Human Rights in the Digital Age: RightsCon 2019

Blog Post
June 27, 2019

As technology continues to advance and alter the way we engage with one another and the world around us, there is a growing need to ensure that these engagements are respectful of our fundamental human rights. From June 11 through 14, representatives from New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) attended RightsCon 2019, the eighth edition of the world’s leading conference on human rights in the digital age.

The conference hosted by Access Now took place in Tunis, Tunisia this year. It brought together advocates, technologists, business leaders, policy makers, government representatives, and human rights activists to engage around today’s most prominent technology and human rights issues. This year’s conference was the largest and most diverse thus far, convening over 2,500 people from 120 different countries.

OTI has had a consistent presence at RightsCon over the past few years. This year, OTI Policy Program Associate Spandana Singh and OTI Director of Surveillance and Cybersecurity Policy Sharon Bradford Franklin had the opportunity to organize and speak at a number of sessions focused on topics including platform accountability, surveillance, law enforcement access to data, and content regulation. New America colleagues from Ranking Digital Rights were also in attendance and had active roles participating in and leading panels, workshops, and events throughout the conference.

Singh hosted a strategic roundtable to explore how the practice of issuing transparency reports on content takedowns has emerged among major internet platforms, and how this mechanism for transparency and accountability, as well as other approaches, can be further developed into industry-wide best practices. The roundtable brought together a range of civil society and tech company stakeholders from around the world and built off of work that OTI has already accomplished in this space. This includes OTI’s Transparency Reporting Toolkit on Content Takedowns, which surveyed how 35 global internet and telecommunications companies were reporting on content takedowns and offers best practices for issuing such reports. In addition, in May, OTI released an assessment of how YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have implemented the recommendations set forth in the Santa Clara Principles. These principles outline minimum standards tech platforms must meet in order to provide adequate transparency and accountability around their efforts to moderate user-generated content and user accounts.

In addition, Franklin spoke on two panels. In the first panel, entitled Outcomes of the Third Global Conference of the Internet and Jurisdiction Policy Network, panelists updated RightsCon attendees on the multi-stakeholder process convened by the Internet and Jurisdiction Policy Network, which brings together representatives of governments, civil society organizations, and tech companies from around the world to address a series of policy issues. At the session, Franklin described the group’s recommendations for principles to help guide legal regimes permitting foreign countries to seek electronic data directly from tech companies based in other countries. The recommendations include mandating safeguards to protect privacy and human rights, and incorporating measures to ensure scalability and promote interoperability. The work is part of the Data and Jurisdiction track, and additional panelists presented the work of other “tracks” of the Internet and Jurisdiction Policy Network’s multi-stakeholder process.

The second panel on which Franklin spoke explored the impact of U.S. foreign intelligence surveillance on journalists. Franklin described the operation of U.S. foreign intelligence under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, and outlined the upcoming debate over reauthorization of this law and two other provisions of the Patriot Act, all of which will sunset in December 2019. She explained the importance of reforming Section 215, including seeking new safeguards to protect First Amendment activities, including the work of journalists. Other panelists, including Gabe Rottman of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; Harlo Holmes of Freedom of the Press Foundation; and David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on Free Expression; provided further details on the specific threats that surveillance poses to journalists and their sources. Panelists also discussed the importance of strong digital security as well as the specific threats that surveillance poses to journalists and their sources.

RightsCon also provided many opportunities to meet and engage with—and learn from—colleagues from around the world. By attending other panels, workshops, and private meetings, we were able to connect with new allies and identify new areas and strategies for our continued work at the intersection of human rights and technology.