Belated #RightsCon Reflection

The second day of the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference felt very different to me. It began the same way – professionals in the hallway grabbing coffee and fruit before listening to speeches, watching critiques on the on stage content from the peanut gallery on twitter and then I remembered something… I’m sometimes an activist.

I was making a point on twitter which based on ReTweets and +1-ing from fellow conference attendees I saw had resonated, and rather than looking to find those people physically I raised my hand for the mic when the Q & A portion began and asked the panelists to respond to the elephant in the room.

(In this case it was Google’s attitude to YouTube as being a press, and yet their role as content screeners also making them the editor in chief around the issues)

Just as the day before, professional roles meant I didn’t get to get a true answer or dialog around it – however what I did get was the knowledge my point had been heard, added to a public dialog and live streamed for the general conference, and a few people I would have probably sought out later- found me to initiate the conversations. The ball was rolling in a direction I could engage with it, and I remembered how much the audience matters.

During far too many panels and hallway conversations people love to speak of how the internet is like a megaphone amplifying voices, however in looking for a productive dialog you don’t always need more voices, you also need more people willing to listen. It’s easy for me to find out what techies think – interviews with them amplify their voices, the code on their projects favors their perspectives and the dynamics are built around their visions. But the question I kept returning to was how do those same techies go from a perspective of designing for their user to designing for people in general?

You can assume that by my presence as a user on twitter, on facebook, through gmail and my phone’s apps – I like *something* about the service, trust the provider enough to put my content or ideas there, and will either learn to deal with their world view or remove myself from their sites as a user. But I for example I never consented to being on WhitePages but you can find a listing for me there. Do I have rights there? Or on a graver scale – for the manufacturers of the servers of the tech companies – the environmental toll of those materials is not just limited to the company, it affects the community around it- so do the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo have rights regarding my internet usage when it effects them? It’s easy to when talking to representatives of social media and information sites to fall into a pattern of thinking of Human Rights as being just Privacy and Free Speech concerns – but the issues are bigger, the stakes are higher and sadly the companies not in the room have a bigger impact (security firms doing surveillance, those who designed the kill switches, manufacturers, etc… ).

So if the bigger concern is the people not in the room, you might ask why grill the companies who are already trying, concerned enough to sponsor such an event, and who send representatives to be present? They’re already ahead of the curve and it is precisely for that reason I’m concerned when the voices in their dialogs are limited. While I love Google & Facebook’s services and respect the people I know working at Google & Facebook I also want more. If they are going to shape the communications of the future, the new cultural norms for generations coming of age during the Information Age – I want there to be a social dialog around the issues, not just a team meeting or a corporate strategy.

There are great minds working on the problem – but the issues existed before the digital age. Questions of privacy existed before the internet. So did the issue of free speech. Problems with environmentally degrading manufacturing and waste aren’t new. But Google isn’t just search and advertizing – it’s also become my newspaper headline, my post office, my secretary organizing documents and mapping out the places I will go. Facebook is more than a rolodex of friends & contacts; it is live chats, photo albums, blogging, and more. Twitter isn’t just a way to mass text, it’s changing how I meet people at events, it’s how I get breaking news, and determines if after a piece on the nightly news if I can follow up to continue listening to the subject. We’re living in an era where I see Netflix more than my local theater, iTunes has replaced my record store, Amazon replaced the book stores, eBay replaced garage sales, etc… The old questions need to be reinterpreted, discussed, and decided again.

As an activist a lot of times you approach a situation and precedent is the reason for something being wrong. Whether an offensively named street, an unjust law on the books, the status quo of “this is always how business has been done” that dynamic remains. Looking towards the future of human rights, it’s important to ask as we design the tools, services, and environments for engagement in the digital world – will we design a world that places respect for people, both as users and non-users at the front? Will we build a world of commerce that sees human rights as a PR issue? Will it be centralized to the giants of tech or will the freedom of self-publishing be decentralized to allow individuals greater agency? How do individuals represent themselves to governments, businesses, each other and what are the social rules for these spaces?

When I leave my home I can wear a suit, or jeans & a tee shirt and know the rules of social negotiating that come with those presentations. I know how to research the laws of governance, what rights I can expect, and how to not participate with businesses or how to support them depending on my needs and their actions – the question that remains is how we can make a digital world that respects that diversity. Can I have a facebook profile of punk-kid-me for browsing at home and professional me for when I’m logged on at work to design targeted ads for a business? I can’t pay in cash for services – so how can I trust you to not track a purchase the way I could if I bought a book in real life? As manufacturing goes abroad I can’t rely on knowledge of my local space to know I’m living my values consistently.

With local businesses accountability is much easier. I can ask to speak to the manager – but online I can’t just ask to speak to the manager of Google to know what I am supporting by supporting the business. The inside versus outside voice distinction is much harder to make. The places I tweet most often from are at conferences and in bed.

On the first day I came to a conference more as a standard conference attendee hoping to listen and learn. However on the second morning with the news lingering of #OccupyOakland and the attacks on protesters I remembered my own role as a college activist organizing people online. For a brief moment I had the opportunity to take a microphone knowing people who have the ability to change the services I use are in the room. With their ears, it was more important to remember my voice. And ironically the collection of contacts made and business cards received following then was much greater than the first day.

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