RightsCon: The Promise and Peril of New Communications Technology | Beth's Blog

RightsCon: The Promise and Peril of New Communications Technology

Guest Post

Guest post by Sam Gregory

This week in San Francisco, technologists and human rights advocates are meeting at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference (or RightsCon)to grapple with the realities of how we better manage the human rights implications of new technologies. It’s a complicated equation that brings together core human rights concerns about privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and the direct practicalities of real-life struggle with the ways in which engineering, policy, legal and design decisions are made by companies, or placed upon them by the jurisdictions in which they operate.

At WITNESS, we’ve been wrestling with the promise and peril of new communications technologies.  It’s a truism confirmed by the Arab Spring that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are among the key new public spaces of activism. Yet as other people have commented these are more like shopping malls (which though they feel like public spaces are privately owned), than town squares – where freedom of expression and expectations of privacy are circumscribed by corporate terms-of-service.

Companies’ approaches to privacy or monetization of lack-of-it often seem to be at odds with long-standing assumptions that protect both vulnerable human rights advocates and ordinary citizens. And the circumstances under which user data is provided to governments, or human rights information and accounts are taken down from services are not always transparent. It’s become abundantly clear over the past year – through both successes and mis-steps –that the human rights implications of new technologies that requires thinking by companies and advocates, sometimes together and sometimes vigorously independently (as for example with the rich variety of autonomous media projects).

Access, the organizers of RightsCon, who work for digital freedom worldwide, consciously pitched this not as a human rights NGO conference. Rather, they hope it will be a meeting place where corporate policy, legal and engineering professionals can have the opportunity to understand the implications of design, policy, engineering and legal decisions they make internally on anticipated/unanticipated human rights use scenarios. I hope it will also be a space where activists and organizations from the human rights and civil rights movements can speak frankly about the choices that are being currently made, and their real-world implications for both dedicated human rights activists, but also the human rights of all users.

One core commitment that I’d like to see highlighted during this conference is how human rights values can be imbued into the design of technology spaces.  As I joked in a recent conversation with a colleague, human rights activists “are the 1%” but the issues we face are relevant to the 99% of other users.

A few years back a fellow activist asked how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be embedded into Web 2.0 and that phrase still sticks with me. At the very least, core human rights values and the practicalities of predicting and preventing human rights violations (for example, through human rights impact assessments) need to be baked-into product design and management. There have been significant initiatives in this area from groups like the Global Network Initiative but more momentum is needed.

WITNESS has coordinated a panel tomorrow on visual media technologies and their intersection with human rights. It is on at 11:15am PT tomorrow, October 26th and includes myself, Steve Grove from YouTube, Hans Eriksson from Bambuser, Thor Halvorssen from the Oslo Freedom Forum, and Sameer Padania.

The panel will raise questions that we write about in our recent report “Cameras Everywhere” that discusses key areas of challenge and opportunity at the intersection of video, technology and human rights. Some of those questions are:

  • What are the censorship and free speech concerns around video and photo tools and products? What are legitimate constraints on free speech under international human rights law?
  • Do you have human rights content on your platform? What are the solutions to handling this contentious content? What happens when you get politically-motivated take-downs of ‘objectionable’ human rights content?
  • Anonymity? The human rights reasons for and against it; the business reasons for and against it? What does anonymity look like in a video-mediated world?
  • How do you use privacy by design and privacy by default to address issues of visual privacy and visual anonymity? Reconciling privacy concerns with your business model.
  • Does your app use facial recognition? Understanding human rights concerns for the individual citizen and the activist.
  • What are the human rights implications and challenges related to live video?

If this post has piqued your interest, check out the RightsCon livestream here or on  CitizenTube’s channel. The conference will also be live-blogged by @krmaher on the RightsCon site, and there’s an active hashtag #rightscon which you can follow. I’ll be tweeting myself at @samgregory.

For additional recommendations on particular panels you might want to tune in for, here are recommendations from three trusted NGOs with networks with strong stakes in this discussion, from citizen journalism to civil liberties to video activism:

– Global Voices

– Electronic Frontier Foundation


Sam Gregory

Sam Gregory

Sam, Program Director at WITNESS, is a human rights advocate, video producer and trainer. He speaks and writes frequently about the intersection of human rights, video and technology.

4 Responses

  1. Beth, thanks for publishing this perspective on using the web for human rights.

    Sam, I honestly hadn’t thought about HOW the web is used for human rights conversations, and what should/must be changed to make it a human-rights-positive (my phrasing) visual conversation place. I’m looking forward to reading what comes out of RightsCon. I see this as similar to open standards and inclusiveness – conversations that must happen in order for the web to reach its potential for empowering everyone to have a strong voice.

    Thanks for bringing up this subject and alerting me to such an interesting conversation.

  2. Beth says:

    Debra, thanks so much for your comment. This conference caught my eye and I was hoping that I could participate, but alas schedule did not permit. So, when Witness reached out about their participation, I was delighted that Sam was willing to write about the idea here. I’ve had to get more knowledgable about this issue as part of social media training work in the Middle East — and Witness has some of the best content on this. Also, mobileactive has a training program called “safer mobile” and there is also tactical technology. Someplace I wrote a blog post about security and privacy – and -pointed to a bunch of really fantastic resources.

  3. Joanne Henry says:

    I remember a pre-YouTube world at a political rally in college where a friend stood up in the packed convention center, demanding to know who was taking his photograph and why. He felt he’d been followed and catalogued at multiple rallies, and he was probably right. A scuffle and camera grab ensued.
    He didn’t get the film.

    As someone who is often trying to raise visibility and awareness for causes, issues and to advocate for nonprofit constituents, I may not think enough about privacy. It is indeed difficult to be anonymous in our video-mediated world. Thanks for raising the issues.

  4. Sam Gregory says:

    Thanks Debra and Joanna for your feedback.

    There was some good discussion on the visual social media issues at the conference, based on the questions above. You can check out the liveblog summary here: http://www.rightscon.org/2011/10/visual-media-technologies-content-and-human-rights/. We’re going to keep working on this here at WITNESS – we think this is a really crucial moment for incorporating human rights users but also human rights principles as the web moves forward.

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