As human lives transition online, Nani Jansen Reventlow is ensuring that our fundamental human rights in the digital sphere are robustly protected and advanced through the court system. Establishing collaborative strategic litigation and building a knowledgeable and interconnected field of stakeholders, she lays ground for leveraged and highly impactful work in the digital human rights field.
The New Idea
Understanding that the pervasive nature of technology creates new multidisciplinary realities for human rights work, Nani is laying the groundwork of a more engaged and effective civil society sector in the digital age. Using strategic litigation as an instrument she aligns objectives and facilitates collaboration between actors working towards safeguarding human rights in the digital sphere.
With a background as an international human rights lawyer, Nani is redefining what human rights work should look like in the digital age: a coordinated, joined effort between different actors who collaborate across human rights sectors to promote common standards for the protection of human rights on the internet. With the Digital Freedom Fund, she has developed a platform that changes both content and form of the European digital human rights agenda. First, using a holistic combination of strategic litigation, advocacy, and legal empowerment, Nani enables actors in the field to leverage their collective strength to address human rights risks, both online and offline, more effectively, strategically, and with a bigger impact. Second, by building powerful coalitions between right groups that have traditionally not worked together, Nani is shifting the approach to digital rights promotion from siloed, independent efforts to integrated and inclusive rights advancement, guided by an aligned vision. Thereby, she is carving out a new agenda and strategy for European digital human rights advocates that will successfully address a broader range of digital human rights topics, from issues of privacy rights to racial justice or environmental justice issues.
In doing so, Nani is building a digital human rights field that works to protect the digital rights of all and uplift all voices.
Increasing digitization of society, economy, and governments is moving almost every aspect of our lives into the digital sphere. While in many cases, technology has represented a way to strengthen human rights it also exposes us to unprecedented risks. This was also confirmed by an analysis of the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism in 2020, highlighting how emerging technologies, many involving big data and artificial intelligence, create new ways of violating human rights, especially of people who are already often marginalized or discriminated against - either directly, or by incorporating factors that are proxies for bias.
Among the concerns is the prevalence of emerging digital technologies in determining everyday outcomes in employment, education, health care and criminal justice, which introduces the risk of systemized discrimination on an unprecedented scale. To illustrate: Predictive policing technologies such as the Dutch Crime Anticipation System, and the UK’s National Data Analytics Solution (‘NDAS’) are used to forecast where, and by whom, a narrow type of crimes are likely to be committed. Evidence shows that racialized communities are repeatedly scored with a higher likelihood of presumed future criminality, undermining the presumption of innocence in the criminal justice system.
The existence of such risks highlights the importance of robust EU-wide equality and non-discrimination legal safeguards in the design and use of digital technologies. However, the fast pace of technology development presents challenges to the creation of standards, practices, and monitoring systems to keeping up. The necessary institutional structures and processes—principally a judicial system that enables citizens to bring human rights cases through the domestic court system— are not effective due a lack of technical expertise and relevant experience with digital rights cases amongst judges and lawyers.
While a current ecosystem of civil society organization exists, who take a keen eye on digital rights, the sector has proven inadequately equipped to act as guards of digital human rights. Understanding the different human rights implications of data-driven technologies requires additional socio-technical expertise that is lacking in most traditional human rights and social justice organizations. A study conducted by the London School of Economics in 2018 showed that except of a few digital rights groups advocating towards data-related issues, for the majority of organizations fighting discrimination and social marginalization, problems related to technology were not a priority as data-driven discrimination seemed an abstract and very distant problem.
One reason for this is that right groups work on narrow issues and operate in silos that are related to their mission and values. Digital rights groups advocating for data protection or freedom of speech usually do not articulate their claims in relation to the problem of marginalization or anti-discrimination. Due to a lack of diversity in the field, these groups mostly consist of experts in data, privacy and technical matters digital rights groups who view technology and the policies that govern them as main objects of concern, without centering on the rights and needs of specific marginalized populations.
Given the already capacity-constrained human rights work, the siloed-structure further limit the scope of resource and knowledge sharing between actors and organizations. In particular the still emerging digital rights community in Europe lacks the skills, experience and capacity for sustained campaigning. Recognized methods and techniques for achieving change, such as strategic litigation, that have been successfully pursued by the traditional human rights field remain inaccessible to the digital rights community due to its cultural isolation.
This fragmentation across these groups as well as competition over attention, visibility and resources undercuts organizational effectiveness, and their ability to collective look at socio-technical problems from the perspective of social justice and inequalities and address the needs and struggles of marginalized communities.
Nani works towards transforming both the orientation and effectiveness of the digital human rights landscape in Europe by ensuring that actors in the field are better equipped and empowered in their efforts to advance human rights, online and offline, and by shifting the power balance both in the digital rights field specifically and the human rights field more widely.
Through her own work in the field of human rights litigation, she realized that the real bottleneck for systemic impact is embedded in the lack of effective collaboration and partnership between different actors: lawyers, grassroot activists, academics, and technical experts – both in the digital context and outside of it.
With the Digital Freedom Fund (DFF), Nani developed a platform that connects experts, organizations and activists working on digital human rights with the broader human rights field to enable harmonization of efforts and strategies, and to build their capacities and the skills to engage in strategic partnerships, policy advocacy and litigation. As such, DFF plays a role of a catalyzer through the connection and upskilling of various actors. The organizational model consists of two central pillars: litigation support and field building.
Nani seeks to build an infrastructure that supports everyone working in the digital rights field by turning litigation into an accessible and more effective tool for social change. DFF’s litigation support takes both financial (grants) and substantive (access to pro-bono lawyers, skill trainings, toolboxes) forms. Nani’s approach to strategic litigation stems from her basic premise that, if conducted in isolation, litigation cannot achieve its full potential impact. All cases need to connect with wider advocacy elements (public messaging, lobbying etc.) and indicate ways in which they are building long-term alliances and partnerships around an issue. As such the application process for DFF grants is designed as a change process in and of itself and serves as an important avenue for building litigation capacities in the field: DFF works with an independent panel of eight experts who provide input and feedback, as well as a network of legal advisers who support applicants on different aspects of their legal strategy, e.g., to identify weaknesses or gaps in their strategies that can then be addressed. The continuous feedback loops throughout the application help enhance applicants’ litigation skills, which ultimately leads to stronger cases with potential for greater impact. The careful selection of strategic cases to support is critical to DFF as this gives them the opportunity to leverage those cases that they know will have the most impact on legal precedent across geographical boundaries, but also help on refining and updating the human rights framework for the digital sphere.
Beyond increasing the field's ability to litigate strategically, Nani opens a space for coordination and collaboration that enables digital rights actors to fully benefit from the diversity of the field and better align themselves. By bringing together representatives from organizations, experts and activists working on digital human rights, and inviting others working on related rights issues, DFF seeks to actively burst the elite “digital rights bubble”, thereby changing dynamics in the field. In doing so, the DFF takes a unique role as a connector and facilitator between issues, actors and fields.
The originality and strength of this field building activities lies in multiple factors: First, Nani is unlocking the power that is embedded in the potential collaboration and alignment between stakeholders. During workshops, retreats, trainings, and both strategic and thematic meetings Nani generates dialogue between different rights groups by connecting actors working on digital rights specifically and human rights more broadly. For example, during the annual strategy meeting DFF brings together about 60 litigators, advocacy organizations and academics from across Europe and beyond to connect and explore ways to collaborate on cases, either by sparking new ideas for future work or finding allies for existing projects. Attendees hail from Germany, Argentina, the UK, Estonia, Serbia, Ireland, Bulgaria, Hungary, the US, the Netherlands, South Africa and beyond. To lever their collective efforts, DFF strategically unites key stakeholders: 1) digital rights groups who have legal expertise on technical issues 2) traditional human rights groups or other organizations representing a constituency like trade unions 3) lawyers who have litigation skills 4) journalists that can support media campaigners around a case. Second, these meetings are also designed to identify and disseminate good practices and encourage mutual learning, with the aim of enhancing DFF's contribution to the maturation of the emerging digital rights field. For example, one workshop brought digital rights activists together with environmental justice leaders to learn from the way the environmental movement has used strategic litigation to combat climate change and enable environmental groups to build technical expertise. Third, from her personal experience as a Black woman entering the predominately white and male digital tech field Nani recognized the urgency to change how uneven power dynamics, exclusion, and privilege play out in the field, particularly how these shapes the way in which digital rights are conceived and how they are protected. She understands that the lack of representation of marginalized communities in mainstream conversation on digital rights contributes to undermining efforts to achieve effective digital rights protection as it systematically excludes the voices of those affected. Therefore, DFF has set it as a strategic priority to reach out to marginalized groups, such as people of color, LGBTQI people, disabled people, or refugees and invite them to the conversation. The aspiration is to create a collective understanding and vision of how the field needs to change for all voices to be heard and define concrete steps to achieve this. Moreover, DFF has built bridges with counterparts in the Global South by inviting actors to DFF meetings and by facilitating a talk series discussing best practices, shared challenges, and synergies. Across all these activities, Nani adopts a very inclusive working method that leads to strategies and priorities being co-determined with the field.
