Alaa Abd El Fattah RightsCon Keynote Address – 2011


Alaa has travelled to California to give a keynote address at the RightsCon conference in Silicon Valley, which he delivers in English. While there he learns he has been summoned to the military prosecutor.

You can read the Arabic version of Alaa’s speech here as well as the letter he wrote to the RightsCon community from behind the  bars of Tora prison in 2017. 


Hi. Let me just take thirty seconds off topic and talk about extraordinary justice, which is what I’m going to be facing, military prosecutors. There’s obviously no due process. Civilians shouldn’t be facing that. I urge you to find ways to stand in solidarity with anyone who is facing extraordinary justice. You’ve had your share of it with the Guantanamo detainees here in this country. So, if you care about human rights, you know what it’s like, and you know why it’s important. There are around 12,000 civilians in Egypt who are currently in military prison. Some of them for participating in the revolution that the military pretends to have protected and sided with, some for very minor offenses. Mostly, they’ve been randomly detained around major events in which it is the military who has committed the crimes and not the civilians. So, I urge you to find ways to stand in solidarity with anyone who is facing extraordinary justice. Thank you.


Now, for the topic. So I guess I’m here as an activist, as a foot soldier in a revolution to talk about how tech companies can find ways to maintain and promote and protect and respect the human rights of their users. Now, that’s a topic I’m quite cynical about. Companies are not really likely to do any of that. Corporations are not really likely to do any of that. The conflicts … it’s not exactly that there is a conflict of interest. I think we’re all here because we know that it’s actually possible to go about our business without infringing on people’s rights and without allowing in tools that are being used to infringe on people’s rights, but the relationships, the structure of relationships between power is such that even if it’s possible, even if it doesn’t cost much, even if it’s not going to affect the profit margins, it’s probably not going to happen, but it also sometimes conflicts with the profit margin in very funny ways. So, from the perspective of an activist, some very normal features can be quite annoying, can be quite problematic. Real name policies, rate limits on Twitter, real name policies on Facebook or anything like that, that is actually problematic. If you’re trying to mobilize people the way mobile companies are trying to monetize every single transaction: that limits what we can do. But this is the business model. I don’t expect either Twitter or Facebook or the mobile companies to change their business models just for activists, so that is not going to happen.

But here’s something that could happen:

Companies…If governments are trying to pass legislation or change regulation and it’s going to affect their profit, then companies do stand up, do make a noise, do try and change things. But if the same governments are doing something sinister that’s going to affect humans, that’s going to affect their users, they’re not likely to talk about it. So, we’ve all heard about the ‘kill switch’, how Egypt was completely cut off from the internet for a few days during the first uprising in the revolution. Vodafone and Co., their defense, their constant defense, is that this was the law, that there was nothing that they could do. But they knew about that law two years in advance. And they never made a noise.

We, in Egypt, had ways of fighting unjust laws. We could take it to the Constitutional Court, we could do a campaign against it, it might have been possible for us to get rid of that law before the revolution happened if the companies had chosen to actually expose the fact that it had happened. That law was almost secret. But they knew about it because there were meetings and a process was set up with them so that they could figure out how to do a kill switch. There were test runs that were done in small cities. But they failed to object. They failed to object publicly, and they failed to object to the government.

The reason why they failed to object, in my opinion, is that it’s actually a conspiracy. It’s not a conspiracy in which they sit in a dark room and agree to screw us, but it’s a conspiracy in which interests coincide. In which interests that should not exist coincide. The market is highly centralized, highly monopolized, and that is done to maintain the privilege that these corporations have. In exchange, these corporations will also extend the privilege to the government and allow them to be more in control. The conspiracy doesn’t happen because people decide. It just happens because their interests happen to coincide in this way.

Now, the same company, Vodafone, claims that they are powerless against government. They are a poor defenseless company that can’t resist an order – but is actually able to resist paying tax in the U.K. So, they do have leverage over government. So, here’s the first thing you could do: you could act like any normal citizen, like any organization that is made of people, and engage with government normally. If you hear about plans, or if you’re getting orders that you do not like, challenge them. Challenge them legally. I’m not expecting corporations to become revolutionaries, but you can do things. You can take it to court, you can resist, you can ask for due process. We’re not even sure that Vodafone – of course, I’m just using them as the example, but all the communications companies – that they got a proper order. The law existed, but it was a moment of chaos. We suspect that they just got a phone call, and they started implementing it. There is a process probably, a written order should have been issued and so on. They could have stalled this operation if they wanted to. They didn’t choose to do it. So, that’s something that is easy that you can do. But you’re not likely to do it anyway, right? That’s not going to happen. Let’s be honest. What needs to happen is a revolution. What needs to happen is a complete change in the order of things, so that we are making these amazing products, and we’re making a living, but we’re not trying to monopolize, and we’re not trying to control the internet, and we’re not trying to control our users, and we’re not complicit with governments, we’re not Amazon who’s removing WikiLeaks, and we’re not Vodafone who is happily cutting off tax and cutting off people’s communication and so on.

So, here’s another thing that you could do: go occupy somewhere. But you’re not likely to do that because that’s not likely to succeed, right? It’s a small movement, and it doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere and so on. So, what can you do? What can you do realistically that takes into account what you are about?

Well, here’s what you can do. Ignore the activists. Ignore the revolutionaries. We have to face bullets. We have to face military trials. It doesn’t matter really what you do. It doesn’t matter if Facebook is going to reveal my information or not. I have to assume that I’m being constantly watched, that everything about me is public. It doesn’t matter. But what matters is ordinary users, ordinary users who use your products to practice their agency. When you decide that they cannot decide to choose a pseudonym, then you are negating them the right to negotiate their identity. The right to negotiate your identity is – it’s not in the Charter of Human Rights, but it’s actually essential to most rights – women know what I’m talking about because you have to negotiate your identity constantly: you are someone else in the home, and you’re someone else in the workplace, you have to negotiate who you are, sometimes I have to be nice and the mother type, sometimes I have to be the bitch at the office. If you’re gay, if you’re from a religious minority, if you’re whatever, negotiated identity is very important. I get to choose whether to reveal who I am and how to reveal who I am, and decide who I am on my own terms and on my own basis.

When you design products that help me assert my agency but then interfere in how I get to assert my identity, then you’re denying me something very important. Then you’re making teenagers threatened because their parents – and their peers – can continue their pressure in ways that aren’t even possible in the physical world. I can hide from my mom and smoke, but I can’t hide my Facebook from my mum. Then what’s going on there? How do I retain that right? So, think about the rights of the ordinary users. Think about them in ways that go beyond privacy / government is going to see this / what’s going on. This is about who I am. This is about my identity. This is about how I express myself. This is about how I communicate with the world, and that is a place in which I don’t think your profit conflicts with the rights of your users, and I don’t think your government really cares that much.

You can do a better job at it.

As for the activists, we always find a way. Thank you.

Delivered on 25 October 2011 in California.