Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference brings stakeholders to the Internet freedom table

The Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, organized by Access Now and held in San Francisco late last month gathered bloggers, activists, mobile advocates, privacy advocates, corporations, technologists and many more to discuss the human rights implications of technologies today. The second day of the conference was October 26th, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Patriot Act. This anniversary offered a stark reminder to attendees that once rights are taken away, it becomes much harder to get them back. Developments over the past year including the Egyptian government shutting down the Internet, the imprisonment of Chinese artist and blogger Ai Weiwei, and the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) shutting off cell phone service to pre-empt a protest, have all spurred a broad spectrum of Internet freedom advocates to ask, how can we make a difference?

Photo copyright of Peter Adams / In Startup Land

Many advocates and organizations such as APC (Association of Progressive Communications) and Article 19 have for years tirelessly worked with and lobbied  the United Nations to apply human rights principles to the Internet. An important step forward came in June 2011 when UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue released his report on the global promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, applying the principles of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the new issues of our digital world including net neutrality, intermediary liability, privacy and data protection. APC’s statement to the Human Rights Council recommends actions that nation states, UN bodies, human rights organizations, Internet intermediaries and civil society can take to make that a reality.

Two other groundbreaking reports discussed at the conference were the Ruggie Framework, “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations ‘Protect, Respect and  Remedy’ Framework” as well as the Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet.

The first day of the conference started with talks that framed the issues by Rebecca MacKinnon, Brett Solomon, Andrew McLaughlin and Van Jones. Panels then adopted a multi-stakeholder approach aimed at fostering dialogue between civil society and the technology and Internet companies that are building the services and networks everybody depends upon. Many of the speeches that first morning emphasized that corporations have a responsibility to respect basic human rights, that they must take responsibility for what sometimes amount to life or death- situations for Internet users in some repressive countries.

In a very moving speech the Thai webmaster Chiranuch Premchaiporn, better known as Jiew, spoke about the situation in Thailand, where she described how the wrong words can get you jailed.  As director of independent news site “Prachatai,” Jiew is facing prosecution for violation of Thailand's Computer Crime Act and could face up to 82-years in jail because she failed to act quickly enough to remove an anonymous user's comment that was considered defamation against the king. Jiew’s situation, which EFF has followed and interviewed Jiew about, demonstrates the harsh, repressive conditions Internet users face in many countries.

The prominent Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah (@alaa) spoke about how he had been summoned by the Egyptian military courts and could be facing serious charges. (After returning to Egypt he was indeed jailed.) At the conference Alaa said: “There are roughly 12,000 civilians in military prison right now, for participating in a revolution the military pretends to have sided with, and sometimes it is for events in which the military committed the crimes, not civilians. I urge you to find ways to stand with anyone facing this future.” To learn more about the Alaa’s current situation read this post by Jillian C. York.

Many sessions focused on how corporations can integrate human rights principles into their values and actions. Two women who spoke about this were Susan Morgan, executive director of the Global Network Initiative (GNI) and Caroline Rees who is the director of the Governance and Accountability Program with the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative at Harvard University. The GNI principles on free expression and privacy for corporations can guide technology corporations in respecting human rights, if they chose to implement them. Caroline Rees made the statement that respecting human rights is not at odds with corporations’ obligation to meet their fiduciary duty to their shareholders.

Another key piece to achieving true Internet freedom involves shaping policy and addressing human rights violations. One conference session focused on engaging  governments and navigating legal jurisdictions. During the session it became apparent that there is a need for mapping the institutions, forums and policy-making bodies that are shaping internet governance and digital rights. APC has created a slideshow, offering a good primer on this work. Building a wiki about the various national and international spaces that various stakeholders including civil society advocates would help decrease this learning curve as more and more people recognize the need to advocate for Internet freedom.

The Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference was an energizing, exciting gathering with diverse, engaged communities and individuals present. Being there, it was clear that this is only the beginning when it comes to holding corporations accountable to human rights principles.

We as people who rely on the Internet still have the chance to shape the Internet as a communications network that is open to innovation, un-tiered and safe for all of us to learn, grow and build community. It’s important that we are all engaged in the effort to support an internet that is open and safe to communicate through. What will the future of the Internet be? That really is up to us.

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