2019 Year in Review

From tech’s threats to UK democracy to the ad industry’s continued abuse of our personal data, digital rights were at the centre of some of 2019’s biggest stories. Thanks to supporters like you, Open Rights Group (ORG) met these challenges head on and changed the debate on AdTech, age verification, political profiling and more. Read on for a review of ORG’s big year.


Winning the argument on AdTech

In a landmark statement issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in June, the data protection authority agreed with ORG’s joint complaint against Google & IAB asserting their real time bidding advertising systems are in violation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The ICO is expected to announce findings from their own investigation into AdTech on 20 December. ORG’s next task will be to push the regulator to act.


Two elections, two data rights campaigns

In May ORG teamed with Who Targets Me to promote their browser extension which enables Facebook users to automatically document manipulative political ads served during the 2019 European Parliament elections. During the UK General Election, ORG supporters signed petitions, attended events, wrote candidate letters and submitted subject access requests to challenge how UK political parties acquire personal data to profile and micro-target voters. If you haven’t already, you can use our tool to find out what personal data UK parties hold on you.


Modernising Scotland and protecting human rights

Open Rights Group has given evidence twice to the Scottish Parliament: on the creation of a Scottish Biometrics Commissioner (which we support), and the use of facial recognition by Police Scotland (which we do not). We’ve released reports on the lawfulness of seizing digital devices by Police Scotland and pushed for reform of Defamation law in Scotland. And don’t forget about ORGCon Scotland (see below).


Flawed Age Verification plan gets binned

ORG has been raising the alarm about major privacy risks in the Government’s well intentioned but dangerously insecure plan to require age verification on adult websites ever since it was proposed as part of the Digital Economy Act 2017. In 2019 the plan was finally dropped [8] although proposals are likely to come back in some form. There’s no question children must be protected from harmful content, but optional privacy protections and vulnerable records of the public’s porn preferences are not the way to do it. 


Transparency win in immigration data legal challenge

ORG’s court action with the3million compelled the Home Office to state it will now inform residents when it uses the Data Protection Act’s “immigration exemption” to deny people access to their personal data. That means the millions of EU nationals living in the UK legally who have to reapply for a new immigration status after Brexit will be more able to contest what could be life-changing clerical errors. After the UK High Court struck down our legal challenge, we quickly earned permission for our appeal to be heard.


Preparing for Brexit’s effects on UK life online

This year ORG investigated Brexit’s implications for UK digital rights and produced a series of explainers on what to expect for digital privacy, free expression online and mass surveillance post-Brexit. To show what the Internet could look like if post-Brexit international agreements are made in secret, ORG created the fully interactive parody social media Futurebook.Join us on 20 January in London when we explore this urgent topic further.


Defending the right to parody

This year ORG submitted evidence to the government’s review of 2014 copyright reforms including the right to parody, caricature or pastiche. ORG also lobbied intensely to remove Article 17 (formerly Article 13) from the EU Copyright Directive which could introduce general monitoring of users and algorithmic censorship that damages free speech. Though the highly controversial law passed into law, its implementation in the UK is far from certain.


Nominet promise more transparency over .UK domain suspensions

Following our report into free expression last year, Nominet have produced proposals to display splash pages when they ‘suspend’ .UK domains at law enforcement request. While they need a robust system governed by law, splash pages are a step forward as we will learn more about what is suspended and consumers affected by fraud won’t be left in the dark when they visit a suspended domain.


Two ORGCons in one year!

2019 saw our biggest ever ORGCon conference in London and our first ever ORGCon Scotland in Edinburgh. Big thanks to everyone who made these memorable days of activism and inspiration happen. Watch Edward Snowden’s inspiring keynote address here and Patrick Harvie MSP’s opening speech for ORGCon Scotland here.


Addressing “online harms” the right way

ORG responded to new government proposals to curb “online harms” spanning everything from cyber-bullying and hate speech to terrorist propaganda and child abuse images. We brought together child protection groups, industry and free expression organisations for discussions. ORG countered the government’s harm-based approach with a rights-based plan that protects free speech online in our official responses. You can expect to hear a lot more on this in 2020 as the new Online Harms Bill advances.


Wrapping up the VIRT-EU project

VIRT-EU is Values and Ethics in Responsible Technology in Europe –  a European project funded by the Horizon 2020 program to create an ethical framework for Internet of Things (IoT) developers. Over the past three years ORG worked with five other European organisations to develop tools to encourage reflection on the relationship between technological innovation and societal concerns. Our goal is to enable a self-assessment of the ethical and social impact of new IoT technologies.


ORG Around the UK

From Aberdeen to Bristol and everywhere in between, ORG’s local groups held over 50 events this year including film screenings, workshops, panel discussions and more. Huge thanks to our stellar local organisers for all your time and effort, we couldn’t have done it without you!

We’d also like to thank our newest corporate supporter Ecommerce Booth.

Last but not least, thank YOU for being part of this movement to protect UK digital rights. 


We’ll see you in 2020.