Yahoo & Knight Foundation Team Up For User First Miami: A Day of Discussion Around Privacy, Free Expression and Technology

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Bienvenido a Miami!

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Miami? Is it warm weather, beautiful beaches, and current NBA Champions the Miami Heat?

If so, you might be surprised to learn that in recent years, Miami has developed as a burgeoning hub of tech startups and young companies, anchored by community pillars like theLAB MiamiVenture HiveRefresh Miami and the Knight Foundation, among others.  As the gateway to the Americas, Miami is also naturally positioned as a hub for startups in Latin America and the Caribbean seeking to connect with the US tech community.

It’s always inspiring to listen and connect with entrepreneurs who are innovating and creating exciting products and services. Their energy and enthusiasm is contagious! However, in creating and shaping products and services, it is increasingly important to think about how companies should navigate the relationship between human rights - specifically freedom of expression, and privacy - and technology. For example: Where should you store your users’ data? Within your company, who should have access to that data and what kind of data should they be able to access? How much data are you storing? Have you given thought to encrypting data? Are you moderating content, and if so, on what basis? Are your users located in countries where offline restrictions are also happening online? If so, what steps are you taking to protect your users?

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                                                                                              The LABMiami

It’s easy during the start up phase to put these issues and questions on the back burner. But spending some time to discuss policies and processes while in start up mode can ultimately lead to even better products. Users care about how companies protect their right to freedom of opinion and expression and their right to privacy. Other stakeholders, from investors to civil society, care, as well. As a new company though, it may be hard to know where to start.  

With all of this in mind, we’re hosting our second User First event in Miami, FL. We’ve invited a select crew of startups and new companies who are interested in these issues, to join us for a candid discussion on a variety of topics, from encryption to privacy, to child safety, to free expression in Latin America.  Our hope is to connect them to a variety of resources, including to other companies also thinking about these issues.  

We designed our Users First events to preserve a candid atmosphere where people can freely express their ideas.  For this reason, we adhere to Chatham House Rules and the event will be closed to press.  Any media inquiries can be directed to: media@yahoo-inc.com

Please join the conversation online by tweeting to @YahooBHRP, using the hashtag #UsersFirst.

Change Your World Amman!

What kind of world would we have if corporate boardrooms, venture capital firms, maker fairs, editorial boards and even delegations to peace negotiations included the brilliance and commitment that lit up the room on May 10 in Amman?

Change Your World Amman was a powerful gathering of entrepreneurs, geeks, journalists, activists, artists and more, all unified by a passion for creating a better world. The line-up  of 30 panelists promised an incredible series of conversations, but the day itself exceeded even those high expectations. The day began with Lara Setrakian, whose moving personal story embodied the elements of the day-a daughter of Armenian refugees who fled Turkey for Syria, she is a journalist, an activist and an entrepreneur, who founded the in-depth digital news platform, Syria Deeply to bear clear-eyed witness to the crisis.

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In between, there were so many stories of courage, leadership, creativity and incredible moxie! Please check out the panel recaps for details and memorable quotes. According to all, the media plays a critical role and has tremendous potential to help as well as tremendous potential to harm. Panelists agreed that media has a responsibility to tell stories that are nuanced and humanistic rather than simply settling for sensationalism only to garner clicks and hits. Technology was described as a similarly double-edged sword, with the potential to transform lives, economies and nations, as well as the potential to spread dangerously inaccurate information and irreparably widen the chasm between haves and have nots.

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The day ended with newly formed connections across sectors, geographies and language barriers. Participants left inspired to do more, to partner in even better ways, with promises to work with each other to be the change they wish to see in the world. And countless people outside of that room in Amman were also inspired— #changeyourworld was the number one trending hashtag in Jordan all day on the 10th, and the number two trending hashtag on the day following the event.

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The Yahoo BHRP is humbled and amazed by the incredible participants who shared their stories with us, and we are so grateful that they allowed us to highlight their brilliance. Inspired by them, we will be thinking about how to do more to use our products and platforms to advance human rights around the world.

Change Your World participants embodied the saying that it is better to light a single candle than curse the darkness. They lit up the room, they are lighting a path for others to follow and they are bringing light to some of the darkest corners of the human experience. They are a million points of light, and the world is a better place because of them.

Change Your World Amman! Journalism and the Power of Narrative

Lara moderated the first panel, Media and Journalism, where panelists discussed fascinating questions, such as whether journalists should be activists, whether technology facilitates misinformation or information silos, and whether coverage of atrocities desensitizes rather than informs.

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Randa Habib, a veteran journalist who has covered the Middle East for Agence France-Presse, said that the world is ignoring the war in Syria and the ensuing humanitarian crisis, and “it’s up to us to make it [the war and humanitarian crisis in Syria] not be ignored.” Elizabeth Dickinson of the Christian Science Monitor agreed,  maintaining that stories about Syria “bombard” readers, and journalists “are responsible for penetrating the abyss of information”.

