There is a great variation in what comprises Open Digital Infrastructure, both the meaning of open and the meaning of digital infrastructure, even among organizations with a great degree of organizational, financial, and thematic similarities and experience in the digital technology space. In regional programs such as the OSF Migration program and government agencies in the surveyed countries, digital infrastructure is understood in terms of access and internet coverage or tangible infrastructure. One interviewee for a global organization stated about the involvement with the open-source community: "With the funding and stuff, [I have been involved] probably for the past six years or so. I think I finally got my full understanding of it. Maybe in the past four or five years."
Usually, regional organizations and regional programs of global institutions do not understand the FOSS community agenda as a funding priority. On the contrary, for these organizations, it is important to understand the structural problems faced by the countries (poverty, access to health, hunger, etc.) and from that approach assess whether the development of digital infrastructure can contribute to the resolution of these conflicts.
“ [Funders] recognize that most civil society organizations can’t identify how to use technology in a way that helps their goals, and that this is a big issue.”
On the contrary, global organizations such as Ford Foundation, Open Tech, Media Democracy Fund, and Open Society Foundations understand that individuals, companies, and governments depend upon this foundation of free and public code (or free and open-source software, or F/LOSS). Regarding the participation of private companies in developing open source technologies, none of the organizations is against it, but all of the organizations expressed some level of concern in how to curb these companies -- sometimes excessive -- agency over open source projects. And the way to deal with potential conflicts of agency, demand, etc will depend on the issue, the technology, and what rights might be at risk. As a hypothetical example, if an accessible secure version of Android is needed to ensure accessibility in digital spaces, then it could either be funded by the government or it could force a regulation on the companies that are building it.
Global organizations also pointed to the need to find ways to engage big and new donors. Mentioned the need for engaging ways to communicate what digital infrastructure is, "to have a sort of visual sense of where we're talking about in the [Internet technology] stack [...] a companion to any sort of conversations about why those kinds of investments are important." Another interviewee suggested approaching the funding process from the funders/donors’ perspective and working from their bottom line: "if you go to a funder and say you need to fund digital security, they're going to ask 'what digital security? But if you go to a funder and say you need to fund the protection of your leaders in this movement, they get that immediately".
Currently, Latin America is in the process of developing digital infrastructure. As we stated before, this process is exclusively about internet access and coverage. In the case of Argentina, the development of that infrastructure was in charge of the government until the last mile when the private companies are in charge to provide the distribution lines. It is important to highlight that for our interviewees, concerns related to digital infrastructure standards creation and implementation are not topics that fit in the public agenda. The interviewee pointed out that there is no strong push by NGOs or civil society to discuss this issue.
In Colombia, there are intermediary organizations that are working with local communities to strengthen socio-economic development through information technology tools and capacity building. One example, Peace Startup, which articulates global, regional, and local funders -- from philanthropies to banks, including NGOs, international cooperation organizations, government funds, etc -- in order provide financial and technical support for "in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in conflict, post-conflict and divided societies.".
So far, technology appropriation and tangible/physical ITC infrastructure (e.g. optic fiber, cell phone stations, etc) have been priorities in public policies in 4 surveyed countries. Governments have been favoring proprietary software alternatives, instead of open-source software.
A common theme appeared on the global funders' interviews: the mention of the TOR Project and Signal (both the app and its underlying protocol) as examples of i) important projects that don't get the recognition they deserve, considering how important they are ii) projects funded in different opportunities by at least two of the interviewees’ organizations iii) and a project that needs to find sustainability models/streams. One of them stated: "It's a critical part of the Internet's ability for people to communicate, especially anonymously. "
Another common theme was that smaller funding organizations are more agile in deciding, deploying programs, pivoting strategies, and their size helps them and their grantees get stuck in too much bureaucracy. This makes it easier to get funds approved and sent to the beneficiaries, for example. One program official states "[We are] a helpful organization because we have some flexibility in how we support organizations. Sometimes bigger foundations have fewer options." while others said, "This means there's a less administrative hurdle for an applicant to get the funding and resources, as opposed to [...] Department of State grants, with larger amounts of funds and requiring a lot more bureaucracy.”
