Civil Society Values in Digital Society

How are technology companies influencing the work of NGOs and how can civil society values - so crucial for a healthy society and democracy — be sustained and updated for the digital age?

Illustration from betterplace lab trendreport — facebook4Good

Over the past few months, my Facebook feed has changed. More and more of my friends have started fundraisers on the social media platform, asking their network to donate to sea rescue efforts of refugees or coding courses for marginalised women. As co-founder of betterplace, Germany’s largest online donation platform for social projects and a not-for-profit organisation, I’m following this trend with great interest (and not complete emotional neutrality).

Around the same time, I came across other examples of tech companies taking on tasks, associated closely with civil society organisations (CSOs). These include the role amazon has started to play in disaster relief. Thus the company has used its logistical expertise and infrastructure to deliver humanitarian responses in a number of recent natural disasters, from floods in India to hurricanes in the Caribbean. Amazon also enables people to contribute to charities through direct cash donations from their amazon account and is creatively being used by customers who create wish lists for beneficiaries such as flood victims in Chennai.

The trend of corporate cannibalisation of civil society and non-profit engagement (if that’s what it is) is coinciding with a development commonly called “the closing in on civil society”. More and more authoritarian and democratic regimes from Egypt and Hungary to India, Russia and the US are curbing the influence of civil society actors, using a whole range of means to repress and attack NGOs, activists and social entrepreneurs. Thus it seems that civil society is stuck between two movements. Yet, while the political pressures receive a fair amount of attention, the corporate/civil society nexus seems to be less well understood and is the focus of this post.

Technology companies taking over civil society tasks
Giving the expansion of tech companies into a number of spheres of life, I would like to understand better what is taking place when profit driven tech companies not only fund NGOs through their charitable branches or CSR departments, but take on the very tasks of civil society organisations.

More generally — what changes do we see at the level of structural relationships between Big Tech and CSOs? In the discussion, I’d like to include three other areas in which tech companies and CSOs meet.

Not-for-profit labour for for-profit services
First, there is the fact that open source resources, generated by not-for-profits or impact oriented initiatives, are being used by large tech companies in their own value creation, thereby (sometimes?) harming the former. Thus the algorithms behind Google’s “featured snippets” — the summary of a search request at the top of the results page — get their information for many topics from Wikipedia, a not-for-profit. As many users are satisfied with this high level information supplied on Google, they don’t bother visiting the original Wikipedia site, thus reducing both the incentive for volunteer contributors to the open encyclopedia as well as donors to pay for its upkeep. The same happens with Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, which answer many search queries based on the 44 million Wikipedia entries, or YouTube, which harvests the encyclopedia to provide users with better information around conspiracy theory videos. (That this is no simple “sucking up value” is demonstrated by, for example, the fact that Google also donates to the Wikimedia foundation).

We have here an example of the tragedy of the commons, which also applies to other open source projects, such as programming languages, frameworks or libraries, which provide a crucial backbone of our IT-infrastructure. As Mozilla’s Internet Health Report states: “Silicon Valley and technology-dependent organisations would not survive without digital infrastructure … all of which are overwhelmingly based on free and open source code.” The difference between Wikimedia and most software development lies in the fact that the main actors in the latter movement are not incorporated, but consist of individuals working informally on projects. Nevertheless we need to be acutely aware of the “hidden costs of an open internet” and the need for for-profit companies to be paying back into the commons.

Another area of unrecognised knowhow transfer between unequal players happens in internet governance forums such as ICANN/IGF and in initiatives like Partnership on AI. Here CSOs meet and share their experience and knowledge with large tech companies. Yet nobody pays the former for their participation and engagement, which relies on intrinsic motivation and self-exploitation. The corporate participants, on the other hand, are well funded lobbyists.

Illustration betterplace lab trendreport — Data for all

Outsourcing financial, technological and emotional costs
A second area to observe at the intersection between large technology companies and non-profits is content moderation. As Tarleton Gillespie has pointed out in Custodians of the Internet, an investigation into how social media platforms police what we post online, some tech companies are shifting part of their responsibility to civil society. For example, Facebook is hiring not-for-profits to take down violent and hateful content. But as a group of NGOs engaged in this outsourcing in Myanmar noted (in an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg), the process “reveals an over-reliance on third parties, a lack of a proper mechanism for emergency escalation, a reticence to engage local stakeholders around systemic solutions and a lack of transparency.” The NGOs felt financially and technologically not well equipped to deal with the task. In addition, it is the not-for-profits that bear the psychological effects and emotional costs of hate speech.

Civil society communications depend on privately owned infrastructure
And finally, there is another important nexus between Big Tech and CSOs: the technological infrastructure all CSOs rely on — for communication to stakeholders, storage of information, increasingly also delivery of services etc. — is owned by privately owned corporations. This means that not-for-profits, many of which hold digitized information about vulnerable populations, are potentially at the mercy of the wellbeing and good intentions of technology companies, as when latter decide to change terms of use, discontinue services or decide to collaborate with secret services or authoritarian political regimes.(In this area the work of Lucy Bernholz and the Digital Civil Society Lab needs to be mentioned).

Where is the problem?
Looking at the first of these areas — the observation that tasks previously looked after by civil society are being taken over by tech companies — we could argue that it doesn’t matter whether a for-profit, a not-for-profit or a social business provides social, humanitarian and or disaster relief services. Shouldn’t we be agnostic about the legal status of an entity and instead only judge an operation by its efficiency and effectiveness? This is the position of the school of thought called effective altruism; we should strictly choose to support those approaches most effective in benefiting others.

