This week, the U.S. Senate ended the NSA’s bulk collection of millions of Americans’ phone records by passing the USA Freedom Act. This significant reform of U.S. surveillance policy came after intensive efforts by activists and advocates (many of them supported by the Ford Foundation) to protect citizens’ right to privacy on the Internet. And of course, it was preceded by Edward Snowden’s revelations of the U.S. government’s mass data collection of citizens’ Internet and phone communications.
While Snowden was the high-profile catalyst for this week’s development, his revelations might never have gotten the attention of civil liberties advocates, policymakers, and the public had it not been for the dedicated individuals in news media and documentary filmmaking who shared his story with the world. One of them is the journalist, filmmaker, and artist Laura Poitras, whose acclaimed documentary, CitizenFour, tells the story Edward Snowden and the real-time developments that unfolded around the release of information regarding the U.S. government’s domestic spying and surveillance program. (CitizenFour received major support from the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms and Internet Rights initiatives.)
We are often asked how funding the arts can help to advance social justice. Poitras’s powerful work perfectly illustrates how art can promote dialogue about justice and civil liberties—ones that can lead to meaningful change. That’s why Poitras is among our thirteen Visiting Fellows in The Art of Change, a yearlong initiative to explore how art can help achieve social justice in the world today.
Edward Snowden’s revelations also point to the larger issue of how the Internet is impacting law and society around the world. There is no doubt that the ubiquitous nature of the Internet has created tremendous opportunities for learning, debating, and sharing ideas, and increasing transparency globally. But at the same time, its technology can be used to stifle legitimate discourse, expose people and institutions to new dangers, and threaten civil liberties.
We recently explored these issues with leading experts in technology, government, business, and philanthropy at NetGain, a forum on building a digital society that promotes innovation, social justice, and progress. And we will continue to support people and organizations working at the critical intersections of art, technology, and social change—where some of the most important and dynamic work on these issues is happening.