Tonight, I attended a live panel discussion on the question of whether Technology is Really Good for Human Rights, or not.  Below are live notes – apologies for spelling and grammar – that follow the main points and audience q/a.  Enjoy!

Context for the event from Rory Cellan-Jones:  Prevailing ethos of the web has been libertarian, optimistic about the potential of the internet to be a medium of free expression and break down barriers.  That ethos continued until the last three years or so with issues in Burma, Iran, and China.  We’ve seen potential for those unsympathetic to the cause to use the technology too – a bit of an arms race created.  Technology is amoral – it doesn’t care. In Iran we’ve seen it used to get out information and resist censorship but have also seen it used by the government to alter a mobile phone system and monitoring calls.

Tweets and highlights from this event on Twitter at #AITech

Panelists include:

  • Susan Pointer, Google’s Director of Public Policy & Government Relations
  • Andrew Keen (via video), author of Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is killing our culture
  • Kevin Anderson, blogs editor of the Guardian
  • Annabelle Sreberny, Professor of Global Media and Communication, School of Oriental and African Studies (with special interest in Iran, bloggers & social media)
  • Rory Cellan-Jones, Technology Correspondent for the BBC, is chairing.

Susan Pointer: declaring an interest as a passionate advocate of the potential of internet technology. When it comes to the potential to underpin human rights, for me the question is not technology good for human rights but is the access to information, the ability to connect with people online, to use online tools to mobilize offline activities, to question wisdom, and shine a light of transparency – it’s a useful tool for promoting and underpinning human rights. So, the answer is yes as a tool. The access to information drives knowledge. The technology itself is not intrinsically good -at Google we are advocates for free expression on the internet and free access for all; the technology istelf is and should be a neutral platform for this. it does not itself dictate who does the communicating or how we assess the communications. Nor does it require that we leave our human faculties at the on switch – the internet democratizes the channels.  Rather than ask if the tool is perfect or not, we should work together to make it a perfect tool, keep the internet platform healthy.

Andrew Keen: I would never argue that technology is against human rights. When it comes to the internet, you can of course find lots of examples where twitter or facebook or email have been used by governments or corporations or regimes. But, the tools of the digital revolution are used by those against the regime but are equally used by those in the regimes.  Because of the natural of the internet, where traditional intermediaries have been done away with, it’s increasingly easy for regimes to use this supposed democratized media for their own.  I haven’t seen that much proof that internet has changed [post the Obama election]. Changes come through people and culture and not through technology. I’m not arguing that it is bad, but the internet isn’t necessarily good for human rights.

Annabelle Sreberny: Communication technologies have been good for human rights since we created the alphabet. These are tools that can perhaps accelerate the speed of information and the number of people involved, but it’s always had the potential for change. Politics is communications by another name. Communication technologies have always been used for political change, especially with Iran. 1905-1911, people were publishing in exile, printing and sharing over the boarder, etc. in Tehran. 1975 revolution used leaflets and cassette tapes helped mobilize and push the revolution. Youtube and facebook are just the new tools for political change. Western audiences came to know Iran through the 2009 election, the internet had been the place where you could find politics happening inside Iran when in person it was very hard there.  For example, the internet was important because it was difficult to organize offline. Given the difficulties of face to face politics and public space control, many of the people 30 and under stay home where they can be online and be free. They are inventing it for themselves. One thing that internet technologies can do is the bringing together across boundaries – so, the diaspora are slowly invited back into politics. Which causes a lot of Iranian politics to take place outside of the country.  This is politics – we need the good and the bad; the cyber army, the 10,000 bloggers claimed to be trained by the national guard, etc.  In Iran the regime hasn’t yet shown itself to be as savvy as the green movement.

Kevin Anderson: I think in terms of human rights and damage of censorship the internet has been a net good.  Without social media, we wouldn’t have been able to provide the kind of information that was available. It would have been a blackout of information but suddenly there’s a way to get it out. The Guardian had an injunction to gather all the names of the people who were killed and detained and that’s something that would have never been possible without the internet. I think what we are learning is that increasing the freedom of information isn’t all that’s needed to free those living under extremist regimes.  People point to Obama but it was actually a perfect marriage of the internet and traditional pounding on doors. The internet can be problematic – some of the debates can become quite divisive online instead of cohesion. I think underlying slacktivism isn’t enough – you can’t just turn your profile green.  Just as the Guardian used crowdsourcing to get the names of those detained, the government is using crowdsourcing too. Security is going to be increasingly one of the things that internet activists have to learn. Today, a China official said the internet is a new battlefield without gun powder. The incident with Google in China has made aware the increasing militarization of the internet – targeted attacks against corporations and activists and that’s the most worrying development.  These are sophisticated attacks and as the regimes become more sophisticated in espionage methods, people engaged in human rights will have to live in a new threat environment.


Isn’t there plenty of evidence that technology is actually bringing information to societies in a way that was not possible 20 or 30 years ago?  Isn’t accelerating the process by which people can take on governments?

