RightsCon and a Call to Arms

By Benetech, posted on

By guest author Stephanie Seale, Strategic Partnerships Manager, Business Development

Benetech was pleased to join the human rights technology community at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco for RightsCon Silicon Valley 2016, organized by our friends at Access Now. RightsCon is where the world’s human rights experts, business leaders, technologists, engineers, investors, activists, and government representatives come together to share ideas, build strategies, showcase new technologies, and create tomorrow’s internet. It is an energizing reminder of the existence of a powerful global digital rights community that is determined to defend human rights and keep the internet open and free.

We’ve been pleasantly surprised to see the conference grow year after year; having played organizing roles in both the main conference and the Demo Room for the past four years, we have seen firsthand how participation across diverse groups (nonprofit, corporate, government, activist) is increasing exponentially, with voices from across the spectrum all contributing to a global discussion.

Benetech’s Human Rights Program staff embarked on the event with broad but actionable mandates: first, connect with peers and allies and identify areas for collaboration; and second, make sure the field learns about our new products and ideas bubbling up through the community. We organized panels, demonstrated new products, presented case studies, met with new groups and established partners, and learned about many exciting projects. During three jam-packed days we got very little sleep, but absorbed as much as we could about the 1,000+ global participants and their promising work.

Where did this leave us? Both enthused and overwhelmed, to the point that we’d like to share some of our observations and call upon our peers to consider them. What did we see?

Strive for Collaboration Rather than Duplication

We watched many product demos and are excited about tools that will help mitigate corporate and state surveillance practices; platforms that will facilitate real-time, multilingual community translation; features that will improve digital security and make it more accessible; and many more. Yet the underlying thread throughout these presentations — the elephant in the room — is that there are many duplicate efforts, many too-similar projects that could be joined or merged. In a resource-constrained field, we should be working together and not reinventing wheels. It is difficult to gain deep insights and take concepts to fruition when everyone is busy creating the same things.

Resource Gap is Alive and Well

As with previous RightsCons, “Funding the Fight for Digital Rights: An OTR Q&A with Donors” was the most popular session (after this year’s Edward Snowden talk, not surprisingly). But why did only a few independent funders show up? How do we attract more corporate funders and new funders to the space? Kudos to Access Now for encouraging open dialogue among grant seekers and grant makers. In the future, we’d like to see funders actively matchmaking and encouraging potential collaboration projects at events like these. Then perhaps grant seekers wouldn’t be so protective of their funding and contract opportunities.

Leadership Plus Collaboration Builds Capacity

The sector has produced a host of autonomous, powerful, and impactful organizations, which as we mentioned above, could benefit from greater collaboration. In addition, we have seen initial movements from a few groups bubble to the surface as thought leaders. Let’s encourage these pioneers and promote more leaders who have their finger on the pulse and can corral the disparate players. At Benetech, we hope to leverage the emerging and existing leadership by convening an advisory board of technologists, human rights experts, policy gurus, and activists; together this collaborative body can help determine what our collective products and services could or should be and hopefully identify even more partnerships.

The Changing Faces and Uses of Data

We had a number of discussions about the “what” and “how” of data collection. In one notable session, we led a conversation, along with our partners Amnesty International and engine room, about our community-driven project on the data and related processes in human rights documentation and research, including new streams of data. As technology evolves, and we see both successes and challenges of practitioners worldwide, our field needs to continue to push for improved data collection and archiving. We invite participation and feedback – stay tuned!

Give Us Your Feedback

We’d love to hear from you, especially if you were at RightsCon 2016. What did you learn? What surprised you? Where do you see opportunities, and where are failings of the sector? We value our existing relationships with peers and partners, but are also eager to identify and include new names, faces, and organizations, so please tell us if there is someone we should meet. We are eager to continue the conversation.

About Benetech’s Human Rights Program

Through innovative technology and capacity building, Benetech empowers human rights defenders worldwide to capture and utilize sensitive human rights abuse information. We provide free, open source software that makes it easier for activists to record and protect sensitive data and harder for perpetrators to steal or destroy it. We provide support and capacity building to partner organizations to help them leverage our technologies and adopt best practices in the field to achieve their goals.