Today, the role of civil society organizations in upholding accountability, rights, and justice around the world is as important as ever, and emerging technologies present a new strategic playing field.
For years, Ford Foundation has invested to expand the ecosystem of public interest technology (PIT): a field made up of technologists and institutions working to ensure tech is designed, deployed and maintained in the public interest. This field follows in the footsteps of public interest law, which helped make law a tool for public good.
Now we’re excited to build on these efforts by partnering with Mozilla Foundation to deploy a cohort of Technology and Society Fellows. Ten fellows will be placed at Ford-funded organizations in Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, India and in the Middle East and North Africa to help them build their technical capacity and deepen their understanding of technology to advance civic engagement.
For example, Brian Obilo is working with Katiba Institute in Kenya to enhance the safety and security of human rights defenders and everyday citizens, and advance the rule of law by leveraging a myriad of technology tools. Amarela Ribeiro is teaming up with Federação de Órgãos para Assistência Social e Educacional in Brazil to uproot structural inequality and racism in technology by creating spaces for learning and reflection.
Working together, we believe our fellows can help these organizations deepen their impact, whether it’s strengthening democratic agency, advancing environmental justice or increasing access to public spaces and information.
As we welcome this initial cohort, we spoke to Mozilla Foundation’s Vice President, J. Bob Alotta, to discuss the importance and impact of embedding public interest technologists in civil society organizations.
What spurred Mozilla and Ford to partner and invest in this emerging field of PIT?
Some of today’s most prevalent technologies are worsening long-standing societal problems like racial and economic injustice. As we know, these consumer platforms and products are used by billions of people, deepening the chasm of systemic disparity and inequality as rapidly as tech is adopted.
The examples are endless and dangerous. Internet platform algorithms can spread disinformation and hate—Facebook’s own research reveals that Facebook Groups are “driving people apart” and promoting extremism. AI-powered advertising can hypertarget the vulnerable or, just as harmful, exclude them. A stark case of hyper-targeting happened a few years ago, when ProPublica revealed how Facebook allowed advertisers to blacklist users by race. And online surveillance is becoming more routine—everything from smart speakers to apps collecting our data.
In short, the power imbalances that have always existed offline are now being amplified online.
Meanwhile, civil society doesn’t always have the technical capacity to dig into these problems, to hold tech companies and governments accountable, and to start seeking solutions. And so one of society’s most important defenses against injustice is unprepared.
PIT fellowships help to remedy this. They add technical savvy to the civil society space, spurring new partnerships and catalyzing collaborations that push for technology for the public’s interest, not just for profit. As surveillance, exclusion, and hate increasingly take place online, public interest technologists can meet it there — and extinguish it.
What are some of the technology-related challenges civil society faces across the globe that our fellows will help address?
Technology capacity and expertise are major challenges facing civil society today.
Civil society organizations operate on shoestring budgets—needing to make outsized impacts with limited resources. Consider these numbers, reported by my former organization, the Astraea Foundation: the median budget for Lesbian, Bisexual, and Queer (LBQ) Women’s groups in 2017 was just $11,000. Nearly three-quarters of LBQ groups operated on annual budgets of less than $50,000 per year. Almost half reported an annual budget of less than $5,000. This is also the case with civil society organizations across a range of issues, from racial justice to environmental justice.
Now, in a world where society is so deeply entwined with technology, tight budgets are even more of a challenge. Civil society needs bright, talented technologists who understand how the internet is complicating racial justice and environmental justice. We need individuals who understand the nuances of how and why digital ads are harming people of color. Or, how algorithms are spreading disinformation about climate change.
But, we’re competing for this talent with a technology industry known for its high-paying jobs, perks, and promise of “making the world a better place.” Our fellowships work to level this playing field. Fellowships offer competitive opportunities and the chance to collaborate with some of the most prestigious nonprofits in the world. And more importantly, fellowships provide an opportunity to make technology and society truly serve the public interest—no quotation marks necessary.
However, I want to also be clear: the “loss” isn’t inherently on the side of civil society. When we do not actually look for innovation where it most often lies—you can rest assured that any organization operating on less than $50,000 a year is well versed in the creation and deployment of innovative strategies—“technology” and the people who fund it miss a trove of talent that could and should be contributing to the design and development of the very tools we’re now having to double back and amend because of how problematic they are or how few of the general public they actually serve. Can you imagine if the presumptive point of view or parlance behind technologies’ design originated in the very communities in which they are meant to be proliferated? Let’s fund that.
By seeding fellows in these organizations, as they build relationships within each organization, I hope we are upending the assumption of “expertise” and who actually is learning from whom. We are much more interested in fostering a symbiotic relationship between the host organization and the fellow. Hopefully, those kinds of relationships can also bridge the gap between civil society (eg. people) and technology (eg. tools and terrain).
How do our fellows fit into the trajectory of building the field of public interest technology?
Fellows provide public internet technology support here and now: building tools, launching advocacy campaigns, and holding big tech accountable by educating the public and its representatives. But often, fellows’ impact is also long term—mentoring others, modeling career trajectories, and ultimately transforming a burgeoning field into one that is mainstream.
Paola Villarreal, one of our first fellows, is a powerful example. Paola is a civil rights activist and self-taught computer scientist who began her fellowship in 2016. She was embedded in the ACLU in Boston and used her data analysis and visualization skills to highlight racial bias in policing—work that ultimately overturned more than 20,000 fraudulent convictions across the United States. (Paola’s work earned her a MIT 35 Innovators Under 35 award.)
