In November 2019, the Internet Society, a nonprofit organization working to expand access to the internet, announced plans to sell control of the .ORG domain registry. For $1.1 billion, control of the top-level domain—long the go-to domain for non-profits and nongovernmental agencies—would be sold off to a recently formed private equity company called Ethos Capital. With the fate of an affordable, open access corner of the internet hanging in the balance, open internet advocacy groups held protests, penned open letters, and started a petition called Save .ORG. The organization Access Now also called for the halt of the deal until certain questions about it were answered, including: What safeguards exist to protect against the exploitation of the non-profit .ORG domain registrants? And, Did the parties involved consider the potential human rights impacts of this sale?
The latter question nods to the principal concern of Access Now, which works to defend and strengthen the digital rights of users around the world. In addition to facilitating the Save .ORG petition, the organization has also implemented a campaign against government-led internet shutdowns and advises lawmakers on data protection measures. Its remit is a large one. “By the term ‘digital rights,’ we mean human rights that are enabled through technology and the internet,” says Juliana Castro, the organization’s senior designer. “In recent years, of course, that has become almost everything.”
The notion that our human rights would extend to our digital lives can still be weirdly difficult to grasp, perhaps particularly so for people outside of the tech world. Human rights traditionally bring to mind political, economic, and civil rights like freedom of movement, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, set forth in 1948 by the UN Declaration of Human Rights as the standards for nations worldwide.
In a world increasingly mitigated by technology, human rights and digital rights are practically synonymous.
If at first blush the sale of a domain registry doesn’t seem like it poses a human rights risk, remember that many of the organizations using the .ORG domain are challenging governments or powerful public interests. “The entity that is responsible for the stewardship of the Public Interest Registry [the registry for .ORG] has access to everything,” Access Now executive director Brett Solomon told Reuters. “They have a capacity to take somebody off the .ORG domain, which means they can censor, they can monitor, they can deny.”
All of Access Now’s advocacy campaigns fall under this broader point of communication: that digital rights are human rights—and design work, all done by Castro and the organization’s design and UX lead Sage Cheng, helps communicate this message. Design can make the intricacies and ripple effects of something as complex as the .ORG sale—with the various organizations involved and all the nuances of internet governance at play—simpler for people to understand. It can make thorny subjects such as privacy and digital security feel more approachable and with a lower barrier to access. And as issues like dark patterns expose design’s role in the manipulation of internet users, Castro says that designers have an opportunity not just to communicate digital rights issues, but also to advise on how to best uphold and protect those rights. Castro’s work at Access Now, and her path to working in digital rights advocacy, helps shed some light on how designers can become involved in this field.
Embrace open access
When Castro joined Access Now in 2018, she came to the organization through her interest in open access, the movement for free and open information online. In graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, Castro realized that while most classic literature enters the public domain after the copyright expires, many books remain inaccessible because they aren’t reprinted or available in a readable format online. She found the problem to be especially prominent with books by women, whose work may have more easily fallen into obscurity, so she founded Cita Press, which publishes feminist books in the public domain. With Cita, Castro periodically selects open domain texts to republish, asks designers to redesign their covers, and formats them so that readers can print the books themselves, or read them via a custom e-reader on the site.
Even before starting Cita, Castro’s interest in open access was spurred by a stint working as a designer in the museum world, where so many images from museum collectives were technically public domain, yet there was no information around how to access them (and thus they largely went unused). “There’s an entire industry built on selling you things like stock images and stock illustrations that you could get for free,” she says. “Working in a museum, I realized there was no interest in making sure this was known, because it didn’t help them profit.”
