Community Updates

Decentralizing diplomacy: convening in the digital age

This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter edition of the Public Diplomacy Magazine from the University of Southern California. 

In 2011, social media platforms were being leveraged in the Arab Spring, a series of protests against authoritarian governments in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen; WikiLeaks released the Spy Files, thousands of pages exposing the global mass surveillance industry; IBM’s Watson computer had defeated reigning champions of the television game show, Jeopardy!; and Apple had just launched Siri, it’s brand new, virtual digital assistant.

It was two years before leaked NSA documents by Edward Snowden would catapult issues of privacy and surveillance into public consciousness and seven years before the Cambridge Analytica scandal would threaten the integrity of democratic systems, but the world was already grappling with the impact of technology – both negative and positive – on our lives and our rights.

In the same year, Access Now hosted its first ever RightsCon (then the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference), with the recognition that protecting and extending the digital rights of users at risk would require bringing all stakeholders – from tech companies to government representatives to human rights defenders – to the table. The outcome was a tangible set of rights-based standards for a rapidly expanding technology sector and the start of a summit series that has now taken place on five continents and attracts more than 2,500 participants annually.

The conversations we hosted in 2011 with a few hundred participants across a handful of workshops have expanded and shifted into the ones we have today. The last decade has seen near ubiquitous integration of technology into our everyday lives. Governments are rapidly responding to protests online and off by increasingly shutting down access to the internet; the exporting of surveillance technology and advances in facial recognition software are facilitating targeted and mass surveillance at an intractable scale; artificial intelligence underpins many industrial and human processes; and our homes and devices play host to increasingly sophisticated virtual assistants.

Following the RightsCon program over time aptly illustrates the growing complexity of building a rights-respecting future, as well as the convergence of issues once classified as outside the digital rights or “cyber” domain. Yet even as the program and participation expands, the core idea of our summit remains: in-person, multi-stakeholder convening is a powerful tool for change.

Gettting the Right People in the Room

“Multi-stakeholderism” can feel like a tired and outdated term, but so many challenges stem from a disconnect between different perspectives. Getting the right people in the room can be difficult – it requires trust and at times is uncomfortable – but the challenges ahead are complex and interconnected. This means that multi-stakeholder approaches to convening aren’t a buzzword or a nice-to-have; they’re a necessity to move from problem identification to problem solving.

We also see this approach as a necessary step to redistribute power. Current challenges can’t be solved by traditional tools of diplomacy alone. Too often, the communities that are most affected by rapid changes in technology aren’t represented in the rooms where decisions are made. For this reason, we prefer intimate strategic roundtables over highly-produced keynotes. When done wrong, events can perpetuate existing power asymmetries by elevating certain voices over others. When done right, they can bring decision-makers in policy and industry face-to-face with those affected, and strengthen accountability mechanisms.

Building an Adaptive Program

Being responsive to change requires agility. Our program remains relevant because we don’t do it alone. Every year, in our Call for Proposals, we turn to a global community of experts and ask: what are you working on now and what is needed to move it forward? Once we close our Call, building the program can’t be formulaic. We work alongside session organizers to curate a program and create an environment that facilitates impact, even when it can be difficult to identify what that looks like ahead of time.

Over the last nine years, that network has expanded, highlighting an important shift in focus from digital rights to human rights in the digital age. This flexibility in the agenda has meant our program hosts the enduring themes present at our very first convening – business and human rights, freedom of expression, and privacy – while expanding to include unforeseen emerging concepts and trends. In Brussels, it was artificial intelligence, in Toronto, humanitarian response, in Tunis, election integrity, and in Costa Rica, it will likely be the climate crisis. Including new transformative collisions across the human rights sector is not an attempt to duplicate hard work already being done in those spaces. Rather, it’s an opportunity to dismantle traditional silos for a “merging of rivers” that can result in shared learnings and unexpected collaborations.

Creating a Movement

Movements that drive transformational change “respond holistically and flexibly to seize strategic opportunities to act.” Our collaborative, community-driven model is what makes RightsCon effective and unique as a convening space, especially when what qualifies a community “member” is fluid and individually-defined by each participant.

Since 2011, RightsCon has cultivated a “core community” of activists, technologists, public servants, researchers, and issue area experts who return to our summit year after year, and meaningfully contribute to its structure and content. The key to these long-standing relationships is trust. As conveners, we are accountable to our community, and our community, in turn, invests energy, time, and resources into designing a space that drives human connections and furthers social change.

We think of RightsCon as a movement because of the cyclical, non hierarchical nature of our work. Change is incremental, and our program is a living record of our community’s growth and transformation over time. Every convening adds another layer of complexity and ushers in a fresh cohort of innovators and thought leaders. At this year’s summit, we published the Tunis Learnings, a statement considering each major track and outlining a starting point for centering human rights in each industry and body of work.

Focusing on Impact

Informal conversations and planned discussions are important tactics for building networks, but alone they’re not enough to drive action. Since the beginning, we’ve emphasized the importance of sessions that translate into concrete outcomes and strategies that carry momentum forward and often build the foundation for the next cycle of our program.

Convening is important because we’ve seen what happens when it works. Coordination between civil society organizations to protect the rights to equality and non-discrimination in machine learning led to a first of its kind declaration. A meeting between Global South advocates and Facebook representatives launched a coalition to uphold platform accountability for traditionally underserved users. An official statement from UN Special Rapporteurs calling for the protection of human rights defenders in digital spaces set a standard for other multilateral bodies. In the midst of the 2019 summit, as the Sudan uprising unfolded, the #KeepItOn coalition – itself an outcome of the summit – mobilized the RightsCon community to demand an end to internet shutdowns in the country.

At our next summit, we’ll explore how we can build on what has been done to shape what’s to come.


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