Contributed by Mona Chun, Deputy Director, IHRFG

In March, I attended RightsCon: Silicon Valley along with more than 700 other attendees from over 65 countries. Access, an organization which builds the technical capacity of digital activists and civil society groups worldwide to advocate for their digital rights, put together this buzzing three-day event. For this 2nd RightsCon: Silicon Valley, leading human rights experts, investors, corporate leaders, engineers, activists, and government representatives came together to tackle some of the toughest human rights challenges in tech today.


The first Human Rights and Silicon Valley conference, which took place two years ago, was focused on internet freedom, policy, and censorship. This 2014 conference was a vastly changed scene. Conversations this year also revolved around threats to individuals, human rights defenders, and “ordinary” citizens alike; the complexities of technology as a tool used by activists as well as repressive regimes; increasing challenges around surveillance and privacy; governments that encourage freedom then apply restrictions; companies that are struggling with the right to privacy for their customers; as well the newest in tech tools to support human rights. This multi-sector event was an opportunity for those tackling these and many related issues from many different perspectives to focus on action and outcomes together.

IHRFG sponsored a session on “Funding for Technology for Human Rights: An Integrated Approach,” featuring James Logan, Program Officer, International Human Rights Programme, Oak Foundation; Dan Meredith, Director, Open Technology Fund, Radio Free Asia; Betsy Bramon, Global Programs Officer, US Department of State; Chris Riley, Senior Policy Engineer, Mozilla Corporation; and facilitated by Helen Brunner, Executive Director, Media Democracy Fund.

This was the first session in a “funding technology and human rights stream” throughout the event. Other related sessions included “Funding Tech through Competitions and Challenges: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly;” “Supporting Human Rights in a Surveilled World from a Donor Perspective;” “Crowdfunding for Human Rights: Potentials and Pitfalls;” and “Digital Security for LGBTQ Human Rights Defenders: Unique Challenges and Opportunities”.

Through this stream of workshops related to funding, I was reminded of discussions from IHRFG’s January 2013 Institute on the “Security of Human Rights Defenders”, additional conference sessions, and conversations within IHRFG’s Human Rights Defenders Working Group meetings. Several “funder tips” were repeated:

  • Be pro-active in helping grantees realize why they should care about technology and digital security;
  • Encourage grantees to have a digital security plan and ensure commitment to integration in the organization’s day-to-day operations, especially in closed countries;
  • Provide resources for grantee technology audits, training, and effective implementation;
  • “Do No Harm:” be sure to not put grantees in danger with donor communications, requests and requirements;
  • Be careful sharing information about grantees; and
  • Don’t forget to audit your own systems as well.

While IHRFG members have had a growing number of discussions on digital security of human rights defenders, I learned a lot more about funding at the intersection of human rights and technology. Funders and participants were encouraged to:

  • Connect with and grow the human rights and tech network by convening human rights and tech groups more often and ensuring they are plugged in to each other;
  • Work with existing “champions” in the field of human rights and tech to define a practice;
  • Bridge the gap between those working on security issues and internet freedom groups;
  • Build capacity on policy change for internet freedom.

When funding tech development specifically, a few cautions and suggestions were highlighted:

  • There’s a need to bridge human rights contexts, especially in the Global South and/or rural communities with those building tech tools in the Global North; usability is critical.
  • Supporting technology can be like adopting a child: they are subject to regular bugs; they need to keep up with the newest codes, platforms, and devices; there aren’t always tidy report cards (or M&E reports); and a long-term view of impact is necessary.
  • More support is needed for ongoing tech research (replication of existing research, de-bugging, sharing data, checking each others’ results, updates); don’t move on once research is done-contexts and technology change quickly.
  • Be open to funding projects that fail; technology needs to be tested, fixed, tested, fixed.
  • Think about how to appropriately take risks within such a complex space.
  • How best to fund innovation? Would Henry Ford have been funded to make the first car? Take a risk on a project that no one else is ready to fund.

In other sessions, I learned about new technologies being used by International Criminal Court investigators; frameworks being developed to assist companies in “doing the right thing” when governments request customer data; and a (personally) humorous talk about how Asians love and use social media.

Yet after three days of being seduced by the youthful energy of Silicon Valley and its aura of possibility, the last session I attended brought it back home. I was reminded by an LGBT rights activist at a panel organized by IHRFG member, Urgent Action Fund, that while hundreds of participants in the adjacent rooms were strategizing the development of new “Apps” for human rights, many grassroots groups still just need basic computers and generators. Technology means a lot of different things to different people.

I left RightsCon still pondering many questions raised by participants. How do we effectively build the bridges with human rights activists on the ground and technologists in Silicon Valley? How do we close the technological (and generational) gap between the traditional human rights movement and the newer tech-savvy activists, amongst policymakers and society? What role can we play in reconciling the differences caused by technology that is slow to come to too many while it changes at lightning speed for others?

RightsCon gathered outcomes from each of its sessions. Maybe some of these questions were tackled. And back at my desk, an outcome for me is eagerness to productively further this discussion amongst IHRFG membership.

Cross posted from the IHRFG blog.

Image, via Willow Brugh/Flickr

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