Is technology really good for human rights?

Is technology really good for human rights? This is the question that a selection of experts debated yesterday evening at Amnesty International's London office.

This is the question that a selection of experts debated yesterday evening at Amnesty International’s UK offices in London.

The panel was chaired by veteran BBC technology journalist Rory Cellan-Jones and featured Susan Pointer, Google’s director of public policy & government relations; Andrew Keen (via mobile phone), author of “Cult of the Amateur: How the Internet is killing our culture”; Kevin Anderson, blogs editor of the Guardian; and Annabelle Sreberny, professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

In addition to the panel, there were questions from the audience and from outsiders participating in the debate via Twitter. The discussion started with a brief history of the web in terms of its libertarian ethos, but now finds itself in an arms race with government who seek to suppress it or control it to further their own ends.

Keen, who has been a critic of social media in the past, took a surprisingly conciliatory tone in his viewpoint, arguing that technology isn’t bad for freedom. He, like other panelists, pointed out how adept governments have been at adapting and co-opting technology.

Interestingly, despite the use of mobile technology during political protests around the world, Keen asserted that the internet had not brought change. Real change could only be brought about through culture within a society, which in turn could drive changes in political structures.

Anderson talked about the way that social media now plugs a gap that would otherwise go unfilled in journalism. Mobile pictures and video from Iran’s aborted green revolution were some of the first images that the west saw of the conflict. However, the constant debate and ease to which communities can be created means that online movements could be less effective as they fragment.

He also made the point that much of the online activity is of little-to-no use; something that he called slackitivism. The active role that governments were taking in the online space was underscored by Anderson quoting Major General Huang Yongyin, who said:

“The internet is a battlefield without gunpowder.”

Where political movements break out online, Anderson said that this depended on a set of circumstances that facilitated “viral serendipity”.

Sreberny discussed the topic with particular reference to Iran. Technology depends on the context and the culture where it is being used. In her view, the role of technology in political action has been a progression rather than a revolution.

Discussing three revolutions in Iranian history in 1905, 1979 and 2009 respectively, Sreberny talked about how the technology of politics had evolved. In 1905, the opposition had used printing presses to create pamphlets that were distributed at night.

The Islamic revolution of 1979 relied on cassette recordings of Ruhollah Khomeini together with photocopied political flyers. The conditions for the 2009 revolution were set within the eco-system of politically-minded blogs in Iran, together with mobile phones which were used to document the revolution through pictures and video.

The Iranian government had struck back by throttling the speed of internet connections and restricting access to many sites.

Sarah Pointer discussed the topic from the point of view of Google. Specifically on Google’s entry into China, Pointer said that the company had made a conscious decision to enter the market in order to ensure that Chinese audiences had access to information.

Whilst the company had complied with Chinese regulations on censorship, it had clearly indicated to its audience where results had been censored. She refused to be drawn further on whether the company would be withdrawing from the Chinese market following the accusations of hacking, nor the direction that company’s talks with the Chinese government would take.

A number of members of the audience expressed concern that Google held so much information on consumers and were concerned about the company’s power. Pointer responded to these concerns by pointing out that the audience Google attracts is their lifeblood. If they betray the consumer’s trust, the audience will go elsewhere and the company will suffer financially.

There was a wider discussion amongst the audience about whether internet connectivity itself in time will become a human right as it has become so central to modern life, especially since some countries in Scandinavia had set a minimum legal standard of connectivity that its citizens should be provided.

Overall, there was no definitive answer to the question of whether technology is really good for human rights.

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