web2.0 & human rights

Here's my session notes for the workshop on 'Human rights and new communication technologies: building an architecture of participation' at the NetSquared conference (held May 30-31 2006).

web2.0 & human rights
the benefits & threats of an architecture of participation

If you haven't heard of 'an architecture of participation' it's one of the original web2.0 buzzwords. (I picked it up from the O'Reilly article that started a lot of the hype. So that's what web2.0 mostly means for me: a chance to up the level of human rights activism by riding a wave of user participation. In the first place this is about increasing people's engagement with Amnesty by giving them ways to contribute; beyond that, it's about matching the social network side of web2.0 to the task of building a movement of activists. We don't yet know what this will look like, except that it will be different to Amnesty's traditional activist model (e.g. local letter writing group). Most of our ecampaigning is really just online letter writing - actions taken by individuals. If we use web2.0 ways to connect these people we open this out to a social network which can spread. Perhaps, for Amnesty, the social network is another route to solidarity. Certainly we hope it will lead to new forms of activism, especially ones that connect the online to the offline, empowering people to do something small but extraordinary for human rights.
Web2.0 will also challenge the way that big NGO's like Amnesty relate to their supporters. There's a great post by Ethan Zuckerman (From representing to pointing: some thoughts on the future of advocacy) where he describes how the online voices of people on the ground will modify the way that big advocacy organisations approach their mission. I think this is a timely development; to make the most use of the Internet we will all have to realise that we're in the 'post-deferential era', where people are not content to simply listen to the authoritative voice, but want pluralistic and direct sources so they can make their own minds up, and have their own say.
Of course, web2.0 can also be fun! It was the creative possibilities that first grabbed our attention: the potential for putting together exciting mash-ups that help visualise Amnesty's work, such as a 10x10 for human rights. And, being web2.0, this isn't only (or mainly) about the creative things we can think of - it's about giving other people a chance to be creative around human rights work in a way that will spread the messages way beyond our core of dedicated supporters. The question for organisations like Amnesty is whether we can let go enough to tap in to the web2.0 attitude; the hacker ethic that remixes content in a concrete display of 'semiotic democracy' i.e. people taking the stuff we put out and making their own meanings from it.
But an architecture of participation can also bring risks. The first risk is that people won't participate! I'm wondering how relevant we can make web2.0 to non-Western constituencies who are often the ones at the forefront of human rights struggles. On the other hand, by inviting people to participate wherever they are, we run the risk of endangering those who live under the most repressive regimes. So we also need to work out how people can participate safely. A good start here is the RSF Handbook for bloggers and cyber-dissidents ). And then there's the dark side of web2.0 itself; that we are entrusting more and more data about ourselves and our social networks to tools which are increasingly owned by large corporations (c.f. the recent purchase of MySpace by Ruport Murdoch). The indirect risk is that a culture of advertising-led surveillance can still lead to stifling conformity. The direct risk comes when corporations hand your data over to hostile authorities. For me it is important that we embed human rights awareness from the start, without getting carried away by the cool grooviness of the latest Google application. I am excited by the potential of web2.0 to amplify and mutualise human rights activism. But the Internet itself is becoming a terrain of human rights struggle; how do we ensure that our web2.0 work will embed and strengthen human rights values?"