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Video: Yahoo! Business and Human Rights Summit 2010

Our friends at Yahoo! convened their annual Yahoo! Business and Human Rights Summit earlier this month at the Yahoo! campus in Sunnyvale, California earlier this month. I was, unfortunately, unable to attend, but Georgetown’s Yahoo! Fellow, Evgeny Morozov, was an active participant.

What follows is a post by Christine Bader on the Yahoo! Business & Human Rights blog of her reflection on the Summit.

Christine Bader and Sarah Labowitz | Photo: Vasanth Rakasi

Christine Bader and Sarah Labowitz | Photo: Vasanth Rakasi

Guest Post, by Christine Bader, Advisor to the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on business and human rights

(See here for video highlights of the Summit, here for photos of the Summit, and here for the 2010 Flickr Gallery!)

As I pored over my notes on the flight home from Tuesday’s second annual Yahoo! Business & Human Rights summit, three themes emerged — context, scale, and education — as did a few reflections about this moment in the tech industry’s history.

Many speakers at the summit urged us to consider technology’s intersection with free expression and privacy in its broader context.  Kum Hong Siew, former member of Singapore’s parliament, stressed the importance of understanding the offline regulatory situation in a country before honing in on the government’s approach to the internet and social media.  Kathleen Reen from Internews reminded us that we’re not discussing mere technical issues, but challenges that are situated within human rights and the rule of law.

Context is critical at both macro and micro levels.  Scott Rubin from Google discussed the difficulty in deciding whether to take down YouTube content, which requires assessing the intention of the uploader.  For example, violent footage could be taken down in accordance with a site’s Terms of Service, but might be critical if revealing excessive force by police.

Scale was considered from a number of perspectives:  global vs local, mass market vs niche, small vs big.  Companies grapple with how to reconcile global policies with local laws and norms; national governments struggle to manage companies’ international reach and content.

Elia Varela Serra believes that demand will grow for niche products like Maneno, the blogging platform she co-founded for sub-Saharan Africa, which enables local language content and easy uploading for areas with poor connectivity.  On the other hand, Sameer Padania of Witness.org tried to build a video sharing hub for human rights activists but found that many of them used YouTube, so switched his focus to ensuring appropriate space for human rights-related content in mass market tools.

The Global Network Initiative (GNI) has forged personal relationships that have proved invaluable when crises occur.  But the GNI won’t always be comprised of the same founding individuals, and aims to grow in terms of membership and the number of people its members touch.  Companies currently take a case-by-case approach to the human rights challenges they face — but that can’t be sustainable for a business like YouTube, to which users upload 24 hours of video every minute.

All of the panels emphasized the importance of education:  about human rights, about the risks of online life and activism, and about the tools that can protect them like UltraReach and AnchorFree.  Kim Pham of AccessNow, Reen of InterNews and Sarah Labowitz of the U.S. State Department were among those who discussed their initiatives to educate constituencies, from activists to journalists to foreign service officers respectively.

I’ve observed and advised GNI since its inception, so have seen firsthand the tech industry’s coming to terms with its impacts on human rights.

The industry is exceptionally dynamic in terms of its products and services, the ways in which its offerings are employed by a wildly diverse population, and its relationships with other companies, governments, and civil society.

But its experience with regard to human rights is not unique.  Many other sectors, most notably extractives and apparel, have gone through a similar process of

  1. realizing their impacts on human rights, positive and negative;
  2. taking responsibility for those impacts;
  3. recognizing that they’ll be more effective collaborating with peers and stakeholders than going it alone;
  4. piloting solutions and discussing how to scale them up; and
  5. understanding that respecting human rights is a necessary and permanent requirement, but one that will take countless twists and turns — so prioritizing relationships and principles rather than specific prescriptions.

By this time next year, the industry will no doubt be grappling with new technologies employed in new ways by new users, new regulatory and social expectations, new players and different incarnations of old ones.  The Global Network Initiative and Tuesday’s event are terrific examples of that fifth stage above, that I hope and expect will support ongoing collaboration and effective solutions.  Watch this space.

Christine Bader is Advisor to the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative on business and human rights.

(HT: Ebele  Okobi-Harris , Director, Yahoo! Business & Human Rights Program)

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.