Since her fellowship concluded, Paola has thrived in the public interest technology space, modeling a trajectory for others. Paola served as Director of Product Engineering at Creative Commons, the open access nonprofit and also a Ford-Mozilla host organization. She currently leads Mexico City’s data science and engineering initiatives, ensuring technology is helping solve critical social issues.
Why is it crucial to place this level of talent with organizations working on civic engagement and government, particularly in the Global South? Why is building the strategic technical capacity of these organizations so important?
In many regions around the world, technology policy, digital rights, and consumer awareness about these issues are in early stages. This presents a number of challenges: individuals have fewer protections against surveillance, against algorithmic discrimination, and against a number of other online harms.
But there’s also an opportunity. Many regions have strong civil society institutions that have built relationships of trust with government and citizens over many years. When equipped with technical capacity, these institutions have the chance to influence developing policy for the better, as well as upskill and ready society to hold their institutions accountable. This fellowship is designed with long-term sustainability baked in, so that these organizations can grow their tech understanding alongside a colleague, knowing that their efforts will be reflected for many years to come. At a time when budgets are tightening, senior-level strategic technologists can have the outsized impact that civil society organizations are seeking.
Of course, increasing civil society’s understanding of technology is also necessary for organizations to continue the work they’ve always done. Organizations fighting for free expression, for example, now must contend with how censorship is unfolding on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And, they need the chops to engage with these platforms and governments in ongoing, nuanced ways. That is why this unique fellowship program is focusing on building strategic technical capacity of organizations in Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, India and the Middle East and North Africa.
Can you describe a win by a past fellow that stands out and inspires you to keep investing in this work?
The work that fellow Emmi Bevensee has recently published is a great example.
The conversations that trend on internet platforms shape our world and our lives, from who we vote for, to what news we read, to how we respond to a pandemic. But frequently, these conversations don’t trend organically—they’re the result of influence campaigns intended to misinform, radicalize, or polarize. Rather than public opinion influencing what trends, social media trends influence public opinion. Meanwhile, civil society and everyday internet users face major challenges when interrogating online trends. Platforms are tight-fisted with access and data. And the third-party tools that exist are prohibitively expensive.
So in response, Emmi launched the Social Media Analysis Toolkit—a free, intuitive, and open-source tool for scrutinizing online conversations. Now, people around the world have a powerful tool to scrutinize what’s being said online, who’s saying it, and why.
Another example is the work fellow Harriet Kingaby has done alongside Consumers International.
Today’s AI-powered digital advertisements are incredibly sophisticated. This AI-powered advertising provides consumers around the world with “free” access to products and services. It’s highly effective for advertisers and highly lucrative for platforms. But there are grave harms, and consumers bear the brunt of them.
Harriet released deep research into these harms. Her paper, titled “AI & Advertising: A Consumer Perspective,” identifies seven major threats that AI-powered ads present to consumers, from discrimination to misinformation. But like all our fellows, Harriet also focuses on solutions. Her report identifies major reforms that could mitigate these harms, and the steps that civil society, regulators, and industry must take to realize them. Already, the report is being shared among policymakers, journalists, and other influencers.
Furthermore, as technological capacity progresses, the issue of altered photos and videos is a growing threat, especially to vulnerable populations. Manipulated videos of people called “deepfakes” are important to root out to protect human rights cases from false evidence.
Gabi Ivens, as a Mozilla Fellow embedded at WITNESS, collaborated with its team to research ways to better prepare for potential threats from deepfakes and other synthetic media. She developed recommendations for platforms and other actors to prioritize and address this issue through a report that identified related dilemmas and solutions called Ticks or it didn’t happen: Confronting key dilemmas in authenticity infrastructure for multimedia. This research has been used to address issues and create solutions in convenings across Latin America and Africa, as well as discussions with major social media platforms.
Following the fellowship, Gabi is working as the Head of Open Source Research at Human Rights Watch.
Beyond the fellows’ work with their host organizations, how can fellowships like this expand the field of public interest technology to have broader impact?
As the field expands, so does its influence. Over time, public interest technology won’t be a discrete domain, but rather a set of principles that all technologists—in the private sector, in government—value. The work our fellows are doing now is pushing these principles into the mainstream.
We’re already starting to see this network take shape. For example, a couple years ago, three of our fellows collaborated on a project outside their main scope of work. Becca Ricks, Hang Do Thi Duc, and Joana Varon created Fuzzify.me, a browser extension that lets users document and then deflect invasive Facebook advertisements. Our fellowships allowed these three public interest technologists to meet, collaborate, and create a tool in the public benefit.
In the years since Fuzzify.me launched, online advertising transparency has become a mainstream issue—so much so that platforms like Facebook have been compelled to release ad transparency libraries. Meanwhile, Becca, Hang, and Joana are even more deeply embedded in the public interest technology space. Becca is now a researcher here at Mozilla, Hang is a designer at Wikimedia, and Joana is a Human Rights Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy from Harvard Kennedy School.
Mozilla seeks to create a ‘third space’ where technologists and civil society collaborate as a means of addressing the political element of technology—that technology is not a neutral tool; it is affected by its creators and their biases. Benefits, harms and side effects come from how systems are designed, what data is selected to train them and what business rules they are given. By partnering key civil society organizations with strategic technologists to address specific issues, we can strengthen regional capacity around these issues and shape the impact that technology has on civil society.
The goal then, the vision, for success of this work is that in five years we start to see a track record of strategic interventions that layer technology and social justice issues in these regions. And we see how civil society organizations are changing the conversation about social justice issues at the nexus of technology in their communities.