeed, what happens when the US and other countries with more sustainable funding structures begin to view Conservative Britain as the drama queen friend with “issues” that drag them down with it, and maybe it’s time to add some distance?

How do we break out of this short-term thinking in a political environment that can’t see past next week’s headlines?

How do we recentre the digital rights dialogue to make it about what it used to be about, and could be about again – the dignity of everyday people, and the dignity of those who work on their behalf – rather than seeing the best minds of our generation wasted in the tedious proxy battles of white saviour millionaires vs trolling billionaires?

Indeed, how do we get the right people in the room, for these fights, when the people who do get an invite to the room are largely buying their way in?

How do we get back to fighting the good fights, that really matter, alongside people who are worth fighting alongside – and for?

And can we start by being brave enough to speak out and ask those questions?

I can think of two good role models for it.

Further reading: take in Meredith Whittaker’s longread on the 19th century origins of computing itself as a means of managing slave labour; then find yourself a copy of Rebecca MacKinnon’s 2012 book “Consent of the Networked” to retrace how we got here today.

Header photo by me: the windowsill, February. Those sprouts are now in the garden, grown into plants approaching a metre high each. Little things grow, if you give them enough air, water, light, space, dirt, and time, and the odd slug massacre.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.