Voices from RightsCon 2016

Photo credit: Urvi Nagrani

Every year we hold RightsCon to bring together people from different sectors, regions, and backgrounds. Together, we share ideas, build strategies, explore new technologies, and create partnerships that can reinforce and energize the global digital rights community.

As an organization whose mission is to defend and extend the rights of users at risk across the globe, we want to make sure that RightsCon remains an inclusive, diverse, and safe space for everyone, nurturing the perspectives and dialogue that help promote human rights globally. This is why all voices from RightsCon are important to us.

This year, attendees came to RightsCon from 84 different countries, the largest geographical spread we’ve ever had. We are humbled by the outpouring of expertise and ideas for keeping the internet open, free, and secure. As a follow-up to the conference, we asked members of this remarkable community to share their thoughts on the RightsCon experience, and to articulate what they see as the next steps in the fight for human rights worldwide.

Here are some highlights from what they had to say. Please stay tuned — we’ll update this post as more responses come in!

An Xiao Mina   |   Sze Ming   |   Khairil Yusof   |   Urvi Nagrani   |   Soudeh Rad   |   Japleen Pasricha   |   Esra’a Al Shafei


An Xiao Mina, Meedan

Building an internet that respects human rights requires a lot of hands, of many forms, colors, abilities, genders, and backgrounds. At RightsCon, many attendees recognize that digital rights issues affect communities disproportionately, often replicating and even magnifying existing inequities.

This year, Meedan hosted conversations about language access and equity online, and the importance of sharing verified material and information onto the open web, and we attended many more discussions — touching on everything from rights in the MENA and the Asia Pacific regions, to the role of visual culture online, to the unique challenges of first responders. Questions around audience, networks, and impact all came to the fore: Whom are we trying to address, who’s being impacted by our designs, and which communities are represented online and in physical spaces like RightsCon? Are we designing and speaking for these communities, or with them?

We also learned, through our partnership with Global Voices Lingua to translate a number of #RightsCon Tweets to Arabic and Spanish, that the hunger to learn more about these issues is truly global, and cuts across languages. Making these translations was a whirlwind process — and the response from people following along was positive. How many voices are we truly representing and reaching out to, when English is our primary mode of engagement? As the internet rapidly becomes more diverse, especially across the global south, it’s a critical question to ask, and I know it’s a conversation the conference community welcomes.

RightsCon’s emphasis on global diversity and direct outcomes deserves praise. Bringing together a broader array of voices — including in more plenary sessions, where we can interact with and learn from each other more broadly across the community — will only strengthen the amazing community the Access team has built. The event is a highlight of our year, and we look forward to seeing how the conversations advance in the future.


Sze Ming, Sinar Project

The biggest takeaway from RightsCon was joining the global #KeepItOn campaign. I was in the session when the campaign was officially launched, and was glad to join the roleplay session designed by the Access Now team. We managed to create and share different strategies for what to do during an internet shutdown. It was real practice for me, since it actually happens in Malaysia sometimes — during mass rallies and general elections.

We have an opportunity now to leverage our connections to stop bad laws in Malaysia. The Malaysian government has proposed amending the Communication & Multimedia Act, aimed at strengthening law enforcement but in the meantime restricting freedom of expression online. We can foresee the potential for a mass crackdown on the internet, especially media censorship, in the coming two years in the the lead-up to General Election 14. Now is the time for us to connect the threat of internet and media censorship with the #KeepItOn campaign, monitor and document the evidence of internet shutdowns, and come out with new strategies to fight for free expression in Malaysia.

We also have the chance to offer more digital security training to at-risk communities. We first met the Access Now Digital Security Helpline team at RightsCon South East Asia. Since last year, the Sinar Project has been planning to hold a series of digital security trainings in Malaysia, but unfortunately we faced lack of capacity in terms of trainers and resources. So this year, after meeting up with the team again, we came away with proper training plans for providing digital and internet security knowledge for at-risk groups in Malaysia and likely the South-East Asia region.

At RightsCon 2017, we hope to learn more about the issues, potential solutions, experiences, and related policy from — or impacting — Asia region countries.


Khairil Yusof, also of Sinar Project

Sinar Project has been writing and running tests to verify reports of internet censorship in Malaysia for past few years, and recently, with the support of Access Now, we started a local digital rights monitoring site to record and verify reported incidents of internet censorship.

At RightsCon, I met with a member of the Tor Project, one of the developers for OONI, and he immediately answered a question I had. I was able to find where test lists for Malaysia are stored and immediately submit three more Malaysian sites. Through this connection and the knowledge I gained, we will soon start deploying OONI probes in Malaysia to collect data on censorship.

I also attended a session on Chilling Effects, now Lumen, and discovered there are opportunities for us to contribute takedown notices by the government in Malaysia to sites like Medium. As a result, we plan to make takedown notice data available on our digital rights incidents site so that we can easily facilitate upstream sharing of local notices. This will create more opportunities for open data research on internet takedown notices and censorship in Malaysia.


Urvi Nagrani, http://www.theurv.com/
Director of Marketing & Business Development, Motiv Power Systems

I have been privileged to attend RightsCon in Silicon Valley three times. Each time my identity felt distinctly different.

First, I was as an activist wondering how to participate in the forums that were accessible — or semi-accessible — to me. Even though I live in Silicon Valley and could physically walk from my home to Google, like most users I had no access to the forums in which decisions were being made that impact my data, the data about me, or the structures of tools I use. RightsCon gave me an entry point.