Andrew Keen: The wall in Berlin was open by accident by a guard, so you could argue that the internet is a distribution of knowledge so that would have never happened. The internet is actually a really effective tool for maintaining regimes.  So, this organization of knowledge could actually be a good thing for demoralizing government.  The more knowledge there is in the world, the easier it is to spy or look into the knowledge.  Let’s not delude ourselves that the opposition are Luddites.

We always thought of the internet as a free space with free spirits, anarchic, but it’s actually becoming dominated by a few corporate players, like Google. It has said a lot about it’s commitment to freedom of expression and so on, but it’s first duty is to it’s shareholders just like any other corporation.  Given that, how profound is Google’s commitment ever going to be to human rights?

Susan Pointer: First, Google’s size – we live or die by the trust users have in our services. We have no contract, tie-in, etc. – most all of our services are free.  Those users are free to choose whether to use our services or elsewhere. We retain their loyalty by providing services they want to use and having protections in place that they trust. It’s very different than your traditional model. Without a doubt, every user is important to our business but every user has the choice. Do we want to keep you? Of course, so we have to keep innovating, providing exciting services and that’s what drives. We support an open and competitive environment that is based on user buy in. In terms of our commitment to online freedom of expression, from the beginning our motto has been to do no evil – it means we are committed to providing as much access as possible.

Even in China?

Susan Pointer: We took the decision as a very complex –  It was not an alternative to the normal site. We found that there were users in China couldn’t access the .com site so it was created to give them access.

There was no commercial imperative behind that?

Susan Pointer: It was absolutely based on what would provide the most access to our users there. What that means  is that in order to set up the .cn site we had to be compliant with Chinese law. Which meant self censorship of the results. We would do that, we would not provide access to the .com site so you could still get results there, and on the .cn site we would provide a message when censorship was happening so the user would see when results were being withheld. In light of our investigations of attacks on the human rights activists, we have taken the point that we are no longer comfortable self censoring results and are pursing how we can provide results without censorship with China which could mean we have to discontinue use there.

Historically, people have used all kinds of methods to fight for human rights. Is there evidence that these tools are making the fight easier?

Annabelle Sreberny: The arguments would have to focus on the speed and the numbers of people involved. It’s about scale. They work like memes, the speed people react and join in.

Slacktivist term, is there not a danger that 20 or 30 years ago there was far more intensity because easy technology wasn’t there. You had to get face to face with people.

Kevin Anderson: I think it’s a bit of both. The idea that social media completely transplants face to face – one of the difficulties is that it isn’t an either or. I think there are people who say “yes, there are people who have said I’ve changed my avatar green…” One of the things with Dean’s campaign initially was that they had huge amounts of online activism but had problems turning that into real life work. It can be broad but shallow. The power of the Obama campaign was translating online activity to real world impact. Translating a click into someone on the streets is the step it takes.

People have seen technologies for a force for good and bad – in Iran you have to say that there was a unique set of circumstances. Before the election you had a population that had migrated to the internet, a government who had let them have that space. After the election that space exploded and the government was slow to catch up. But now they are catching up, with the cyber army and beyond. The question is how can we make it a force for good?

You use the term slacktivism about people in the west – the point that needs to be made is that internet lets people participate in the activism without the fear, true there is the other side of the coin…

Kevin Anderson: The point I’m making is that politics is communications but it is also a number of other actions, especially when you are dealing with regimes that have been successful at staying in power. You have to use all the tools of politics to make that change. While freedom of communications is key, there are a number of other steps. As regimes get more sophisticated, like we see China exporting some of it’s internet controlling tools elsewhere (like Iran), the methods have to get more sophisticated. If you show support you are lazy – no. But there has to be a number of people taking actions in the real world, too.

Annabelle Sreberny: Mousy solidarity – how easy it is to click on a petition, and so on.  Why the sense of solidarity? Because we don’t ave politics like this – it feels good to be part of it. We feel like we can participate.

Our attention span is ever shorter, time is relative.

Kevin Anderson: If it’s going to be that transient 24-hour news cycle, that sustained action is key. Once the novelty wears off, breaking through the media cycle is difficult. In Iran, it’s quite clear, this is a long sustained struggle and isn’t something that’s going to happen quickly. You had more democratic and open societies with the Velvet and the Orange revolutions. With the Chinese, the point they made was that we have to control information otherwise there will be chaos.

Susan Pointer: It was the immediacy that played the role in creating interest in Iran. Had that information come out weeks later it would have been restricted to academics and others pouring over the information. It’s important to sustain that information and interest. The discussion about membership of an organization and what it means to be active: lots of people would have joined a group or gone to a meeting without contributing. The power of showing numbers online can be more powerful than showing up online. We need to look at how membership and participation are defined. Where does the pressure come from on an international exposure. How we defend the nature of the internet: it makes institutions and governments nervous. We need to be as vigilant in our spaces as internationally to keep it without gatekeepers and screeners. That’s what will keep it a source of immediacy.

