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4 Things We Learned from RightsCon 2020

The fields of public health and human rights are inextricably linked. Increasingly, access to information is a mediator of access to health. The important role that digital rights plays in protecting and promoting the right to health was particularly pertinent this year, with panels addressing health data privacy, access to medicines, mental health and digital first responders, and gendered misinformation online. It is important to critically examine the pathways through which any individual or community is able to encounter health information digitally, and the barriers, limitations and challenges brought about by limited localization, zero-rated mobile data plans, inconsistent or obtrusive content removals and moderation decisions, especially through COVID-19, which has limited the ability of seeking health care in-person.

— Nat Gyenes, Program Director, Digital Health Lab

We need to keep data about Latin America’s activist memory safe. During this pandemic-infused reality I focused my attention on panels that were contextualized for Latin America on the subjects of censorship, content moderation and trust. I intended to create a mental landscape of shared concerns in the region, such as COVID-19 data colonialism practices and the importance of initiatives that take into account the country’s data governance and independence during these times instead of readily sharing models that take national data into international service providers such as Amazon.

From the learnings and context from the community came the Recordkepers of the Resistance project, which aims to initially map activist content in Latin America related to feminist agendas, gender representation, race, sexual diversity and freedom of expression that were removed from the main corporate social media platforms. Collecting these data as a form of hypothesis testing is the first step. The future objective is to publicize this issue with materials aimed at activists in Spanish and Portuguese, uniting these issues in a coalition of organizations, sharing safe archiving and memory conservation practices and creating a Code of Ethics for archival activism in social networks.

— Isabella Barroso, Program Manager, Latin America

Tech solutionism is still with us. The temptation to answer problems with software is often well-meaning, but the people who will be most affected are not always part of the design process. There was a discussion about health passports during pandemics. Reducing harm to vulnerable groups means any implementation would have to be so narrow in scope and so well-regulated that skepticism is warranted. I was encouraged by the sessions that were led by mental health researchers, because while they were talking about apps to address social issues, they started with recommending existing non–tech standards of care and the need to fill gaps in our understanding of mental health. A panel on gender-based violence, and a panel on trauma mitigation both addressed myths surrounding memory and resilience after experiencing horrible things. Mental health experts should be a core part of software design for human rights work.

— Karen Reilly, Manager, Technology Partnerships

COVID-19 isn’t a black swan—it’s a canary in the coal mine for human rights abuses. There was a distinct sense from the sessions about the stakes of this moment — at least year’s RightsCon, we were very keen to bring health to the conversation around rights, and the new context of this pandemic has made it absolutely a top priority. It was encouraging to see how people recognized that COVID-19 intersected with key human rights issues, such as content moderation and free expression, platform governance and responsibility, and the ongoing repression of activists and journalists. It made it really clear to me that the global trauma of COVID-19 isn’t a black swan but rather a canary in a coal mine, revealing the inherent weaknesses, fissures and dangers of our global digital society.

— An Xiao Mina, Operations

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