DFF activities have already noticeably shifted the way the field organizes and intervenes towards more strategically aligned legal interventions that use collective cases. To give two examples of precedent cases that were enabled through Nani’s work: One includes the case against the Dutch government’s use of an automated surveillance system called “System Risk Indication” (SyRI), which was used to detect possible benefits and tax frauds based on information from government databases. It was targeted exclusively at low income and minority citizens in the Netherlands, a potential proxy for discrimination and bias based on individuals’ socio-economic background and immigration status. DFF supported and advanced a powerful coalition of privacy and welfare rights NGOs in the Netherlands, the largest Dutch trade union, two journalist and a team of lawyers who worked collaboratively to challenge the use of SyRI as undemocratic, a violation of human rights standards and a threat to the functioning of the rule of law in the Netherlands. These arguments were upheld by the court in the Hague, which was the first court anywhere that has stopped the use of digital technologies and abundant digital information by welfare authorities on human rights grounds. Next to providing direct litigation support, DFF leverages the impact of these case to raise public awareness of the governmental misuse of technology through supporting with large-scale advocacy strategies. Another successful example of their work is the recent decision by the UK Home Office who agreed to shelve an algorithm used to stream visa applications after DFF grantees filed a court claim arguing that the algorithm discriminated against people from certain nations. This case was brought forward by an alliance between an immigration law charity and a tech-justice nonprofit. Another piece of cross-border litigation sparked from the 2018 strategy meeting, when representatives from Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte in Germany and epicenter.works in Austria had a conversation about the EU Passenger Name Record Directive. That conversation led to joint action to challenge the Directive on data protection grounds. So far, DFF has supported 42 cases representing 30 different organizations and individuals across Europe, who have already achieved important outcomes for digital human rights. This is confirmed by an external evaluation that further shows that thanks to DFF, there is now a broadened base of actors in the field that have agreed on priority areas for digital rights in Europe.
In the future, DFF plans to replicate the model and scale it across different regions, in particular Latin America and Africa that have an active but not yet coordinated digital rights scene. Europe is strategically chosen as a starting point as it is regarded to be an important standard setting location when it comes to digital rights that can cultivate spill overs beyond the region, for example, through corporate business standards, or government accountability. Realizing the urgency to address the structural inequalities and disadvantages that she has encountered herself in the digital rights field, Nani is now exploring avenues for achieving the systems change she strives for, either through the existing structures of the Digital Freedom Fund or by setting-up a next organization that builds up on her previous work and targets more specifically issues around racial, social and economic injustices in the digital rights field.
Growing up as the daughter of a white Dutch mother and a Black Malian father in the Netherlands, the feeling of being in between two cultures and striving to find a balance between these two shaped Nani’s whole life. Her feelings of being sidelined and othered by the dominant white culture have contributed her early awareness of – and drive to address – the persistent inequalities and injustices that permeate societies.
Actively seeking ways to support others experiencing similar injustices has led Nani to study public law. Throughout her studies, she seized every opportunity to incorporate a human rights perspective, e.g., through a special major focus or an internship at the United Nations. For her, it has always been clear that she was not looking for a traditional law career path. Recognizing that, although we have an internationally legally binding human rights system, it is not working sufficiently to protect all human rights, sparked her interest in strategic litigation. Following her formal training as a lawyer with a law firm in the Netherlands, she landed her first human rights job at the Media Legal Defense Initiative (an NGO providing legal assistance to journalists) where she obtained the first freedom of expression judgment from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and from the East African Court of Justice. During this work, Nani learned that the effective coordination with and collaboration between lawyers, activists and other stakeholder groups is a prerequisite for successful strategic litigation and key to achieve broader social impact.
From then on, Nani made it her mission to find ways to enable collaboration around litigation to strengthen rights-related outcomes. As a Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center, Nani developed the Catalysts for Collaboration, which offers a set of best practices and case studies encouraging activists to collaborate across disciplinary silos and use strategic litigation in digital rights campaign. The interest to put more emphasis onto strategic litigation led to establishing the Digital Freedom Fund to support this work. Understanding that in order to succeed, the field of digital rights actors involved in strategic litigation also needs to be more sustainable and stronger, for Nani it was always clear that financial support alone is not sufficient to achieve this goal. Consulting with key digital rights organizations in Europe enabled her to understand what digital rights actors in the field were lacking or felt they needed to support their work, and what they considered the key threats to digital rights to be. Bringing them together during the first DFF strategy meeting, Nani was shocked by the lack of diversity within the groups and the limited scope of issues that these actors were tackling. Since then, she has invested her full passion and energy into building a more interconnected and collaborative field of human rights actors that will work to provide greater human rights protection, online and offline