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Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference

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This week marked a first-ever gathering of human rights activists with Silicon Valley technology developers. The Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference hosted a series of discussions about how technology is used to expand and sometimes undermine essential freedoms around the world. Organized by the nonprofit group Access and sponsored by Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, Mozilla and other major tech companies, the conference brought together business leaders, policy makers and online activists, especially from the Arabic-speaking world.

This morning we saw live video of democracy protesters in Yemen who have been following the discussions via streaming video. The event helped create an extended dialog between participants of the Arab Spring and the developers of technology tools that activists have used to circumvent government censorship. We discussed strategies for holding companies accountable for human rights and encouraging the creation of products that respect the needs of their users.

The conference offered stark reminders of the pressures on human rights activists and the complicity of companies who yield to authoritarian regimes. The event kicked off with talks by two activists who may go to prison as a result of their online activities; Alaa Abd El-Fatah, an Egyptian blogger and software developer and Thai journalist Chiranuch Premchaiporn. Premchaiporn was charged after comments allegedly insulting the Thai royal family appeared on a website she edited. El-Fatah, who will face a military tribunal, noted that 12,000 Egyptian civilians are now being held in military prisons for participating in the revolution. El-Fatah said that rate limits on Twitter, real name policies on Facebook and the drive to monetize every online transaction, limits the usefulness of technology for activists.

Maria Al-Masani, founder of the Yemen Rights Monitor human rights group, told conference participants how her fellow activists have effectively used common applications to circumvent censorship. She recalled that when Yemen decided to ban Al-Jazeera, activists there bridged the gap by recording videos on their phones, posting the footage to YouTube and Facebook, linking content directly to the Al-Jazeera stream and then tweeting the story.

Despite the effectiveness of these tools, Bob Boorstin, the Director of Public Policy at Google, told participants that forty democratic and authoritarian regimes around the world are actively blocking free speech and companies are not doing enough to promote human rights. Google itself, he said, does not have a spotless record. "You've got to be ready to lose some money in order to protect human rights," said Boorstin to applause. "And not a lot of companies are ready for that."

El-Fatah noted that Vodafone offered no resistance to the Egyptian's government's request for a kill switch that shut down cell phone services during that country's Arab Spring. El-Fatah said companies should be pressured to resist having their products used to suppress dissent and think carefully about the rights of ordinary users. "We choose how to reveal who I am, on what terms and in what basis," said El-Fatah. "When you restrict me from doing this, you violate my human rights."

In the closing session, Lebanese activist Imad Bazzi noted that he had just gotten an email saying that two of his friends had just been killed in Syria. A stark reminder of the gravity of the risks that human rights activists take: that the stakes are not just freedom of speech, but freedom from being killed for your beliefs.

Benetech is a Silicon Valley nonprofit that has been writing software for the human rights movement for a decade. We talk about values-based approaches to helping activists. Patrick Ball, Benetech's chief scientist, spoke at the conference about the importance of coding human rights tools that meet the immediate needs of activists on the ground. He urged participants to remember that the reason the world pays attention to human rights activists that they speak truth to power. This has significant implications for database developers who must create tools that do not distort the information being captured or mislead decision makers with flawed analytics. Ball added that cryptographic protections to secure or authenticate information must be built into technological infrastructures.

"My colleagues and I at Benetech spend a lot of time working with people on the ground to figure out what's the strategic use of their information, and that is what the assessment needs to be about," said Ball. "It is not about the technology, it is not about platforms. It's about what are you trying to accomplish. How do we tell the truth? It is the vision of the mission goal that leads to successful projects, rather than just saying, 'I got a cool tool.'"

Ball added that activists need to create detailed narratives that help them get their work done efficiently in familiar formats. He said the databases that he will create in the next few years will look much less like a traditional database and more like a mash up between a wiki, a blog and Facebook.

I had the honor of giving the final talk to the conference to conclude its first day. I first got the idea for developing software for human rights when reading about the massacre of the 500 villagers in the village of El Mozote at the hands of a U.S.-trained battalion of the Salvadoran army. The incident made me wonder if technology could be developed to help prevent such atrocities, and that idea led to the creation of the open source Martus software for tracking and reporting on abuses.

I reminded participants that free speech alone is not enough to secure human rights. Human rights defenders process information and document violations, but these accounts get lost and computers are sometimes seized by authorities. Martus is used by organizations around the world to protect sensitive information and shield the identity of victims or witnesses who provide testimony on human rights abuses. We need the persistence of human rights groups to secure accountability for violators.

My closing comments were designed to get more techies involved in helping defend the defenders of human rights:

I hope this is an inspiration about what our skills as technologists can do. If we can get this right, we will make human rights defenders stronger in their desperately unequal battle against perpetrators of large-scale human rights abuse.

Thanks to Ann Harrison for help with this post!

An earlier version of this mistakenly identified El-Fatah as the recipient of an email saying that two of his friends had just been killed in Syria.

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