Digital rights legal fund targets COVID-19 violations with grants

KAROLIN SCHAPS 

AS governments embrace tracing apps to stem the spread of COVID-19, a Dutch-based organisation announced grants this week to fight alleged violations of digital rights during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Digital Freedom Fund (DFF), which warned that measures to contain the virus were increasingly infringing on privacy and other basic rights, said it would allocate legal funding to four cases involving European governments and companies.

One of the cases is being brought on behalf of an online abortion information portal that was blocked by the Spanish government. Another involves a privacy complaint due to be filed at London’s High Court over widespread use of thermal scanners.

“The variety in the applications we received for the fund in its first round have shown how widespread the impact of COVID-19 is across our society, and what it means for the digital rights of all,” the DFF’s legal adviser, Jonathan McCully, said.

“Many of the measures taken by governments across Europe to counter the pandemic are increasing the infringement upon our human rights in the digital context,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Women’s Link Worldwide, a women’s rights organization, sought funding from DFF to represent Women On Web, a not-for-profit that provides help and information on safe abortions and contraception. The online portal was blocked in Spain earlier this year.

“This coincides with an increase in barriers faced by women and girls when accessing sexual and reproductive health services because of the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” DFF said.

Spain’s Health Ministry said the Women On Web site offered a potentially “valuable” service, but said it had been blocked to protect women from the risk of unauthorized abortion drugs.

“This web page offers a service that can be valuable for women who wish to terminate their pregnancy in many countries where the law does not allow it or where they have no other alternatives,” the ministry said in emailed comments.

“But supplying abortion drugs on the internet that are not authorized in Spain, are of unknown origin and do not follow prescription conditions may entail a risk for women.”

‘RIGHT PARAMETERS’

DFF also granted legal aid to Civil Liberties Union for Europe, a network of civil liberties NGOs, to file suits over the excessive use of tracking apps in countries including Bulgaria, Poland and Italy.

Orsolya Reich, senior advocacy officer for the network, said coronavirus tracing apps must strike the right balance between fighting the virus without violating people’s right to privacy.

“Now is the crucial time to make sure that we set the right parameters in these apps,” she said. “What we don’t want is an app which is hoovering up data on people without an end in sight.”

UK-based Big Brother Watch was granted financial aid to help take a claim to the High Court against a data controller using thermal-scanning technology. The NGO aims to set a precedent by which thermal-scanning data is classed as personal data.

DFF, which receives funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the Ford Foundation, among others, has secured additional donations for a second round of applications to the COVID-19 fund due to close at the end of this month.

McCully said it would prioritise cases which hit vulnerable people, who generally have limited access to justice and whose experience is worsened by existing digital inequalities.

“We know that the cases we have funded in our first round only scrape the surface of the digital rights violations that have taken place during the pandemic,” he said. “This pandemic has only magnified the inequalities that exist in our society.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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