Failures and Successes in Internet Freedom Software Development

Full PDF of FOSStering Democracy Paper

The future of open societies in the digital age depends on the ability of those who believe in democracy and human rights to effectively and safely make use of the internet. To achieve this critical goal, the US government and other donors have made significant investments to develop Internet Freedom and cybersecurity tools, and global democracy implementers have had a positive impact keeping at-risk groups connected and secure. Despite these efforts, digital authoritarians appear to be winning; the rapid evolution and proliferation of aggressive tactics has made democracy and rights organizations less safe online than ever, jeopardizing the vision of an open, connected, rights-respecting democratic digital world. Democracy today can only thrive with a robust digital public sphere. In NDI’s global work, this is too frequently disrupted, with partners frequently victims of hacking, internet disruptions and censorship.

Based on NDI’s experiences and a range of interviews with key leaders in the Internet Freedom space, this white paper elaborates on the crisis faced in keeping democracy advocates safe online, outlines the challenges of the internet freedom technology “life cycle,” and identifies lessons learned about coordination, long-term financial sustainability, and technical support to inform the democracy community. The paper concludes with a road map towards building a sustainable public interest internet freedom technology infrastructure, including recommendations for governments, donors, implementers and technologists.

Key recommendations include:

  • Significant public investment in the technical infrastructure of Internet Freedom tools is indispensable for fighting back against digital authoritarians. Current efforts are successful, but should be expanded.
  • An Internet Freedom Infrastructure Fund could fill a gap of long-term sustainability in support and management of proven software and resources. Even successful tools rarely achieve viability; between promising pilot and long-term success there is a “valley of death” crisis a basket fund could avoid.
  • Free, open source software (FOSS) is a proven method for developing useful Internet Freedom tools, enabling wide participation in funding, designing, building, and deploying software. This process takes time as well as money, and tools cannot be wished into existence in a crisis.
  • Software needs to be designed with the inclusion of marginalized groups. This requires closer collaboration between developers and democracy activists and organizers across the Global South using human-centered design approaches, and building international networks of tech-focused organizations and experts.
  • Many tools can be provided as scalable cloud solutions, able to serve hundreds of thousands of users as easily and cheaply as ten; however, maladapted funding models make this approach difficult.
  • Donors have a key role in forcing coordination and knowledge sharing among implementing partners and incentivizing the understanding and mitigation of security threats to partners.
  • Effective internet freedom tools are not reaching the people who need them. Due to technical complexity and misaligned incentives, international development implementers rarely understand digital threats to partners or incorporate the software and approaches that could help keep them safe and connected. Donors and implementing organizations can do more to proactively integrate Internet Freedom approaches and resources into programs, and to share and apply local insights into threats on the ground.

Public Panel on Internet Freedom and Open Source Software

On May 5th 2022, I moderated a panel discussing the findings and implications of this project. Barbara Haig, Vice President of the National Endowment for Democracy provided opening remarks, and I was joined by Jon Camfield of Internews, Martha Tudon of Article 19 Mexico, and Raphael Minoun of Horizontal.