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The role of the private sector at RightsCon: Recognizing and responding to tech power in civil society spaces

From June 7-11, 2021, RightsCon will celebrate its 10th anniversary by bringing together more than 8,500 participants from 164 countries. 

In 2011, we hosted the first RightsCon (then the Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference) with the recognition that protecting and extending the digital rights of users at risk would require bringing all stakeholders – from tech companies to government representatives to human rights defenders – to the table. 

We see our 10th anniversary as an important opportunity to reflect on and communicate about how tech companies participate in and fund civil society spaces.

The necessity of civil society-owned platforms like RightsCon has been made clearer by the growth and convergence of the issues and communities we welcome. What started as a two-day digital rights event with 400 participants now spans five days and every timezone, convening thousands for a program that encompasses everything touching human rights in the digital age.

This year’s RightsCon program – and those of past years – is packed full of conversations looking closely at how tech companies, their products, and their policies are impacting every aspect of our lives. To achieve change, we believe the companies need to be a part of that conversation.

At the same time, we’re reckoning with the increasingly unchecked power of the private sector. Over the past decade, and particularly the past year, more parts of our daily lives have moved online, giving the tech sector outsized influence over society and over our ability to exercise our fundamental rights. Whether it’s education, shopping, receiving healthcare, or communicating with our friends and family, we rely on the private sector to provide us the infrastructure to get online and the platforms to browse when we are connected. 

We’ve reached a point where the actions of a handful of companies can have the reach and weight of the most powerful governments. These companies’ decisions affect who can speak, engage in online activity, and participate in the online spaces where we carry out our lives. More companies across different sectors have also moved online, collecting and holding more individuals’ data, and exacerbating risks to digital rights. 

It is for these reasons that we both value and need meaningful and effective multistakeholder engagement. Inviting the private sector, on our terms, into civil society-owned spaces is a way to maximize accountability for their impacts on our rights. It also, importantly, helps us chart a more rights-respecting path forward.


Engagement through participation


The outsize role and power of the private sector shapes the way we invite companies into our space and how we hold them accountable to meaningful participation. For us, company participation is an opportunity to redistribute power and grant access for those who are routinely impacted by, but not consulted on, tech sector policies and decisions. While companies engage willingly, they also know that showing up in and of itself is insufficient. 

We connect companies with session organizers to provide perspective in their sessions. These connections are valuable because they form a foundation for ongoing and meaningful consultations with the communities that are impacted by the products and services companies provide. In consultation with partners and organizers, we ask companies to join select private meetings where civil society in different regions can share concerns. We invite representatives from senior executives to product managers to software engineers to join us. When we host a CEO speaker, we pair them in conversation with a member of civil society or media, to ensure the discussion is balanced. This year, for the first time, we’re running private sector social hours to increase the opportunity for informal connecting between sectors in an online environment.

Over the years, we’ve seen robust participation by companies, as on average 15% of participants identify as private sector stakeholders. This year, we’re welcoming nearly 500 companies. Companies rely on RightsCon to gain perspective, and we believe they should contribute support to the spaces and communities from whose work they benefit.

We also want to draw attention to the countless companies that are not in the room, the ones who have not responded to our emails or who “can’t find a speaker at this time” to talk to an issue that they lobby on. All companies are now tech companies regardless of what they sell, and it would benefit companies across sectors to engage in human rights conversations both internally and externally. Attending RightsCon is a part of that journey, and we look forward to widening the net of participation each year.


Engagement through funding


We know that company engagement in civil society spaces is often not isolated to participating and speaking; that they hold significant power as funders and, at times, owners of the tools civil society uses to carry out its work. 

This tension is something we think about often as organizers of RightsCon. Company funding provides resources for RightsCon each year (in 2020, it made up 36%). We also use some tools built by the private sector to produce RightsCon. We understand that some would prefer those numbers be zero and those tools unused, and we are considerate of our role in managing these tensions. We see this disproportionate power as a reason for them to be in the room and contributing. 

At the same time, we know we have a responsibility to respond to and redistribute outsized power in our spaces. This recognition informed the creation of our funding policy, which codifies and strictly maintains a firewall between RightsCon programming and sponsorship. It also shapes how we consider funding opportunities, including the times where we make the decision not to pursue, or to refuse, sponsorship. This has happened on a number of occasions. We also work with organizers and speakers who have reservations or security concerns about using certain private sector tools to find appropriate alternatives.

These efforts alone don’t resolve the challenges of working across sectors and that not all approaches will or should be like ours. As we look to the next decade, we believe maintaining an environment that is inclusive and welcoming to all stakeholder groups while creating space to challenge existing power dynamics is a continuous and evolving responsibility. Increasingly, we are diversifying our funders by welcoming donors with privacy-friendly business models and civil society organizations alike. We’re also working to engage the investor community at RightsCon, who can work with us to hold companies to account, and for companies outside of the U.S. and Europe, to facilitate a more global representation of the private sector.

This week at RightsCon, there will be many spaces to discuss – and challenge – existing processes, and we welcome your participation. If you’re registered, you can join us by logging in here.

Photo credit: kjarrett