Thus amazon, with its outstanding logistical processes, could also be viewed to be the institution of choice for delivering humanitarian or disaster aid. The company itself speaks of disaster relief as a “second return” on the investment is has already built for its core businesses. Similarly if Facebook manages to raise more money for charities than other, not-for-profit platforms such as Global Giving, Give India or betterplace, why not fully endorse Facebook and close the more specialized NGO-platforms?

And are not most providers of online fundraising software, such as Blackbaud in the US or Altruja or Spendino in Germany, also for-profit companies? What distinguished them from facebook?

Illustration betterplace lab trendreport — Crowdfunding

The special value of civil society
Let’s presume that large technology companies could provide some services better than CSOs. Would we want them to do so? On the one hand, of course! If our primary aim is to get a job done, such as providing shelter, a meal or an education, why should we privilege CSOs? Especially as it can be argued that a number of charitable organisations are suffering from mission-drift, caring first and foremost for their own financial, institutional upkeep and only secondly for the wellbeing of their beneficiaries. If we however take a broader, systemic view, the answer might be different. From a systems perspective my aims are different. I want a narrow service to be delivered AND pursue much broader goals, such as a healthy society on a healthy planet.

In my understanding, the balance of power between government, business and civil society is crucial for these larger aims. Organised civil society is based on specific values, such as the independence of its actors, the right to free associations and voluntary contributions by private citizens to the public good. Through civil society initiatives we express important aspects of our humanity, aspects such as caring, solidarity, self-expression and individual agency. These qualities don’t find an outlet in commercial or state settings. We might encounter them in the narrow individual sphere of our life — amongst family and friends. But it is in the larger civic realm that we can express them in the most meaningful and impactful way, experiencing ourselves as culture builders and world makers.

Engaged in civil society, individuals (as donors, volunteers and employees), practice a different logic to the one dominating corporations and neo-liberal politics. In this realm values such as human dignity, empathy, solidarity and connection, trump over materialistic goals of the higher, larger, richer variety. Quality matters more than quantity. Meaning replaces money as the most important currency and incentive for action. Through civil society engagements citizens experience and shape society in a visceral, embodied way. In today’s highly differentiated, individualistic and often alienated society, this experience is more important than ever before. Civil society provides an indispensable “glue” to groupings otherwise fragmented along demarcation lines such as wealth, education, age, race etc..

Most importantly, civil society also has the specific and important function in democracy as a third sector to balance and hold accountable the private and public sector that have the most power in society.

Where is value created and what kind of value?
It is for these reasons that we need to look after the independence and health of civil society endeavours, making sure they aren’t co-opted and hijacked by companies who follow a different value compass and fulfil a different function in society.

There is no reason why large tech corporations shouldn’t also be a force for good in the world. Businesses that solely pursue maximum monetary return and make society and the environment pay for their externalities are in many ways a recent historical abnormality. The current turn in parts of the corporate world to new metrics such as triple bottom line accounting, social entrepreneurship, B Corps or the rising interest in doughnut economics might pave the way for a more reflective and responsible private sector. But as long as companies are mainly driven by their own profitability instead of optimising their services also to broader societal and environmental goals, we need CSOs as important guardians of the common good.

Thus the major difference between commercial fundraising software mentioned above and facebook’s fundraising functionalities is that the former depends for its business success on a healthy civil society and its success is linked to the success of his customers, whereas facebook’s priorities are elsewhere and its core business is not linked to healthy CSOs.

I am not advocating to accept lower standards of service and quality of life for disadvantaged populations for the benefit of civil society as such. We need to have a very honest discussion about value creation. This includes a critical assessment of the whole range of civil society activities, from the impact of individual NGOs to the real benefits of volunteering. Looking at the lively debate around “white saviours”, we know, for example, that volunteering is often more beneficial for the volunteer (or the company organising corporate volunteering) than for the charitable organisation.

At the same time, I am willing to sacrifice some short-term losses of efficiencies for long-term gains. Civil society action might sometimes not be as productive and effective as well-run companies. But the diversity, independence and deliberation processes typical for civil society, enrich all of us, as they make for a much more lively and vital citizenry, able to provide identity and meaning to humans as well as to balance powerful corporate and state interests.

This function of civil society as the immune system of the public sphere will be especially invaluable in the coming decades, when we are faced not only with the progressive potential of digital technology, but its dystopian applications in algorithmic authoritarianism.

betterplace lab trendreport — Data security

All of this points to the need for a deep and broad discussion about the structural relationships between the not-for-profit world and large technology companies. This is a discussion we are having at my own company as well. Both, betterplace.org and betterplace lab are collaborating with large US tech companies in various projects and even though our experiences have been largely favourable (no German corporates have been as supportive of digital-social innovation), we need to ask ourselves whether we indirectly and in the longer term harm the kind of open and independent civil society we are striving to foster.

What is our new division of labour? What are our common goals and where do we diverge? Where and how do we want tech companies to support CSOs and civic activities? Where is the difference between tech companies supporting CSOs or replacing them? Surely there is a difference between tech companies providing funding with no ties attached (such as the Google Impact Challenge which distributed around 5 million Euros to German NGOs) and trying to influence the research agenda of think tanks, or paying NGOs for doing some of their dirty work?

So far, civil society, at least in Germany, hasn’t risen to the task. As yet, these kinds of discussions are limited to a small group of NGOs specialized in internet politics. What we need is a broader debate across the whole range of actors working for the common good about the kind of digital society we want to create and the role of tech companies in them. We need to model new kinds of collaborations between tech companies and civil society organisations and create the intellectual and material resources for informed action and policy making.


I want to thank Mark Surman, Carolin Silbernagl and Ben Mason for their productive comments on an earlier draft.