Arab Spring Activists Sit Down With Silicon Valley Suits

Last week, tech executives and Internet activists swarmed San Francisco for the first ever Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference. The two-day event focused on the increasingly complex relationship between the Internet and human rights. Access, an advocacy organization for Internet rights, hosted the conference, and drew representatives from influential players in Silicon Valley and activists arriving from revolution or government oppression in places like Egypt, Syria, Uganda, and Thailand. The event touched on issues like Internet access, freedom of speech, and corporate responsibility, but mostly just made clear that this is only the beginning of the digital rights conversation.

When Facebook and Twitter became heroes in Egypt's revolution last spring, social media had its coming out party as a positive force for social activism. "Censorship is antithetical to our brand," Twitter general counsel Alex MacGillivray said last week. Yet at the same time, Sunnyvale-made products like real-time traffic surveillance equipment that the Egyptian government used to spy on its citizens and devices that the Syrian government used to censor online activity, reminded us that oppressive regimes are simultaneously using high tech to beat back their gadfly citizenry.

Tech companies' role in human rights issues was a hot topic at the conference, but some key speakers fell short in offering tangible insight. Google's head of public policy plainly stated, "An annual report [on corporate responsibility] is not enough." But also, since startup culture toes the line of "'launch first, ask questions later'... we're almost guaranteed to disappoint you from time to time. Sorry. Bear with us." At least one audience member mumbled "screw you" as the Google rep left the podium.

Egyptian activist blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah saw little possibility in effectively holding companies accountable for how their products are used. "In the current world order," he said, "fallout is just not going to happen." He said that ideally, the Internet would be less "centralized." Not only would there be a greater diversity of services like email, but they would be torrent-based. El Fattah also implored companies like Vodafone to resist government pressure to infringe on citizens' rights by allowing espionage or cutting off Internet access. Shanti Kalathil of the Aspen Institute suggested companies create shared principles or codes and hold one another to them.

As activists "bore with" the larger tech companies, as Bob Boorstein of Google implored, several of the conference speakers have returned home to face jail time and prosecution for speaking out on the Internet. Chiranuch Premchaiporn faces 20 years for a comment on her blog that criticized the monarchy. El Fattah faced charges of incitement of violence this Sunday in Cairo.

In June, the UN declared Internet access a human right. It's a step toward protecting citizens of oppressive governments from Internet blackouts, which occurred this year in places like Egypt, Syria, and Civic Center BART. Last week's conference was the first to really address these issues, and there will be more to come.