Philanthropy Must Jump-Start a Digital Revolution for the Common Good

The Internet is our new civic commons. We live more of our personal, economic, and political lives online every day.

And yet the digital public square is still not open to all equally.

Take the current debate over what has been called “net neutrality.” The question breaks down simply: Do we have a digital public square that is accessible and open to all or one where citizens are able to participate depending on their wealth? Do we believe in equal opportunity or in a digital version of “separate but equal”?

Philanthropy cannot sit on the sidelines in the battle over net neutrality. Key public-policy decisions being made in the coming years will determine whether our digital public square is accessible for decades to come.

And we must not condone a global society of unequal access and opportunity. In a world where we talk to each other online, buy things online, find jobs online, and inform our communities online, we cannot have an approach that says if you have money, you have better access to the basic aspects of our daily lives.

As grant makers, the concepts we must endorse are the digital progeny of a one-person, one-vote tradition, of freedom of expression as a right of all citizens. In the digital age, it’s essential that the principles that brought us here, of equal access to economic opportunity and civic life, be maintained and preserved. Let us look to the civil-rights movement, which smashed policies of separate but equal in our schools and public spaces a half century ago.

We welcome the good will of foundations and other nonprofit organizations willing to collaborate to help ensure that principles of equality, social justice, and free speech are embedded in our thinking and in our laws governing the Internet. And many in philanthropy are looking at important digital issues and how technology affects the causes we care about.

But we have done too little to think about how we could impact technology to effect change and advance our missions. We have not paid attention to the transformational potential of the Internet.

Our foundations recognize the Internet’s democratic power and believe we have an opportunity to shape a better, more inclusive world. That’s why this week we joined other grant makers to start a new partnership to think big about how the digital revolution can advance the common good.

A group of foundations — Ford, MacArthur, Open Society, Knight, and Mozilla — have agreed on the core principles of a free and universal web. We will seek to collaborate on large projects to transform learning and education and will cultivate leaders in business, government, and civil society to join the cause of equality on the Internet. We will work on issues of data security and protection of individual privacy and ensure that our practices and data ethics are consistent with our beliefs.

We will also launch a series of NetGain Challenges, commitments to invest in novel ideas, finance new research, and work toward the development of cutting-edge innovations and technologies to improve lives. Our intent is that this new support will add to our current investments, making our contributions more efficient and better coordinated and allowing us to address the Internet’s most pressing challenges — those too large for any one organization to tackle alone.

Many will rightly ask, given the histories of our philanthropies in supporting a robust digital society, what makes our new effort so significant? How can foundations joining forces help shape the future of the Internet?

First, this pledge marks a new starting point: a commitment to work together, rather than only individually, in support common principles. We believe philanthropy can and should lead if we are going to preserve Internet as a force for good.

Second, as foundations, we are in a good position to catalyze additional dollars and commitments from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Unconstrained by shareholder returns or legislative approval, philanthropy has long had a powerful ability to support bold, creative, even unorthodox solutions.

Third, through sitting at the intersection of inventors and technologists, grass-roots organizations and activists, experts and researchers, and business and policy leaders, we can create alliances and open spaces to share knowledge and generate ideas.

With the Internet’s impact so universal, we must bring people of all backgrounds, sectors, and affiliations together to shape the digital revolution. This includes neighborhoods and communities that our foundations have long supported and who must be involved in developing solutions to our challenges.

Our vision is to leverage our collective capacity to strengthen an equitable digital society. It is a commitment to use technology’s power and philanthropy’s value to shape a better world.

We have a chance to help fulfill the democratic promise of the Internet. Together, we intend to succeed.

Alberto Ibargüen is president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Mark Surman is executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, and Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation.

This article first appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.