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Jillian C. York
Jillian C. York
Jillian York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Debating human rights in the IT industry
US government officials, Silicon Valley executives and NGOs gather to discuss freedom and censorship online.
Last Modified: 31 Oct 2011 07:39
'While some companies are doing their best to protect human rights, most are not ... Google does not have a spotless record,' Google's director of public policy told a technology conference [GALLO/GETTY]

Last week in San Francisco, a unique gathering occurred. Dubbed "Rightscon" (Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference), the conference attracted Silicon Valley executives, activists, academics and NGOs, all gathered in one room to debate the role of human rights within the tech industry, as well as the role of the tech industry in serving human rights interests. 

Incidents from the past year - from the denial of service to WikiLeaks by Amazon, PayPal and others to the complicity of international companies in Egypt’s telecommunications shutdown - have put the subject of human rights at the forefront of discussion within the technology industry. While companies debate their responsibilities to serve activists, whose particular circumstances may be seen as "edge cases", NGOs often frame their advocacy within the same rubric.

Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, who is currently under threat of military prosecution, argued that the framing is wrong, stating that both parties should think more about ordinary users. Referring specifically to the controversy surrounding identity on social networks, Facebook and Google+, he said:

"When ordinary users can’t choose a pseudonym, their identity is negated. Women know the importance of negotiating identity, they do it all the time. So do gays, religious minorities, whatever. We choose how to reveal who I am, on what terms and in what basis. When you restrict me from doing this, you violate my human rights… It is about who I am, my identity, how I express myself and how I communicate with the world."

‘Rightswashing’

Early framing of the discussion by Abd El Fattah, former Google exec and White House CTO Andrew McLaughlin and organiser Brett Solomon of the rights group Access, served to create an atmosphere of surprising honesty and openness at the conference. Despite concerns of "rightswashing" by some activists in attendance, a great number of corporate speakers acknowledged the need for greater consideration of human rights. Among them was Bob Boorstin, director of Public Policy for Google, who admitted: "while some companies are doing their best to protect human rights, most are not," noting that "Google does not have a spotless record".

In another panel (which, for full disclosure, I moderated), representatives of several companies debated whether social media platforms have a responsibility to provide tools for the purpose of organising. Dilawar Syed, CEO of Yonja Media Group, which runs Turkey’s largest social network, addressed the question head on, arguing that companies should go beyond the ‘bottom’ line, saying: "People need to know that we care about them, that we have an affinity for them… it is [in some cases] about thinking about how we can step up." But Shanthi Kalathil, a consultant for several organisations, argued that most companies need to be addressed "from a business perspective".

Kalathil’s argument hits upon an important point: While some companies, like Google, have enshrined within their corporate values human rights principles, others will only be incentivised by economic arguments, such as those companies providing surveillance and censorship technologies.

But few such companies were in the audience. At a time when surveillance is in the news every day, when BlueCoat admits that their tools are being used to repress Syrians, and when lawsuits are pending against both Cisco (for its actions in China) and French company Amesys (for providing surveillance tools to Libya), firms providing surveillance and censorship technologies need to engage.

Perhaps the lowest note of the conference was hit when a representative of AT&T - the major US telecom that illegally colluded with the National Security Agency to spy on citizens and has repeatedly blocked efforts to pass a network neutrality bill in the United States - spoke about the company’s human rights efforts. The representative's talk, however, raised ire amongst participants, many of whom tweeted in protest.

Multi-stakeholder approach

The conference ended on a high note, with the release of a set of standards targeted at the Information and Communications Technology industry. The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) has also recently released standards geared toward surveillance), but the debate continues. While standards can be a force for good, particularly when coupled with a multi-stakeholder approach, they’re not always enough. For example, HP has developed a detailed set of ethics and human rights standards to guide their work, but - in reference to servers they allegedly sold to the Chinese city of Chongqing for an extensive surveillance project - an executive for the company was recently quoted as saying, "It's not my job to really understand what [customers are] going to use it for. Our job is to respond to the bid that they've made."

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) - a multi-stakeholder group with a strong presence at the conference (and of which my organisation, EFF, is a member) - has been effective in bringing together rights groups with companies, but when it comes to forcing corporate hands, the company’s abilities remain to be seen.

Member company Microsoft, for example, continues to censor its Arabic version of Bing, despite no evidence of government requests to do so. By contrast, Google does not censor its results in Arab countries. This censorship takes place despite a GNI principle that member companies seek to "avoid or minimise the impact of government restrictions on freedom of expression". To succeed, the initiative will also need to attract firms beyond founding companies Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!, and newcomer Evoca. 

Or perhaps not ... Kalathil sees the GNI as just one part of a broader move toward multi-stakeholderism and says, "I think the GNI is very important, but I also think it needs to be one of many in this space."

To that end, the Rightscon was particularly effective for bringing together thinkers in this space, both new and entrenched. And perhaps Kalathil is right: The more initiatives that crop up in this space, the better chance human rights advocates have of effecting change. 

Critics of the multi-stakeholder approach sometimes advocate for legal restrictions or regulations instead. While some may be effective - such as requiring companies producing surveillance equipment to apply for licences before exporting to particular countries, not unlike existing export controls - others may prove dangerous, as barring American or European companies from exporting the tools doesn’t cause demand to cease.

Ultimately, however, to truly ensure human rights online, advocates will need to get technology users to care. While that will be a difficult task, the awareness raised by the events of this year - as well as by the conference itself - is bringing us closer.

Jillian C York is director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. She also writes for and is on the Board of Directors of Global Voices Online.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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