October 21, 2011 | By Jillian York

An EFF Guide to the Silicon Valley Human Rights Summit

Next week, several EFF staffers will be speaking at the first-ever Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference (Rightscon) in San Francisco.  The conference, organized by Access Now and sponsored by several foundations and companies, brings together some of the leading thinkers in the digital human rights space, as well as representatives of technology companies from Silicon Valley and beyond for discussions on the human rights implications of the ICT industry.  The conference (tickets are still available here!) is jam-packed with excellent speakers and participants, and promises to provide new insights into solutions for the myriad problems facing Silicon Valley companies today.

Corporate Social Responsibility and the ICT Industry

Rightscon couldn't have come at a better time.  Though EFF has had concerns about the tech industry's impact on and responsibility toward the human rights agenda for some time, the events of 2011--from Wikileaks to the Arab Spring--have brought the issue into the mainstream, spurring some companies to work harder to ensure human rights and causing others to panic. 

In the past year, we've watched private companies like Amazon and PayPal take the law into their own hands, censoring Wikileaks, while halfway across the world Vodafone capitulated to the Egyptian government's demands, shutting down mobile service amidst a massive uprising.  Add to that the spate of news that Silicon Valley companies are engaged in government surveillance and censorship in the Middle East, and this discussion becomes even more timely.

Of course, it's not all bad news.  There are now numerous organizations thinking on these issues; for example, EFF is a member of the Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multi-stakeholder group focused on corporate social responsibility vis-a-vis privacy and free expression. GNI's Executive Director, Susan Morgan, will be a panelist on Workshop 2, which delves into implentation of the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Business in the technology sector.

Google, a Rightscon sponsor and participating organization, as well as a member of GNI, is just one example of a company that has done a lot of thinking on human rights: its YouTube platform has been instrumental in getting news out of Syria, thanks to a policy that allows violent content to remain available if intended for documentary or educational purposes.  And just this week, Google expanded its use of encryption technology to default to SSL search on Google searches.

Twitter, whose General Counsel Alex MacGillivray will be among the keynote speakers at Rightscon, is another company that has taken human rights under consideration when designing its policies, particularly when it comes to free expression.  Another rights-thinking company is Mozilla, whom the EFF has praised for its stance on privacy.

On the lists of attendees and sponsors, EFF also sees several companies about which we have grave concerns.  A prime example is AT&T, which famously acted in tandem with the NSA to illegally spy on American citizens.  Also amongst the participating companies is Comcast, against which the FCC issued an order (crediting EFF research) in 2008 to stop blocking peer-to-peer traffic.  Skype is also on our list of companies of concern due to its surveillance capabilities.  Skype is also one of several companies in attendance that has been ranked in EFF's Who Has Your Back? campaign (so far, the company has zero stars).

Notably absent from the list are the myriad Silicon Valley companies that provide censorship and surveillance capabilities to authoritarian regimes, among them Boeing's Narus, Cisco (sign our petition here), McAfee/Intel's SmartFilter, and H-P.

EFFers at Rightscon

EFF will be well-represented at the conference, with several staffers in attendance and three of us on panels.  Here's a quick overview of what we'll be up to:


Panels and Speakers to Watch

Of course, we plan to listen more than speak, and in that vein, we have a few recommendations for Rightscon participants hoping to get the most out of the experience.  Here are just a few of the speakers and panels we're excited about:

  • Workshop 1, which is framed around the Arab revolutions, looks at the role of tech companies in enabling, supporting, or limiting free speech and civil society.  We're particularly excited to see the Tunisian Internet Agency, which has our support in its fight to keep the Tunisian Internet free and open, represented on the panel alongside individuals from Google, the Economist, and AnchorFree.
  • Workshop 12 brings together some of the leading experts on visual content for a discussion about the role visual media platforms must play in keeping users safe.  The panel, which features Sam Gregory of WITNESS; Thor Halvorssen of the Oslo Freedom Forum; Hans Eriksson of livestreaming site Bambuser; Sameer Padania of Macroscope; and Steve Grove of YouTube, will tackle anonymity, privacy, and retribution, as well as terms of service and other regulations of major video and photo-sharing platforms.
  • Workshop 13 touches upon an issue that has been at the forefront of EFF's focus this year: social media usage in times of crisis.  This year, saw activists use social networks to organize and disseminate information, and government entities shutting down--or in the case of the UK, around which the panel is framed, considering the shutdown of--networks.  The panel features speakers from Amnesty International, Facebook, the Institute for Human Rights and Business, and the New America Foundation's Internet in a Suitcase project.
  • Day 2's Roundtable on The Politics of Internet Freedom, hosted by the New York Times' John Markoff and features a diverse range of panelists including Victoria Grand of YouTube; Aaron Swartz of DemandProgress; and award-winning Lebanese human rights activist and co-founder of CyberACT, Imad Bazzi.

Be sure to talk to an EFFer at Rightscon--we're nearly always packing stickers!  We look forward to seeing you there.



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