Amazing Things Happened at the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference
Let me start by thanking Peter Adams, the official event photographer, for letting me use this photo from Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner’s talk at #RightsCon. Click here to see more of Peter’s amazing work.
Second, the only reason I was able to take part in this event was because Joe Steele, who is just an amazing person, vouched for me. Joe is the operations manager at AccessNow, which organized this event, and he brought me into this project — and undoubtedly supported me behind the scenes when I screwed up. Thanks Joe.
I just got back from the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, which was put on by my friends at AccessNow. I was the press coordinator for the event, through SKINNY, along with Access’ Mike Rispoli, Kasselman Public Affairs’ Eric Lovecchio and Christina Iskander. The conference brought together government officials (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Asst. Secretary of State Michael Posner, Swedish Ambassador at Ministry of Foreign Affairs Lisa Svensson etc), major tech companies (Facebook, Google, Mozilla, Skype, AT&T etc etc — a full list of speakers, sponsors and attendees is here, here and here) and human rights activists from around the globe for two days to discuss the issues facing people who use the internet to communicate in places where censorship and govt control prevent Democracy from existing, and limit basic human rights (ie right to speech, to assemble, privacy, intellectual property, censorship etc).
Why Hold the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference (AKA #rightscon)?
An example you may remember is when during the Egyptian revolution, Vodafone (a major teleco provider) shut off internet service (at the Egyptian govt’s request) to the entire country. Many Egyptian people were arrested, tortured and even killed because they sought freedom from the Mubarak regime, and the internet was one of the primary tools for alerting the world to their woes. They used the internet to alert the world to the struggles they faced, and they became targets of the government for doing so. And then it was shut off.
This kind of thing is happening all over the world, and that’s why this conference was convened — to find ways to prevent these kinds of things from happening. It was my job to make sure the world’s press were in attendance and had access to the people they wanted to speak with. Here’s a couple of quick highlights:
Credibility Lent by US State Department
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a short video message specifically for the conference, indicating she recognizes the importance of what the Access folks are doing. Her message lent vital credibility to the cause. One of my favorite moments was when she said, “..technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does.” The State Department needs to stand up for that statement, to be sure.
Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner (Democracy, Labor and Human Rights) was in attendance (pictured at top). One of his most pertinent comments was targeted at tech companies but should be heard by advertising agencies and brands, too.
“Cyberspace belongs to all of us now,” he said. “It’s where we live. It’s where you earn your living. And just as no business wants to open its doors in a high-crime neighborhood, no business wants to be located on the street where police are beating up democracy protestors. And we all share an interest in an open Internet that supports a culture of entrepreneurship in which people around the world can thrive.”
Real Time Conflict at RightsCon
One of the most energizing moments of the conference came when a live stream from Sana’a Square in Yemen (where protesters have been gathering for months), was beamed into the conference to the 400+ attendees. The cameras turned onto the square and showed thousands of people who had come to be part of the message. It was quite amazing, and brought the great need for these conversations right into the room.
And then of course, Occupy Oakland sparked. Just across the bay from the conference, Americans were being fired on with tear gas and non-lethal projectiles, all because they were exercising their right to assembly. The correlations between the Occupy movement and other movements from the last year are too many to count here, but I will say that the struggle being fought in Oakland was felt at the conference.
Tense Moments at RightsCon
Two attendees/speakers, one from Thailand and one from Egypt, were facing arrest in their home countries when they returned from the conference. From Thailand, Chiranuch ‘Jiew’ Premchaiporn, who runs a forum there, faces 20 years in prison because someone made an anti-governmental comment on a forum page, which was seen by Thai censors. It is likely she will receive the full 20 year sentence even though she didn’t write the comment.
From Egypt a prominent blogger named Alaa el Fattah was accused by an anonymous pro-military blogger of inciting violence against the military by **allegedly** throwing a rock during a recent protest, which the anonymous person claims was caught on video. No one (as far as I know) has seen this video, but the claim was enough for the Egyptian military, which has taken over after the govt fell a few months ago, to demand Alaa come before a military tribunal.
Mixed Emotions at the Close
During the closing remarks, individuals who had come to the conference as representatives of their countries were given a set of standards, a ten commandments for web accessibility (for example: no govt should ever ask internet providers to turn off internet sources, ever and no internet provider should ever turn off the internet when a govt asks them, etc), to bring back to their countries and share. Representatives included Swedish Ambassador at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Lisa Svensson, Netherlands Policy Advisor Internet & Human Rights at NL Ministry of Foreign Affairs Jochem de Groot and Lebanese blogger Imad Bazzi all came to the podium to receive a copy of these standards. When the Bazzi came to the podium, he said, “it’s with a somewhat solemn heart that I receive this document, because just moments ago I received an email that two of my friends who have played a pivotal role in Tunisia’s rebirth over the last few months, have been murdered. I received this email on my iPhone.”
That news brought the entire event full circle. Here we were cheerleading for an end to digital censorship, wrapping up the first conference to ever address the issue so completely, with hundreds of individuals who have the power to make the necessary changes — and just before it closed, we learned two more people had been killed. And we learned it through the very same means of communication we had gathered to discuss.
To read more of what happened at the conference, click here.
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