Not the Place for FOMO: Opening Remarks from RightsCon Southeast Asia


RightsCon Southeast Asia kicks off today in Manila. Here are edited opening remarks from Access’ Executive Director, Brett Solomon.

Welcome. The most important thing to note about RightsCon is that there is no audience as such. Whether you are on a panel, part of the programming committee, or a regular participant, this is a conference full of equal and expert voices — and the sessions should be run in that way. There are 100 sessions, and more than 50 tech demos and lightning talks. There is an internet ecosystem in this room. Session leaders are looking to build outcomes.

RightsCon will cover a number of things and I want to give you a snapshot of what lies ahead over the next few days. First, I want to note that the program is packed. You are going to be stressed out in choosing what to attend. Take a deep breath. You know what FOMO is — the Fear of Missing Out. This is not a conference for those who fear missing out. Enjoy the session you are in.

I want to start by talking about users at risk and marginalized communities, who are people on the fringes of the open internet. There is a strong focus at RightsCon on LGBT users and the digital rights of women. Gay and lesbian communities are using the internet in unique and particular ways. Their lives and activism are inherently intersectional, and so must be our responses. But there are many here who are personally at risk for other reasons — politically, socially, and physically.

We have emerging countries and transitional states represented at RightsCon. There are democracies, dictatorships, and everything in between in the Southeast Asia region. A special acknowledgement goes to all those who have come from Myanmar, whose struggle is ongoing on the streets, whose tech sector is so nascent, and where the new telecom licenses are still in flux.

But for many the internet is a question of access. Social media and mobile technology have taken Asia by storm. Yet in many Southeast Asian countries, the larger part of its citizens are not online. How do we bring the full population online? How do you ensure access to marginalized communities when the geographical breadth is beyond imagination? How do you bring connection to 18,000 Indonesian islands?

Disasters and erratic internet connections are increasingly part of life in the region. And the 250 submissions we received for sessions at RightsCon revealed that many stakeholders are focused on disaster preparedness.

Today we remember those users who are deliberately shut off from the internet, and we do not forget those who are subject to controlled access such as through government ­imposed firewalls. In Thailand, the government moved immediately after the coup d’etat to control networks and shut down Facebook, reminiscent of what so recently took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We say “no” to internet shutdowns.

This conference is essentially about freedom of expression. And I want to acknowledge the most senior person at the UN responsible for freedom of expression, David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression. And speaking of freedom of expression, congrats to the Southeast Asia Press Alliance and its partners for all the amazing work that has been done over many years to protect the press, journalists, and bloggers who are increasingly under threat in the region.

We must also acknowledge how online spaces reflect and magnify religious fundamentalism, and their impact on the advancement of human rights. When, if ever, should speech be curtailed? How does speech suppress liberal and secular expression online? And do digital security practices protect those under attack? Over the next two days, we’ll raise issues related to hate speech and violence online, particularly against marginalized groups.

Our conference is also about skill building. Every day, so many of us are facing new experiences and uncharted waters. I want to pay tribute to the dozens of trainers in the room from the Level Up community. And to the countless universities from Harvard to MIT to the Islamic University of Indonesia. There is much to learn.

What makes this conference special is the participation of the tech companies. When does their duty to respect and remedy rights, under the UN Framework for Business and Human Rights, become a proactive duty to extend access and protect user security? There are representatives from just about every tech giant, wanting to learn, network, and to be challenged.

Much of what we are talking about is data — and it is being collected at an unprecedented rate. For example, the prosecutors at the International Criminal Court came to RightsCon to work out how to collect and analyze cyber information to assist with prosecutions for crimes against humanity. For others, it is a question of how data is treated by nation states in a borderless internet.

Privacy is not dead in the age of counter terrorism. Instead what we need is to find new models that enable human security and national security. Because to my mind privacy leads to security, to healthy societies, to robust democratic institutions, to freedom of speech, and to trusted technology brands. Security comes from transparency, systems that are accountable, and law enforcement that respects human rights. Not from warrantless spying on people.

Let’s also not forget our victories. We’ve had big wins for Net Neutrality in the U.S., Chile, Holland, and so many more. But the battle for Net Neutrality in Europe has only just begun. How will we protect the end-to-end principle, the best-effort principle, and innovation without permission?  Every organization in this room should join the Global Net Neutrality Coalition to help advance this cause.

And so many of us have signed the Necessary and Proportionate principle on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance — join EFF, Access and Open Net Korea as we continue to turn Necessary and Proportionate into new legal norms and state practice.

Remember what I said about FOMO? We look forward to the next two days. Onward.