Meeting on digital human rights convenes in region for first time

Organisers stress that every aspect of human rights is affected by technology.
Sunday 23/06/2019
RightsCon venue in Tunis.
RightsCon venue in Tunis.

TUNIS - RightsCon, the global meeting on human rights in the digital age took place in mid-June in Tunis, the first time it convened in the MENA region.

The conference gathers business leaders, policymakers, government officials, technologists and human rights advocates from around the world to “tackle pressing issues at the intersection of human rights and digital technology.”

RightsCon is an initiative of AccessNow, an international non-profit organisation devoted to defending digital rights and the internet.

The more local first such conference took place in California in 2011. The event has grown to become the world’s leading event of its kind. RightsCon 2019 included about 3,000 participants from 120 countries for the 3-day conference.

Experts and practitioners from civil society, the private sector, UN organisations and academia spoke during more than 450 sessions on topics ranging from the effect of online technology on elections to digital identity, technology-facilitated gender-based violence and content moderation. Some sessions were in French and Arabic.

The conference’s growth has not been a result of organisers’ and the digital human rights community’s efforts. It was, experts said, reflective of the increasing importance of digital freedom and of how issues pertaining to data, privacy, surveillance, artificial intelligence or cybersecurity are shaping the political, social and economic spheres, locally and globally.

The central message of RightsCon was that, amid the frantic pace of technological development, human rights are too often neglected or treated as an afterthought.

“Digital space is not neutral space,” said the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a statement. “At the levels of its physical architecture, regulation and use, different groups exert their interests over it. The principles of international human rights law, however, should be at the centre of its development.”

The choice of Tunisia to host RightsCon reflected a desire to move the conversation about human rights in the digital era to the MENA region.

“RightsCon needs Tunisia because, let’s face it, a gathering this big [of the digital human rights community] needs to make its way to the Arab world,” Wafa Ben Hassine, global policy counsel for Access Now and one of the organisers of RightsCon, said in her opening speech.

Organisers said they wanted to increase regional awareness about digital rights issues following violations and restrictions. Concern was expressed about shrinking digital civic space and restrictions on online expression.

Many governments in the region have censored or criminalised some online behaviour and expression but great variations exist in the degree of information control. The region is also home to some of the most draconian cases of information control.

The “#KeepItOn” report presented at the conference stated that Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Turkey and Algeria shut down the internet at least once either partially or completely in 2018. The Transitional Military Council in Sudan completely shut the internet down before the June 3 crackdown during which scores of people were killed. In Iran, a plan to nationalise the internet along the lines of the Chinese model continues.

Tempering the bleak outlook is that the global conversation about digital human rights has entered the region.

“The organisers have asserted that choosing Tunisia as the conference’s venue was not arbitrary,”  Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, personal representative of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, said in his keynote opening speech.