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Attracting the Next Generation of Grassroots Internet Policy Advocates

In the Middle East and North Africa region, technology has become a tool that mediates a vast set of interoperable relationships between Internet governance stakeholders that include governments, businesses, civil society, the technical community, and academia. It touches upon fundamental aspects of the end user’s everyday consumption of the Internet. This includes issues that concern cybersecurity, human rights, net neutrality, state surveillance, and censorship.

The number of consumers who can understand, manipulate, and work with these evolving technological tools and platforms like encryption tools and VPNs remains relatively small. Further, end users remain greatly exposed to large-scale surveillance, human rights violations, and insecurity in cyberspace. They are still at the receiving end of mass media technology shifts and top-down policies because of the lack of knowledge, self-censorship, and the fear of using technologies as a public good.

Civil society has shown the potential to be the engine forward for attracting technically skilled, savvy end users including programmers, IT designers, engineers, policy analysts, and advocates with fundamental skills in computer science, data science, law, politics, and international relations. These stakeholders represent a growing fraction of the human capital across the many sectors of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the Arab world that tackle issues related to Internet governance. CSOs have a key role to play in monitoring and improving government operations and legal processes, particularly when it comes to helping advocate, participate, formulate, and implement inclusive laws and their monitoring costs. This can help prevent situations of wide-scale surveillance and online human rights violations in the future.

The first thing governments must do is think about how to fulfill their traditional functions with a new and smarter technology strategy that opens space for more transparency and accountability, as well as allows a “new spectrum” for building trust related to citizens’ use of the Internet. Civil society in the Arab world has a major role to play in helping to bring about the use of technology for policy. The current lack of tech talent and legal experts in civil society leaves the Arab world mired in a fundamentally undemocratic model of Internet governance, where it is impossible to shape new policy solutions that can check government’s Internet legislation. Nevertheless, civil society represents a vibrant sector that is increasing the pace of human capital investment in technology policy.

It would be beneficial to government agencies and to the end consumer of the Internet if civil society adopts a more intelligent approach to attract in-house tech savvy and improve Internet governance capacity building and knowledge. This will provide more tools for advocacy, thus helping achieve specific policy goals related to human rights, access to information cybersecurity, and mass surveillance. Those with a deep understanding of technology in CSOs should work with those in government by improving non-profit techniques, bolstering credibility, and enhancing organizational effectiveness and action.
Top challenges faced by grassroots organizations working on policy analysis and policy advocacy:

Educating members on Internet governance policy issues: Technology adoption among Internet governance authors isn’t always deep enough to be able to fully understand the latest Internet governance issues that may sound too complex to digest or technology that takes too much time to understand and figure out.

Public versus private: In some cases privacy is a concern, not everyone wants to air their opinions in public. In other cases, you need to get the voices of members out to the media, radio or on social media platforms. With websites, it can be either all or nothing.

Matching members to their respective legislators: There is no way the website can figure out exactly who the visitor should be contacting or the legislator to target.

Engaging members to take an advocacy policy action: Taking action or writing a legislator isn’t easy for members either. Advocates have to find out who their legislator is and find out their contact information as well. Then, they have to draft a letter within the specific guidelines that the organization provides them with.

Managing a knowledge base: Let’s face it, creating content is a lot of work. And the content that gets the most engagement is the content created by the members themselves. But it still needs to be organized and managed.  

Cooptation and the failure to empower CSOs 

CSOs that become partners of governments and then find that they cannot influence the content or implementation of policies sometimes have to absorb most of the discontent that arises among people at the grassroots over the failure to adapt ‘service policy delivery’ to distinctive local Internet policy conditions. They may try to explain to people that their exasperation should instead be directed towards the government, which has prevented them from influencing the process.

When a lack of power and organization, the rule of law, and the network of accountable institutions render CSO unable to discipline or pressure low-level bureaucrats, they often face another kind of popular discontent. Those bureaucrats usually have a history of petty corruption, selling favors or making preferential deals with cronies in local arenas.

