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RightsCon Tunis: At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Technology

As technological advances continue to evolve around us, we face newer challenges every day. Many of us may feel overwhelmed by the never-ending disruptions caused by new digital tools and tech giants – which sometimes is terrifying! As human rights advocates, we need to keep up with the pace of our digital reality and articulate how the world has changed to others.

“Technology matters, but digital rights and people’s lives matter more!”

But how does the human rights picture look in our brave new digital world? More importantly, how do we ensure our human rights both offline and online?

These questions came to mind while in Tunisia for RightsCon Tunis. Hosted by AccessNow, the annual international event on human rights in the digital age was held 11-14 June 2019, gathering over 3,000 participants, including over 1,000 experts in various fields.

Since 2011, RightsCon has taken place in major cities around the world: San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, Manila, Brussels, and Toronto. This year’s event was the first one convened in Africa and the Middle East, yet it became one of the largest gatherings in the field of human rights and technology. RightsCon has once again provided a valuable platform to facilitate connections among various networks and stakeholders.

Among 17 thematic tracks and over 450 sessions, I observed that protecting human rights in the digital age has proven to be challenging across many political regimes, not only in authoritarian governments but even in democratic ones. I was particularly interested in how human rights groups could resist and respond to shrinking civic spaces, a situation I’m all too familiar with.

The “Online Dissidence in the Global South” session discussed the growth of authoritarian digital governance in developing countries, with a range of case studies from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Malaysia. The speakers complained about increased state surveillance and censorship, with alarming compliance of tech companies on content moderation.

“Living in an increasingly digital world does not mean living artificial lives with artificial liberties. Our rights must be real, all the time.” – Dunja Mijatović, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

Other sessions mentioned the rise of restrictions on freedom of expression online by Draconian laws and information regulations by governments in the region.

There is one particular event at RightsCon that I will never forget – the commemoration of Tunisia’s first online political activist, Zouhair Yahyaoui, killed under the Ben Ali regime. There was this banner with the words, “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”

Going beyond state regulations, what if algorithms could decide our rights? Many stakeholders talked about the rapid development and deployment of artificial intelligence (AI). We do not deny that AI is helping us in many positive ways, but we need to worry about how to ensure the ethical use of automated decision-making tools in the human rights context.

The questions about ethical AI and AI governance came to mind after the workshop on “When technology knows how you feel.” The session started presenting the reality of how AI can determine feelings and emotions based on voice, facial expression, breathing rate, skin temperature, gaze, or internal physiology. This led to many controversial issues in ethics and human rights. For example, human emotions can vary in different cultures and society, which must be considered when coding algorithms. Using automation in decision making can also reinforce biases and discrimination.

“Living in an increasingly digital world does not mean living artificial lives with artificial liberties. Our rights must be real, all the time,” said Dunja Mijatović, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. As the first RightsCon hosted in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, Tunisia stands out as the most inspiring story on how the Arab Spring emerged. Interestingly, the conference venue was just in front of the Human Rights Square in Tunis, where thousands of Tunisian protesters gathered in 2011.

Indeed, the fight for freedom has only become more critical after the Arab Spring uprisings. There is still a lot more work to do on the fronts of human rights and technology. Looking ahead, there are still many challenges awaiting us on the way to RightsCon 2020 in Costa Rica.

About the Author

Darika Bamrungchok is EngageMedia’s digital rights coordinator in Thailand. You may follow her writing and other posts on digital rights by subscribing to our mailing list.

This October, journalists, filmmakers, human rights advocates, and technologists from across Asia will gather in the Philippines for Coconet II, a digital rights camp. Applications close August 11, 2019 – apply now!