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Technology Companies: The New Human Rights Players

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In 2011, tens of millions of people took to the streets in protest to defend their human rights. With the help of cell phones, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, we have been able to monitor and track violations taking place all across the world. Even in Syria, where no journalists are allowed, we have been able to "witness" events on the ground from the screens of our various devices.

Cameras are literally everywhere, helping activists and ordinary citizens document and share vast numbers of human rights abuses with unbelievable speed. From Syria alone, thousands of hours of footage of protests and abuse are shared with newsrooms and social media outlets each day. Take, for instance, the images posted of a 13 year-old boy named Hamza Ali al-Khateeb who was arrested at a protest and later found tortured and killed. From similar footage on the Internet, there is no doubt that he represents hundreds of others who have suffered the same fate.

Now facing its tenth month of unrest, the Assad regime in Syria continues to try to silence protestors both offline and online. iPhones have been banned in Syria and just recently an outspoken Syrian-American blogger named Razan Ghazzawi was arrested while on her way to Jordan to attend a conference on press freedom in the Arab world. In September, she tweeted, "I confess, that while it took me a while not to fear death, I still fear torture, very much."

In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' (SCAF) efforts to present itself as a key player in a semi-stable election process are countered online by citizen video showing a different story. Footage shows tear gas launched into demonstrations and rubber bullets shot at protestors' eyes, and calls attention to the 12,000 civilians who have been arrested and tried in military courts since Mubarak fell. These people are still awaiting release, despite the SCAF's promises last September to end military trials of civilians.

With thousands of stories captured on video and shared via social media, it is clear is that online sites are the new public squares of activism and the people who run them are in powerful positions to help ensure that these platforms continue to be used for good.

Over the 20 years in which WITNESS has developed the practice of video advocacy, there has never been as much potential for video documentation and social media to impact positive social change as now. Video has become an essential human rights tool. However, as more people turn to these platforms, the safety and security risks they face are also greater than ever before.

There are many examples of governments misusing technology and social media to track down activists and repress freedom of expression. Until Dec. 1st, when the European Union barred exports of surveillance technology to Syria, it was reported that the regime acquired technology from companies like Area, NetApp, Qosmos and Utimaco to intercept, scan and catalog virtually all e-mail in and out of the country.

And, with the rise of citizen journalism and video activism, eventually some of this footage may be used as evidence in court. It is important now that we find ways to systematically manage and authenticate information. YouTube has become the de-facto repository -- a living history of human rights abuse. But imagine what would happen to our ability to secure justice if YouTube changed its archiving and retention policies and deleted evidentiary videos shot by citizens in Libya over the past year?

Part of this requires the development of smart tools and systems that protect identity and capture data for those who are working to document abuses. We've partnered with the Guardian Project to create "SecureSmartCam" mobile applications that help address some of the needs of these human rights defenders.

Technology providers can also play a critical role in creating products and services that can better serve citizen activists and human rights defenders. Whether they realize it or not, technology companies are important new players in protecting human rights -- they hold the key to determining the fate of the tens of millions of people turning to video, technology and social media for change.

By incorporating human rights values like privacy and security into their content and user policies or by allowing anonymity for activists using their sites, technology companies can better support human rights change. These changes alone will save lives.

These are the issues that WITNESS is currently working to address. We have developed digital tools to better protect citizen activists using mobile phones to document human rights abuse. We are working with other activists and groups, evaluating which tools work, and sharing these learnings online with the broader public.

When technology companies work together with NGOs to incorporate the best interests of their users into policies and practices, we can keep the platforms and tools so essential to the millions of citizen activists from serving the wrong side of justice.