Governments that draw CSOs into partnerships for policy implementation, often set out to coopt them. They use the links and advantages that accrue to CSOs to prevent them from taking up postures and activities that are inconvenient to the government. Even when governments do not actively seek to achieve this, many CSOs that enter into partnerships feel that such activities might put the partnership at risk and thus restrain themselves.

Why is grassroots Internet advocacy important? 

CSOs have to tailor their advocacy policies according to the level of their knowledge base and the people engaged in the policy advocacy processes, then run promotion activities to get people engaged, but putting the most critical pending legislation in front of them to educate and motivate them to take action. If a person is involved in Internet policy advocacy, they are more likely to donate. So the question becomes, how do you get policymakers to engage in advocacy so that you can increase the benefit of their advocacy campaign?

It is very important to focus on messaging and provide inspirational stories and impact reports to show the results that volunteering is creating. I make sure volunteering opportunities are easily shared via social media channels. My experience as a policy analyst told me that Internet governance authors love to click and share within their networks. I also like to derive a benefit from volunteering, such as a skill or new opportunity to take away. It is just fantastic to provide volunteering opportunities that also build skills.

Grassroots advocacy points out important issues and pending Internet governance legislation to your members and gives them the tools to contact their representatives in order to influence legislative action that affects their lives. You reap the benefits of their action to help drive satisfactory policy decisions, and they feel their voice counts. It also proves they value your organization and its efforts to involve them in the policy process at various levels because the outcome of the policy process, if it is inclusive cannot have the same cost-benefit analysis in Tunisia or Syria, or Morocco or Iraq or Yemen.

There is a fundamental need to keep motivating your members and sparking true grassroots lobbying and advocacy. Perhaps it has something to do with the policy culture or the lack of awareness and real social media advocacy engagement. You will probably get ignored or sidelined by legislative officials because of the lack of transparency in government relations. Grassroots engagement isn’t just an issue for your membership organization’s success, it is a pervasive issue.

To achieve success with your grassroots advocacy, it will require tracking, execution, and reporting of the most critical Internet governance policy issues for your membership organization to engage members on the issues they show interest in. Simple, flexible, and direct communication options for your members to contact their representatives and, most importantly, a willingness to involve, and listen to, the members on public policy while giving them a simple, quick, and efficient process to follow so they know their time is well spent.

Getting members to open, forward, or to write constantly is difficult enough; you also need to supplement that and get them to take local action, engage with local stakeholders, and do local trainings and workshops to keep their spirit of engagement high. Their actions have to require as little effort from them as possible, while at the same time allowing them to use their own words. For this reason, it has to be more than just a top-down message. Your network needs to feel it is their voice, direct to their representative, in order to mobilize and energize a grassroots advocacy initiative.

Advocacy is about engaged and passionate people. They should be provided with a new tool, a new member benefit, so their voice can be heard on important issues that affect them, their cause, their family, etc. If so, they're likely to reward that new benefit with increased donations.
Five principles required for a constructive relationship between civil society and the government

Civil society, whether it be citizens themselves, NGOs, policy researchers, universities or think tanks, can be involved in several different ways in governmental decision making. The degree and type of its involvement depends on the relationship between government and civil society, and the principles on which it is based.

NGO, think tanks and research institutes collect and channel views of the citizens, and can provide statistical and research-based information about the opinions of citizens. This is a valuable input for the political decision-making process, enhancing the quality, public understanding and longer term applicability of the policy initiative.

Trust: NGO and public authorities have different responsibilities, but when they engage in the policy process both must have an interest in improving the lives of people. This can only be achieved if the relationship between NGOs and public authorities and between these two kinds of organizations and the citizens themselves is based on trust, transparency, respect and reliability.

Accountability: Acting in the interest of the public requires accountability both in the public authorities and in NGOs. It must be made clear who or what taking responsibility for each decision and statement, in such way that those individuals or departments can be held responsible.

Transparency: both pubic authorities and NGO must be up-front and transparent with each other about the policy process, NGOs should be transparent about funding of their initiative, just as public authorities must be transparent about their budget.

Independence: NGOs must be recognized as having the right to freely advocate position independently of the authorities with which they may cooperate or receive financial or other support.  


Mr. Hamza Ben Mehrez Policy Analyst Lead, IGMENA  



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