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Open Technology Fund Summit 2017: Community Snapshot

| By: Sandra Ordóñez Dan McDevitt

Annual OTF gathering provides space for collaboration and a snapshot of global censorship threats, challenges, and potential solutions

Each year, OTF gathers together representatives from its supported projects, fellows, Labs, and Advisory Council to strengthen community ties, facilitate collaboration between different projects and across disciplines, and map out the most pressing issues and challenges facing the Internet Freedom community. Additionally, the summit provides a space to demo new tools and projects, inform OTF’s strategy for the year ahead, and the opportunity to connect and network in an offline setting, all while gaining insights and knowledge around the latest developments in the realms of digital rights and circumvention technology.

OTF hosted the 2017 edition of our annual summit on November 14-17, 2017 in Valencia, Spain. The private retreat brought together over 150 participants from the OTF ecosystem that are considered experts in topics such as circumvention technology, online privacy and security, digital rights, press freedom, and activism - including key technologists, journalists, digital rights defenders, community activists, lawyers, and policy advocates, among others. Notably, 43% of participants identified as women or gender non-conforming while more than half identified as being from the Global South or a minority group, making this the most diverse summit held to date.

You can read more about the 2017 summit and its participant-driven outputs in this “Community Snapshot” report [link], detailing the regional trends and threats facing the internet freedom community, as well as this event recap [link], summarizing the summit’s proceedings and key outcomes.

Building off of the success of past summits, OTF expanded this year’s format to include participant-driven, regionally focused assessments covering the most pressing threats, challenges, and potential solutions in each of six global regions. Focus was especially placed on understanding the specific challenges organizations and networks in the Internet Freedom community face regarding sustainability, implementation, and scalability. Notably, despite regional and cultural differences, there were a number of similarities consistent across the groups present, including a rising demand for the services offered by the Internet Freedom community and a commensurate need for increased funding for the organizations and individuals providing such services.

Key findings from the summit, as compiled by participants, included the following:

The Internet Freedom community is experiencing growing pains associated with being part of an emerging space. Common problems reported were related to areas such as human resources, funding, management and accounting. In addition, foundational community infrastructures such as culture, norms, and processes are still being negotiated and constructed.

While tactics and tools used by authoritarian entities may differ from country to country, they are becoming much more sophisticated, and in many cases, like-minded regimes are borrowing and/or sharing strategies among themselves.

2017 saw a dramatic escalation in surveillance and censorship across the globe. This has put more demands and pressure on the communities that make up the Internet Freedom space. Many are unsure of how they can meet the needs of the current communities they serve, let alone expanding to also assist emerging at-risk communities.

Communities currently do not have the resources or labor pool needed to effectively address emerging and next-generation surveillance and censorship challenges. These include Artificial Intelligence, and the adoption of increasingly restrictive laws that criminalize free speech, civil society work, and the use of protective measures like encryption tools.

This rise in demand for services offered by internet freedom groups mirrors an unfortunate increase in threats to online freedom worldwide, as the past year saw an escalation in surveillance and censorship, closing online spaces for civil society and media groups, free speech crackdowns, and increasingly repressive policies and tactics put forth by authoritarian states worldwide, leading to an overall decrease in internet freedom - a trend that has continued for seven straight years.

The activities and outputs from the 2017 OTF Summit are compiled in the following reports. The “Community Snapshot” hones in on the work of the six regional working groups, including region-specific threats and trends, and the most pressing community-wide issues. The “Event Recap” summarizes the event itself, including key takeaways, a sessions overview, and a brief summary of the working group outputs.

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