Our year of action

With Britain still in the throes of Covid-19, 2021 was a truly unique year for the movement to protect our digital rights. As we look back on our challenges and triumphs, Open Rights Group (ORG) has all our members and supporters to thank for making it happen. Thank you!

Preventing a Digital Police State

UK Police speaking to a woman on the street
Image Credit

In early 2021, after the Cabinet Office proposed a dramatic expansion of Police data-matching powers via the National Fraud Initiative (NFI), a chorus of ORG activists echoed ORG’s demand for limits on Police access to personal data. Left unchecked, the plans would widen the NFI’s scope far beyond its anti-fraud mission to include virtually any other criminal activity – in effect creating a Digital Police State.

Defending Anonymity

After a petition calling for ID requirements to open a social media account triggered a debate in Parliament, in March hundreds of ORG members and supporters reminded their MPs how anonymity underpins free expression, press freedom, and the safety of minority groups vulnerable to online abuse. Read more about the importance of anonymity here.

Demanding an independent privacy regulator, not a Government lapdog

In May, after the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) posted of a vacancy for its top job that read like an ad for a corporate lobbyist, ORG responded by calling for an independent privacy regulator unafraid of holding the Government and Big Tech to account. Our campaign resulted in a cross-party group of MPs sending a letter to the Secretary of State for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) warning of Government improperly influencing the ICO.

In late May, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on a case brought by ORG and other organisations in 2013 declaring that the UK Government’s mass surveillance programme violated our fundamental rights. Only days later, after ORG and the3million’s three year legal battle against the Home Office, the UK court of Appeal found the UK “immigration exemption” – which removes key data protection rights from UK residents including British citizens – to be unlawful, excessive, and wrong.

Championing digital rights in Scotland

Last spring the Scottish Government included amendments in the Defamation Reform Bill that ORG worked on with MSPs to counter the removal of statements from websites BEFORE any judgment is taken on whether they are defamatory. The amendments mean content can remain up during proceedings, avoiding prejudicial take-downs and better balancing freedom of expression online and protection of reputation. Watch this video to learn more.

Then in April ORG Scotland joined forces with Amnesty Scotland to host Scotland’s first ever Digital and Human Rights Hustings featuring candidates in the Scottish parliamentary election. The event put candidates’ statements on the record about Digital Identity, Vaccine Passports, Police Surveillance and more, which we documented in our party stance tracker to help inform voters.

Ensuring our privacy is not traded away

Over the summer ORG campaigned against provisions within the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) which threaten to trap the UK in a global privacy race to the bottom. Hundreds of ORG activists across the UK called on their MPs to tell the International Trade Secretary to ensure CPTPP negotiations preserve our privacy. ORG local groups in Norwich, Edinburgh and Brighton supported the campaign by organising local coalition letters to their MPs.

During the second half of 2021, ORG uncovered dangerous flaws that threaten free expression within the Online Safety Bill currently advancing toward law. We published a series of groundbreaking blogs and videos exposing how the Bill threatens to block popular sites like Wikipedia and Reddit, how it makes your private messages vulnerable to scanning and censorship, and how it grants Orwellian powers to ministers to define and control online speech. ORG also joined allies from Big Brother Watch, the Adam Smith Institute, Article 19, Global Partners Digital, and Index on Censorship in launching the #SaveOnlineSpeech campaign to demand that the Online Safety Bill protects freedom of expression.

Saving GDPR and stopping the rise of data discrimination

In autumn, ORG mobilised dozens of national organisations across a wide variety of sectors to oppose “Data: a new direction”, the Government’s disastrous plan to roll back GDPR privacy protections that prevent data discrimination against everyone from students and workers to migrants and NHS patients. Our campaign videosweb resources and activist webinars equipped ORG members and supporters to respond to the public consultation, putting popular opposition the backwards data plan on the public record.

Firing up the fight against illegal online ads

The year concluded with major strides in our growing fight against illegal online ads that abuse the personal data of millions. We raised over 20K to fund our legal challenge which forced the UK’s privacy regulator to concede – for a second time now – that ad systems are in widespread breach of data protection law. The court also said that accountability rules are flawed and in need of reform, meaning the Information Commissioner can no longer turn a blind eye to rampant lawlessness.

With our partners in the EU, ORG investigated the next generation of ad systems and coordinated cross-border complaints similar to our own. In 2021 we also joined forces with Panoptykon and Liberties EU to inspire 30 civil society organisations and countless EU privacy activists to tell the European Parliament to #StopStalkerAds.

Setting the stage for success in 2022

Behind the scenes ORG has been furiously preparing for a massive expansion of staff so we can meet next year’s challenges head on and win. Critical to our success is the support of our members – without their help we can’t hope to fend off the Government and Big Tech’s relentless moves to gut our privacy laws and control what we see and say online.

Your membership will help support ORG’s vital campaigns to protect digital rights that are more important now than ever. Will you stand up for a better digital future?


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