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In theory, philanthropic fund Luminate’s decision to focus its financial might on taking on the likes of Facebook and Google should cheer up digital activists.
With Facebook facing a global backlash over claims that it prioritizes profits over user safety, and Brussels in the midst of drafting sprawling digital rulebooks, it’s trendy to go after Silicon Valley luminaries.
But critics of the move, including five senior figures at digital nonprofits who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to their dealings with Luminate, say that while harm at the hands of Facebook and Google matters, other issues like government surveillance, algorithmic management and discrimination matter too — and crucially, could end up being shortchanged.
Further, they argue the fund’s move to focus on „international“ issues fails to properly assess the global effects that ostensibly national issues could have.
Nonprofits already rely heavily on funds like Luminate, and generally have to adapt their work pitch to meet the conditions the funders attach to the money they put up.
With the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundation announcing in September that it would focus on “fewer key priorities,” NGOs fear a funding shortfall across the ecosystem, which could mean fights over a shrinking pot of money. That could mean nonprofits will focus on the work they can get paid for, rather than the work which they may think is most needed.
As a result of Luminate’s decision, Western European NGOs could lose $6 million of annual financial backing (of which over $2 million goes towards digital issues) over the next three years. That means campaigns against British school grading fiasco and the one that got an invasive Dutch fraud detection system banned will find it harder to secure financing.
“If you combine it with changes at OSF, the Luminate announcement puts European civil society and especially civil society working on digital rights on unsure footing,“ said one digital rights activist.
In a statement, Luminate rejected the notion that it is „prioritizing one set of work on digital rights over the other,“ saying that it is taking different approaches to tackle issues globally and in the different regions where it operates.
Luminate’s Big Tech plan coincides with cuts for digital rights campaigners across Europe and the United States, leading to accusations that the funder, which is backed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, is prioritizing a headline-grabbing project over scores of other digital rights issues.
“It’s an understandable strategy, but it may also mean Luminate misses opportunities to meet its goals because some of the direct examples of harm may be abuse of data in the insurance industry, for example,” said a senior NGO official on a condition on anonymity because Luminate is a backer.
Campaigners told POLITICO that Luminate has been receptive to hearing NGOs‘ concerns, but that it has so far been noncommittal and vague in its responses.
While details on its plans are still being finalized, Luminate plans to significantly step up its fight against the major tech platforms, earmarking “tens of millions of dollars” annually for the fight, according to its managing director Martin Tisné.
“I think the house is on fire when it comes to Big Tech accountability,” Tisné said in an interview. “In order for us to have impact as a philanthropic organization, we need to focus.”
Alluding to the rush of tech legislation coming from Brussels, including rules on content moderation, digital competition and a ramp-up of privacy enforcement, Tisné said “there is a window of opportunity” to fight the tech platforms.
Luminate’s five-year strategy to tackle the biggest tech companies revolves around taking them to court, publicly campaigning against their practices and lobbying governments to strictly regulate them. “Our focus will be around the impact of digital media platforms on democracy,” Tisné said, such as how platforms use data in order to amplify harmful or illegal content online.
But one digital rights activist argued that “platform power is only a tiny tip of the iceberg.”
What’s local is global
Luminate plans to cut money for campaigns which it deems purely national, while maintaining funding for projects that it believes have global effects. Though the fund is still working through what that would mean in practice, critics have slammed the move, arguing that many national projects indirectly have global ramifications.
„Luminate’s decision to exit domestic work in Europe appears out of touch with the realities of regulatory developments and civil society needs in the region where key digital policies with global impact are decided,“ said Claire Fernandez, the executive director of EU digital rights group EDRi.
Take Britain’s plans to reform its data protection rulebook, which campaigners have dubbed a “bonfire of information rights.” Though the reform is strictly a national issue, many believe it could have a ripple effect elsewhere.
The U.K. could influence lawmakers across Asia, Africa and Latin America, who are crafting their own data protection rulebooks. There are even fears that the U.K.’s reform could lead to a watering down of privacy standards in Europe, which is currently the global standard setter in privacy, one activist said.
Luminate said that it was well aware that national work can have global ramifications.
„We seek to identify and support actions the impact of which are of a scale and significance to tackle these pressing, complex, global issues. This means we will work globally as well as in support of partners in specific regions or countries that can deliver the global actions and impacts necessary to tackle the rising ride of hate, disinformation, and division,“ the funder said in a statement.
Campaigners also question Luminate’s strategy to play a bigger operational role in the nonprofit sector, rather than maintaining its traditional role as behind-the-scenes funder. That’s a problem for NGOs that operate in the same space as Luminate.
The funder said it would continue to work with „the many civil society groups and others working to address the harms to public health, child safety, election integrity and democracy perpetrated by the big tech companies and social media platforms.“
Luminate added that it has long played the dual roles of behind-the-scenes funder and on-the-ground operational organization.
But campaigners question whether the funder will back outfits that have viewpoints on key issues like hate speech, microtargeted advertising and content moderation that don’t match its own.
“It’s dangerous to build another big initiative without knowing what you’re doing because it can backfire, like massively,” said one campaigner.
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