RightsCon: Supporting the future of freedom online

RightsCon: Supporting the future of freedom online - Digital

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RightsCon gets underway today, 7 June, marking 10 years of the conference bringing together a broad range of civil society groups and business and public sector stakeholders to talk and learn about digital rights issues.

Over the last decade so much has changed with regard to how the internet functions in people’s lives, and the threats to freedom of expression appear to becoming starker by the day. So it’s a crucial time to look back at the last 10 years and see where today’s debates and discussions are positioned, and how they can facilitate a more open, diverse digital space. 

ARTICLE 19 is leading and participating in more than a dozen sessions during the five-day conference, which is hosted by Access Now, drawing on research and campaigning work from a wide range of fields and focuses.

“As we consider how to strengthen human rights on the Internet – from the content layer to the infrastructure – we need to think about root causes and systemic solutions,” said Mehwish Ansari, Head of Digital for ARTICLE 19. “Conferences like RightsCon are important, not only so that civil society has space for this kind of thinking and discourse, but also so that we can directly engage with other stakeholders to build more sustainable, system-wide outcomes.”

RightsCon has positioned itself as “the leading summit on human rights in the digital age” that “brings together business leaders, human rights defenders, government representatives, technologists, and journalists from around the world to tackle the most pressing issues at the intersection of human rights and technology.”

Content moderation, takedowns, and disinformation

In recent weeks there have been widespread reports of Instagram censoring posts about human rights violations in Palestine and civil society initiatives in India. Is the way that content is regulated on the internet fit for purpose? Does it support freedom of expression and diversity?

Senior Director for Law and Policy Barbora Bukovska will join a panel to explore recent examples of legislation that require the expeditious removal of so-called ‘harmful’ content online and their adverse impacts on freedom of expression and access to information, particularly for victims of human rights abuses. Senior legal officer Gabrielle Guilleman will join an interactive discussion that assesses the Christchurch Call and Global Internet Forum for Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) as models for content governance and their implications for the rule of law and internet governance, drawing from ARTICLE 19’s experience as a member of the Christchurch Call Advisory Network.

We’ll also address recent content moderation and takedown issues at the national level. ARTIGO 19’s Rafaela de Alcantara will lead a debate assessing efforts in Brazil to establish a Council of Transparency and Responsibility on the Internet, a key proposal of the 2020 draft Law on Freedom, Responsibility and Transparency in the Internet, and its implications for the suppression of lawful content in the name of responding to disinformation. ARTICULO 19’s Vladimir Cortes will lead a panel discussion on the ‘double-edged sword’ of copyright law, looking at how copyright regulation is being used to suppress freedom of expression and human rights around the world, from the takedown of open source projects to the suppression of journalism.

In light of these concerning trends, can we find sustainable solutions to addressing serious content-related issues, such as disinformation? Senior legal officer Maria Luisa Stasi takes part in a strategy session on how governments, civil society, and the private sector can enable people’s access to a diversity of content online to strengthen social cohesion and resilience to disinformation.

Design and deployment of frontier technologies

Cutting-edge, ‘emerging’, and frontier technologies such as facial recognition will be a major topic of discussion at this year’s RightsCon. The nuances of how these technologies are designed by the private sector and how they are deployed by the public sector have serious direct and indirect implications for human rights. This week, Gabrielle Guillemin will participate in a strategy session that explores how the digital rights community can advance human rights considerations in the growing field of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) technologies. ARTICLE 19 MENA’s Mahsa Alimardani will delve into how authoritarian governments are using data-intensive information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as biometric IDs to increase surveillance, exert control over peoples’ lives, and violate fundamental rights.

Business and human rights

Given that the majority of the Internet is owned, operated, and managed by the private sector, how can businesses practice robust human rights due diligence, and how can civil society engage with businesses to build and strengthen these processes? Senior Digital Program Officer Ephraim Kenyanito will facilitate a workshop that unveils major findings of ARTICLE 19’s three-year project with the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) on strengthening due diligence among Internet registries and registrars. ARTICLE 19 MENA’s Afsaneh Rigot will present work on using research-based human rights documentation and corporate responsibility frameworks to address technology design processes, drawing from ARTICLEE 19’s ongoing project to investigate how governments in the MENA region use dating apps to monitor, entrap, threaten and prosecute LGBTQ communities and working directly with dating app companies to improve protections for users.

Also this week, Mahsa Alimardani will take a broader view of businesses and the global political economy as part of a panel exploring how trade restrictions impede free and open access to global internet services, how these restrictions adversely impact users, and strategies to mitigate these impacts.

Community building and organising

RightsCon is an important space for discussions about the state of civil society and the digital rights movement. Sandy Ordonez, Director of Team CommUNITY at ARTICLE 19, will lead a discussion on the particular fundraising challenges faced by the digital rights community in 2020 — including the serious threats to the Open Technology Fund by the Trump administration — by sharing stories, strategies, and lessons learned.

In addition, ARTICLE 19 will look at regional and national civil society movements. ARTICLE 19 Asia Digital Program Manager Michael Caster will convene a panel to discuss the particular regional context of online freedom of expression in South and Southeast Asia and how local and regional civil society can build solidarities and coalitions to collectively circumvent shared challenges. There will also be ample discussion about the threats to journalists and activists in Mexico, in light of the recent attack by President Lopez Obrador on ARTICLE 19’s Central America regional office. RightsCon will host an emergency session convening Mexican civil society, which will include ARTICULO 19’s Martha Tudon and Vladimir Cortes will organise an interactive, multi-stakeholder dialogue on concerns and best practices regarding local governments’ role in the protection and promotion of digital rights in Mexico.

The extensive RightsCon discussions, debates and investigations will give leading experts in free expression and digital rights communities the opportunity to assess what impact innovations, as well as long-held habits and assumptions, have on our rights, and how they will help shape them in the future.

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