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Lessons from the Table: Civil rights, technology, and privacy

An internet that offers transparency, privacy, access to knowledge, and free expression for everyone can be a powerful tool for promoting justice. But the internet can also be used in ways that amplify inequality.

In 2010, the Ford Foundation became increasingly concerned that too many people—especially historically marginalized communities—were not able to access or benefit from the internet and digital communications technologies. Across the public and private sectors, important decisions were being made about jobs, healthcare, housing, education, criminal justice, and credit, based on data gathered and analyzed through unaccountable, automated online processes. The resulting trends often hurt vulnerable populations, and few civil society organizations had expertise or resources to respond.

Many of our grantees also recognized a new threat to civil rights coming from the expanding use of data and technology. So, in 2011, we established a “table” for grantee organizations (essentially, a forum) that brought civil rights organizations together with public interest technology organizations, to better understand the technical and cultural dimensions of the new digital age—and the implications for civil rights and social justice in a world of growing inequality.

The Table began with four civil rights organizations and six organizations that were focused on media justice and/or public interest technology—and grew to include more than 30 organizations. The Leadership Conference Education Fund (referred to here as the Leadership Conference), the research and education arm of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a 200-member civil and human rights coalition, provided facilitation and hosting for the Table’s monthly meetings in Washington, DC. We selected The Leadership Conference because of their well-established track record of facilitating coalitions funded by Ford and others, and their focus on building relationships and shared understanding. Moreover, all the legacy civil rights groups at the Table already belonged to The Leadership Conference.

Early on, the Table focused on discussion and building relationships. We commissioned a polling firm to collect feedback on messages designed to reach and mobilize the Table members’ constituencies on two issues of shared concern: bill shock and prison phone call rate reform. The process, which involved significant input from Table participants, helped participants develop trust and shared perspectives while also learning how to frame and field a poll. Next, Table members travelled together to Atlanta, Chicago, and New York to observe professionally-managed focus groups discussing the issues and messages. In 2012, we convened Table members for a retreat in rural Maine. At the retreat, which became a regular event, participants were encouraged to interact in ways that deepened mutual understanding and respect. The schedule balanced formal, facilitated events with group recreation and unscheduled time for one-on-one conversations.

Experts and consulting organizations supported the Table with advice on strategy, communications, public opinion research, and technical aspects underlying civil rights and privacy concerns. They collected and analyzed data to help frame and draft the Table’s position statements. With guidance and input from advocates who had deep knowledge of the political and policy environment, the consultants produced reports on topics including body-worn cameras, online lead generation, payday loans, facial recognition, and predictive policing. They provided support for convenings on civil rights and issues of big data, lending, and surveillance, as well as roundtables on body-worn cameras and small-dollar lending. They conducted public opinion research on privacy, telecommunications, and internet issues and helped Table members draft position statements on civil rights principles and predictive policing. They also helped draft comments to federal and state agencies on the uses of surveillance technology.

How the Table evolved

Over time, the Table broadened its focus to include a wide range of technology and privacy concerns related to civil rights, and shifted to taking action. To help Table members play a stronger leadership role, a process for generating priority topics was created: Members would suggest a topic, volunteer to lead a workgroup on it, and invite others to join them (including not only fellow Table members, but non-members with relevant expertise). Workgroup topics included surveillance of immigrant communities, hate speech and online propaganda, bias in facial recognition technology, inequality in the gig economy, and police use of technology. These groups became a place for taking action and helped give the Table more focus.

In 2014, the Table’s facilitator began inviting guest speakers to present and discuss data, research, and analyses during a portion of the monthly meetings. The purpose was to enliven the meetings, pique members’ interest in emerging issues, enhance their understanding of policy nuances, advance the efforts of working groups, and establish connections with people and organizations outside the Table who might serve as resources.

As more of the substantive discussions about issues and strategy shifted to the working groups, it became harder for the monthly meetings of the full Table to feel equally productive. Some members worried that the Table was getting spread too thin. There were other challenges, too: differences in participants’ areas of expertise, target constituencies, positions on issues, and approaches to policy reform. The organizations all had different staff sizes and structures, with varied decision-making processes that could make it hard to coordinate across organizations. For a time, turnover in membership at the Table made it hard to maintain racial diversity, as well as a balance between legal/policy groups and those representing impacted communities. Some organizations, especially those devoted to grassroots mobilization, chafed at what they believed to be the Table’s emphasis on legal intricacies and policy analysis.

