Getting ready for 2020: the RightsCon program past, present, and future

Next week, Access Now is launching our Call for Proposals for RightsCon Costa Rica (June 9-12, 2020), the ninth iteration of our global summit series. The moment is an important one for us: over the course of nine years and nine programs, RightsCon has transformed dramatically.

Our convening has evolved from a small gathering of 400 people in Silicon Valley to a vibrant, interconnected community of nearly 3,000 human rights defenders, industry leaders, technologists, government representatives, and experts worldwide. Our annual program consistently hosts 350+ public sessions divided across a dozen or more tracks, and we’ve seen the growing importance of community-driven models of convening, as local and issue-specific conferences sprout up in countries across the globe.

Yet all too often, we’re so focused on adapting to the tectonic shifts in our technology and human rights landscapes that we don’t take the time to celebrate our achievements, learn from our mistakes, and envision new paths forward. Reflection is critical to our work. It allows us to measure our impact over time and foresee bumps and curves in the road ahead.

As we turn our eyes to RightsCon Costa Rica, we’re thinking about the long-term future and sustainability of our summit series, and what shape it will take in the years to come. In 2021, RightsCon will hit a milestone: ten years of convening, connecting, and building momentum for human rights in the digital age. To prepare for that milestone, our team took a look back at past iterations of the RightsCon program in order to understand how far we’ve come and how our community’s priorities have evolved.

The conversations we had at RightsCon in Silicon Valley, Manila, and Tunis are not the same ones that we’ll be having in 2020 or 2021 – and that’s a good thing. Our program is a living record of our community’s growth and transformation over time. Tracking the changes in thematic content and structure has given our team insight into the complex and converging issues that will carry all of our work into the next decade and beyond.

In recent years, the RightsCon program has expanded to touch on 17 main themes. The growth of our program sometimes corresponded with the emergence of new issues, but in most cases, it arose out of the need to hold increasingly nuanced, specialized discussions around existing topics.

Important, too, is our understanding that – whether online or off – our work is more interconnected than ever. RightsCon’s mandate is no longer limited to the rights of online users at risk, defined in the narrowest terms. Technology has a hand in everything from governance and civic engagement to health care access and the right to education. It’s our responsibility as conveners to tell a story with our program, and curate an agenda that reflects the breadth and depth of human rights issues in the digital age.

Patterns across the RightsCon program

Unsurprisingly, RightsCon’s most enduring themes, which have appeared in the program for the past five years in a row, are linked to some of the thorniest issues in the digital rights space.

The intersection of business and human rights, for instance, is a major focus for Access Now, and for a number of our close partners. At RightsCon, we’ve seen that theme play out in sessions on corporate social responsibility, transparency and remedy, private sector advocacy and activism, rights-based business models, user privacy, platform accountability, whistleblowing, and surveillance capitalism.

Freedom of expression, another enduring theme in our program, has shifted significantly in terms of scope. Initially, sessions on freedom of expression centered on open source principles and public knowledge-sharing. More recently, the theme has refocused on censorship, content governance and control, free speech law and legislation, and barriers to accessing and exchanging information.

Since 2015, RightsCon has hosted an eye-popping 213 sessions on privacy, digital security, and data protection. In 2019, the theme dominated the RightsCon Tunis program, representing nearly 15 percent of all sessions. The historic popularity of privacy, security, and data as discussion topics points to the significance of these issues, which are deeply connected to almost every other human rights concern. Expect surveillance to remain a major point of tension, particularly as biometric technologies and human recognition systems grow more advanced.

Emerging concepts and trends

Our 2017 program at RightsCon Brussels set the standard for thematic diversity. The number of tracks tripled from the previous year, and nearly half of all sessions dealt with new and emerging issues for our community. Three themes, in particular, have shaped the current and future direction of the program: artificial intelligence, media and misinformation, and digital inclusion and diversity.

The first of these, artificial intelligence, is perhaps the most difficult to define and categorize as a standalone theme. Hailed as the third era of computing, artificial intelligence – including its subsets of automation and algorithmic decision-making – already underpins many industrial and human processes, to the point where this advanced technology has become ubiquitous in our daily lives. At RightsCon, the conversation has moved beyond broad, rights-based approaches to artificial intelligence, and we continue to see sessions that tackle the various impacts of machine learning and deep learning on governance and electoral systems, content monitoring and moderation, and trade and labor rights.

