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The road ahead for RightsCon: the intersecting issues, learnings, and priorities driving the 2021 program

This is the first installment in our 2021 Call for Proposals blog series. The next installment will be published on November 18, 2020, when our Call for Proposals launches.

From June 7 to 11, 2021, RightsCon will host the 10th edition of our Summit Series online – a milestone in our history and a moment for both celebration and reflection. Over the years, RightsCon has supported an incredible 1,800+ sessions, and brought together thousands of participants across five continents. Yet these numbers don’t do enough to capture what we have learned, experienced, and achieved since our inaugural summit in Silicon Valley in 2011.

Last year, before the Call for Proposals opened, we took a look back at our program’s evolution and transformation over time. Now, as RightsCon’s first decade comes to a close, we’re drawing a map for the road ahead.

With the coinciding crises of COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and rising authoritarianism as our backdrop, Access Now is doubling down on our approach to convening, with new urgency and emphasis on sustaining a community of communities. The interconnected nature of our movements is the driving force of our strategy: from women’s rights, to economic justice, to racial equity and liberation, we can’t build rights-based technologies and digital spaces without drawing from the rivers of knowledge which run beside our own.

Today, in the first installment of a three-part blog series, we’re focusing on the intersecting issues, learnings, and priorities that will drive the conversation at RightsCon 2021. Next week, when our Call for Proposals opens on November 18, we’ll release the second installment, and explore what’s different and what’s improved about the program process. The final installment, coming in early December, will explain the nuts-and-bolts of designing a participatory session, with tips and ideas to develop an effective proposal.

What’s on the agenda?


As we prepare and adapt our Call for Proposals, we are drawing on the feedback received from RightsCon Online, and considering the themes, issues, and content that shaped 2020 and that will inform our public program in 2021.

Ahead of our planned summit in Costa Rica last year, we made a concerted effort to place environmental sustainability on the agenda at RightsCon. With the presumed hottest temperature on Earth (54 degrees Celsius) recorded in August, we are reminded that dramatic changes to our environment will affect all of us, and that climate issues are deeply intertwined with technology – whether it’s the carbon footprint of the internet, sustainable supply chains in the tech industry, the push for right to repair, or innovative tools to monitor deforestation in the Amazon.

When we pivoted to an online RightsCon in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we realized that our program had to adapt, too. Bolstered by our community and our Program Committee, our team conducted targeted outreach to health experts and technologists, and introduced sessions to account for the dramatic and radiating impact of the pandemic. These efforts will continue into 2021, to keep apace with the promise of vaccine research, ongoing disinformation about masks and medical practice, and more.

Yet the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are far from the only causes of upheaval for our human rights. In 2021, RightsCon is seeking sessions that respond to the current moment, and contextualize relevant issues and emerging topics, including:

Antitrust action targeted at Google and other tech giants in Silicon Valley

The looming threat of digital protectionism and national splinternets

The wave of protests and uprisings in Thailand, Belarus, Hong Kong, and beyond

Labor strikes and tech worker activism to bring better standards to the platform economy

The worsening trend of internet shutdowns during elections and major political moments

The growing movement to localize and decolonize the internet, and bridge the digital divide

Advocacy tactics that embrace creativity, artistic expression, futurism, and joy

Next frontier technologies that will act as disruptors or drivers of change

Digital security responses to new censorship tactics, such as DCMA takedown demands

The gendered dimensions of online hate and harassment

and much more!

Adapting the program structure


Program categories inform the shape and scope of the RightsCon program. Every year, our team creates a shortlist of categories that encapsulate the broad topics and areas of relevance to our community. Not every category becomes a full-fledged track in the final program; some may combine or merge to help participants navigate sessions more easily.

In 2021, we will support 20 program categories, covering everything from surveillance and online hate, to civil society resilience, to artificial intelligence and next frontier technology.

