Digital Defenders Partnership in a turbulent year for the Internet

May 13, 2014

Hivos couldn’t agree more with the statement by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia, in his opening speech  at the Freedom Online Coalition  conference in Tallinn two weeks ago: ‘Whatever the excuse, in reality, limiting access or censoring the contents of the Internet is hardly ever done for the sake of the security of the people. More often, it is done for the sake of the security of authoritarian and undemocratic governments, and more and more so every day.

Many examples of this have been highlighted by the Digital Defenders Partnership (DDP) programme, initiated by the Freedom Online Coalition and managed by Hivos.  With this partnership, Hivos offers rapid support – grant making, brokering, network support, research and strategic partnerships – in response to a range of threats to Internet Freedom.

The programme started at the beginning of 2013, a turbulent year for the Internet in general thanks to Edward Snowden’s revelations, which catapulted questions about online surveillance to the top of public debate and made it very clear that the need for digital emergency support to critical internet users is indeed huge, and growing.

As attacks on and censorship of human rights defenders become more common and more sophisticated, the DDP has been able to offer protection, risk mitigation, and other support for critical internet users in several cases. We have provided the possibility to circumvent censorship by browsing anonymously, offered emergency response through DDoS mitigation, or legal support and temporary helpdesks for questions and guidance about digital security in situations of heightened repression.

Furthermore, the partnership has made strategic alliances to strengthen the digital emergency response field and conducted research for a better understanding of the problems and needs in specific contexts.

A selection of our results in 2013:

Grant making:
The DDP supported 7 organisations with grants to mitigate digital threats, for example, by establishing safe internet access for approximately 1900 users through VPNs and other circumvention technology. The grants provided 108 users with emergency response, such as DDoS mitigation for websites under attack, legal support, the replacement of equipment and retrieval of hijacked accounts or temporary digital security helpdesks. In addition, 162 people were trained in digital security to make them more aware of risks and less vulnerable to attacks.

Strategic Partnerships:
Out of these 7 organisations, the DDP supported 4 strategic partners who provide legal support, regional digital security consultants, secure hosting for very high-risk websites. Furthermore, 1500-2000 users a day were helped to circumvent censorship by increasing the architecture behind Tor that allows anonymous browsing.

The DDP engaged in various brokering activities for 18 different human rights defenders and media organisations that suffered a digital emergency. By either providing direct assistance to mitigate the digital threat or brokering third party intervention from an extensive network of lawyers, technical specialists and training organisations with specific experience in this area.

Networks of Support:
In 2013, the DDP facilitated the coordination between many different actors working on digital emergency support around the world. Working with organisations and specialists in the field of digital security, the DDP has now developed a digital first aid kit to guide journalists, human rights defenders and bloggers through a self-assessment to determine if they are being hacked or DDoSed. The kit also provides first steps for mitigation.

Since it is impossible to mitigate all attacks, the DDP has started up scenario planning around specific political events that are known to trigger digital repression , such as the Iran elections of 2013. This way we try to address specific risks prior to them happening.

The DDP commissioned two regional studies (MENA and Central Asia) into particular threats that journalists, human rights defenders, bloggers and activists face. These studies will be available to download on when completed.