How we communicate and connect, how we see and document the world around us, how we express ourselves—all have been transformed over the past decade. Hundreds of millions of us on every continent experience this directly in our daily lives, from receiving a text message or making a mobile call to video-chatting with relatives or colleagues around the world.
This new reality is something that advocates and activists need to face head-on, urgently and collectively. Human rights concerns are at the heart of the technologies we use, the more domesticated, indispensable and close-to-home they become. But what does this mean in practical terms?
I recently co-wrote Cameras Everywhere, a report commissioned by the human rights organization WITNESS, about how key players in human rights, technology, policy and philanthropy can help build a stronger human rights culture in the digital world. Drawing on in-depth interviews with more than 40 experts, policymakers and practitioners, we found widespread agreement among civil society, government, researchers and technology companies that the human rights challenges of technology are too complex, too fast-moving and too multi-sectoral for any single sector to handle them alone. Human rights advocates need to engage with all these sectors, as do others like the legal community, to ensure that the responses developed are robust, long-term and sustainable.
New information and communication technologies (ICTs) can help broaden participation, transparency and opportunity, and they are critical to the free flow of information. But as human rights organizations and activists know all too well, even though access to the Internet is growing worldwide, the question of who can actively participate—and survive—in this emerging ecosystem of free expression is still shaped by poverty, inequality, marginalization, discrimination and repression. The human rights community has a central role to play in showing that access to the Internet and, more broadly, to technology does not yield empowerment in and of itself. As one recent study showed, while being online can bring some parts of society into closer contact with politicians and power, it can also push others even further toward the margins.
Online video and other communication technologies also create significant new vulnerabilities for human rights defenders. The more people understand the power of video, for example, the more the safety and security of those filming and being filmed will become a concern. Activists and journalists alike have faced having their cameras or memory cards confiscated by security forces and police, not just in Egypt and Syria, but also in Britain and the United States. Others have taken great risks to ensure that images of protest and repression get out, using services like Bambuser, which lets you stream video live from your phone, to send live mobile images from Egypt, Libya and Syria. As Tahrir Square cameraman Mostafa Bahgatexplained to The Guardian last week: “If I’m not there to record what is happening, then the lies of the state will go unchallenged. If I wasn’t in that place, at that time, I couldn’t live with myself. It’s what I have to do.”
Adding to the risk, in crisis situations and in repressive regimes, governments increasingly use these same tools of free expression to track and repress those engaging in human rights work and in activism, putting sources and key data at risk of exposure. The risk isn’t just from thesale of sophisticated surveillance software by western companies to repressive regimes. People using social media platforms can unwittingly place themselves at great risk. In the past, for example, it took weeks to smuggle a videotape showing human rights abuses in, say, Burma, to the outside world—and it was harder to copy and lose control of the images. But because social media technologies are networked, global and instantaneous, the risks are networked and move far beyond the control of any individual. During the 2007 Burmese uprising, many people shared videos and photos of the marches and protests on social media platforms—images later used by the Burmese authorities to track down and arrest individuals involved.
New features like facial recognition software, which automatically recognizes and tags individuals from their photos, are already finding their way into social media products, and may make it even easier to target unwitting activists and citizens alike. Civil society has an ongoing responsibility both to understand these technologies and their associated risks better and to pressure those building and selling these technologies to respect and build in human rights standards and protections. Many of these technology corporations (YouTube, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Vodafone, for example), which never before regarded themselves as having a stake in fights over liberties, now find themselves a battleground for human rights. Advocates need to press them—and assist them—to respond in the right way, including through multi-stakeholder processes like the Global Network Initiative or initiatives like the Silicon Valley Standard.
New communication technologies also pose questions to the human rights community about what documentation of abuses is, who can do it, and what methods can be used to verify it. More and more people, including many who see themselves neither as human rights activists nor journalists, are now using video and social media to capture and share content about human rights—at times bypassing more established advocates or journalists. The vast majority of human rights footage seen on the news this year came from individuals, not from NGOs—a major challenge for the human rights community is how to give this kind of footage evidentiary and advocacy weight. Human rights advocates have vast experience in determining how to authenticate information, deciding which pieces to preserve and why. They can bring this experience to bear by developing forensic techniques to verify social media information not produced by their own rigorous methods. Such methods could be used not just within the human rights sector, but also across society at large, complementing theefforts of journalists.
Indeed, as the new media environment shapes human rights advocacy, so too can the values and practices of rights activists shape the information environment. So far, the ethics governing much of this sphere come from journalism—and human rights values and protections are woven into the fabric of these codes. But significant questions remain. For example, as increasing numbers of human rights organizations and activists provide information directly to the public via blogs, videos and tweets, how can they better signal the trustworthiness and accuracy of their information and how it was collected? What might be practical, decentralized ways in which people can learn how to produce and share such content ethically and safely? What place does consent have in a social media world? Human rights approaches to information—for example, the right to visual anonymity—might in some cases offer a robust model for dealing with these digital era challenges that affect not only frontline activists but also other potentially vulnerable users in society.
These challenges are becoming part of every society, not just a handful of the most developed nations, and it is increasingly apparent that they have become a part of practically every area of policymaking and the law, too. Policymakers at all levels are struggling to understand and accommodate the shifts that mean that technology-related trade, health and culture policies, for example, can have significant human rights implications. Courts and lawyers around the world are grappling both with how local laws can apply in an inherently global medium, and also with how international human rights standards fit in. Governments are seeking extra domestic powers to control and filter the Internet to combat security threats while at the same time advocating internationally for a free and open Internet. So far, relatively few human rights organizations have prioritized these debates about who owns and governs the Internet, for example, or about how practically to influence technology and communication companies to better protect human rights.
The risks are indeed great if we don’t act together now. But the opportunities for human rights organizations to better serve their constituencies are also enormous: New ICTs can make it easier, for example, to gather, share and process information, to mobilize and bring pressure, and to expose wrongdoing and misinformation. But the human rights community and its donors and supporters need to start now by investing resources not just in tools that help activists cope with risk and threat, but also in helping the movement as a whole understand, adapt to and even shape this new environment with human rights values.
We all have a stake in ensuring that digital culture has human rights values at its core, and UN International Human Rights Day provided a time to reflect on how far we have come. This year was undoubtedly the first in my lifetime in which the news has—day in and day out—featured and even been dominated by human rights stories, from the Arab Spring and the Indian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, to the global Occupy movement and the Walk To Work protests in Uganda. The human rights dimensions of technology have played a core part in all these stories. In just one year, courageous, determined citizens and activists have shown us all how combining traditional human rights values and techniques with new technologies can help them overcome seemingly immovable obstacles. Where might we stand in a year’s time if the human rights movement as a whole did the same thing?