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The First Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference

I spent the last two days listening to a series of interesting presentations at the first ever Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference. Organized by the nonprofit group Access and sponsored by Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Skype, Mozilla and other major tech companies, the conference included activists who participated in the Arab Spring and business people who create the tools protesters have been using to circumvent censorship. This morning we watched a live video feed of pro-democracy protesters in Yemen who have been following the discussions with interest.

The conference offered a stark reminder about the pressures on human rights activists and the complicity of companies who yield to authoritarian regimes. The event began with talks by two activists who may go to prison for exercising their right to free speech online. Thai journalist Chiranuch Premchaiporn, who directs a popular Thai news portal, was charged with defaming the Thai royal family after pseudonymous comments were posted to the site that Thai authorities deemed inappropriate. Alaa Abd El-Fatah, an Egyptian blogger and software developer who cofounded the Egyptian blog aggregators Manala and Omraneya, is set to be tried by a military tribunal. El-Fatah noted that 12,000 Egyptian civilians are now being held in military prisons for participating in the revolution. He observed 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 participants how her fellow activists use 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 live stream, and then Tweeting the story.

While this strategy is effective, 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. He acknowleged that Google itself 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 resist having their products used to suppress dissent and must think carefully about the privacy 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."

The conference offered some interesting discussions about pressuring companies to support basic human rights. It was well attended by a broad mix of government representatives, academics, civil society, private sector players, activists and human rights NGOs. I work for nonprofit technology organizations that support human rights activists and people I admire made strong presentations.

The final discussion of the gathering concerned the protection of emerging rights, especially the right to an unfiltered, uncensored and unmonitored Internet. If we want to establish and defend quality access, future discussions must focus on the edges of the Net, on the marginalized and excluded users whose freedom of speech is being criminalized.


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