News and analysis
February 04, 2015

Ford and Other Big Grant Makers Join Forces to Safeguard Internet Liberties

Over the past two decades, the Internet has evolved from an obscure Defense Department project to a global communications phenomenon. Now, say a group of foundation leaders, it’s time to make sure it is a force for good.

The group, which includes several heavy hitters from the foundation world including the Ford, Knight, MacArthur, Mozilla, and Open Society foundations, has formed a partnership to figure out how to get the Internet to live up to its potential as a tool for social justice.

The effort, called NetGain, will be formally announced at an event hosted by the Ford Foundation at its New York headquarters on February 11.

Details of the collaboration, including how long it will last and what additional support each institution will provide, are still being worked out.

Generally, the members of the group will focus on several areas: creating an Internet-based "public sphere," where people can share their views online in an equitable way, curtailing Internet harassment and hate speech, providing equal access to the Internet, combating censorship, and developing a "pipeline" of science and technology experts working for social justice.

Experts from each of the foundations plan to coordinate events with one another and invite experts from philanthropy, academe, and business to meet regularly. While it is not yet clear what they will produce, Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media who is serving as a consultant on the effort, said the groups could decide to finance new research, establish prizes for the development of new technologies, or make strategic investments in businesses and nonprofits.

Mr. Zuckerman, a board member of the Open Society Foundations, declined to say how much the members will spend on new projects. Much of the work, he said, will be done to coordinate programs already under way at the foundations.

Civil-Liberties Focus

Currently, each foundation supports a range of activities designed to make the Internet a more open, accessible place.

For instance, the Mozilla Foundation, which coordinates the work of open-source web developers worldwide, runs digital-literacy classes during a two-month "Maker Party." Last year during the campaign, computer experts taught basic web-literacy skills to more than 100,000 students around the world.

And the Ford Foundation has supported dozens of Internet projects, including studies and reports that investigate whether minorities are treated fairly by law-enforcement officials who use large data sets to target crime.

"We want to make sure as we move into a big-data society that we’re taking civil liberties seriously," Mr. Zuckerman said.

Philanthropy will play an important role in these issues, Mr. Zuckerman said. Government experts are "uncomfortable" dipping into free-speech issues, he said, and corporations focus on business results, rather than public-policy questions.

"Take Facebook," he said. "They’ve had a really hard time dealing with a problem like hate speech. But any money they spend on it comes directly from their bottom line. They have a natural inclination to do a de minimus approach."

Mr. Zuckerman adds: "This is exactly where we want philanthropy to be."

Send an email to Alex Daniels.