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Reflecting on 10 years of RightsCon

Our Executive Director Brett Solomon’s welcome message to the community at the Opening Ceremony of RightsCon 2021

I am excited to welcome you to the 10th iteration of RightsCon, especially those who are here for the first time. By the end of Friday, there will have been 23,381 experts, activists and policy makers – you – who have participated over these 10 years. From 400 participants when we first launched in 2011 to 8500 today.

It’s not just a question of numbers, it’s a question of who – we’ve had activists and anarchists, foreign ministers and CEO’s, High Commissioners and Special Rapporteurs celebrities and the nameless. 

We have people participating from almost every country in the world. As may have gathered, we are as interested in empowering the grassroots as we are in holding the powerful accountable. I believe that is one reason why we received over 1000 session proposals from the global community in 2021.

Over the years, we have developed norms like the Toronto Declaration on AI; we have launched movements including #KeepItOn to stop internet shutdowns – in fact the definition language was drafted in a half day multi-stakeholder meeting at RightsCon and has ended up in every UN resolution ever since; we have kick-started campaigns like #WhyID calling for rights-respecting identity systems and #BanBS pushing for the banning of biometric recognition technologies in all publicly accessible spaces. 

We have mobilized through the Arab Spring and its aftermath; the Edward Snowden revelations (including having him speak at RC in 2016). We’ve grappled with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the impact of misinformation on the US elections and beyond; and we’ve celebrated the victories – I remember the shouts of joy in RC SEA when the Indian Supreme Court struck down Section 66A in the Information Technology Act used to arrest bloggers and critics online.

Together at RightsCon, we determined that digital rights are actually human rights in the digital age; that the corridor is as important as the stage; that getting culture right is more essential than getting strategy in place; that a crowdsourced program is better than a centralized one. 

It’s also the 10th Anniversary of the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights, which permanently changed the way we talk about corporate accountability and takes us back to where RightsCon first started, as the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference in downtown San Francisco in 2011. From India to Colombia to Palestine, and in a world of increased inequality, digital authoritarianism, and institutional crisis, the Silicon Valley business model needs more than tinkering at the edges, it needs an overhaul. 

For the 3rd straight year, the UN Special Procedures coming to RightsCon have issued a joint statement marking the occasion. This year, more than ever – nine Rapporteurs – emphasized that digital rights must be prioritized to rebuild civic space amid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But these threats to our digital rights have been under attack since way before the pandemic – it’s an old story, stirring with greater intensity each year. We see it on our Digital Security Helpline, which just this month will have completed its 10,000th case in response to technical attacks and vulnerabilities facing civil society. Read our report to be released this week.

And here as I do each year, I would like to call for the release of Alaa Abd El Fattah, who left RightsCon in 2011 to face an Egyptian tribunal back hime, and has been in prison pretty much ever since. Can I have the picture of him on the screen? As his cousin wrote to me yesterday, Alaa’s is a thinker that not just Egypt but the whole world is being deprived of. A person who, were he not in prison, would have helped us shape the new, as we transition violently from one era into the next.

Such global convulsions have thrust new topics onto our agenda. We’ve come to scrutinize the intersection of public health, data collection, disinformation and technology, and explore ways to bring the power of the digital rights movement to the climate crisis. 

We have also made mistakes and have as a result been required to look in the mirror. On gender, on race, and on how to recognize arbitrary power. I’m really pleased that over 60% of session proposers this year identify as women. That’s an extraordinary percentage at a tech conference and even higher if you look at the sessions by those who identify as non binary or third gender.

And through all this RightsCon has maintained its heart. Many people see RightsCon as a place that they can call home; others see it as a place to meet the people that they could only aspire to work with; and yet others (largely companies and govts) can’t wait till it’s over. please. stop. the demands for accountability and transparency.

I joke but issue a serious shout out to the nearly 500 companies and 55 governments who are here. And a negative shout out to those that are not. 

But regardless of the stakeholder group – collectively, we are improving, we’re evolving and RightsCon makes our global community stronger. More than anything, RightsCon makes human rights more likely to be enjoyed in the digital age. And after all, what better outcome could we be looking for than that?

Thanks to the amazing Nikki Gladstone and the RightsCon team for what looks to be an extraordinary, even overwhelming week ahead. 

And respect to 10 years of RightsCon directors and legends including Jochai Ben Avie, Rian Wanstreet, Nick D’agostino, Eric Lovecchio and Abby Watson.

Finally, I would like to use this platform to laud the Access Now team, who are the smartest, most committed and united team I have ever worked with. Our mission, as the founders and hosts of RightsCon, is to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk all year, every day. Not just at or via RightsCon. 

As they say on the Helpline, don’t panic. We are on it.