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March 7, 2014 / Jim Fenton

RightsCon – an international experience

I spent the first part of this week at RightsCon, a conference dealing with the hunam rights issues associated with the internet, including freedom of speech, privacy, security/encryption, surveillance, and ensuring unimpeded access to the internet itself. It was organized by Access and attended by 600 or so people from 65 countries. In many ways, this was an atypical conference for me to attend: much more oriented toward policy than the technology issues that I usually focus on. But I enjoy conferences that stretch my experience, and RightsCon was an opportunity to better understand the motivations why people need to protect their privacy on the internet.

I decided to serve as a volunteer for RightsCon, the first time I have attended a conference as a volunteer. This was a fun experience — an opportunity to meet (if briefly) lots of amazing people, help make sessions run smoothly, and help attendees find their sessions. I spent about half the time as a “floater”, and about half staffing the registration desk or information table, or supporting one of the sessions.  When not assigned to other things, we were free to attend sessions. It was a fairly intense three days, but they treated us really well, fed us well, and it was a lot of fun.

I didn’t study the schedule extensively before signing up, so I didn’t do a very good job of specifying the sessions I really wanted to attend. As a result, I missed out on a few sessions that, judging from the Twitter comments, I would have enjoyed. When I volunteer again, I’ll do my homework better.

One of my staffing assignments was for a series of lightning talks on Monday. This included a session from Irina Raicu of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, presenting on “Are Software Engineers Morally Obligated to Care About Digital Human Rights?” I have met Irina and her colleagues at previous conferences, and this is a critically important topic for the software industry.  The big message is that just because something is legal doesnt make it morally acceptable.

The word ‘diversity’ is overused these days, but it definitely applies here. As I mentioned, 65 countries were represented; this is no small feat considering the difficulty many countries’ citizens have getting a visa to enter the United States. There was a balance of genders (including the GLBT community), and a wide range of attendees’ ages. The conference was greatly enriched as a result. I particularly remember a discussion where we were discussing issues accessing the internet in some countries. A middle-aged man from Sudan was discussing the situation there, and a young woman sitting next to him, who it turns out is from Azerbaidjan, was able to compare that with the situation in her own country. In another session, another attendee sitting next to me spoke up with a comment. He was from Egypt, and commented from the perspective of someone who experienced the turmoil there first-hand.

The feedback I would give the organizers would be to provide more categorization of the sessions in the program. I was looking for more technical content, and a couple of sessions I attended that I thought were more technical turned out not to be. Perhaps some keywords in the schedule would make it easier to choose sessions. I also observed, and heard from others, that several talks on similar topics of interest were scheduled against each other. That might be more obvious with keywords as well.

Overall, it was three very intense days, but time well spent. Next year’s RightsCon is in Manila, Philippines, so I don’t expect to attend, but I learned a lot this week and that was the objective.

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