PPR Refugee Rights Activists Use Ethical Tech to Challenge Inequality and Protect Privacy

Viewing internet access as a privilege as opposed to a right means that prohibitive computer and internet costs are deepening inequality. We need innovative responses. Dessie Donnelly  |  Mon Jan 11 2021
Refurbished Lenovo Laptops with Linux Mint OS and open source software installed

Before the pandemic, the rhythm of PPR's organising included group meetings, clinics, drop-ins, conferences, strategy workshops, actions, home visits, lobbying, and much more. The physical sharing of space, food, laughs and hugs helped us to build friendships and the trust needed to sustain us through the challenging situations the struggle for human rights always throws up. Our headquarters at Belfast's Community House was our physical hub, and we used it well.

In March 2020 however, with the onset of lockdown and social distancing, this changed utterly. Determined to protect the vulnerable in our community and support our essential workers we adapted quickly, and with a lot of imagination, to develop new organising models and campaigning tactics. We wanted to ensure that we both respected the restrictions that our public health service demanded and retained our relevance and efficacy.

This has been a challenge. From the outset, access to technical hardware and internet connectivity was identified as one of the greatest barriers to people accessing public services and maintaining contact with friends and family. The persisting view of internet access as a privilege as opposed to a right means that prohibitive computer, broadband, WiFi and data costs are deepening marginalisation and inequality during the pandemic.

PPR's initial response was to work with our existing funders to re-profile our budgets and provide mobile data top-ups to activists: enabling them to access to group check-ins, strategy sessions, webinars and meetings with allies and duty bearers. However this is no long term solution and did not address the issue of technical hardware. Mobile phones are no substitute for personal computers when collaborating with others to analyse data and documents or prepare campaign materials.

In December and January, with the help of the brilliant Respond and Adapt Programme (RAP), PPR distributed 14 refurbished Lenovo Thinkpad laptops with the free and open source Linux Mint distribution installed (as opposed to Microsoft or Apple Mac), 'portable WiFi 'Get Boxes' provided by Jangala – who develop technology to address digital inequality in refugee camps, schools and emergency accommodation units around the world. RAP also provided funding for one year's free internet access to the 14 refugee activists working on our Lift the Ban and Housing4All campaigns.

Our choice of technology was deliberate. It takes 1.5 tons of water, 48 pounds of chemicals and 530 pounds of fossil fuels to produce a computer. Purchasing the “brand new shiny thing” is not sustainable – or even necessary when we dispose of over 50 millions of tons of perfectly good hardware every year. The UK is the worst offender for illegally shipping its e-waste to ‘developing’ countries. In regards to software, in a world where Apple is plagued with privacy concerns and Microsoft terms and conditions clearly say:

We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to protect our customers or enforce the terms governing the use of the services.”

we wanted to use the most secure Operating System available – Linux – which is used by 100% of the super computers in the world and 86% of the world’s servers. NASA even use it at the International Space Station because it is more “stable and reliable” than Microsoft.

In short, our choice of technology is not neutral. PPR are transitioning as an organisation towards use of Free and Open Source Software by default, but for now we simply wanted to provide equipment, packed with secure and privacy respecting software, and a high quality internet connection, to PPR refugee activists who, in turn, would be able to use it in support of the broader community.

The Get Boxes will bring internet access to all members of the household, including families and other asylum seekers in Houses of Multiple Occupancy. Anna Hickman from Jangala said:

“Jangala grew out of a volunteer effort to connect the Calais Jungle refugee camp in 2015, so it's an honour to support PPR's asylum seeking activists to fight for their right to work in 2020/1. During the pandemic, lack of connectivity has had real and dangerous implications for the most vulnerable in society, restricting their access to healthcare, social services and education. It also risks people's right to campaign and be heard - but this partnership aims to overcome this challenge and support the campaigners in building a more equitable society.”

One of the Lift the Ban activists said:

“Since the beginning of the pandemic and the first lockdown, asylum seekers have been left behind in financial support increases where we've since those who receive benefits had an increase to their Universal Credit benefits and asylum seekers and asylum seekers didn't have the same. In many way asylum seekers have been let down, but they are also affected by the pandemic. So for an organisation to actually think about us and to actually consider the challenges we face as well, I think it's amazing. Thank you to all that have been involved in the "No one left behind" project. Words can't describe how much you have helped.”

Dessie Donnelly is Director and a founding member of Belfast based Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) organisation. Prior to working with PPR, Dessie was an organiser in the USA and Irish labour movements. Dessie is also a software developer and certified linux administrator with an interest in leveraging the power of free and open source software in support of social movements and mutual aid networks.