A well intended query
This is an excellent point and something, I actually cautioned in our staff group. TBH in the past, I was personally a skeptic of joint statements but have understood their objective, strength and limitations based on the short 3 year experience of public advocacy. My learnings are subject to revision in future, but for now I hope I can provide you some answers.
Your query, was preceded by some conversation on our staff channel which lead to those mails/tweets. Please excuse these screenshots if they are not very polite (or, rounded off) as this was intended to be internal staff conversation. I will provide some context subsequent to it.
So, your inquiry is well prompted and something which I hope to answer to some adequacy on the basis of our thinking and why many people from the non-profit sector continue with joint statements.
Past joint statements by IFF
Some joint statements that IFF has been associated with in the past are listed below:
- 45 organizations and more than 100 prominent individuals push back against the coercion of Aarogya Setu (link)
- Joint Statement : The Government of Kerala must withdraw compulsory Aadhaar for state government jobs (link)
- Multi-domain orgs and individuals raise concerns about Aarogya Setu #SaveOurPrivacy (link)
- Over 240 lawyers urge Twitter to re-instate Prashant Bhushan’s tweets #FreeToMeme (link)
- Joint statement against internet shutdowns to suppress farmers’ protests #KeepItOn (link)
- Joint statement, “Statement: Safeguarding Democracy from Digital Platforms” (link)
- Over 500 startups sign SaveTheInternet.in’s letter urging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to uphold net neutrality (link)
Benefits and limitations
Now, the queries which are posed on what difference do such joint statements make is premised on a metric of outcome. If we take it as the scale for judgement, then joint statements often fail. But please read on.
Let me dispel some cynicism and why we persist with them.
The premise of a joint statement is collaboration: Collaboration applies naturally in digital rights which is an area of work where the interaction of rights and digitisation touches upon distinct and expansive areas of individual rights and social interest. So, for instance on election interference it requires groups such as IFF to work with others who have a sectoral expertise such as the ADR (the Association for Democratic Reforms). This grows the number of stakeholders who get oriented towards a digital rights based framework and over time encourages wider participation at that moment – and in future. Think about a joint statement as a torch light for stakeholder groups that are not traditionally well accustomed to understanding the impact of digitisation and digital rights groups lack deeper knowledge and working experience. Another benefit is that it helps in deepening understanding as such joint statements are mulled over with collective ownership and give a chance for clearly expressing the working experience of professionals from different sectors. It when done well helps build agreement, challenge and unearth complexity and disagreement and ultimately helps promote a democratic understanding in the civil society sector.
Entering popular consciousness: The second point you touch upon is whether such joint statements are actually reported or are able to break the “non-profit bubble”. Well our experience has been – it does take energy to break the gravitational boundary of the sector and reach the mainstream. Here two things help. The first are mainstream and regional reporting. Here, I do disagree and many joint statements IFF has anchored or signed on to have received press coverage even in papers of record. You can run a google search to check on it (some need other keywords). But this is not a given, I think automatic coverage is not a given. There is a need to talk and actively engage with our reporters and explain the background and more importantly link them to groups and individuals who have supported the statement. This is rigorous work and yes, we are not able to do it as well as we sometimes hope. The second element is strengthening our own work through digital literacy which can help augment. This applies especially for green field issues, or where there is a sense of media fatigue. Here from narrative framing to explainers IFF has been investing resourses and you may have seen the work coming from @sukhnidh and @Shivani on community engagement.
Strategic litigation is one of many methods in full court advocacy: Strategic litigation is also a very fine game of chess that requires us to think multiple moves ahead. Even before considering it we first need to understand the landscape, articulate our positions and make good faith attempts to address public authorities. This model which is incremental while draining is more effective and prevents rash outcomes and helps mitigates risk which arises often as often not the best forums to secure digital rights.
We sometimes “win”: Joint statements are also about building a collaborative framework for change within scarce resources. They allow us to build coalitions. This requires relevance not only for the issue but genuine co-ownership, models for listening and sharing and devising strategies of action. Ultimately, many of us working in the civil society sector – especially those who focus on human rights – lack monetary resources (due to the nature of our work and financial models) and political access and power. On the contrary there is an acute shortage. So, how do we grow it within existing limitations? We collaborate. To end, I will quote from Rules for Radicals, “Change comes from power, and power comes from organization. In order to act, people must get together.”
Oh, and sometimes, when we work together we do “win”. But no victory is complete and final. Work always remain for there are powerful, system level incentives that continuously work against our liberty and rights.