Artificial Intelligence, Automation, & the Algorithm

Civil Society Resistance and Resilience

Content Control and Censorship

Cyber Norms, Accountability, and Practice

Data Protection and User Consent

Democracy, Elections, and Political Participation

Digital Security for Individuals and Communities

Freedom of the Media

Futures, Fictions, and Creativity

Human Rights-Centered Design

Internet Access, Education, and Inclusion

Internet Shutdowns and Network Disruptions

Justice, Documentation, and Investigation

New Models for Business and Labor

Next Frontier Technologies

Online Hate and Violent Extremism

Organizational Growth, Impact, and Resources

Peacebuilding and Digital Humanitarianism

Privacy and Surveillance

Trade, Innovation, and Intellectual Property

While some of the categories may look familiar, others are new or adapted from past summits. For instance, in recognition that connectivity and digital inclusion warrants more emphasis and attention in the RightsCon program, we established “Internet Access, Education, and Inclusion” as a separate category from internet shutdowns.

You can read the description for each program category on our website next week, once the Call for Proposals opens.

An intersectional lens on technology


RightsCon Online continued an important change in how we structure the public program: in addition to tracks, which divide sessions by issue area, participants had the option to navigate by intersecting themes. These themes, such as gender justice and environmental sustainability, cut across some or most of the tracks, and help tether the program to the lived realities of communities within our network.

The lens of intersectionality allows us to see the overlapping identities that shape our interactions within and beyond digital spaces. In the proposal form, you will not only pick which program category best fits your session concept, but you will also be able to choose an intersecting theme that describes the framework or “lens” you intend to use. The themes for RightsCon 2021 are:

  • Public health
  • Protest
  • Indigenous rights
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Racial justice
  • Gender justice
  • Youth and childrens’ rights
  • Migration

For the purposes of the Call for Proposals, only one intersecting theme can be selected per proposal. However, in the final program, a session may be categorized under more than one theme.

Balancing the power quotient


The recent Black Lives Matter protests, born from mass outrage over the police killing of George Floyd and systemic racism in the United States, have transformed the landscape of global human rights, inspiring sister protests in Brazil, Germany, Nigeria, Australia, and beyond. The protests also forced a reexamination of RightsCon’s approach to racial justice – and more broadly, to rebalancing power asymmetries in our summit space.

As a community-centered convening, RightsCon plays a unique role in the ecosystem of events dedicated to digital issues. Cross-pollination of ideas from different sectors, movements, and regions of the world is the stuff that makes our garden grow. We take seriously our responsibility to curate a program that reflects the diversity of experiences embodied by our community. Despite a strong record on gender and regional representation, we recognize that RightsCon can and should do much more.

In 2021, as a first step to addressing this bias, we have improved a set of policies on diversity, equity, and inclusion for RightsCon programming. These policies, outlined in our next blog post, aim to address dynamics of privilege and power that impede trust, openness, and collective action.

Beyond access: dynamics of exclusion and oppression


One of our favorites quotes from RightsCon Online came from author and political activist Nanjala Nyabola (Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics):

“Access cannot be used as a substitute for being intentional about the platforms that we build and the spaces that we create on the internet.”

⮕ Watch the full session: Democracy 2030: what should it look like?

For in-person convenings, much of our community support revolves around access: ensuring that people from underrepresented groups, regions, and identities have the means to travel and engage at a summit that rotates location annually. But what happens once those individuals arrive in the summit space? How do we address the power dynamics that prevent people from speaking openly and being heard?

When our Call for Proposals opens, you may notice a shift in what we ask of session designers. Questions in the proposal form will prompt you to not only define the goal and concept of your session, but also think about the participant experience.

RightsCon participants are not passive listeners, and more often than not, a session will attract a range of experts with the skillset to elevate your work to the next level. No matter which format you choose, your proposal should clearly articulate what you want to achieve and how participants will help you reach that goal. A quality, well-structured session should engage people from start to finish.

If you’re not sure where to start, don’t worry: in the final installment in this series, we’ll take a closer look at methods and principles for online learning, and explain how to design a session with participation in mind. Check back next week for more information, and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for community news and updates. We can’t wait to see you (virtually) at RightsCon 2021!