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Nicholas Petche, a senior editor at Yahoo UK who produced the award-nominated Zaatari: A Day In the Life,” elaborated by describing the challenge of how to tell stories about the refugee crisis that resonate with an oblivious audience. He addressed the question of journalism as activism by saying “There’s an activist element to the fact that you’re there in the first place”. Diana Moukalled, a journalist and documentary producer, described the tendency of the public to get excited about certain stories, such as the Kony narrative, and then quickly forget. She described her work by saying; “We are journalists-slash-activists.”

The panel also discussed the risks related to government pressure to censor stories. Lina Ejeilat, co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Jordanian digital news hub 7iber, described 7iber’s defiance of press censorship in Jordan by saying that in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes, “journalism is activism”.

The media has the ability to sensitize or desensitize audiences to global crises and tragedies, panelists noted, while technology, especially social media, has drastically changed stories and the way they are told. With these shifts, journalists have the increasingly critical responsibility of providing context and verifying content. Setrakian concluded, “It’s our job to make sense of what is going on”.

Change Your World Amman! Boldly Entrepreneurial…

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The second panel, Entrepreneurship, was moderated by Nina Curley, editor-in-chief of Wamda. The discussion centered on both the challenges and the advantages of being a woman entrepreneur in the Middle East in the startup world, and panelists devoted significant time to analyzing the question of how to shed the negative stereotypes attached while retaining the value of that identity, especially through supporting and mentoring other women.

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Mayyada Abu Jaber, CEO of the Jordan Career Education Foundation, called for “a network of women that can help each other.” Iliana Montauk, director of Gaza’s first startup accelerator, Gaza Sky Geeks, echoed that point, “We need to create an alternative community,” she said, since families don’t always support a woman who wants to start a company.

Serene Shalan, networks manager for Oasis 500, a Jordan-based early stage and seed investment company, described Oasis 500’s post-investment coaching initiatives for women. Rama Kayyali Jardaneh, co-founder of Little Thinking Minds, said that mentorship is crucial to helping women get their businesses off the ground. Mariam Abueltwei, founder of a carpooling app, Wasselni, added that mentorship has to be done properly and in a focused manner in order for both people to benefit from the relationship.

In all of these areas, technology has been crucial, the panelists agreed, from the concept behind a startup to the actual foundation and running of the company. As Shalan pointed out, one of the main obstacles for working women is having flexible working hours, and technology helps make that possible. Technology also helped find mentors and role models, whom Jardaneh and others, like Hu, considered critical for success.

According to Shalan, the lower rate of women entrepreneurs is not due to quality. She noted that 20% of the 1,400 entrepreneurs Oasis 500 has trained are women, yet as much as 35% of the group’s investments has gone to companies founded by women. Montauk added that in Gaza, 60% of computer engineering graduates are women, as are 90% of the top high school students.

All the panelists had suggestions for ways to validate female entrepreneurs. Shalan encouraged women, who donate to charitable causes in significant numbers, to also consider investing in young companies. As Montauk later pointed out, entrepreneurs are “offering something to the investor.”

Econowin’s Nour Moghrabi, an audience member, summed up the panel by saying “It’s not enough that women themselves become powerful,” she said. “They also need to spread [power].”

Change Your World Amman! Poets, Dreamers and Storytellers

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The third panel, Women in Art, affirmed the power and importance of narrative, and of having platforms that enable people to tell their own stories.

Lauren Bohn, multimedia journalist and co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted, moderated the panel, beginning with a question that panelists immediately said contained problematic assumptions: “What are the challenges inherent in being a female artist in the Middle East?”

Tanya Habjouqa, a Palestinian photographer, said the question had “inherent sexism and Orientalism” and was reductionist. The West, she said, has an obsession with women of the Middle East, but in recent years women have “actually found a way of packaging that obsession and benefitting from it.” Malikah, the rapper nicknamed Queen of Arab Hip-Hop, said that in the music industry, Arab women are negatively viewed “as … a sex symbol, a person …who is shallow and superficial.”

Nadine Toukan, producer of the films Captain Abu Raed and When Monaliza Smiled, highlighted a need for art in the region. “The Arab world is in huge need of a lot of new narratives,” she said, “to be able to reframe the kinds of dreams we want.” Annemarie Jacir, filmmaker and screenwriter, explained that art is often shunted aside because other issues, like political reform, are considered more urgent. She and Malikah agreed that generating regional interest in art requires cultivating an Arab audience.

