RightsCon Silicon Valley 2014: Some Highlights from a Tech and Human Rights Convening

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As the world becomes more reliant on the internet, digital communication, and other innovations, it is increasingly apparent that technology presents both solutions and challenges for human rights defenders, and can also give rise to new forms of rights abuses. Unfortunately, many of the same tech tools that allow activists to work more effectively also leave them vulnerable to attack. And, in important areas, policymaking and public access to information may lag behind governments’ and corporations’ technological capabilities. Last week, human rights defenders, corporate leaders, funders, government officials, and tech innovators joined together at RightsCon to discuss the challenges, opportunities, and pitfalls of human rights tech.

More than 700 people from at least 65 countries gathered in San Francisco from March 3 to 5 for RightsCon 2014. [RightsCon] This event presented a unique opportunity for individuals from government, civil society, academia, and the corporate sector to come together to share innovations and experiences and to discuss best practices, concerns and ways forward. The three days of discussion, debate and development resulted in notable outcomes in the areas of policy, strategy, collaboration, launches, trends and security. Key developments related directly to international human rights include:

  • The U.S. Government announced six principles to guide communication surveillance activities, acknowledging for the first time that international human rights norms apply to government surveillance.
  • Representatives of the International Criminal Court and others gathered with activist to discuss the risks associated with gathering, storing, transferring and distributing evidence of serious human rights abuses.
  • Development and internet experts met to discuss how digital rights can be addressed in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Human rights defenders demonstrated mobile solutions that allow the collection and documentation of court-admissible evidence of sexual violence that tampered with or destroyed.

With more than 90 sessions, demos and workshops, the RightsCon program covered a diverse array of topics. Videos from several sessions each day are currently available online. Additional coverage of the conference is available through the RightsCon live blog. The following summaries represent a small sampling of the talks that occurred:

Funding Tech for Human Rights

Representatives from different funding entities came together to discuss the challenges of funding tech for human rights. The panelists addressed the dangers of using tech to solve human rights challenges and emphasized the role that funders can play in mitigating the risks. Helen Brunner, Executive Director of the Media Democracy Fund, and Dan Meredith, Director of the Open Technology Fund, discussed the possibility of developing an auditing system that could be shared among philanthropic organizations. Betsy Bramon, a Global Programs Officer from the U.S. State Department, noted the difficulty in overcoming the gap between the tech entities that create the tools used by human rights groups and the actual activists on the ground. The very frank discussion at this round table afforded members of the audience the opportunity to direct the discussion and ask pointed questions to funders.

For more information about this session read our full-length blog post. 

Surveillance on the Silver Screen

The ACLU of Northern California demonstrated the effectiveness of popular movies as a tool to open up dialogue about government surveillance. Using The Simpsons, The Dark Knight, Enemy of the State, and the Bourne Ultimatum, the presenters noted both the accuracies and fallacies of the depiction of surveillance on the silver screen. The presentation took a serious issue in human rights and made it accessible through the use of popular media. The presenters opened up the floor for input from the audience and used this as an opportunity to gather feedback from the diverse people assembled in the room.

Full coverage of the discussion is available in our full-length blog post from the convention.

Global Civil Society under Attack: Reports from the Front Line

Gustaf Björksten, Technology Director for Access, revealed plans for the continued expansion of the Access Helpline. The Helpline provides technology solutions and real-time advice for independent and citizen journalists, bloggers, activists, NGO staff, and human rights defenders facing digital security threats. Civil society actors face different types of threats than those seen in the corporate world and therefore, require specialized solutions, says Björksten. With the “shocking rise” in State-sponsored malware and other digital security threats, the number of cases seen by the Helpline continues to increase.

For more information about the Access Helpline and their work around the world please see our live blog post.

Internet Policy, Activism and Social Change: Views from the Arab World

This panel brought together tech experts from diverse Arab nations to discuss the intersection of tech and activism in the region. The panelist emphasized the importance of education and youth involvement in tech development. They also examined the barriers that keep many people in the Arab world from taking an active role to advance and improve the internet. Although the panelists acknowledged the important role that the internet can play in the Middle East, they also recognized that it is not a solution to the many problems that countries in the region face.

The live blog post contains additional details about this conversation.

Crowdfunding for Human Rights: Potential and Pitfalls

Representatives from crowdfunding platforms and activists who have successfully utilized crowdfunding presented a multi-dimensional assessment of crowdfunding as a tool for the human rights community. Matt Wilson from Causes.com emphasized that the internet has made raising money more efficient and more cost effective. Matt and other panelist provided extensive examples of how crowdfunding has been effectively used by diverse groups with varying needs.

Additional stories from users and advice from platform representatives is available in our live blog post from the convention.

Digital Security for LGBTQ Human Rights Defenders: Unique Challenges and Opportunities

As Richard Lusimborom from Uganda and Mariam Gagoshasvili from Ukraine shared, LGBT activists in many countries around the world face serious threats to their physical and digital safety. While social media platforms, digital communication, and other tech tools allow activist to reach a wider audience, they also expose both individuals and organizations to risks. The panelist discussed the need for effective tools to document human rights abuses within the LGBTQ community that do not put the users at risk. Caitlin Stanton from Urgent Action Fund reported that threats were four times more likely to come from non-State actors or members of the community than government representatives. She also noted that Urgent Action Fund has experienced an increase in reports of threats from organizations as the use of the internet has increased.

For more information about digital security for LGBTQ human rights defenders, read our blog post from the conference.

Anonymity, Pseudonymity, and Freedom of Expression

This panel focused on the idea that individuals have the right to be anonymous online. In this discussion, the panelist addressed the issue of names, or the lack of, on the internet. They expressed concern about the use of the “real name” policy in certain countries around the world. Eva Galperin, Global Policy Analyst from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, praised both Tor and Twitter for allowing users to maintain anonymity while online. She refuted claims that only criminals and other unethical individuals seek anonymity. The panelist also addressed the balance between security and freedom of expression, acknowledging that anonymity on the internet opens the door to bullying and attacks without consequences.

For more information on this topic, read the full blog post from the conference.

Watching the Observers: The Impact of Surveillance on Human Rights Documentarians and Journalists

The panelists expressed concern over the growing use of spyware to target activists and journalists, particularly when utilized by governments to target their own citizens or individuals in other countries. Eva Galperin, presented the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s case against the government of Ethiopia regarding its alleged use of malware to spy on a U.S. citizen as an example of how the legal system can be used to challenge the use of surveillance tools.

Enrique Piracés, Vice President of the Human Rights Program at Benetech, examined the role of the government in limiting the harmful use of surveillance tools. He suggested the following steps to reduce the harmful and illegal use of surveillance tools:

  1. Support the call for greater regulation on the export of surveillance technology.
  2. Implement new controls as soon as possible.
  3. Ensure that there is a public debate on the type of safeguards that we need.
  4. Hold the companies responsible for marketing and selling surveillance tools responsible for preventing the abuse of their products.

Ron Deibert, Director of Citizen Lab, acknowledged that activists and human rights groups might find it impossible to implement all of the protective measures necessary to thwart spyware and other methods of surveillance. His colleague Bill Marczak suggests a three-part approach to the developing surveillance problem: developing technical solutions, devoting resources to training, and advocating for change.

Additional details from this panel are available in the liveblog.

Together with Engage Media, Access plans to host the next RightsCon in Manila, Philippines in March 2015.