Digital independence for nonprofits in politically adverse times

Internet Archive — the entire Wayback Machine fits in a Storage Container

Following the presumptive election of Donald Trump, the Internet Archive announced it was creating a repository of its digital backup in Canada, to ensure that the data were safe from the U.S. government. (The Internet Archive has a backup of basically everything on the internet, plus lots of other digitized stuff).

Every nonprofit needs a two-part plan for digital independence:

  1. protecting your data from prying government eyes, and
  2. Maintaining your nonprofit’s (or sector’s) ability to access public data for independent analysis of trends in the environment, education, health, labor relations, criminal justice, employment discrimination, etc.

First, read this, this and this.

Remember that most nonprofits in the U.S. receive a significant portion of their funding from the government. This reality raises important questions about the actual independence of these organizations. The contractual ties that bind those dollars also bind those nonprofits to do work sanctioned by, under the rules of, and in accordance with the policies of the government.

Now ask yourself, “How and why would governments and nonprofits using/sharing each others data be any different?” If a nonprofit is sharing its data — on clients, services, program offerings with the local, state or federal government — that information (on people) is as much a contractual tie between the organization and the agencies as are dollars.

If you run a nonprofit, an advocacy group, or care about independent facts and analysis, you need a two-part digital independences plan, 1) to defend the data you collect and 2) to make sure that you have continued access to the public data that powers your work.

Consider the hundreds of thousands of nonprofits that serve vulnerable people. People who have been called out specifically by the incoming administration for whatever reason. These groups include poor people, women, people of color, immigrants, muslims, and those who identify as LGBTQ. Nonprofits that works on behalf of these people must find ways to use digital data and tools to do their while not making their already vulnerable clients more vulnerable.

Now, flip the data flow around. Think about the stores of digital data, collected by government agencies on behalf of the American people, that power analysis, decision making, and independent advocacy. This includes (at the least) climate data, oceans data, educational data, data on environmental disasters, employment discrimination, data on jobs and employment, the flow of goods, the nature of trade, and so on.

Run a mental threat model for any independent work that depends on access to that data. Can you say, without hesitation, that nonprofit and advocacy groups working on behalf of funds for public schooling, activism against global warming, environmental justice, natural resource conservation, or any of a myriad other issues face difficulties in accessing that data after January 20, 2017? Will independent organizations — including researchers at public universities — be able to get this information?

If you hesitated, if can imagine difficulties in accessing the public data that powers independent analysis and advocacy, then you need to do something about it. Otherwise, your work will suffer, and may come to a screeching halt. Our ability to contest administration storylines will suffer, and independent voices will be silenced.

Nonprofits in the U.S. are rightly worried about the incoming administration’s plans for funding their work. They should also be worried about being cut off from the digital data lifeblood of the changes they’re trying to make.

**A note, the need for these practices has been true for the last 20 years, ever since we started entwining the nonprofit sector to the markets and government via our digital actions. The presumptive president-elect is a wake-up call for U.S. nonprofits, but if the sector’s nominal independence matters, than independent digital practice also matters, always.