RightsCon, ORGCon and how we are going to rescue the internet, part 2

On 13 July I attended ORGCon, the Open Rights Group’s annual conference in London, where I was lucky enough to see Edward Snowden speaking live (of course as a spectral presence on a patchy video link from Moscow). The event brought into focus a few of the issues that I described in my previous blog post about the Internet Freedom Festival (IFF). Another speaker at ORGCon, Big Brother Watch’s Silkie Carlo, referred to our current situation as the “New Tech Crisis” – that’s the first time I have heard this phrase being used to describe the topic that in hindsight has been the main theme of the three international events I’ve attended during the past few months: these two and RightsCon Tunis.

In June, GreenNet sent me to Tunis to volunteer at RightsCon. RightsCon is a bigger affair than the IFF, with large numbers of participants and sessions in a five-star hotel venue in the centre of the capital city. Another difference from the IFF is that there are lots of "big players" at RightsCon, including the online corporate giants, social media companies as well as some big NGOs.

Like the IFF, RightsCon was attended by a very wide geographical spread, with contributors and participants from across the globe. I was fortunate that my role as a yellow t-shirted volunteer linked me up with a large and busy contingent of Tunisian folk.

Tunis's layers of fascinating history are evident and accessible, from the ancient city of Carthage to the Zeitoun Mosque in the Medina providing deep time context for discussion of issues of current affairs, cutting-edge technological development and inclusive futurism. The columns of the 1,000-year-old Great Mosque in Kairouan were recycled from much older buildings!

A theme seems to emerge, even among the tech-enabled NGOs and the righteous techies, that we are reaching a moment where our lack of control of tech is becoming a serious worry. Suddenly it's harder to boost tech as the solution to every problem in the face of widening public scepticism, which ironically is often escalated using the very medium that we're moaning about!

From the opening ceremony at RightsCon, where Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović shared this inspiring message:

Living in an increasingly digital world does not mean living artificial lives with artificial liberties. Our rights must be real, all the time. We all must resist the current backlash and persist in demanding more human rights protection, more transparency and more accountability in the digital world.

to the closing speech by Zeynep Tufekci (retweeted by @Nesient):

@zeynep closes #RightsCon with a clear pledge to ensure that the online experience is safe and private *by default*. The onus should never be put on the user.… @zeynep also emphasised that "innovation" needn't be dependent on mega-funding, that in fact big bucks can have a stifling effect

Amongst the frankly bewildering array of sessions over five days, APC members contributed to over 50 sessions on wonderfully diverse topics, from fringe events like Disco-tech on the night before the conference began, to a “digital security chill out” at the main venue.

I attended some fascinating sessions on refugees – one rather entertaining role-play put high-powered professionals from the likes of the Red Cross and Amnesty into the shoes of asylum seekers and traffickers. We explored the inherent hazards in applying brand new tech to humanitarian crises. Recent reports of denials of aid to beneficiaries without biometric ID are a case in point, and another angle on this issue is the UN World Food Programme's relationship with opaque data-mongers Palantir.

In stark contrast, from the tech sector, we heard conversations where the boss of Cloudflare recounted their sharp awakenings to their responsibilities in the realm of global politics. The common factor in all of this is that there's no roadmap for how to cope with the new risks and responsibilities, either as technologists or humanitarians, and the internet cannot be split off from the broader human and social contexts.

I was lucky enough to participate in an energetic session delivered by APC and allies on an environmentally sustainable internet, which addressed issues that have recently been escalating in the public eye via @greta and Extinction Rebellion.

The session was delivered by an inspiring group with a crucially important message that feels intrinsically connected to the wider RightsCon and rights discussions, but was given only a small discussion space and a short time to cover a broad group of themes. The tent was absolutely packed and the quality of well-informed questions and discussions with the participants and presenters was very high. We propose environmental issues as a trending topic for RightsCon 2020!

This session ended on a note of cautious optimism: as awareness of human impacts on the environment increases, we are questioning why tech cannot play a more positive and less destructive role. That objective intersects inextricably with human rights issues, and organisations such as GreenNet and those represented at the session who are working on environmentally sustainable internets are showing the way. In tech, the bottom line cannot be a simple financial cost/benefit sum – it is clear that an approach that takes environmental and human sustainability into account must be adopted.

Edward Snowden’s speech at ORGCon was also cautiously optimistic about the “New Tech Crisis” and wider social issues. He predicted some tough times ahead of us, but said that human ingenuity and good faith tend to win through in the longer term (thinking back to the thousands of years of history that have brought us here):

In the context of a government that has a diminishing respect for the individual and for the public, we have to start over, we have to reconnect, we have to redesign, we have to respond. You are connected, you are together, you are thinking, you are sharing, you are acting, you are caring. And that’s the first step; you have to care.

I would go further and propose that APC and our members have a crucial role to play in moving this story on using the same media that is proving so difficult to control and regulate, but that can transmit our messages instantaneously. Using best practices in ethics, ecology and tech, we can set an example and show the way to reinstate the free, open, positive internet as part of a sustainable future.

Edward attended the IFF and RightsCon with support from the APC Member Exchange and Travel Fund (METF).

Photo: Mobile phone repair shops outside RightsCon in Tunis, by Edward Maw.

GreenNet supports communities networking for peace, the environment, gender equality and social justice through the use of information and communication technologies. As a founding member of APC, it collaborates closely with sister organisations around the world in activities which strive for greater equality through improved access to technologies and information.
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