Member in the Spotlight: European Center for Not-for-Profit Law Stichting (ECNL)

EDRi's member European Center for Not-for-Profit Law Stichting (ECNL) promotes enabling legal and policy frameworks for civil society.

By European Center for Not-for-Profit Law Stichting (guest author) · February 16, 2022

This is the twenty first article of the series “EDRi member in the Spotlight” in which our members have the opportunity to introduce themselves and their work in depth.

1. Who are you and what is your organisation’s goal and mission?

The European Center for Not-for-Profit Law Stichting (ECNL) promotes enabling legal and policy frameworks for civil society. We create knowledge, empower partners and help set global and regional standards to protect and expand civic freedoms online and offline. 

When it comes to our work on AI and tech, we build bridges between policy makers, academics and industry on the one hand and non-tech civil society organisations (CSOs) – including representatives of marginalised and vulnerable groups – on the other, mainly by:

  • promoting mutual understanding amongst these stakeholders on the impact of digital tech on civic freedoms;
  • fostering inclusive and meaningful participation of such groups in the policy and regulatory standard-setting processes on digital technologies. In some cases this means even representing their voices directly in relevant international arenas.

2. How did it all begin, and how did your organisation develop its work?

The ECNL team has over 20 years of experience in building and advocating for better legal and policy environments for civic groups, movements and activists. ECNL was initially established in Hungary to support the creation of the first laws for CSOs in Central and Eastern Europe. As organisations and movements grew and took a more active role in their societies, ECNL’s role also grew alongside. In 2018, we moved our office to The Hague, Netherlands. 

Today, ECNL is an established leader on civil society law and policy in Europe as well as globally. We focus on many areas that affect civic freedoms and the complex needs of the civil society sector, including the need to streamline fundamental right safeguards in the development and functioning of AI systems and devices. 

3. The biggest opportunity created by advancements in information and communication technology is…

… the ability to connect anytime in real time and expand our civic space and freedoms via digital mediation.

4. The biggest threat created by advancements in information and communication technology is…

… the endless churning out and availability of personal data and metadata that make us exposed to profiling, targeted political campaigns and advertising, surveillance and manipulation of thought like never before.

5. Which are the biggest victories/successes/achievements of your organisation?

At the UN, ECNL successfully pitched for the Human Rights Committee to work on a General Comment on Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to peaceful protest. Specifically in relation to emerging communication technologies, the General Comment provides safeguards against internet shutdowns and protections for digitally-mediated assemblies as well as assemblies entirely held in the online space or otherwise relying on digital services.

At a regional level, ECNL participated in the work of the Council of Europe (CoE) Ad Hoc Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CAHAI), which developed recommendations for a future regulatory framework on AI protecting democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The process will continue in 2022 and will have an impact beyond Europe. Representing the CoE Conference of International non-governmental organization (INGO), ECNL is also part of the new Committee of Artificial Intelligence (CAI), which will negotiate the text of the legally binding instrument.

At European Union level, we have managed to raise awareness and engage a wider group of CSOs that do not traditionally work on AI/tech/digital/privacy rights in the ongoing EU AI processes. 

At the national level, ECNL supports CSOs to position themselves and seek engagement in the drafting of national AI strategies, which is the first step towards national regulation of AI. More info about our achievements and successes can be found here.

6. If your organisation could now change one thing in your country, what would that be?

Both at country and regional level, we would like to be successful in changing the mindset of many institutions, who believe they have ticked the box of “promoting meaningful public participation” simply by opening online consultations or organising specialist thematic workshops with expert academics and tech-focused CSOs. Similarly, we would like to change the mindset of many CSOs, who refrain from reclaiming their rightful place at the policy table because they are intimidated by words like “artificial intelligence” and “digital rights”. 

7. What is the biggest challenge your organisation is currently facing in your country?

We try to change the narrative around AI and emerging technologies, demystify the concepts and make them as straightforward as possible for non-tech focused CSOs. It is important to mobilise all civic voices, even if, like us, not everyone is or is likely to become digital experts or internet wizards, because AI regulation is very much a human rights and civic freedoms issue.

8. How can one get in touch with you if they want to help as a volunteer, or donate to support your work?

Follow us on Twitter or visit our website. We just launched a Learning Center page with resources, videos and explainers on critical areas that affect civic space, including on how AI impacts our civic freedoms or work as a civil society activist. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to . And do subscribe to our newsletter to receive all of our stories and latest updates on civic space and freedoms.