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Community Voices: How RightsCon is helping startups like Three Lefts integrate human rights into product design

The Community Voices series highlights the work of our community — civil society organizations, governments, companies, human rights defenders, and startups — in the lead up to, during, and after RightsCon.

Three Lefts is a startup working on research and development of emerging technologies, focusing on leveraging blockchain technology for the common good. Zac Skeith, Vice President of Strategy, strives to integrate purpose-driven, human rights-centered tenets into the new governance models and technical tools the startup is developing for its clients.

Based in Toronto, Canada, Three Lefts offers a blockchain-agnostic platform called StonePaper to allow enterprises to work faster and more securely with one another. Blockchain is the distributed ledger technology initially created to manage cryptocurrencies, facilitating decentralized and authenticated peer-to-peer transactions. Despite the relative novelty of the technology, cryptocurrencies and the distributed ledger blockchain have become a focal point in human rights and sustainable development conversations as holding a range of potential applications: tracking human rights abuses, increasing transparency and accountability in governance processes, and managing humanitarian crisis response.

The firm is working to bake environment, social, and governance indicators into its decision-making processes. “We are by no means a social enterprise — yet — but we are core believers that the impact of our products and technologies lie far beyond the conventional business case,” says Skeith. This was the motivation behind the startup hosting a session at RightsCon Toronto, working with participants on how they can leverage blockchain technology in their work. RightsCon was one of the most important conferences we attended this year,” Skeith said. “The knowledge and community members we met challenged assumptions we didn’t even know we had.”

Skeith recognizes that, in utilizing this emerging technology, people exploring applications of blockchain must effectively grapple with existing human rights challenges. For example, while the immutability and append-only nature of the blockchain facilitates trust and data validity between users, those same characteristics can lead to issues surrounding the permanent collection of sensitive information. At Three Lefts, they’re working to protect that data and preserve the right to erasure by storing off the chain and using blockchain as a way to validate that data, not store it.

Even with the numerous benefits offered by the technology, many additional human rights considerations remain in its implementation and use. Despite the initial purpose of blockchain being to facilitate monetary transactions, the growing scope of possible applications raises questions about how the technology will adapt and be used given limitations to its anonymity, unequal representation in those developing the technology, and the telecommunications infrastructure required for its operations.

That isn’t to say the technology can’t be a powerful tool for realizing human rights. However, in an environment where the prevailing motto for technology startups is often “move fast and break things,” it can be difficult for companies in the early stages of growth with tight allocation of resources to focus on implications beyond profit. According to Skeith, this is why he hopes startups will break out of silos and engage with civil society organizations, businesses, and governments alike.

Skeith says that forums like RightsCon have given the startup the opportunity to expand outside of their existing network and day-to-day activities, in order to invest in an area of growth that is often neglected. “RightsCon is here to help [startups] make sure our blinders are off to the unintended consequences of the technology we are building for the future. With rigor comes sustainable development and growth.”