Bringing community insights on human rights priorities to world leaders in Davos

At the beginning of each year, hundreds of world leaders and CEOs, along with a small group of civil society reps, gather at the World Economic Forum to help shape global, regional, and industry agendas for worldwide impact. This is my second time traveling to Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum meeting, and after consulting online with the Access Now community across more than 40 countries and every continent this last week, I’m even more determined to bring a human rights agenda to this powerful table. 

The official content for the 2020 World Economic Forum (#wef20) is split across 7 key themes and will consider several pressing issues. To find out what your agenda is, so as to help shape the discussions in Davos, we once again conducted a community survey.

Your resounding message, and one that I plan to make clear to the world leaders and tech industry giants in Davos, is this: a commitment to protecting fundamental rights like privacy and freedom of expression must be at the heart of any policy or technology developed and implemented by governments and companies. 

Here are the top priorities you identified:

Overreaching data collection: More than any other issue, our community expressed concern about the constant collection of personal information by both companies and governments, particularly where it is done without people’s knowledge or consent, and without transparency into how that data is used. This also includes attempts to undermine secure communications by building backdoors into encryption and targeting individuals’ devices with spyware.

Heightened risks of biometric data: In particular, people are worried about the collection of biometric data, whether it be as part of a digital ID program or through facial recognition surveillance. You called out the irreparable damage that can result from biometric data leaks, as well as the ways in which individuals already at risk are disproportionately targeted and impacted by these technologies.

Access to information: Respondents highlighted that lack of access to the internet continues to drive inequality and limit access to important resources for marginalized communities, while also expressing concerns about government censorship — including internet shutdowns  — and large tech platforms that act as content gatekeepers.

E-waste: More than half of you identified the contribution of e-waste — through the production, consumption, and disposal of electronic devices and the energy they require — as technology companies’ greatest impact on the climate crisis.

Informed by these results, I’ll be prioritizing several key areas of work throughout the event: 

Digital ID

Many of you expressed a lack of trust, particularly among those in vulnerable communities, in the digital identity programs that are proliferating around the world. That distrust is largely rooted in a lack of sufficient data protection and privacy safeguards, and the heightened risk of surveillance, discrimination, and other forms of abuse that result.

Last year, we launched a global campaign calling on the development leaders who fund, promote, design, and implement these programs to ask one basic questionWhy ID? Many governments are rushing to implement digital ID systems without properly assessing whether they are the best tool to meet people’s needs or how their implementation will impact individuals’ human rights. At Davos, I intend to continue this conversation with major players working on development, humanitarian response, and other relevant sectors to ensure human rights principles form the foundation of any digital ID programs going forward.


We recognize cybersecurity at the top of the agenda, including the increasing risk of data and infrastructure insecurity. We are working closely with government actors, companies, and partners in civil society to ensure cybersecurity policies are formulated to be user-centric, systemic, and anchored in open and pluralistic processes. This past December, Access Now intervened during the intersessional meeting for the United Nations Open-ended Working Group on global cybersecurity to provide input on the working group’s approach to cyber threats, stressing the need to continue defending fundamental rights like free expression and access to information while combating cyber threats. The increasing use of malware and exploitation of vulnerabilities to facilitate surveillance of individuals and networks around the world poses a significant threat to human rights, and far too often these tools have been used to target journalists, activists, and opposition voices.

New Tech and the Climate Crisis 

I will also be focused on the intersection between new tech and the climate crisis, which has long been underlooked. ICTs are one of the fastest growing sources of physical waste and greenhouse gases, dubbed “e-waste,” and the production, consumption, and disposal of our individual devices and networks have far-reaching impacts on land, human health, and environmental sustainability. At the same time, indigenous and environmental rights defenders are often at risk of being surveilled online, leading to dire consequences offline. With skepticism surrounding global climate change heating up – now, more than ever – we must protect those who fight for climate justice and defend their right to disseminate scientific and qualitative research.


Perhaps the most urgent issue I will be discussing is the proposed sale of the .ORG top-level domain to a private equity firm. Civic space is already under attack from all sides, and moving civil society’s home online into the hands of profit-driven investors presents a major threat. I, along with a group of directors from some of the world’s leading NGOs, will release an open letter on Wednesday, January 22, calling for an immediate stop to the proposed sale, and transparency in ongoing conversations about the future of .ORG. If you are in Davos, join us at 11:45am CET on Wednesday on the promenade, under the flags at the conference center entrance, for a press briefing.

At the event next week, I’ll be addressing these topics individually with key stakeholders, in roundtable meetings — including, among others, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Brad Smith of Microsoft — and as a panelist in these four sessions:

  • Of Risks and Responses: How to Increase Global Cybersecurity and Digital Trust [Tuesday 21 January] 
  • What happens when your biometrics get hacked? [Tuesday 21 January] 
  • Building Trust in the Smart Home [Wednesday 22 January] 
  • Partnering with Civil Society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution [Friday 24 January]

On June 9-12, 2020, Access Now will convene a global community of more than 3,000 stakeholders at RightsCon — the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age — in San José, Costa Rica.  We look forward to building on the progress made in Davos this week, across the agenda and in particular regarding our collective responsibility to address the climate crisis.

If you would like to connect with me during the event or have other issues you would like to voice with these world leaders, you can find me on Twitter @solomonbrett #wef20.