By Salmana Ahmed

Protecting our rights in the digital environment

Why we invested: Ranking Digital Rights & European Digital Rights

The rights and freedoms of individuals and communities in the digital age are increasingly under threat. There are numerous examples from the last few years of how opaque and inscrutable practices of governments and companies have damaged - and continue to threaten - the online public space. We’ve seen the abuse and exploitation of user information with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, disinformation campaigns and incitement to violence, government censorship and surveillance, and the rise of internet shutdowns, which, since 2016, have more than doubled in number.  

Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) and European Digital Rights (EDRi) are using complementary strategies to combat these challenges and safeguard the rights of people and to hold power, whether publicly or privately held, to account. Both organisations are in pivotal moments of their development, and we have awarded each a grant to support their work over the next two years. 

Ranking Digital Rights

In May this year, Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) published its fourth iteration of the Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index. The 2019 RDR Index ranks 24 of the world’s most powerful internet, mobile ecosystem, and telecommunications companies on their disclosed commitments, policies, and practices affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy, including governance and oversight mechanisms. As RDR emphasises, while transparency alone does not prevent or address all violations, opacity is a serious obstacle to accountability.

RDR uses a methodology based on human rights standards to research and rank company disclosures of responsible policies to users and the public. This offers companies a roadmap for how to build and operate online platforms and services that respect and protect human rights, and establish global standards and incentives to act in the best interests of their users. These 24 companies collectively provide products to more than half of the world’s 4.3 billion internet users, making the RDR Index a useful resource to begin to understand the extent to which companies are protecting and respecting user rights. The RDR Index is a unique contribution to the field as it is currently the only comparative data-gathering framework of its kind, and highlights the importance of corporate responsibility in the protection of human rights.   

The challenge of creating standards and incentives for tech companies to respect and protect the human rights of internet users around the world is not to be underestimated. Also, ensuring that such standards and incentives keep up with fast-evolving technology and emerging threats to be able to hold companies fully accountable for the range of potential threats to human rights, is critically important. 

RDR has demonstrated that rigorously researched and openly published data that benchmarks companies on the quality and transparency of their policies is a critical resource in the data and digital rights field. It can have significant outcomes on company and investor behaviour and the advocacy efforts of civil society groups. 

To ensure that it remains in the strongest position to continue to do this work in the face of ever-evolving and complex online threats to human rights, RDR has begun work to upgrade, strengthen, and expand the RDR Index, increase its media visibility and capacity for engagement, and bolster its organisational capacity. We are excited to be supporting RDR with core funding of $450K over the next two years and in this next phase of its development, and look forward to seeing the results of these efforts and the launch of an even more robust and comprehensive RDR Index in 2021.  

Check out the results of the 2019 RDR Index here.

European Digital Rights 

European Digital Rights (EDRi) is a network of human rights organisations from across Europe coordinated by a Brussels hub that focuses on policy, campaigns, and support of/collaboration among members. When citizens’ rights and freedoms in the online environment are endangered by the actions of public or private entities, EDRi focuses on ensuring that they are respected. EDRi has identified freedom, transparency, human rights, and the rule of law as its core priorities.

EDRi is uniquely positioned to tackle some of the biggest digital rights issues being debated across Europe, with the Brussels hub able to engage in the long-term advocacy that many challenges at the EU level require. Its strong and growing membership is well positioned to engage in grassroots campaigns to put pressure on policymakers and draw attention to people’s concerns when it comes to their online rights. 

Since it was founded 16 years ago, EDRi has played an instrumental role in many campaigns to secure and promote digital rights in Europe and has seen some major wins because of the efforts of its 40+ members and observers, and team based in Brussels. One of its most notable successes was the role the network played in getting the General Data Protection Regulation passed in 2016, fighting to preserve essential elements of data protection in the face of unprecedented industry lobbying efforts. In 2017 EDRi’s contributions to improve the proposal for an ePrivacy Regulation, which provides the rules on the tracking of individuals online and confidentiality of communication, were reflected in the European Parliament’s position. Its impact can also be seen across data retention legislation (with the invalidation of the Data Retention Directive in 2014), actions against mandatory web-blocking ( and net neutrality. 

It remains one of the first ports of call for policy makers in the EU looking for expertise on digital rights matters, with its “on the ground” activity in Brussels providing a necessary focal point for dispersed national campaigns. More broadly, EDRi's role in shaping policies and practices of governments and companies with a focus on preventing harm and protecting digital rights and freedoms is important not just within the European context but across the world given the EU’s power to influence standards and practices globally.

EDRi is going through a transformative period that started in late 2018 with new leadership and planning for the launch of a revised strategy for 2020-2024. We are excited to support EDRi with core funding of $550K over this period as it pursues its renewed strategic priorities, continues to build capacity and deepen the impact of both the Brussels hub and individual members. 

Read more about EDRi’s work here.