Technology firms and Human Rights Defenders, not the same thing

December 14, 2011

In a recent blog (10 December 2011) published by the Huffington Post, the executive director of Witness, Yvette Alberdingk-Thijm, labels technology companies as the “New Human Rights Players” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yvette-alberdingk-thijm/human-rights-social-media_b_1140717.html). That seems a bit too much honor for companies that produce devices and services that are at best ‘neutral’ in the same way that telephones – or for that matter knives –  could be used for any purpose, good or bad. It would be more appropriate to say that human rights activists and their organisations happen to be mostly working in the area of communication and information and therefore they profit disproportionately from a wider  and cheaper access to information technologies. The film industry has been around for more than a century but served mostly governments and big business as the technology was expensive and difficult to transport; it is only recently that film images can be recorded and distributed easily and cheaply. And indeed organisations such as the 20-year Witness have played a remarkable role in strengthening the capacity of HRDs to make use of these new possibilities.

In fairness, in her article the Witness director does also refer to the darker side of the technology industry but limits herself to say that “there are many examples of governments misusing technology and social media to track down activists and repress freedom of expression“. When she states that “technology providers can also play a critical role in creating products and services that can better serve citizen activists and human rights defenders” and that “whether they realize it or not, technology companies are important new players in protecting human rights — they hold the key to determining the fate of the tens of millions of people turning to video, technology and social media for change“, this has to taken with a strong dose of salt. Not only are there hundreds of technology firms in the world (not just the western world, but  including countries such as China, Russia, Iran, India, Singapore) that dot not care about human rights and that are developing information technology  for war, repression, or simply commercial purposes.  If there are some technology firms that have a warm heart for human rights, wouldn’t it be better to simply mention them by name? Clearer for the reader and a deserved reward for the companies concerned.

Another aspect of the revolutionary development in information technology  that deserves attention is that of worldwide overload. In the same way that there is nowadays so much written information on human rights available that most people can hardly find their way and that much (good) material remains unused, there is a big risk that the hundreds of thousands of videos on You Tube will remain unseen or at least undervalued. Increasing the audience is perhaps more important than  increasing the data on offer.

Still, the article offers lots of interesting insights and says what Witness is planning to do about some of the drawbacks and you should certainly read it in full.

All said, it remains true that with access to modern information technology, Human Rights Defenders – not the necessarily the companies –  have the advantage of playing a home match.

One Response to “Technology firms and Human Rights Defenders, not the same thing”


  1. Well, and I’d have said that the human right most technology companies are interested in defending is their own right to make a profit. And if that means catering to repressive governments…hey, if we don’t do it, somebody else will!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: