Peter Gabriel, the co-founder of WITNESS defined our time as “the age of transformative technology”. Indeed, new technologies have placed weapons in everyone’s hands, and made human rights movements a party where everyone is invited. With smart phones, social media and Internet, voices can now travel faster than light.
Now that everyone can be a human rights activist using a cell phone and the Internet, the challenge becomes developing a system of support. This has turned into a nightmare for policymakers, partly because it’s a new territory where same rules don’t always apply; partly because the line for morality can be so burry that it is impossible to make the absolute correct judgment. They constantly struggle between copyright law and protection of creativity, control over internet and freedom of speech, cyberspace safety and anonymity… just to name a few.
While the iphone gives up unprecedented communication power, it also raises serious questions about the consequences of a device that keep every detail of our movements and is known to store that data for up to a year.
While the thriving social media fueled the Egyptian revolution, twitter is still not allowed in China and the North Korean government is considering a law against anonymous comments online.
While more and more videos are being made and uploaded, drawing people’s attention to family abuse, hate violence, education in developing countrie and other human rights topics, yet people suffer from harassment or threats as a result of their views and personal lives becoming publicly available on a global scale.
So with all the shiny tools, are we making this world better or worse? What is the standard here? Where should we draw the line?
Earlier this month, WITNESS issued “Cameras Everywhere”, a report on current challenges and opportunities behind video and technology, calling for a more viable environment for human rights in today’s world.
In that report, WITNESS identified five major challenges and offered some critical recommendations as response.
The five major challenges, as discussed in “Cameras Everywhere”, include: Privacy and Safety; Network Vulnerabilities; Information Overload; Authentication and Preservation; Ethics; and Policy. As important players in today’s human rights movement, technology companies and developers, investors, human rights organizations, funders and policymakers should engage and collaborate with each other to put human rights front and center. In this way, we can try to create a dedicated safe space for human rights advocacy in the digital world.
It seems we are trapped in a paradox that we ourselves created. Should we regulate the use of technology at the cost of free expression? Or should we defend our beloved freedom of expression at the cost of our own privacy and safety? Our previous knowledge is no longer sufficient enough to answer the question. It maybe time for a whole new ecosystem, a whole new set of codes.
Solutions provided by WITNESS or many others may not yet be universally applicable at once, but they provide an important first step as a remedy to the challenges of mobilizing digital media to combat human rights abuses around the world.