Between graduating with her Master’s and joining Access Now, Castro attended a summer program at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center, where she worked with the Harvard Open Access Project, which seeks to increase open access in regards to academic research. Castro says that while an interest in free and open information is what led her to work in digital rights, it isn’t a concept that is always readily embraced in design. “There‘s a ‘celebrity designer’ complex in design, in which authorship and personal voice is prized,” she says, “and that goes against the idea of collaborative design and open access.” With Cita, Castro uses design to literally expand open access to literary works, but perhaps just as important to designers interested in digital rights is the spirit of collaboration and belief in equal access to information that open access embodies. These ideas provided an important bedrock to Castro’s work with digital rights advocacy, and she feels that they could for others, too, in a design industry that values and teaches them.
Use design to simplify hard-to-grasp topics
Within Access Now, Castro and Cheng mainly work with the organization’s advocacy efforts, designing campaigns like Save .ORG and #WhyID, an open letter that seeks to spread awareness of the potential harms of digital identity programs. With both of these projects, the designers worked collaboratively with policy and technology experts inside of the organization and those working with their partnership organizations to understand the essence of the issues at hand. They then work with them to determine what kind of design work is needed based on the mission of the campaign. “We as communication experts provide creative directions to enhance the content, to make it accessible, and understandable,” says Castro.
The #WhyID project received its own branding and web page, complete with a bright yellow and red color palette. Its identity is clever and relatable, using facial recognition brackets as a framing device for custom emoji and other abstracted symbols (a thumbprint, a camera lens). And while the branding is engaging, it also lends the project a degree of authority that an undesigned open letter on its own would probably not project. “It was a project that needed its own branding, and that’s one of the things that design allows: for it to look its own thing,” says Castro.
Another thing that design allows is bringing humanity and humor to subjects that can seem intractable and overwhelming. Castro points toward the bingo boards that she designs to help people understand how to manage their own digital security, with cards that advise on things like passwords (“My updated password isn’t a previous password with ‘!’”), turning off your device when crossing borders, and using two-factor authentication. Castro also created a comic to explain the .ORG sale.
I do think that approaching serious topics with fun design is a very effective advocacy tool.
Know your digital rights (and design responsibly)
Much of Castro’s job is to advise the organization’s work from a design perspective. In other words, in what ways can design enable the manipulation of your attention? “Designers and design researchers work right between the tools and the users,” she says, “but we are rarely part of the decision making process.”
Castro cites dark patterns as one of the main digital rights concerns that needs to be solved from a design point of view. Dark patterns are user interfaces that trick users into agreeing to or opting into something they didn’t intend to. One of the most commonly understood dark patterns are the cookie consent banners that pop up when you visit a website under GDPR rules. A dark pattern may make the opt-out button difficult to find, or make it hard to navigate to the website without opting in. These are UI design decisions. “There are all sorts of ways of making people opt-in for cookies, and most if not all of them are enabled through design,” says Castro.
But because designers are often the “middle men,” so to speak, a designer who is creating these dark patterns may not understand its broader harm. “Because designers are not required to have a deep understanding of [digital rights], many of them are just doing their job—in this case, their job is to design the thing that will be best for [their company’s] profits,” says Castro.
The effort for Access Now is to make sure that designers have the knowledge to think about the rights of the people using their products, and make decisions accordingly. This was a motivating factor for a group of UX designers—including Cheng, as well as An Xiao Mina, Natalie Cadranel, Caroline Sinders, and with the help of Martin Shelton, Matt Mitchell, Soraya Okuda, TTCat, and Max Anderson, among others—to create the Secure UX checklist, an open resource for “tool developers to protect digital security and privacy for communities they are designed to help” ahead of last year’s RightsCon conference held annually by Access Now. This year will be the first year that there will be a Human Rights Centered Design track at the conference specifically for bringing designers into the conversation.
“Transparency by design could be much better,” says Castro, and the inclusion of designers in one of the world’s leading conferences for digital rights is a clear indicator that designers are getting a seat at the table in this conversation. One of the core implications of the belief that “information should be free” is that we can be better people—and designers can be better designers—by empowering ourselves with information. If design is one factor leading to the manipulation of users and the violation of digital rights, as we know that it is, designers should know the social implications of the product they’re working on. The more they know, the more they can advocate for ethical design.