The Future of Human Rights Technology: The Role of Silicon Valley

By Benetech, posted on

How can we create more opportunities for technology companies to support human rights organizations? What will help ensure that the support given to them truly strengthens their capacity to implement the tools, principles, and methods that are required to protect and advance global human rights? Will the interests of the human rights movement and of technology corporations ever be aligned, and should they align?

These were some of the questions discussed at “The Future of Human Rights Technology: The Role of Silicon Valley,” a dynamic conversation that the Human Rights Program hosted last week. It brought together a select group of activist-practitioners, philanthropists, technologists, and policymakers for a future-oriented, intimate discussion of what Silicon Valley can do next to engage in the critical fight to protect and preserve human rights around the globe. The event followed on the heels of a two-day convening, also hosted by Benetech, of the grantees of the Internet Freedom Programming of the Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL).

Participants formed new connections and came away with a better understanding of their unique perspectives as well as shared values. Our team is still synthesizing and following up on the many ideas and action items, but here is a sample of what the conversation yielded:

  • A SWOT analysis of human rights technology. Participants evaluated the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats at the intersection of the human rights movement and hi-tech firms. Consider, for example, the gap between the desire of individuals to protect human rights and that of the corporations that employ them.
  • Mapping out “Privacy by Design.” Participants outlined best practices for moving forward towards a future where privacy protection is embedded into the design and architecture of IT systems and business practices from the outset, and where data protection compliance is the default setting. In this context, they brought to relief the distinction between privacy and security, pointing out that privacy is harder to sell and buy—it is easier to make the case for security. The big opportunity here, they noted, is to identify and share existing implementations of embedded privacy and the lessons learned from them.
  • A matrix for creating better transparency in the field of human rights technology. While more and more transparency reports are being produced, it is time to create new opportunities for moving transparency down the supply chain and, based on that, codifying policy and practices to represent global rights.
  • Charting the course for evaluating free and discounted technology access. Participants noted that giving away free or discounted technology tools to NGOs and rights groups might not always serve their best interests. These stakeholders often need support in order to adopt and implement the tools they are given. Hi-tech firms, on their part, need to be aware of the threats in the context of human rights documentation and journalistic work, ensuring that when they hand out technology tools, they do so responsibly and without causing harm.
  • A “philanthropic coding” idea set to increase engagement of technologists with human rights organizations. Recommendations include creating shared metrics and developing marketing plans that articulate to technology corporations the value and impact in contributing time, talent, and funding to rights organizations.

This event reflects one of the main charges of the Benetech Human Rights Program: to advance the field of human rights by igniting cross-sector collaboration with the nonprofit, corporate, technology, and stakeholder communities. We see an effective engagement model emerging out of it. We’d like to extend a big Thank You to the participants for their openness and energy, to Andreessen Horowitz for hosting this event, and to the Ford Foundation for making it possible.