RightsCon: Visibility for Human Rights in the Digital Age by@deh

RightsCon: Visibility for Human Rights in the Digital Age

Having access to the internet helps us find solutions but also creates problems regarding human rights. One way of getting in touch with these challenges is attending RightsCon, an annual conference focused on human rights in the digital age. Being aware of both risks and solutions to human rights infringements allows us to have a better understanding of the world, as events that take place in real life and online are often tightly coupled. It also helps us bring forward the solution, by - at least - behaving responsibly and supporting causes we find worthwhile any way we can.
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Denise Hippler

Interested in what connects us.


You have many rights. You - exactly the way you are and just because you exist. They seek to protect your freedom, equality, and dignity.


This is a very powerful and comforting idea. That each of us is entitled to these universal human rights. Or at least we should be.


The comforting idea is an uncomfortable reality. Our rights as humans are not universal and are not protected everywhere. This is nothing new, but with the pervasiveness of the internet comes a new layer to this discussion.


Discussions bring more visibility to issues and can lead to insights and actions.


One initiative that brings a lot of visibility to what is going on is RightsCon:


RightsCon is the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age


RightsCon

RightsCon started in 2011 hosted by Access Now, a platform that "defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world".


The conference has been growing steadily over the years and recently started taking place online. It gives a dynamic insight into what is currently happening at the intersection of human rights and technology.


When it comes to improving our lives as a species, we humans have always been taking many steps forward and many steps backward.


It is essential to observe human rights infringements and improvements around the globe - both in real life (IRL) and online. Taking part in RightsCon makes these issues even more tangible.


IRL Human Rights

This is how the UN starts telling the history of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, was the result of the experience of the Second World War. With the end of that war, and the creation of the United Nations, the international community vowed to never again allow atrocities like those of that conflict to happen again.


The Declaration includes rights such as


Article 1: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood."


Article 3: "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person."


If you haven't, take a look at the 30 Articles of the declaration (or check out the illustrated version or the audio version).


This is an important document. Many laws were created with this Declaration as a foundation.


Digital Human Rights

As our digital experiences are a part of our lives, human rights must also be considered in that realm.


Both offline and online they are often (so often) not upheld. These infringements need to be visible so they can be addressed.


The United Nations created a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, that reports on the state of technological challenges like global connectivity, digital capacity-building, digital trust, and security, and also explicitly digital human rights among many more. It also defines some action points the UN intends to take.


Reading that document - and also other calls for digital human rights - is a good way to gain an overview of current technological challenges. However, they might not bring these issues to life like an active conversation between real people presenting real situations would.


The Conference

RightsCon includes many parallel tracks in different formats. There are speakers from all over the world, from several kinds of organizations and focusing on different topics. It is incredibly diversified, just as you would expect when it comes to “human rights in the digital age“.


I attended it this year and knew from the start it would be impossible to participate in all sessions, even if some of them were pre-recorded - there were 560!


No matter what sessions I picked, they brought me forward in understanding more: how our rights are being breached, ideas of how they can be secured proactively, and how they are being respected using technology. Here’s a very brief taste of that, which hopefully will spark your curiosity!


The Good, the Breached and the at Risk

Breached Human Rights came up in many sessions, for example when Pegasus was discussed. From its Wikipedia entry, “Pegasus is spyware developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO Group that can be covertly installed on mobile phones“. This has been controversial because just as it can be used to gather information on terrorists, it can be used to watch people fighting corruption, for example.


Having spyware on your phone when your work depends on communication hinders you (and your contacts) in unimaginable ways. Even if we are not directly targeted, living in a world where journalists and activists can't do their work without endangering their lives makes it everyone's business.


Speaking about endangering one’s life, this is what whistleblowers do: they bring facts to public attention that have been kept within an organization. They do it at their own peril. You can see the RightsCon session with Sophie Zhang (whistleblower), John Githongo (CEO, Inuka Kenya Ni Sisi!), Delphine Halgand-Mishra (Executive Director, The Signals Network), and facilitator Itika Sharma Punit (South Asia Editor, Rest of World) in this video. It’s a very informative and interesting conversation. As Delphine says:


Without the whistleblowers we have no idea what's happening inside the tech companies who know so many things about us. Basically the whistleblowers are the emergency brakes.


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An example of Human Rights that are at risk relates to outer space. All nations need to participate in creating space policies and space laws. Currently, however, there are only a few big players with resources for space exploration, which means there’s a danger of colonial ideologies taking over. Why is this a problem? What are the challenges smaller countries have? Why is space exploration relevant if we have so many other problems on our planet?


Watch the RightsCon conversation about the participation of emerging spacefaring nations in the "New Space Race" between Lama Aloraiman (Ignition Kuwait, Space Generation Advisory Council) and facilitator Victoria Heath (Space Generation Advisory Council) for an introduction to this fascinating topic. Here’s a quote from Lama:


(Decolonization in space is) all about deconstructing colonial ideologies that we carried from our past and could possibly make their way into our future in space - specifically the Moon, which is the destination to build settlements for most space-faring nations.


We simply cannot have a moon with posts that declare that country x or company y owns this region.


A glimpse of seeing Human Rights supported by technology is given by a session about change.org between Nick Allardice (change.org’s CEO) and Melissa Chan (RightsCon studio host and journalist) called “technology as a tool for unlocking people-power for the future of organizing”.


They discuss the value of online petitions and what happens after we sign, data protection in countries that aren't fully democratic, how activism campaigning demands a lot of time and commitment, how sometimes campaigns make huge leaps when the context shifts and more. As the CEO at change.org says:


Most people may not realize but signing petitions is the most popular civic action second only to voting.


Another good way human rights are supported by technology is through apps and podcasts that share information. Many of us might take them for granted, but these tools can be a powerful way of getting information to people that do not have a support system or experts around them when they are vulnerable.


I have added links to the sessions above that were recorded. For other videos that were made available, look at RightCon’s YouTube playlist. It also includes some cultural events that were streamed. Be aware that this is a really small sample when you consider the number of sessions that took place.


Check out this resource roundup from Human Rights Connected for an overview of organizations that participated and their focus.

Being Aware of Risks and Solutions

Over the course of a year, we get in touch with some of the topics discussed. Maybe a whistleblower made the front page for a while. We hear about cybercrime affecting companies and hospitals. The evening news report on how disinformation is spread - or we get a taste of it when a friend shares suspicious articles with us.


These are all important ways of keeping up-to-date. In addition to that, participating in this one-week conference brings to our attention how far we are from an ideal digital status.


Here’s a (by no means exhaustive) list of digital privileges some might take for granted:


  • being able to use the internet (good connectivity and prices).

  • understanding the language available in the apps and websites we want to use

  • being able to consume the content with our senses

  • feeling addressed by the content encountered online (which includes images, pronouns, …)

  • enjoying freedom of speech and of the press where we live

  • being (reasonably) sure our private messages aren’t being read by others


This should be true for everyone.


In addition to these, there are issues that affect all of us, like the way our personal data can be used by and through social media. Or how activists and journalists can be targeted when they investigate certain topics/people.


Being aware of both risks and solutions to human rights infringements allows us to have a better understanding of the world, as events that take place in real life and online are often tightly coupled. It also helps us advance the solution by - at least - behaving responsibly and supporting causes we find worthwhile any way we can.


Save the Date

The conference will take place next year in person and online on June 5-9, 2023.


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