RightsCon 2020

Civil society organization Access Now’s ninth iteration of RightsCon, “the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age”, was organized in July, 2020. Arranged entirely online for the first time, the event attracted 7800 participants from 158 countries. Civil society was the most prominent sector at the conference, accompanied with UN special rapporteurs and representatives of governments and tech companies, among others.

The organizers set the ambition that RightsCon has “one goal”, “building the future we want”. The program included 300 sessions, and there seemed to be an agreement at least on the starting point: the importance of “the digital” for all human rights work today. Many speakers saw that various technologies labelled under the term are so ubiquitously part of everyday life that the boundary between “online” and “offline” has to some extent become meaningless. On the other hand, from the perspective of people who live their lives in unequal societies, many boundaries do exist in relation to digital technologies.

RightsCon was organized amidst the pandemic, and in the context of Black Lives Matter and other movements on the streets. At the Opening Ceremony, E. Tendayi Achiume, U.N. Special Rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and related intolerance, discussed the need to broaden the debate on technology and human rights, which has often focused on the rights to freedom of expression and privacy, but less on non-discrimination and racial equality.

Highlighting the message of a recently released report, Achiume stated that technologies both exacerbate pre-existing discrimination and enable a different scale of it all over the world. The rapporteur emphasized the importance of an intersectional and structural approach to racial justice instead of focusing only on technical solutions and certain countries. In welfare states alike, there is a risk of creating discriminatory digital welfare states.

Social, cultural, and economic inequalities were also an important part of the conversation about surveillance capitalism with Shoshana Zuboff, Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, Chris Gilliard, Professor of English at Macomb Community College, Joe Westby, researcher and advisor at Amnesty International, and Nathalie Maréchal, Senior Policy Analyst at Ranking Digital Rights.

Zuboff discussed, how the growing invasiveness of data capturing creates a new category of power, instrumentarianism, a threat to democracy and human rights. Gilliard reminded about the long history of surveillance faced by marginalized groups, as a continuation of which the current problems of surveillance capitalism fall on the same groups more harshly. Westby emphasized that platforms’ business model creates collective harms on societies, not just on individuals. As necessary solutions, Zuboff called for new charters of rights, legal frameworks, and institutional forms. The task is to intervene in the dominant economic paradigms that produce wealth in the society, and not just on symptoms such as disinformation, Zuboff stated. According to her, the pervasiveness of what she calls the Surveillance Capitalism requires us to conceptualize the current challenges via the concept of epistemic rights.

(c) Access Now.

In addition to corporate power, state surveillance was widely discussed at RightsCon. For example, #KeepItOn coalition has tracked an increase in the number of internet shutdowns, which are often justified with vague arguments related to public safety, national security, or stopping fake news. Repressive actions, such as targeting of activists and human rights defenders, have accelerated during Covid-19 in many countries. At the conference, UN special rapporteurs jointly warned of “increased patterns of closing of digital spaces amid the COVID-19 pandemic”.

The pandemic has thus raised new issues in addition to long-term struggles for rights. For digital rights activism, RightsCon offered an advocacy and discourse-shaping platform. Many organizers used the sessions to get direct feedback to particular issues, and to mobilize their definitions. The conference demonstrated the breadth and depth of the debate, and necessity of connecting movements.

Cordi-members, Outi Puukko and Minna Aslama-Horowitz attended the week-long conference, on July 27-31, 2020. A selection of panel discussions and talks can be viewed on YouTube.  


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