Digital/Green/Society Conference


A Unique Event

Dozens of environmental and digital rights activists, researchers, and policymakers from Southeast Europe and beyond flocked around a unique event held in springtime Belgrade to dissect ties between technology and environmental issues, and to sort out negative impacts that mass production, data extraction, and surveillance capitalism inflict on the Planet.

The event was organized by the Belgrade-based SHARE Foundation under the daily guidance of the Green Web fellow and the Cardiff Uni posdoc researcher Fieke Jansen, and the new media professor and algorithmic infrastructures explorer Vladan Joler.

Shared concerns

Low on political freedoms global indices but high on pursuit of growth rates, the Balkan region has been faced with experiments in biometric mass surveillance and other high-tech apps in policing and border control. At the same time, stubborn policymakers’ disregard for natural resources and rising pollution brought in a new generation of politicians acutely aware of the possibilities of algorithmic oppression.

Despite many differences, those were the shared concerns serving as a joint platform for activists and researchers from within and outside the EU that got together in Belgrade. They have seen smart cameras installed around the city, and heard of villagers resisting extraction of lithium in Serbia. They learned of political strategies employed by the first green Mayor in Zagreb, Croatia, and of shadow libraries’ subversive tactics probed in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The conference raised the question of a fossil-free internet and alternative sources of energy explored in different parts of the world due to the increasing awareness of the impact digital technologies have on the environment – primarily in the extraction of critical raw materials and natural resources from under-resourced and racialized communities. The international advocacy group EDRi and the Digital Freedom Fund preseted their work in decolonising digital rights and its intersections with environmental justice. Tied to these issues is the developing campaign for the ‘right to repair’ that successfully brought together privacy, sustainability, and human rights.

Raising questions – from the right to repair to sustainability and human rights

The contemporary battle against biometric surveillance ranges from EU and non-EU parliaments, to academic circles and activists protesting in the streets. It is a critical challenge, the conference heard, in both developed and developing nations, whose outcome can have decisive global impact on our future. The case studies examined were France and Serbia, accompanied by the experience from campaigns such as Reclaim Your Face.

The participants could also learn of legal strategies in framing the cause and protecting their advocates; what the digital environmental community as a whole can do to counteract online attacks; what are climate whistleblowing platforms; how to evade and trick algorithmic classifications; and so much more.

Uniting against imposed narratives

The Digital/Green/Society conference struck a blow to the forged narrative pitting the digital rights and green activists against each other, framing environmental concerns as a threat to digital progress and economic growth. By emphasising the potential limitations or costs associated with environmental regulations, this agenda aims to garner support from industries reliant on unsustainable practices, while simultaneously portraying green activists as obstructing technological advancements, as was the example with the protests against the excavation of lithium in Serbia.

As the topics of digitalisation and data centralisation move higher on the political agenda, the risks associated to them are rising. For example, introduction of biometric surveillance in Belgrade has received huge media attention, thus somewhat overshadowing issues like air pollution. This tactic is often employed to appeal to libertarian or conservative-leaning voters who prioritise individual freedoms and are skeptical of government intervention in both digital and environmental domains. By framing the debate as an exclusive choice between digital rights and environmental concerns, division is sown among activists and hinders collective action for a sustainable future.

In reality, digital rights and green activism are not inherently contradictory but rather intersect in several areas. Efforts to address climate change and promote sustainability can benefit from digital tools and platforms that enable data-driven decision-making, efficient energy management, and public engagement. Examples include developing tools to map usurpation of green spaces or to visualise the impact of uncontrolled urban development.

On the other hand, protecting digital rights and privacy can be aligned with environmental goals by ensuring that emerging technologies and digital infrastructure are developed and deployed in a manner that respects human rights and safeguards against potential environmental harms. Instead of pitting these issues against each other, a more productive approach would involve finding common ground and fostering collaboration between digital rights advocates and green activists to pursue holistic solutions that address both concerns, equally important to contemporary society.

Intersectionality in the digital sphere

As a digital rights organisation that has been active for over 12 years in Southeast Europe, SHARE Foundation has been on the frontlines of defending human rights online and challenging power and corruption at both corporate and state levels. While dealing with societal problems in the domain of surveillance, censorship, cybersecurity, disinformation, and abuse of personal data are the bread and butter of our work and a daily routine, for a while we have been thinking about how our work fits in different settings.

Even though the problems that we work on impact society as a whole, their influence is even greater with groups who do not enjoy full privilege. Refugees, LGBTQI+ people, ethnic and racial minorities, women, and human rights activists can often suffer serious discrimination due to the structural biases that have been integrated into technology. The demand to decolonise digital rights is ever more present, as we are now at a turning point in terms of both legislation and strong societal changes impacted by both technology and the environment. If we miss this opportunity, we will nurture and empower existing abuse and discrimination practices.

It is crucial that we recognize the intertwined nature of digital and green issues and move beyond false dichotomies. Our collective future depends on finding innovative solutions that integrate technology and sustainability while upholding human rights and privacy. By collaborating across sectors and engaging in meaningful dialogue, we can work towards a world where digital advancements and environmental well-being go hand in hand.