Global Voices at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Summit

This week, San Francisco will play host to the Silicon Valley Human Rights Summit or RightsCon, a conference at which several members and friends of the Global Voices community will be speaking.  The conference, hosted by digital human rights group Access, brings together companies from Silicon Valley and beyond alongside activists, NGOs, and other players for a discussion about how the technology industry can better adhere to human rights principles in their policies and actions.

I've already written a guide to the conference for the EFF website outlining some of the most promising panels to watch, but would like to also draw attention to the role of Global Voices members in the summit, as well as some of the citizen media buzz that has occurred in the runup to the event, drawing upon to some of the issues Rebecca MacKinnon has reported on in her series of Netizen Reports.

Global Voices at the RightsCon

Global Voices co-founder Rebecca MacKinnon will play a role in framing the discussion, alongside Access director Brett Solomon and former Google executive and White House CTO Andrew McLaughlin.  Rebecca's work over the past few years has focused largely on the role of citizens in regulating the Internet, and her upcoming book Consent of the Networked, “offers a framework for concerned citizens to understand the complex and often hidden power dynamics amongst governments, corporations, and citizens in cyberspace.”  Though the book won't be available until January, you can watch Rebecca's TED talk on the subject here.

Global Voices SouthEast Asia Editor and Member of the Philippine Parliament Mong Palatino will be speaking on a panel entitled “Understanding government relations and navigating legal jurisdiction in a borderless world,” which will explore the difficulties governments, companies and civil society face in dealing with the digital world.  Mong is the Phillipines’ first blogger-turned-legislator, a longtime activist, and like Rebecca, a close observer of and advocate for free expression.

Journalist and GV Author Rosebell Kagumire will be giving a mini-keynote, offering a perspective from her home country of Uganda.  As an Internet Freedom Fellow with the U.S. Department of State, Rosebell is uniquely positioned to discuss the role of online activists and journalists in covering human rights issues.

Meedan program manager and Global Voices Author Anas Qtiesh will participate in a panel discussion alongside NGO workers and corporate staffers on turning policies into practice.  As an activist, Anas works largely on free expression issues affecting his home country, Syria. He is also a Google Mapmaker Advocate, working on mapping Syria's nameless streets.

Finally, I (Jillian York), will moderate a panel exploring how defending human rights can strengthen a company's bottom line. I've written extensively on the how corporate control of the public sphere can affect free expression, and continue to document instances of what Ethan Zuckerman has termed “intermediary censorship.”  On my panel are several executives of companies that work extensively in emerging markets, as well as one of the co-founders of distributed social network Diaspora.

Netizen Buzz

Like any good conference in the digital age, RightsCon has instituted a hashtag, #RightsCon, well in advance to help generate discussion around the subjects at hand.  Twitter's Lead Counsel (and conference speaker) Alex MacGillivray has created a Twitter list to keep track of speakers, and the conference has an official account (@RightsCon) as well.

While there has been some buzz about AT&T's inclusion as a sponsor (AT&T famously acted in tandem with the NSA to spy on customers), discussion on Twitter has been largely positive, with some netizens offering suggestions for topics to be discussed.

@auralee13, for example, has presented a series of questions and suggestions she hopes to have answered by RightsCon participants:

  • Gov'ts et al. often delete or revise incriminating info on the net; semantic web cd exacerbate this. Can't tech cos. help here?
  • Are all the companies involved in rightscon committed to FULL net neutrality?
  • Private corps. can't self-regulate effectively. Shdn't “good” cos. support regs that wd require ALL cos. to protect human rts?
  • Mubarek proved some of the dangers of centralization. Wdn't it be better to go back to a more distributed net?
  • Tech cos. must CLOSE “backdoors” used by gov'ts to search users’ info, & REQUIRE WARRANTS (Govt's have PROVED they'll abuse.)

Meanwhile, some Syrian netizens, frustrated by the US Department of Commerce sanctions on certain communications tools, have launched a campaign on Twitter in the hopes that participating companies will pay attention to their plight.  @basselsafadi writes:

companies like #google#skype talk about human rights at #Rightscon while blocking Syrians from their services #FAIL

The US gov, #Google and #Skype need to unblock their services for #Syria or stop talking about human rights #Rightscon

The export controls on Syria are regulated by the United States Department of Commerce, which requires companies to apply for licenses to export certain technologies, including basic tools like Google Chrome and Java, and personal hosting services.  The fines associated with non-compliance are high, but the licenses aren't too difficult to obtain.  EFF (the organization for which I work full-time) has put forward several recommendations, starting with clarification of the export controls; we've also offered guidance to companies wishing for assistance in applying for licenses.

Big Brother (Isn't) Watching

Also notable is the observation that a number of Silicon Valley companies that have recently been named as complicit in government surveillance and censorship–such as Boeing's Narus and Intel/McAfee's SmartFilterwill not be present at the meeting.  As Advox and the EFF have recently reported, the export of surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes is a hot topic at the moment; the European Parliament recently took steps to ban sales of such technology, and in France, the FIDH and LDH have filed a criminal suit against tech company Amesys for involvement in Libyan surveillance.  The absence of such companies at the RightsCon is therefore disappointing; nevertheless, this is a subject that will no doubt be raised at the conference.



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