Shifting priorities for the planet: New research grounds digital rights in struggle for climate and environmental justice

What are the implications of digital technologies for climate and environmental justice, and how can digital rights defenders ground our work in common struggles for the planet?

These questions are at the heart of new research from The Engine Room, APC, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) and Open Environmental Data Project & Open Climate, all supported by the Ford Foundation, Mozilla Foundation and Ariadne.

Collective action and movements for digital rights have grown significantly over the last decade as digital technologies increasingly impact nearly every aspect of our lives. Communities around the world are struggling to defend their territories and ecosystems that support all of life on Earth even as the impacts of various technologies across their life cycle have become increasingly evident. Thus there is also greater demand for due diligence on environmental and human rights in the tech sector as well as supply chain transparency.

About the research

In October 2021, APC joined a new research project supported by the Mozilla Foundation, Ford Foundation and Ariadne to explore how digital rights and climate and environmental justice intersect. The research is grounded by a landscape report developed by the The Engine Room, At the confluence of digital rights and climate & environmental justice, which identifies current barriers to and opportunities for greater collaboration, and highlights recommendations for funders to provide support. More than anything, the report concluded that “what seems necessary and possible to foster is a productive interface between movements/communities and grant makers, which acknowledges the hard work being done already by communities and which supports them to carry out their work in a structural and sustainable (in many senses of the word) way.”

Alongside The Engine Room's landscape report, APC, BSR and Open Environmental Data Project & Open Climate have now published a series of seven issue briefs that offer deep dives into topics at the confluence of digital rights and climate and environmental justice, including issues of governance, extractivism, misinformation and open data.

 

APC issue briefs: At the interstice of digital rights and environmental justice

The four issue briefs developed by APC are the result of collaboration among a small working group of APC members, partners and staff. Lead writers for each brief worked closely with members of the APC network to reflect diverse experiences and knowledge of digital rights and climate and environmental justice. Each brief states the key problem from the perspective of the APC network, suggests mechanisms or processes for engagement and actors we feel are worth engaging, and includes specific recommendations for donors. 

These briefs explore emerging issues and propose pathways for future work:

1. Mapping the gaps between digital rights and environmental justice actors in the global South

Between 2020 and 2021, APC conducted research to inform its work to contribute to environmental justice and care for the Earth. This brief identifies key gaps in how digital rights organisations have responded to the needs of environmental movements. The research confirms an ongoing priority to support holistic approaches to digital safety for environmental defenders, a finding also reflected in reports of the 2020 edition of Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch).

2. Environmental and digital rights: Exploring the potential for interplay and mutual reinforcement for better governance

Environmental governance principles and standards, such as the precautionary principle, offer important guidance for the future of digital and environmental rights. Access to information and participation in decision making, increasingly mediated through technology, are enshrined in many environmental laws and regional conventions like the Aarhus Convention and the Escazu Agreement. In this issue brief, APC explores these connections and the potential for better governance through mutual reinforcement.

3. Extractivism, mining and technology in the global South: Towards a common agenda for action

Extractivism, the large-scale amputation of ecosystems to extract "resources" for export, has become intrinsically linked to the production of digital technologies. This issue brief highlights priorities for collective action, drawing on research and case studies by APC members and partners, including reports in GISWatch 2020 and APC’s Guide to the circular economy of digital devices.

4. Addressing the impact of disinformation on environmental movements through collaboration

Disinformation is a growing area of focus for the APC network. Building upon recent research on disinformation and reports of smear campaigns targeting environmental defenders, this issue brief explores pathways for collaboration to respond to disinformation and support environmental defenders. This brief complements a related issue brief by BSR, which explores some of the challenges in defining and responding to misinformation.

Continuing conversations: RightsCon 2022 and beyond

In June 2022, The Engine Room hosted a community lab session at RightsCon with APC, BSR, Open Environmental Data Project and Ariadne called Digital rights and environmental justice: Mapping existing connections and opportunities for the future. The session discussed key findings from this research and mapped which emergent issues and efforts require more investment from funders. Common threads running through all the research include recommendations to create spaces for ongoing discussion and exploration of issues at the intersection of digital rights and climate and environmental justice. The research emphasises building relationships across movements, especially with leadership from the global South.

APC’s research concludes:

"While there are many other important fields of activity that need funding and further exploration, and no doubt other actors and networks worth engaging not identified in the briefs, it was hoped that the briefs would at least be able to provide reference points for collaboration between digital rights organisations and environmental justice actors, and areas of immediate impact and intervention for donors. They should therefore be read as the beginning of a broader conversation, rather than ends in themselves."

Overall, the landscape research study and issue briefs offer us a fresh vision where digital rights can also have roots in the movements for climate and environmental justice, and expand the scope of digital rights to include the rights of the planet and all life.

 

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