Digital Infrastructure Funding Landscape
2IC identified three levels in the funding ecosystem: major funders (like OSF, Ford Foundation, State entities from developed countries); intermediaries such as intermediary global funders (such as Media Democracy Fund and Open Tech Fund) and local intermediaries who act as a bridge between major funders and applicants (organizations such as Peace Startup); and finally state/municipal organizations (Local Government entities, ICCO) who are usually the organizations who have the most contacts in the local level or work directly with the communities of interest.
We saw a particular disconnection between the first and third-level stakeholders because local issues are not necessarily directly connected to the goals of the major funders. This disconnection sometimes generates noise in the communication and makes it difficult for both parties to reach a balance in the relationship, which highlights the emergence of the intermediaries. In the case of local intermediaries, we detected that –except for those dedicated to technology and Internet-related issues– often possess a great understanding of local issues and context. But there is a lack of digital infrastructure expertise to evaluate the use of different technologies, what digital infrastructure is, and how open source can benefit society as a role or facilitate specific goals. Because of that, we believe that there is an opportunity to sensitize these intermediaries to the topic, which in turn can lead to more interest from large non-technology-focused funders in the topic.
Regional issues play different roles in informing global funders’ strategies. Funding in a region is not necessarily driven by any specific regional needs, rather, funders may fund a project in the region because it can provide data and knowledge about "public interest technology research and open source". In general, global organizations are very preoccupied with "making sure there are as many perspectives and voices in these conversations [on technology, digital rights, and digital infrastructure]. What goes on with American-based companies and the decisions and policies they sometimes place can have drastically different outcomes in other countries." Two of them have increased the number of programs targeting the so-called Global South, as well have increased the number of grantees (both individuals and NGOs/SCOs) from outside North America and Europe have, while the other organization prefer to be a little more geographic neutral, but as its main thematic area relates to freedom of expression, information control, and such themes, a great number of their grantees are from countries or work within countries, that have weaker rule of law compared to US, Canadá and most European Countries.
Related to the previous point, international funders' officers tend to rely on third parties, both internal or external, to be informed on regional contexts and issues. For the two largest organizations we interviewed officials, Open Society Foundations and Ford Foundation, the regional aspects of technology programs depend on information from their regional offices throughout the world, or from their non-tech programs. In fact, in the case of Ford Foundation, the organization doesn't do any regional grantmaking "unless we're doing it in partnership with our program officers in those regions". The two smaller organizations are more dependent on external third parties such as alumni, applicants, grantees, consultants, other organizations, and even the donors. At the same time, according to one interviewee from an intermediary funder, big donors rely on their capacity to get a pulse on what is happening around the world, stating that "sometimes there's a need or there's a curiosity at some foundation and they might turn to us to say. Can you help us figure this out, whether it's who should we fund or what's the landscape like or what policies should we really be sort of driving towards? Understanding their level of interest and commitment on digital infrastructure is a learning curve." Worth noting is the same interviewee said "Ford Foundation really does understand it very well" as an example of a funder that understands digital infrastructure and general technology's role in strengthening human rights.
The topic of sustainability of projects is an interesting one. While on the one hand, some [big] funders demand a sustainability plan or idea for the project, on the other hand, there are few funders really committing to sustaining projects. Sometimes for lack of knowledge, other times because their strategy is multi-issue or they are interested in diversifying grantees. There is a lack of a clear path for how to sustain projects and there is no clear and widely accepted way to "[...] measure the success of a [software] project for freedom of expression". One interviewee paraphrased what was heard in conversation with the lead developer of an important tool used by reporters on risky regimes and regions: "Funders aren't sure how to evaluate whether a tool is successful or useful, because it's just a really hard thing to understand. Sometimes tools to be successful have to live for 15 years, right? So you can't just build it and say we're done. You have to maintain it, a commitment for years and years. So it is hard supporting a tool and having the assurance that we're going to be okay to meet, keep developing, keep maintaining and especially things like the cost of servers or the cost of storage."