On the logistical side, active participation in the Table required a significant investment in staff time and travel resources. This was challenging for small organizations, for those that participate in multiple collaborations with overlapping concerns, and those based far from Washington, DC. As much as possible, the foundation, facilitator, and consultants worked with Table members to address these challenges.

How the Table looks today

Today, the Table focuses on leveraging relationships to achieve specific goals—and in doing so, offers a model for other civil society collaboratives. The Leadership Conference has continued to serve as a facilitator of a Table that now encompasses 13 working groups that meet independently, between full monthly convenings.

Each working group operates slightly differently, but their range of activities includes: developing and issuing policy principles and/or joint position statements; reviewing and debating data or research findings; brainstorming strategies for policy change; advocating among colleagues for a specific position on technology issues; and bringing outside organizations to the full Table to share specialized knowledge, critique developing products, and endorse the Table’s positions and platforms. Table members value the working group structure as a way to set practical goals, mobilize colleagues, and promote accountability for taking action.

Examples of the Table’s efforts include:

  • Developing principles and statements of concern on uses of technology
  • Mobilizing Table members’ networks to support policy change (e.g., through letter- and postcard-writing campaigns and publishing editorials)
  • Analyzing related legal and tech issues
  • Meeting with private-sector and public leaders to make the case for policy change
  • Collecting and disseminating data
  • Conducting media outreach

Impact and influence

The Table has helped influence several public and corporate policies that affect civil rights. These include successful efforts to:

In 2015, the Table participated in successful efforts to persuade the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to limit the cost of phone calls made from prison—an expense that for many people is exorbitant, despite data showing that incarcerated people who maintain strong communication with their families are more likely to return home successfully and stay out of prison. But phone service providers sued to block the rule from being implemented, and in June 2017 the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the rule. A bipartisan Senate bill introduced in March 2018 would, if passed, give the FCC explicit authority to limit the cost of intrastate calls, thereby restoring the earlier policy win.

The Table has improved public awareness and debate on key issues by:

  • Developing Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data, which specified how to design and use technology in ways that respect equal opportunity and equal justice. Produced in 2014, while a governmental task force was reviewing the impact of big data on Americans’ lives, the principles made issues concrete for policy makers and framed goals for new norms.
  • Developing principles for law enforcement’s use of body-worn cameras, supported by 34 major civil rights organizations and accompanied by a scorecard that evaluated the civil rights safeguards of body-worn camera programs in 75 cities across the United States.
  • Releasing a research report that explained why police departments must limit officers’ review of body-worn camera footage.
  • Leveraging a report by the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, a Table member, that evaluated 25 state and local law enforcement agencies’ use of facial recognition technology, into a letter from dozens of civil rights and digital rights organizations calling for the Department of Justice’s civil rights division to investigate bias in face recognition technology.
  • Issuing a shared statement of concern about predictive policing.
  • Organizing a campaign calling for a halt to Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s extreme vetting process, which proposed using predictive software to discriminate against immigrants.
  • Issuing a shared shared statement of civil rights concerns about pre-trial risk assessments.

The Table has influenced the focus of the civil rights and technology fields. As Civil Rights Principles in an Era of Big Data gained traction, policy makers, advocates, and corporate leaders wanted to know more. Researchers began examining ways to correct biases created by data and machine learning, and Table members were invited to join public and private discussions. Increasingly, the focus of those conversations expanded from civil liberties to the disparate impact of technology on the civil rights of people of color and marginalized communities.

The Table has also improved participants’ skills and capacities. Members say that participation broadened their perspective about how people are affected by technology and privacy issues; helped small organizations gain visibility, influence, and access to partnership with larger organizations; and led to the creation of new coalitions beyond the Table. Members who previously viewed the world through the lens of a particular social concern or strategy became more likely to incorporate multiple viewpoints and approaches. Participants have become more adept and authoritative at communicating publicly about issues involving civil rights and technology. And they’re ready to take on new issues as they arise.

The Table's value

Organizations from both the civil rights and technology fields have found value in the Table’s ability to foster learning and collaboration across areas of expertise. They appreciated how it helped them reinforce and amplify their messages, network with like-minded allies for advice and support, frame issues more broadly and precisely, gain access to data and research expertise, gain leverage in negotiations with decision makers, and discuss complicated issues in a private place.

