Contesting the Foundation of Digital Public Infrastructure

What Digital ID Litigation Can Tell Us About the Future of Digital Government and Society

Many governments and international organizations have embraced the transformative potential of ‘digital public infrastructure’—a concept that refers to large-scale digital platforms run by or supported by governments, such as digital ID, digital payments, or data exchange platforms. However, many of these platforms remain heavily contested, and recent legal challenges in several countries have vividly demonstrated some of the risks and limitations of existing approaches.

In this short explainer, we discuss four case studies from Uganda, Mexico, Kenya, and Serbia, in which civil society organizations have brought legal challenges to contest initiatives to build digital public infrastructure. What connects the experiences in these countries is that efforts to introduce new national-scale digital platforms have had harmful impacts on the human rights of marginalized groups—impacts that, the litigants argue, were disregarded as governments rolled out these digital infrastructures, and which are wholly disproportionate to the purported benefits that these digital systems are supposed to bring.

These four examples therefore hold important lessons for policymakers, highlighting the urgent need for effective safeguards, mitigations, and remedies as the development and implementation of digital public infrastructure continues to accelerate.

The explainer document builds upon discussions we had during an event we hosted, entitled “Contesting the Foundations of Digital Public Infrastructure: What Digital ID Litigation Can Tell Us About the Future of Digital Government and Society,” where we brought together the civil society actors who have been litigating these four different cases.

August 28, 2023. Katelyn Cioffi, Victoria Adelmant, Danilo Ćurčić, Brian Kiira, Grecia Macías, and Yasah Musa