Meanwhile, the framework of the foreign representing the local is starting to break down, and as a result, art is changing for the better, panelists said. Arab sources of funding have increased, according to Jacir’s experiences, and Habjouqa noted that Western audiences have greater hunger for perspectives from people on the ground. As the field grows locally, Jacir added that gender is less of an issue in the fledgling Arabic independent film industry, since anyone involved, male or female, is a pioneer in the field. According to Jacir, at Arab film festivals, women comprise almost half the directors and producers.

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Maintaining authenticity is challenging but results in work that is more genuine and valuable in the end, panelists agreed, and Toukan shared an example from her experience producing a Bedouin Western film set in Wadi Rum. The team worked closely with the local community, and the film is more authentic as a result, she said. She suggested that artists, instead of trying to represent others, engage individuals and local communities to make them active participants in projects.

The artists agreed that technology and social media have mainly benefitted them by giving them a platform. Toukan said technology eliminates traditional gatekeepers and “gives us a chance to be our own distributors.” Malikah added, “Internet made it happen for Arabic hip hop.” They all agreed that they still needed to fight the stereotype of Muslims and Arabs as terrorists and the fetishization of Arab women that results in their portrayal as passive, helpless victims, and that telling their own stories helped in this struggle.

Change Your World Amman! Champions for Social Justice

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As women who actively campaign and fight for social change, members of the fourth panel, Women Who Lead, directly defy stereotypes. Rana Husseini, Jordanian journalist and author of Murder in the Name of Honor, was the first in Jordan to openly broach the topic of so-called honor killings. Compared to when she began covering them, conversations about these crimes are no longer so taboo, she said, but despite an ongoing dialogue, “the problem here is that the government doesn’t acknowledge that there is a problem.” Ghada Saba, an advocate against domestic violence, echoed Husseini’s point, and she also said that social change begins in remote and impoverished areas.

Lara Ayoub, who co-founded SADAQA, a campaign for women’s rights in the workplace, highlighted statistics that tied back to the entrepreneurship panel: In Jordan, 51% of women have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 49% of men. Yet women participate in the Jordanian workforce at a rate of about 14%, which has not increased in years, Ayoub said. Women often felt forced to choose between being a mother and having a career, rather than asking, “It’s my right to stay at my job. Why should I have to choose?” Getting women to shift from the former mindset to the latter is an ongoing challenge.

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Bohn pointed out that women’s issues also affect men, even though they can be inaccurately perceived as isolated. Nima Habashnah, an activist, founded a campaign to give Jordanian women the right to pass on citizenship to their children. That issue highlights precisely how entire families, including men, are affected by laws and practices that discriminate against women. Saba added that while some men would like to see change, they too face social pressures. In a recent university workshop, she said, some boys were angrier than girls about Article 308 of Jordan’s penal code, which allows a rapist to marry his victim to avoid punishment.

Habashnah said that without technology, her campaign would not have begun, and Ayoub added that social and digital media were essential for reaching women and raising awareness about their rights in the workplace. The Internet offers free and fast access to empowering information, Ayoub said, so an Arab woman “can find people that look like her” and who inspire her to pursue what she wants.

Change Your World Amman! Syria

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The fifth and final panel, Peace in Conflict/Forced Migration, asked panelists to discuss how technology can be utilized to amplify marginalized voices and the drawbacks and risks of such efforts. They also discussed how to use technology to overcome audience fatigue, information blockages, and the politicization of aid. Finally, the question of sympathy versus empathy emerged, a dichotomy central to the debates carried out throughout the day. Panelists addressed from several angles the question of how to enable or engage someone rather than evoke pity for or present him or her as a victim.

Media attention on crises like Syria is critical, Laure Chadraoui, a communications officer for the United Nations World Food Program in Syria, said, because donors listen to the media. However, the necessary storytelling is the “narrative that leads to engagement” instead of pity, and she called on the media to drive that engagement. With aid so politicized, media needs to be especially careful. Her organization’s role, she said, is to get assistance to civilians in need, wherever they are. “If we can’t get somewhere or reach one area, it doesn’t mean we’re biased.”

Marcelle Shehwaro, an activist and blogger living in Aleppo, Syria, served as the voice for precisely the kinds of stories that other panelists said were lacking in media. As a civilian during wartime, “You worry about the details of your living,” like transportation, she explained. “I don’t have flashy stories.” She was critical of the media for labeling and stereotyping, such as by focusing on whether a woman wore hijab or not, or whether she is beaten, and for strongly imposing the role of victim on women.

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Shehwaro also warned about the dangers of relying too heavily on Internet and social media, as “this virtual reality gives us a falsified vision about our society.” Virtual activism now exceeds physical activism, she said. “Go out for a protest!”

Bohn noted that “resources for deep humanistic storytelling are lacking,” and so many news stories vie for mainstream Western news consumers’ attention that “there’s just an attention deficit.” Humanistic stories are the real story, yet finding editors and outlets with the resources to pursue those stories is extremely challenging.