The deision making process by Google – with Iran it can seem clear. What kind of process does Google go through to make those decisions?

Susan Pointer: Once we created we had to meet compliance. In general terms, I spend a lot of my time with issues where access to our services are restricted and we work to fix it. The open access to our services – it shouldn’t matter where in the world you are, you should be able to access services.

Is the speed and scale of internet communications a bug as well as a feature?

Kevin Anderson: My experience online is largely positive. The places where i see the most animosity is news sites. And that’s not the internet to me.

There’s debate between those who say you should be able to say/do anything and those that say other people’s human rights are at risk in that situation.

Kevin Anderson: I can only speak for myself but I wouldn’t say anything online that I wouldn’t say face to face. It’s said that it is still so new we haven’t created social mores for it. I remember when the AOL newbies came on and we thought they were ruining the internet… if you are saying things you think would turn you red if you were saying them outloud, then you probably shouldn’t say them.

Climate change and climate gate – what are the social media implications?

Kevin Anderson: as a journalist, yes, we want to present all sides but do we present all sides as if they are valid? At the Guardian our editorial decision is very different than at the BBC. We can take a stand. I believe strongly in objectivity but it can be a difficult thing in fractious debates like this. It might be a bit beyond this debate.

If corporations are immoral – one of the reasons we expect corporations to be moral is because Google wears morals on the sleeve, etc. Where does the openness of information infringe on human rights (like Google Buzz – there was no consent for followers, etc.)?

Susan Pointer: mission, people, leadership and so on decide who a company is. I chose Google because I felt that it made good decisions. It’s easy to disassociate ourselves though. One thing I would say from our perspective is we follow through from the way we communicate, some would argue we are too open but I think that’s part of the process to engage with users. Buzz is one where we thought we had the controls in place but the options that were there could have been better with visibility – and we responded immediately.  We do have the ongoing discussion with our users. Privacy comes down to individuals having choice, transparency and control. Transparency in the human rights space is interesting – we want the option to be anonymous but we also want to know who is saying something.

Google’s business depends on knowing more and more about users – behavioral advertising. Isn’t that going to be difficult to walk that line? You have to make bigger profits and that lies in knowing more about your users.

Susan Pointer: Majority of our advertising is contextual – the search you made and the content on the page. We hold IP addresses, and not users. You can also opt out permanently of being associated with certain things. In settings, users can have the option to opt out, or opt in to certain things.

Annabelle Sreberny: So much of the content from Iran was user generated content sent to the media – what’s happened to that? Why should we be working for free for large media? Facebook is increasingly hard to excavate. People put content online that they want to share but you can’t get to it. What happens to the content we are putting up there?

Do you think access to technology will be acknowledge as a basic human right like water and shelter? Is it trivializing human rights by associating the internet with it?

Kevin Anderson: Yes. Technology – internet is about communications. We already have universal access provisions for things like telephones. Technology infuses my life. What we are seeing now is not that people don’t have access but choose not to have it. Why do people exclude themselves and what are the resasons? Especially in a technologically advanced country, that becomes a bigger issue.

Susan Pointer: When we are talking about technology we are taking it from the point that you have access to it. We have to consider the fact that in many places of the world people still don’t have access. We aren’t just talking about changing governments but giving citizens access to information at all.

Should Amnesty be fighting for the right to access the internet?

Annabelle Sreberny: Article 19 – the fundamental mission. THe right to community is all about access. Thinking about the right to communicate opens up many interesting issues.

Is there any indication that Amnesty is doing better now with technology?

Amnesty Rep: You can argue yes. If you look at Amnesty’s history, 49 years ago people wrote letters to get people out of prison. Once we had fax machines, we started having urgent actions to send a fax. Now we coax people to send emails. Technology gives us new ways to do things.

I would imagine a letter or a bag of letters 20 years ago was possibly more effective than a million emails today.

Amnesty Rep: It explains why we’ve never given up on letters. To some extent you can delete your inbox really quickly than you can get rid of a bag of letters. But it also means we can get information quickly and from everywhere quickly.

What technology means for people who are experiencing a crisis who don’t have access – don’t make it onto twitter, don’t make the news cycle?  Like Sri Lanka where pictures weren’t getting out.

Annabelle Sreberny: There were also huge demonstrations elsewhere pulling in the diaspora.  They play a role in alerting the media in other places. We can fall into the trap that one technology takes over from all others. Other technologies are still around. With the diaspora, you just need to get enough people to pay attention that they can spur the media.


“Tonight’s event is one of a series of events linked to Amnesty’s forthcoming Media Awards, which recognize excellence in UK human rights journalism. The Digital category, won last year by Wikileaks, awards innovative digital content appearing for the first time on a UK-based website and covers news, blogs, features and comment or debate, audio and visual material. This year a new Sponsorship Fund will help smaller media outlets cover their cost of entry, opening up the awards to more blogs and less-mainstream sites. Closing date for entry to the awards is 1 March, more details at
Live Blog: Is Technology Really Good for Human Rights
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