Then in 2014, I came in wearing three hats: I was still an activist interested in the intersection of rights, technology, policy, and my own personal agency, but I also wore two professional hats. I was working for the international news site Oximity, seeking people and organizations who want to amplify their voices online, and I was doing marketing for Motiv Power Systems, a local electric powertrain company seeking to free trucks from fossil fuels. I brought my camera, and the first shot I posted that year was of a laptop adorned with stickers — the laptop of Katherine Maher, who was then the advocacy director of Access Now.

This year, for the first time, I came in as a panelist. The panel, How Technology and Policy Have Been Essential to Environmental Justice in California, brought together several incredible leaders who are all using different technologies and radically different approaches, but each fundamentally directed efforts to bridge the gap between technology and justice in environmentalism. I wanted this panel to speak to the type of person I was when I first came to RightsCon: someone looking for diverse ways to contribute and connect groups with overlapping issues and concerns.

So where do the RightsCon laptop sticker photos come in? Having been out of the “media mode” now for what seems like forever, I was feeling rusty about portraits, but I wanted to capture something that showcased the identities around me. Mine has shifted, and so have many of those within our community. On the first day a woman adjacent to me had an EFF sticker that looked similar to the one I have on my motorcycle helmet, so I asked permission to photograph her computer. I then spotted my phone on the red tablecloth, and saw that it was much more expressive than two years ago when I first put a RightsCon sticker on it.


That realization showed me how I could capture evolving identity semi-anonymously, showing the world what RightsCon looks like. None of the stickers I have reflect my professional focus, but the beat-up Encrypt All the Things sticker reminds me of where I was two years ago. Many other people at RightsCon had both personal and professional devices, and by photographing those with stickers, I was capturing an expression of their personal and professional identities, often layered over time. I kept taking shots, asking everyone for consent, and by the end of three days had shot 97 photos.

Please enjoy the collection. If you see an image of your device, feel free to use, redistribute, and creatively modify it as you see fit. However, I ask that you do not use images of other people for commercial use, since when I asked for consent, I indicated no intent to use the images commercially, only my desire to share them personally, on Twitter, and with Access Now.


Soudeh Rad, founder of Macholand.org

It was only a month before the big event that I was finally certain that I’d be able to participate in Iran Cyber Dialogue (ICD) and RightsCon.

As a feminist and LGBT rights activist from a country where identifying yourself that way will legally and socially harm you, this was an event not to miss. While the internet has become the inevitable means for advocacy in the digital age, Iran uses some of the most powerful strategies for systematically violating the right to access information and the privacy of its netizens.

RightsCon is a unique occasion to share mutual experiences among activists and experts, and to find or design better solutions for real problems. The event was organized in such a way that anyone would feel passionate about sharing their skills and knowledge, as well as asking questions to find solutions.

After three days the intense learning and sharing ended, but thoughts on the experience and follow up with new connections is still going on. RightsCon is not only a conference but an incubator for connections and shortcuts for best practices to make the world a better place — a place for everyone to enjoy free and equal access to information, with no risk of violating their privacy and rights.

I am already excited and eager to join the next RightsCon, to reconnect and explore more of the potential and values we share, and I hope more activists working with the grassroots will attend. Meanwhile RightsCon has led our team to improve the security of our platform, and also to design new projects, hopefully in collaboration with others that we met during the conference.


Japleen Pasricha, Founder-Director at Feminism In India

RightsCon 2016 was an enriching experience! My biggest takeaway was the number of connections I made, especially with people working in the Global South, and discovering how we can explore common synergies together. But what I missed at RightsCon was diversity, and I think this is something RightsCon 2017 should strive for. In particular, I’d like to see the organizers expand support for gender diversity — not just women, but also those who fall under the marginalized spectrum like trans people, gender-fluid, non-binary etc. — and also ensure that people with disabilities have full access to every part of the conference. As for what is ahead, I’m currently involved in a research project on online violence against women in India. After I complete the research, I hope to translate it into workshops on how to combat online violence, and trainings on digital security for students and young professionals in India.


Esra’a Al Shafei, Founder of Majal.org

This was my second time attending RightsCon, and I was excited to see how much the community has expanded in a year. I’ve had so many opportunities to collaborate with like-minded individuals on a variety of issues, as many of us are dealing with similar challenges.

My biggest takeaway is meeting with many organizations that could be potential partnerships. We shared key thoughts and ideas on how to advance digital rights for the LGBT community in the MENA region in particular, as it’s an underserved community without sufficient resources to develop tools that meet their exact needs. This event presented a rare opportunity in which I could directly connect with other organizations to develop strategies that can help us maximize the potential for long-term impact.

One thing we should do to improve RightsCon is to diversify the attendees by making it more accessible to the international community, perhaps by onboarding sponsors whose role is specifically to support the cost of attendees from abroad. Their stories, experiences, and challenges are key for helping developers and funders alike recognize the obstacles they face on the ground.

With the encouragement and assistance of the network that RightsCon brings together, I look forward to continuing our organization’s struggle to amplify underrepresented voices through the platforms we develop to bring their issues to light, and to protect the participating communities by ensuring they encrypt the data they share to limit the grave consequences that often come with the necessary efforts to secure our rights.


There is much more to share — tweets, photos, outcomes, initiatives, new partnerships and coalitions — that we embrace wholeheartedly. We thank everyone who responded when we asked about your experiences at RightsCon. Your powerful voices will continue to inspire us and guide our work as we fight for a free, open, and secure internet for all.

Let’s work together for an even more inspiring RightsCon in 2017!