Media and misinformation emerged as a theme immediately after the 2016 presidential election in the United States and EU referendum in the United Kingdom. Sessions have delved into key aspects of our new media environment, focusing on safety and security of journalists, methods to combat false or hateful content, consolidation and media democracy, investigation in closing civil society spaces, data journalism and visualization tools, and more. Keep an eye on sessions in our media-centered track at RightsCon Costa Rica, particularly as scrutiny of the 2020 US presidential election ramps up.

Last but not least, digital inclusion and diversity is fundamental to our program at RightsCon, and our approach to creating a welcoming space for viewpoints and voices that are often pushed to the margins. Digital discrimination, divides, and disparities are a reflection of the intersecting oppressions that people of diverse identities and social statuses face every day, online and off. RightsCon will always champion gender equality across our program and production, and work to mainstream the rights of LGBTQ+ people, migrants, refugees, indigenous communities, and other targeted groups.

The future of our program

RightsCon Costa Rica is a moment to reflect, recharge, and reset for the decade ahead. As part of our mission to defend and extend human rights in the digital age, Access Now has a unique opportunity to find new intersections and avenues for success. There is power in uniting and unifying across movements, and understanding our role as a convener within the broader human rights ecosystem.

Based on our program at RightsCon Tunis, we identified four areas of exploration: indigenous digital rights, content moderation, digital identity systems, and philanthropy for modern movements. In Tunis, we featured these topics in prominent sessions and convened key stakeholders to strategize and develop solutions, but in many ways, we’ve only scratched the surface.

In 2020, we’re also soliciting session proposals that fall outside of our tried-and-true themes, in order to develop a holistic, community-sourced agenda that will drive collaborative, proactive work. In addition to our commitment to sustainability and environmental justice, which we announced in tandem with the Global Climate Strike, we’re interested in a set of emerging issues and distinct approaches that promise to disrupt traditional ways of thinking.

Creative envisioning, or using fiction and art to construct different realities and futures, is one of the approaches that has been traditionally underrepresented in our program. Incorporating art, exhibition space, and performances – with an eye toward the vibrant cultures of Latin America – will, we hope, encourage RightsCon participants to think and collaborate outside of their comfort zone.

Media platforms and mass communications tools can amplify hate speech, harassment, and discrimination. To achieve peace in a digital world, business leaders, humanitarians, and activists must consider how to prevent and mitigate technology-facilitated violence, and respond to the changing nature of human conflict.

Migration, displacement, and refugee rights staked a claim in the program at RightsCon Tunis, and is a trend to watch in Costa Rica. The movement of peoples within and across borders not only connects to climate and environmental issues, but also touches on long-standing topics on our program, including disaster response, digital discrimination, legal identity systems, data protection, and civic technology.

What comes next? You tell us!

Even as we look ahead, it’s important to remember that nothing is set in stone, and that you, as a member of our community, play a vital role in shaping the agenda at RightsCon Costa Rica. Our Call for Proposals opens in one week, on October 23, 2019. This is the crux of our program process, and we review each and every proposal holistically to make sure we’re creating the best program possible.

What do we mean by “best”? We look for proposals with a diverse approach and structure, original framing, relevance to the broader RightsCon community, and high potential for long-term impact. The most successful sessions translate cross-sector dialogue into post-conference outcomes, think building coalitions, making statements, and setting standards.

We tend to think of RightsCon as a cycle, rather than a moment in time. Every program builds off the last, drives a new phase of collective action, and influences the future direction of our work. Our commitment to session excellence – which involves everything from selecting quality, outcome-oriented proposals that bring something new to the table, to offering training and resources to our session organizers – is part of what sets RightsCon apart.

If you’re not sure where to start, take a look at our past programs in Tunis, Toronto, and Brussels, and learnings from our most recent convening. Get your ideas ready, and don’t forget to check back next week for an overview of how to submit a session proposal!

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