Topics to watch at RightsCon Costa Rica: gender justice, labor, and the environment

We’re on the road to the 12th edition of RightsCon, which will be hosted in San José, Costa Rica and online from June 5-9, 2023. RightsCon Costa Rica marks our first hybrid event and our much-anticipated return to Latin American and the Caribbean, and will support 15+ program tracks and 400+ sessions on the most pressing issues at the intersection of technology and human rights.

The RightsCon program is sourced through an open Call for Proposals, and provides a platform for people from around the world – activists, technologists, business leaders, policymakers, journalists, and more – to set the agenda for human rights in the digital age. To prepare for the launch of the Call for Proposals in late October, our team took a closer look at the trends surfaced by our community, and identified three critical themes which will shape the direction of our program in 2023. Global developments related to gender and sexuality, labor and corporate accountability, and climate and environmental justice are intimately connected to digital rights, and we welcome proposals which explore these interconnections in innovative or unexpected ways.

For session organizers, RightsCon is often an important step to building concrete skills, strategies, and partnerships to effect change. Our most recent edition, held online in June, supported a number of projects and initiatives, on topics as varied as the digital language divide, the use of AI in health and agricultural sectors, and safety and security for LGBTQ+ people on social media platforms. To learn more about the continued efforts of our community, and the reach and impact of our program, take a read through our latest Outcomes Report.

Much has changed in the decade since RightsCon Rio de Janeiro (2012), our last summit hosted in Latin America and the Caribbean. From the erosion of democratic stability, to the resurgence of protests tied to economic inequality, to unprecedented growth in migration and displacement, the region’s progress and setbacks reflect broader shifts in the landscape of human rights, and the monumental scale of the challenges facing our community. This blog not only provides a snapshot of the three themes mentioned above, but also places them into regional context, in order to find digital “throughlines” in the fight to protect our bodies and lives, ensure access to decent work, and safeguard our planet for future generations.

Under attack: gender, sexuality, and bodily autonomy

In parallel to the rise of authoritarianism, conservative lobbies, funders, and activists continue to coalescence around efforts to restrict sexual and reproductive rights, and roll back hard-won victories for women and LGBTQ+ people. These anti-rights actors have taken root in countries such as Hungary and Brazil, where authoritarian leaders succeeded on platforms of nationalism and xenophobia.

Bodily autonomy and integrity is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), among other treaties and conventions. The ability to govern your body, without threat of violence or coercion, is foundational to the exercise of many related rights, and plays into choices about reproduction, sexuality and consent, contraception, gender affirming care, and much more.

In the digital age, efforts to censor sexual and reproductive health information, collect sensitive data from period tracking and dating apps, and misdirect and misinform people who seek abortion services has underscored the relevance of gender and sexuality issues within the realm of privacy and freedom of expression. In the US, for instance, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which ensured the legal right to an abortion in the country, has exacerbated the digital policing and surveillance of pregnant people, and placed technology companies under scrutiny for failure to protect the privacy of those who coordinate abortion care through online platforms or services.

Since 2019, RightsCon has featured an intersecting theme on gender justice in our program to help participants find sessions of interest, and has supported important conversations on digital access to abortion care, content moderation and censorship of sexual health information, digital security practices and platform responses to online gender-based violence, and more.

In 2023, we hope to see proposals that explore technology’s intersection with gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, and sexual and reproductive rights, particularly in respect to:

  • data protection and biometrics;
  • technical support and digital security;
  • surveillance and facial recognition technology;
  • privacy and patient care;
  • media literacy and disinformation;
  • and internet access and shutdowns.

Country in focus: Colombia

Despite continued obstacles, a powerful tradition of protest and activism has led to prominent victories for women and LGBTQ+ people in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since 2015, feminist movements across the region have taken up the call for #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess) in response to high rates of femicide and intimate partner violence. In 2019, the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality (ECADE) launched a strategy to overturn anti-LGBTQ+ laws across a number of countries, which led to successful repeals in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and St. Kitts and Nevis, with three other cases pending. And in 2020, Costa Rica became the first Central American country to legalize same-sex marriage.

Perhaps most visibly, Colombia has made important strides to secure sexual and reproductive rights, spearheaded by the Constitutional Court, the highest tribunal in the country. In 2022, in the wake of similar decisions in Argentina and Mexico, the court ruled to decriminalize abortion up to 24 weeks. Subsequently, the court ensured the legal recognition of a third gender marker for nonbinary people – the first country to do so in Latin America – and confirmed the right of minors to access gender-affirming medical care. With the election of Francia Márquez, a former environmental activist and the first Afro-Colombian woman to assume the office of vice president, all eyes are on the current administration and its commitments to advance gender equality and diversity.

From our community

RightsCon has supported the work of feminist and LGBTQ+ activists around the world. Click to learn more about the work of our past session organizers, including Chayn, Femena, FRIDA Young Feminist Fund, RESURJ, and Women on Web!

The world of work: labor rights, unions, and worker power

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the evolution of work and accelerated the shift to more remote and flexible options across many industries, including those within the technology sector. However, the pandemic also deepened existing economic inequalities, spurred the normalization of surveillance in the workplace, and exposed the fissures and fault-lines in current regulatory frameworks, which has undermined the ability of governments and independent authorities to put rails around private sector abuses, protect consumers from harm, and prevent market consolidation.

