Rightscon: “If we don’t get this right, people will be put in jail”
Rachel Greenspan reports from the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, where industry and activists met to discuss free expression online
26 Oct 11

Rightscon logo Rachel Greenspan reports from the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, where industry and activists met to discuss free expression online

The first Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, held in San Francisco on 25 and 26 October, presented a dynamic forum for private sector companies, government representatives and activists to discuss the protection human rights and freedom of expression online.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the conference was the inclusion of activists and bloggers as speakers.  Chiranuch Premchaiporn (known as Jiew) from Thailand and Alaa abd el Fattah from Egypt spoke of their personal experiences facing legal repercussions for blogging in states where censorship is par for the course. (Alaa is due in front of the military prosecutor in Egypt when he returns to investigate the connection between his blog posts and protests in Egypt two weeks ago which resulted in the death of 28 civilians. Jiew has been charged in Thailand for hosting anti-monarchy comments on her website that violate the country’s Computer Crimes Act.)

Unlike conferences where speakers seem to have decided on talking points weeks or months in advance, the conference demonstrated a remarkable responsiveness to current events. The Arab Spring repeatedly surfaced as a poignant example of the power that modern technology can have in contemporary revolutions. Over the course of the two-day agenda, the content adapted to the recent elections in Tunisia, the call for one of its speakers to appear in front of the military prosecutor in Egypt, and the  arrest of Occupy Wall Street protestors in nearby Oakland, California. It was a stark reminder that freedom of expression cannot be taken for granted, and that the impact of modern technology on human rights is just beginning to be realized.

Underlying almost every panel discussion was the sentiment that solutions to human rights on the Internet would require an almost unprecedented level of collaboration between the public and private sectors. Michael Posner, US assistant Secretary of State in charge of the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor  spoke from his own personal experience in the non-profit sector:

“Before I joined the Obama administration, I spent most of my career in the NGO world, where for years I argued — you might say self-servingly — that progress on human rights is rarely generated by governments alone. Now from my perch inside government, it is even clearer to me that government can’t do it alone — and shouldn’t.”

The question of how to motivate the private sector to adhere to principles of human rights and Internet freedom was perhaps one of the most controversial facets of the conference. Facebook vice president of global communication and public policy Elliot Schrage expressed the importance of the internet in promoting human rights:

“I view the Internet as the greatest opportunity to advance human rights in our lifetime…The Internet gives people a voice, and we need to make sure it stays that way.”

Implicit in this argument is the need for companies to spend time and resources on protecting human rights. Egyptian blogger Alaa abd el Fattah stated that he did not find it likely that private sector companies would comply. He stated in his keynote speech:

“I’m here as an activist, as a foot-solider in the revolution, to talk about how companies can find ways to maintain, promote, and protect the human rights of their users. I’m quite cynical about this. Companies are not likely to do any of that. It’s not exactly that there’s a conflict of interest. We’re here because we do believe it is actually possible. But the relationship, and the structure of relationships between power, means that it probably won’t happen, even if it doesn’t cost much.”

Speakers were somewhat divided on how a private sector’s role in promoting human rights would affect profits. One point of view was that allowing users to have anonymous identities would hinder a company’s ability to make a profit through targeted advertising and marketing campaigns. Others argued that, independent of financial incentive, promoting human rights and protecting users was simply good for public image. For example, Victoria Grand, Director of Public Policy for YouTube argued that restricting pornographic content on YouTube was in keeping with the company’s image and values, pointing out that such content was readily available elsewhere on the Internet.

Bob Boorstin, Director of Corporate and Policy Communications in Google’s Washington DC office told attendees that companies must be willing to lose some money to protect human rights. He suggested that companies need to put their users first, while admitting that Google does not have a spotless record in this area. Certainly the fact that nine of the conference’s speakers came from Google highlights that they have some of the most advanced thinking on the issue. Google now produces an annual transparency report regarding requests for content take down. It is also one of the founding members of the Global Network Initiative, an organisation that works to advance user rights to freedom of expression and privacy [Index on Censorship is also a member of GNI].

If there was one major point to take away from the conference, it was probably to impart a sense of urgency on participants. Importantly, as a private company, taking responsibility for these issues means knowing you will not always get things right on the first pass. There was also a push to promote well-informed discourse so that resulting policies would be effective and well thought-out. Lokman Tsui, Policy Advisor for Google Asia Pacific, stated point blank: “If we don’t [eventually] get this right it will have serious effects, and people will be put in jail.”

Rachel Greenspan is a researcher at The Fletcher School/MIT Lincoln Labs Cyber Study