Taking a human rights agenda to Davos

I am heading to Davos this week for the 2018 World Economic Forum meeting, where 3,000+ leaders from across global industry, government, and civil society are gathering to discuss the theme of building a “Shared Future in a Fractured World.” The agenda is organized around four main tracks: identifying new models for economic progress and shared prosperity, balancing global cooperation and local autonomy in a multipolar world, overcoming divisions in society, and shaping the agile governance of technology.

It is critical to approach each of these issues through a human rights lens. Any shared vision for the future must ensure infrastructure, policies, and resources that allow everyone to enjoy their full range of rights without discrimination. That means putting at the center the needs of those who have been marginalized and accounting for voices who have been silenced.

To that end, I am taking a human rights agenda to Davos, and much of it is based on the community survey Access Now conducted leading up to this event asking our community what they wanted me to talk about here at the World Economic Forum.

In the survey, 42.3% of respondents identified “government surveillance and pressure on companies to hand over data, restrict content, and shut down or throttle networks” as the biggest hindrance to people being able to fully exercise their human rights in digital spaces. Likewise, 46.8% said “protecting Net Neutrality and discouraging discriminatory business models” are the best opportunities to protect human rights and spur development through the internet in the next ten years.

Our community is especially concerned about ensuring reliable and affordable internet access for all — especially in rural and developing areas — and taking the steps necessary to achieve full digital inclusion — from mainstreaming tools and features accessible to those with disabilities to empowering women and girls to use, design, and shape policy around digital spaces. Many respondents also pointed to the need for universal access to strong encryption, free of built-in backdoors that weaken much-needed protection of private communications and secure storage of sensitive personal data. We could not agree more with those who highlighted the need to achieve global recognition of digital rights as human rights that intimately affect all of our lives, as well as those who acknowledged that the biggest threats to our rights most likely are yet to be seen, making it necessary to build flexible policies and infrastructures that can adapt to a rapidly shifting environment.

I will lead with the following three items because they connect with the WEF agenda and are areas where we have particular expertise:

Firstly, on cybersecurity. Consistent with the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Risk Report launched this week, we recognize cybersecurity at the top of 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.

There are consistently new and more sophisticated security threats that interfere with the exercise of rights, from malware installed via phishing attacks, to vulnerable Internet of Things devices conscripted into sophisticated botnets, to attacks that aim to damage public utilities or voting systems. Ever-changing technology ensures vulnerabilities will always exist, and the further integration of these technologies into our lives increases the impact of exploitation. The effects of digital insecurity include but go beyond user privacy and expression — with particular threats to journalists, activists, and marginalized groups, and knock-on effects that endanger democratic processes and physical safety.

We want the WEF delegates to know that the protection of human rights must be at the heart of cybersecurity policy development. Efforts on cybersecurity must be aimed at ensuring the functioning of the open internet as a global network that can help realize our human rights across all nations. That will require coordinating vulnerability disclosure processes, safeguarding the role of security researchers, and promoting high standards to protect users with respect to the Internet of Things and emerging artificial intelligence technologies. Further, fora where cybersecurity policies are formulated should respect institutionalized democratic processes and provide ample opportunities for civil society to engage and provide thought leadership on policy development. Anything less will make us less secure, not more.

Secondly, on internet shutdowns.Those gathered in Davos should also be particularly concerned about the rise of internet shutdowns and other challenges to connectivity. Governments around the world have become increasingly comfortable cutting off access to the internet, blocking key communications platforms and social media, and disrupting SMS services.

Internet shutdowns are a blunt-force instrument used most often to silence dissidents and to block the free flow of information both into and out off affected areas. Rather than making people more safe, they cut off critical communications between friends, loved ones, and community service providers during periods of unrest. Further, they impose burdensome economic costs, often in places that are already underserved, and set back progress on needed development projects. Preventing internet shutdowns — and, more broadly, ensuring everyone has reliable and affordable access to the full uncensored, neutrally delivered internet — is fundamental to defending the full scope of human rights in the digital age, touching on everything from free expression and cultural participation to access to healthcare, education, and the right to work.

Thirdly, on biometrics. I will also be paying special attention to conversations around the collection of biometric data (like fingerprints, retina scans, or facial recognition). From biometric national ID cards like the Aadhaar program in India to increased biometric data collection and retention at borders around the globe, many governments are pushing ahead with implementing these new technologies without demonstrating their real value in upholding public safety, and without establishing comprehensive data protection mechanisms to prevent over-collection and abuse. But it is possible to change course to a more privacy-respecting direction. Just this month, lawmakers in Tunisia rejected a biometric ID proposal for its failure to provide sufficient protections for individuals’ privacy and its lack of clarity around how Tunisians’ data would be kept secure.

The Tunisians’ victory on privacy is also a source of hope in a world where space for civil society to operate and contribute to public dialogue is shrinking. To achieve a shared, rights-respecting future, we must identify tools for ensuring free spaces for robust debate and meaningful participation in government. Likewise, we must commit to helping civil society strengthen its digital security to stay safe in environments with increasing operational risk, and to holding accountable governments who aim to limit — or eliminate altogether — civil society’s role in their country. These tasks are central to Access Now’s mission, and are part of the daily work of our grants program and Digital Security Helpline.

Finally, looking beyond Davos, on May 16-18 Access Now will be convening RightsCon — the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age — in Toronto, Canada. A community of more than 2,000 business leaders, policy makers, general counsels, government representatives, technologists, and human rights defenders from 115 countries will come together to tackle some of the most pressing issues at the intersection of human rights and digital technology, including those laid out above. It is a space for breaking down silos, creating partnerships, and driving large-scale, real-world change toward a more free, open, and connected world. We look forward to building on the progress made in Davos this week.

Thanks to the Access Now global community who completed our survey and helped to define our priorities for the meeting. When speaking to the “elites,” it is essential that we bring the voices of our grassroots community to bear.

Find me on Twitter @solomonbrett #WEF2018 if there are other issues you want me to raise.

I’ll be speaking and participating in three main sessions: Protecting Digital Civic Space (Thursday, Jan 23rd, 12:30 p.m.), Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Wednesday, Jan 24th, 7:30 a.m.), and the Special Program of the Broadband Commission (Tuesday, Jan 22nd, 2 p.m.).