As the extractive business models of online platforms and service providers fall under a harsh spotlight, executives have taken steps to stifle employee activism and acts of dissent. Despite this reactive posture, whistleblowers continue to come forward and call for transparency into opaque policies and procedures. Silicon Valley has also seen a marked uptick in union activity, which has translated into victories for thousands of workers at Amazon, Apple, and other major companies.

Past iterations of the RightsCon program have featured notable whistleblowers such as Erika Cheung, Chelsea Manning, and Sophie Zhang, and promoted sessions tied to labor rights and protections, collective bargaining tactics for platform workers in the Global South, the state of antitrust and competition law, investor advocacy and the role of venture capital, beneficial ownership data reforms, and more. In 2023, we’re interested in proposals that address tactics to:

  • standardize corporate accountability and transparency procedures;
  • advance privacy and data protection in the workplace;
  • draw attention to unjust labor practices and abuses in the platform economy;
  • educate shareholders about human rights, including assessments of risks and impact; and
  • and secure more robust disclosure requirements for AI and surveillance technology companies.

Country in focus: Mexico

Recent referendums and legislation – such as Spain’s first-of-its-kind Rider Law, which requires platforms to classify food delivery workers as formal employees – have cut to the core of the platform economy. In Mexico, informal workers account for more than half of the country’s labor force, according to latest surveys from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). The economic shock of the COVID-19 pandemic left many of these workers at particular risk of hardship, and without a substantial social safety net to fall back on.

Coupled with an inflation rate of 8.7 percent – the highest level in 21 years – and projected slowdowns in economic growth, Mexico’s current administration, led by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, faces a dramatic challenge to develop protections for informal workers and respond to a climbing poverty rate. In September 2022, the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare (STPS) announced plans to introduce reforms to the country’s labor law, with support from official unions. The proposal would require platforms to establish formal legal recognition of employment for informal workers; however, some labor organizers and coalitions oppose the change in the law, which would create barriers for those who need flexible hours, do not wish to work exclusively for one platform, or who can’t meet certain union membership requirements. The debate typifies the complexity of labor protections in a service sector already transformed by “disruptive” platform and startup models.

From our community

Check out recent campaigns, resources, and reports from the BHRRC, BSR, IT for Change, Signals Network, and the Worker Agency to take action on business, labor, and human rights.

Climate in crisis: sustainability and environmental justice

The visible effects of the climate crisis – from coral bleaching and mass die-offs of ocean life, to lethal heat waves and wildfires, to extreme flash floods and storm surges – are undeniable. The latest installment in the IPCC’s sixth assessment report confirmed that the world is on track to overshoot the benchmark of 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial levels in all scenarios considered for the near-term (2021 to 2040).

As these climate events and disruptions to long-held patterns ratchet up in intensity and severity, human rights and humanitarian actors will need to prepare for the breach of tipping points, which may lead to infrastructural failures and blackouts, supply chain upheaval and food insecurity, escalations in conflict over natural resources, and displacement driven by famine, drought, and other disasters.

How should the human rights and technology community respond in the midst of ecological collapse? The challenges are many, and the RightsCon program has only touched the tip of the (metaphorical) iceberg. Building a sustainable digital future will require solidarity across sectors and movements, in order to rapidly scale complex and complementary solutions.

In 2019, our team identified environmental justice as a critically underexplored topic in our program, and recognized our responsibility to convene sustainability in a time of climate crisis. With our return to a physical venue in 2023, our team is reinvesting in that commitment, exploring options to limit RightsCon’s carbon footprint and reduce waste, measure and report on our mitigation strategies, and introduce opportunities for our community to support these initiatives.

Furthermore, we aim to delve deeper into climate and technology issues, and will keep an eye out for proposals on:

  • product repair and maintenance, manufacturing, and disposal of e-waste;
  • digital security for environmental defenders;
  • content moderation for climate disinformation;
  • satellite mapping and monitoring techniques for loss of land and resources;
  • tactics to end cloud service partnerships with fossil fuel companies;
  • and open climate data and transparency into government sustainability projects;

Country in focus: Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world and home to eight Indigenous cultures and communities across 24 territories. A former co-lead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25), Costa Rica has received international recognition for its environmental efforts, such as the UN’s “Champion of the Earth” award in 2019 for its renewable energy matrix, and most recently, in 2021, the Earthshot Prize for its reforestation efforts. Further, the country contributes a mere 0.4 percent to global carbon emissions, and the government has announced plans to decarbonize the economy by 2050.

Despite Costa Rica’s record of success, the situation for land, climate, environmental, and Indigenous defenders in the region is increasingly dire. Of the 227 defenders killed worldwide, 70 percent came from seven Latin American countries (Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Peru). At RightsCon Costa Rica, we aim to draw attention to these urgent risks, and the unique role of Indigenous activists in the protection of territorial rights and preservation of traditional ecological knowledge.

From our community

RightsCon continues to support digital advocates and researchers focused on climate and environmental justice, such as Association for Progressive Communications (APC), eyeWitness, iFixit, International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), Open Environmental Data Project, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the environment.

What’s next?

Stay tuned for the launch of the Call for Proposals in late October! You can subscribe to the RightsCon Rundown, follow us on Twitter and Instagram for updates, and take a look at our blogs from 2020, 2021 and 2022 for more details about our program tracks, themes, and areas of focus,

If you have questions, comments, or ideas for our team on the themes explored in this blog, reach out to us at [email protected]. We welcome input from our network about different opportunities and approaches to gender justice, labor rights, and environmental sustainability.

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