Where Open Net and Human Rights Met

By Phil Bloomer, Director, and Annabel Short, Program Director - Business & Human Rights Resource Centre

5 March 2014

pic: Carly Nyst of Privacy International and Sana Saleem of Bolo Bhi, in BHRRC's "Laggards & Leaders" discussion, RightsCon 2014

Over the past three days, over 700 delegates from 50 countries came together in San Francisco to discuss technology and human rights at RightsCon.  In the closing session, Access Director Brett Solomon said the discussions had reached a “whole new level” from the previous RightsCon in Rio, two years ago, and that a new “lexicon” was emerging.  Part of that new lexicon, from where we were sitting, is the meeting of internet freedom activists and “business and human rights” activists – pooling their passions and strategies behind the common cause of greater human emancipation, empowerment, dignity and equality.

Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance on a mass scale have emphasized the extent to which current-generation technology can be used to undermine human rights on a vast scale.  As Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake said at RightsCon, when it comes to freedoms of expression and association, and privacy online, “the meaning and the legitimacy of democracy is at stake.” 

But even without the Snowden revelations, the information and telecommunications industry has been coming under increasing scrutiny for human rights.  Since 2005, the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has invited companies from all sectors to respond publicly to allegations of rights-abuse raised by civil society: our recent briefing highlighted the fact that over the past nine years the proportion of these cases that relate to the ICT industry has trebled.  We have contacted companies on issues ranging from censorship and human rights defenders in China, to the protection of children online, to conflict minerals from the killing fields of DRC and fundamental labour rights in factories making the hardware. 

One regular conclusion from the sessions was that, given the scale of the challenges, and the special interests stacked against systemic change, progress will only come when diverse actors pool their skills to work on effective, networked advocacy for a common purpose.  The session we hosted on Monday, “Leaders and Laggards” highlighted how national organisations, like Bolo Bhi in Pakistan raise the alarm on web censorship or intimidation; in-depth multi-disciplinary research by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto can unveil which firms are assisting in government repression – companies like Netsweeper, Gamma International, and Hacking Team.  Organizations like Privacy International and Electronic Frontier Foundation can then take that information to bring lawsuits and campaigns against the companies.  Firms taking a progressive stance on human rights can publically refuse to tender for repressive use of their software, as Websense did on Pakistan for example. As Ron Deibert of Citizen Lab has described it, we need stronger “distributed oversight” among human rights and internet freedom organizations, in mutually-supporting roles.  

Another example of this strengthening collaboration is the Web We Want, a new global campaign led by the World Wide Web Foundation in partnership with many others ranging from Consumers International to the Jordan Open Source Association.  

At RightsCon, we heard stories of how technology can both empower and be turned against at-risk human rights defenders.  Richard Lusimbo of Sexual Minorities Uganda described the dangers of advocating for gay rights in a country where known homosexuals’ lives are at risk – technology is an essential tool for his cause.  However he also has to use specially-designed “Martus” software to protect users, to ensure that they can share their stories safely without the fear of retaliation from the government or family members.  We also heard from people within companies who have come right up against government repression.  The former CEO of Sudatel in Sudan talked about the intimidation faced by a telco operator when a government decides to cut off access at a time of protest, as happened in Sudan during protests against fuel price rises in 2013.  Personal stories are going to be key to building a broader public movement for human rights in tech. 

The conference also outed differences between some of the open-internet activists and business and human rights advocates. Some of the digital rights campaigners advocate for a global, free internet unfettered by government regulation. They identify the government and all its actions as more uniformly nefarious.  In contrast,  the “business and human rights” advocates see states as duty-bearers, and demand enforcement by nation states, however compromised and imperfect.   But despite any differences, the combined efforts of these groups is powerful, and essential.  Together, they will be far more able to ensure that real freedom online, so fundamental as an enabler for freedom of expression, association, and human development, can start to become a reality.