Participating individuals found that the Table’s value varied depending on their age and experience: Younger participants, and those with less experience in the civil rights arena, benefited from access to decision makers, while those who were more experienced appreciated being able to bring ideas back to their organizations that helped corroborate their ideas and positions.

Ford Foundation leaders value the Table as a forum that enables civil society organizations to work together on shared objectives in a cohesive, aligned, and engaged way. They appreciate the breadth of credible, authentic voices and institutions at the Table, and the group’s track record of raising alarms when technology is used in harmful ways.

The Table has become a tool for change, and a network for cross-sector collaboration and learning. Every month, it brings representatives of emerging and established organizations involved in civil rights, social justice, technology policy, public interest advocacy, and media justice together to learn, discuss, and share ideas and information. And every year, the Table’s working groups tackle some of the most pressing and consequential issues at the intersections of their fields—issues that disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.

Functional cross-sector vehicles for change are rare. But when successful, they can be greater than the sum of their parts, enabling both funders and grantees to do things they might not be able to do on their own. And in a polarized political environment that puts the civil rights of vulnerable populations on the line, we see how networks like this can be especially valuable.

The Table has, in many ways, achieved a triple bottom line: It has contributed to some important wins at the intersection of technology and civil rights. It has brought more capacity on tech policy to civil rights organizations, and a greater understanding of civil rights issues to tech organizations. And it has built an infrastructure for organizations to assess problems, determine strategies, and work together to achieve the next win—whatever the issue.

Lessons from the Table

This experience taught the Ford Foundation and the Table members a lot about using this model to help increase knowledge, capacities, and results across organizations and sectors.

Have a clear sense of goals and purpose.

Make sure the Table develops guidelines for its structure and processes, and that all members sign on to them.

Organize the table as a collaborative entity, not a formal coalition, to allow room for multiple perspectives.

Make sure the Table establishes explicit rules for engagement and to foster the culture of the Table, including how members will act when they disagree.

Be inclusive.

Ensure that members reflect the diversity of the communities, organizations, topics, and approaches the Table values. And invest in developing that capacity.

Equip the Table with essential elements and capacities,

including a well-respected convener, strong facilitation and coordination capacity, shared authority and responsibility, and flexibility to respond to emerging issues and opportunities.

Reinforce participants’ relationships and commitment.

Develop shared goals, and involve members in setting the agenda, priorities, and target outcomes. Devote some meetings explicitly to building relationships. Create working groups that are organized around an activity, not just an issue. Make sure that presentations of data and information are geared to the Table’s interests.

Make sure the Table has the resources needed to build capacity.

These include buy-in from member organizations’ senior leaders; consulting support on substantive topics, along with clarity on the consultants’ roles; targeted support on specific skills (especially communications and research); and funds for travel to the Table’s meetings.

Give participants time and opportunities to grow into their roles as members.

Large, multi-issue organizations may take longer than small, narrowly focused ones to ramp up their role as a Table member. Be willing to invest in developing knowledge without knowing exactly how or when it will pay off. Create opportunities for Table members to reflect, test their assumptions, and plan for the future.

Provide support for specific skills, especially communications, research, and polling.

This support can come either from consultants or from member organizations that have in-house capacities. In fact, drawing on member organizations’ research or communications capacity might be a way to stimulate more active involvement in the Table. For some skill sets that require a wide array of capacities (e.g., communications), it may be useful to have more than one firm providing support.

Recognize that this kind of Table does many things well, but may not be the most effective instrument for every situation.

This model is good at identifying important issues and gaps that need to be addressed, finding high-level points of consensus on solutions (even if some disagreement remains at the granular level), framing why an issue matters to a broad swathe of people, and attracting public and media attention to the issue. This makes the Table a good place to bring multiple organizations together around a shared position or message, which it does by developing and releasing principles, policy scorecards, sign-on letters, and reports. The Table probably is not the place to address a topic that is already well served by other coalitions that have the advantages of a more limited focus and a completely unified membership. And it is probably unrealistic to expect the whole Table to undertake a campaign for policy reform, as a coalition might, given the diversity of positions among member organizations.