Technology titans and political activists are grappling with how to make social responsibility and human rights part of the fabric of doing business on the Internet.
A Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference will wrap Wednesday in San Francisco after two days of networking and brainstorming regarding how to ensure that the Internet is a tool for human rights instead of a weapon of oppression.
“Today we face a series of challenges to the intersections of human rights, connected technology, and government,” said Michael Posner, US assistant secretary of state for the bureau of democracy, human rights and labor.
“It is a busy intersection and a lot of people want to put up traffic lights,” he continued in a keynote presentation.
The goal of the conference was to collaborate on principles for entrepreneurs to balance pursuit of profit with making sure their creations are used for social good instead of evil.
“Silicon Valley has always been the epicenter of technological innovation,” said conference organizer Brett Solomon.
“But now it is also a digital beacon of hope,” he said. “From the creation of the chip to the writing of the code… we can commit together to make sure the technologies are a force for good.”
Engineers, entrepreneurs, and executives joined with political analysts, activists, and charity groups to delve into the vital role that the Internet plays in social reform.
Sponsors of the gathering include Google, Facebook, Skype, Mozilla and Yahoo!
“I view the Internet as the greatest opportunity to advance human rights in our lifetime,” Facebook vice president of global communication and public policy Elliot Schrage told attendees. “The Internet gives people a voice, and we need to make sure it stays that way.”
Threats targeted at the conference included Western technology firms cooperating with governments to censor what is shared on the Internet or track down people disliked by authorities.
“The bottom line is: we’re here because of the actions of governments,” Google public policy director Bob Boorstin said.
“It’s not just repressive regimes, but democratic ones too,” he said. “We know more than 40 regimes that are actively blocking content around the world.”
Google on Tuesday updated its online Transparency Report to provide the public with more insights into government requests for information about its users and demands that it remove content from its services.
“Like other technology and communications companies, Google regularly receives requests from government agencies and courts around the world to remove content from our services and hand over user data,” Google said.
In the first six months of this year, US courts and law enforcement made 5,950 requests for data on users, Google said, 93 percent of which were fully or partially complied with. Most requests involved criminal investigations.
India was next with 1,739 data requests, 70 percent of which were fully or partially complied with, Google said.
Google said officials in India also asked for the removal of YouTube videos showing protests against social leaders or containing offensive language aimed at religious leaders. Most of the requests were denied.
China asked that 121 items be removed from Google during the same period.
Western countries that ramped up the number of requests for Google to take down items included Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, according to the Mountain View, California–based company.
Among the hot conference topics was how much regulation is appropriate for objectives ranging from net neutrality to protecting copyrights or fighting crime.
“We saw the British government fantasizing about a kill switch and witnessed the implications of the Patriot Act in the United States,” European Parliament member Marietje Schaake of the Netherlands said in a video.
“I’m against over regulating this space when it is not needed, but we may need we may need regulation to keep it open to competition,” she continued.
Craigslist founder Craig Newmark saw the world at a tipping point where democracy was working, sometimes painfully, thanks to the Internet.
“The street finds its own uses for technology and I’m pretty happy if we could just avoid getting in the way,” Newmark said during a panel discussion of Internet regulation.
“It is more important to use the Internet to give a voice to people who never have a voice and give a break to people who never get a break,” he concluded.