Bohn also explained the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy has a “condescending layer” and evokes pity, while empathy is an outsider’s sense that one is not so far removed the subject of the story. “It’s our imperative as journalists to find those threads” that capture empathy, she said, even though telling the story through a lens of sympathy is much easier. She concluded, “We are at a crisis point in storytelling.” Dana Sleiman, a public information officer for UNHCR Lebanon, concurred that with dwindling donor interest, the best way to hold donors’ attention is highlighting individual stories that evoke empathy, not pity.

Sleiman said that a benefit of social media is that they can help relay messages to a wider audience, but they also can be harmful. “We’re seeing a lot of misconceptions being easily disseminated through social media,” she said. For example, if you tell an “average Joe” that Syrian girls are married at 15, “people buy it.” Such dramatic information sells well but harms Syrian refugees. “This is the fine line that we need to be very wary of.” Shaden Khallaf, senior policy officer at UNHCR Middle East, suggested that media cover the story of how the next generation of Syrians is not getting the education and training it needs.

Panelists all offered various ways technology could be used to help solve or alleviate the crisis, such as apps that would display aid access points, or warn civilians of a coming attack, or offer classes for children whose education has been interrupted by war. Yet as Bohn pointed out, automatically turning to technology inherently relies on the assumption that all who can benefit from technology have access. As technology becomes more sophisticated and is able to solve more and greater problems, the gulf between those with access and those without in conflict zones could mean the difference between life and death.

In Tallinn

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I have just returned from the Freedom Online Coalition summit in lovely Tallinn, Estonia. The FOC unites 23 governments with representatives from companies and civil society, all focused on what each group can do, individually and collectively, to ensure a freer and more open Internet.

The 2014 gathering was launched with these recommendations, adopted by the 23 participating countries. While those of you following along at home may be staggering beneath the weight of the proliferation of resolutions, principles and recommendations about the intersection of human rights and ICT, these are important because they represent a commitment by governments to a) greater transparency about government policies and processes related to privacy and free expression; b) supporting access, especially for vulnerable and/or marginalized populations; and c) strengthening the multi-stakeholder model.

Yahoo has joined peer companies and other stakeholders in calling for transparency, are part of the Alliance for Affordable Internet focusing on expanding access and are, through our GNI membership and our various and multiple policy conversations, remain actively committed to the idea that progress demands partnership amongst multiple stakeholders, so we are looking forward to being part of the implementation of all of the above.

The conference itself was filled with fascinating conversations-I was on a panel about the role of business in advancing a free and open Internet. There were questions about the distinctions between the role of governments versus the role of companies, the difference between consumer privacy and privacy vis à vis government requests for user data, the utility of human rights impact assessments, and, as always, questions and challenges about specific company decisions.

I also hosted a conversation about hate speech, free expression and third party liability, with the brilliant and thoughtful Susan Benesch (Harvard), Richard Allen (Facebook), Karmen Turk (lawyer at Estonia’s Tamm Otsmann, counsel for a pioneering case on third-party liability that is before the European Court of Human Rights) and Lucy Purdon (IHRB). Soooo many interesting questions were raised-What exactly do we mean when we say “hate speech”? Is it sufficient that speech insult or offend or target certain groups to be called “hateful”, or must it threaten or incite violence? When we have evidence of speech being used as a precursor or incitement to real atrocities (in Rwanda and during the Holocaust, for just two of many examples), should there be limits of free expression online in a democratic/open society? When even democratic governments do not agree on what the limits should be, how should global platforms decide? Is the Internet a uniquely powerful vector of “hate speech”? What are the implications for free expression when third parties are held liable for speech?

The conversation could have gone on forever (and maybe it did?), but we did coalesce around a few intriguing paths forward. One: Counterspeech is a very promising potential solution. Two: Truly “dangerous” speech should be clearly and narrowly defined, and Three: Perpetrators of speech that incites violence should be held personally accountable, all as outlined in Professor Benesch’s fascinating and well-written paper.

I also got to listen to the President of Estonia name-check Hobbes, Locke and the Grateful Dead and then give a shout-out to the Google Glass sporting Vint Cerf before dropping the mic, while I ate dinner in the awesomely named House of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads.

 Ain’t no party like a Freedom Online Coalition party, y’all.

The Wizard of Big Data

Georgetown University recently featured Kalev Leetaru, the 2013-14 Yahoo Fellow in Residence of International Values, Communications Technology and the Global Internet at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. An expert in big data analysis, Kalev’s work has led to him being named one of the Leading Global Thinkers for 2013 by Foreign Policy magazine among other accolades. Learn more about his work, the GDELT project, and his plans to change the world using data, policy and diplomacy here.