Alt Headline: Thoughts on Non-public digital infrastructure for civil society. (I’ve been hosting this conversation on Reclaiming Digital Infrastructure for the Public Interest – the following post explores an example of what happens when we don’t do so)

 

I’ve been thinking for awhile about how nonprofits and giving are becoming “locked in” on commercial platforms. A lot of giving happens on software from Facebook or GoFundMe, nonprofits use a variety of corporate systems for managing their donations, and people use Venmo/Paypal etc. to move money between people and events. Each of those companies “owns” their aggregate data. For decades the sector has relied on analysis of of tax forms, survey data, and foundation reporting to see big trends in giving – these trends and data are useful to practitioners in the sector, researchers, and policy makers.

But these users don’t have access to data from the companies. There are some efforts underway to change this – hats off to GivingTuesday’s data commons and the work of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project (donor software working group). But, for the most part, we’ve privatized the data sources for tracking trends in the sector. 

So, nothing new there (though I think this needs to change, which would probably require regulatory action). But a couple of headlines today made me think there’s something else going on also. 

Here are the headlines:

From NPQ:

It’s Almost November…Has Your Tax Exemption Been Revoked?

Got a Nonprofit Status Revocation Notice? Don’t Panic—The IRS Erred

From NBC News:

Tech platforms continue to let U.S.-based hate groups use them to make payments

Here’s what I asked myself as was reading through those stories – “Wait a second, are we also privatizing the process of sanctioning certain kinds of organizations?” Registering nonprofit organizations and requiring certain reporting is one of the key ways that governments set the bounds of civil society. It is a mechanism tied to certain incentives (tax privileges), enables oversight, opens/closes funding opportunities, and can be used to tighten boundaries on civil society. Its one of the many manifestations of civil society as an artifact of government action. The headlines above made me realize that commercial platforms play an interesting set of roles in that function. 
 
The NBC News headline isn’t the only sign of this phenomenon. Back in 2017, Cloudflare (a web hosting group) “deplatformed” the Daily Stormer, a Nazi website. Prior to that, in a different incident, Amazon, Paypal and Visa cut off payment services to Wikileaks. It’s important to recognize both the infrastructural function that these companies are playing (web hosting, payment services) and the effects that their governance decisions have on the sector writ large. 
Thoughts?

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