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I’m somewhat belatedly posting my notes for a presentation I gave at a convening in May 2011 on Media, Social Media, and Democratic Governance at Wilton Park (here’s a PDF of the conference programme, and POLIS Director, Charlie Beckett’s notes from his presentation are here.).

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“The Internet Is Not A Horse”: presentation at Wilton Park, May 2011

Over the past few months, I’ve been working with the human rights organisation WITNESS on a new initiative that aims to help those using video for human rights to do so more safely, more ethically and more effectively. As part of this initiative, we have produced a report [published in September 2011], called Cameras Everywhere, as WITNESS’ first toe in the waters of technology policy.

Why would an organisation that has focused on advocacy campaigns to expose and end specific human rights abuses suddenly decide to engage in the world of technology policy? Finding and sharing new ways to use new technologies for documenting and exposing violations remains a central part of what WITNESS does. But in the process of building and running human rights projects that involve technology, we have been forced to confront a range of extremely thorny technical, legal, editorial and ethical challenges woven through the evolving communication environment. And in conversations with technologists, say, we’d raise issues about ethics, and they’d say, “Well, we’d never thought about it that way.” And with policy-makers, “Ah, now I hadn’t really thought about the human rights impacts of copyright enforcement.” Or with NGO colleagues, “Well, we’d like to be more involved in debates about technology, but we don’t know where to start.”

We felt it important to share in an accessible way the lessons we have learned, and to try to stitch together a perspective for our partners, donors and fellow activists, for technologists building the tools we all use, and for policy-makers who set the laws and policies that govern these same technologies. Law and policy set and shape the parameters for what technology can do – indeed law is sometimes embedded within technology – and therefore what it is possible for activists (and citizens more broadly) to do, and what protections they can enjoy and exercise.

This report is based both on our own analysis and experience, and on more than 40 in-depth interviews with highly-placed experts from settings as diverse as academia, technology policy, grassroots activism and broadcast journalism. We hope that it will provide a springboard for further discussion and help bring these various stakeholders a few inches closer together in common understanding and dialogue. Read More