Is technology really good for human rights?

How much has the internet and communication technology really helped human rights? An Amnesty International panel, with participants including Susan Pointer, director of public policy and government relations at Google, and Guardian blogs editor Kevin Anderson, tackled this question last night.

The web is generally celebrated as a way of getting knowledge we’d otherwise miss out on, but it’s unclear whether this improved flow of information really helps the victims of human rights abuses.

Annabelle Sreberny, professor of global media and communication at the School of Oriental and African Studies, showed how Iranian students and activists had used the internet to campaign and communicate during the 2009 election, but said the tools they used don’t actually do anything new. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were used as campaigning tools in the 2009 election in the same way as communication media have always been used in politics, she said. What has changed is the speed, and the sheer amount of information shared.

But it’s still unclear whether this really helps, according to Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur: How today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. If there’s more information available, there’s more information to repress, and governments across the world are slowly getting better at using and controlling the internet. They have more money and brute strength than their citizens, and they understand the web more and more.

Kevin Anderson quoted a Chinese general calling the internet a new battlefield. Governments are just as interested in using the web to their advantage as activists are, and they won’t let their opponents have an easy time. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that activists and charities need to take cyber security much more seriously as the assualts on their privacy increase in sophistication. 

Monday’s discussion focussed largely on the big political arguments that the internet is increasingly playing a pivotal part in. Susan Pointer from Google said the company is still talking to China over its decision to close its self-censoring site, and whether it would continue to operate in the country. And Twitter helped to impress the Iran election indelibly on our consciousness. On a more local level, the web allows Amnesty to speak to isolated activists in countries the charity is not allowed into, and can help mobilise people to send campaigning emails by making it easier. The internet’s consequences are far from simple, but not all of them are good – the panel last night showed how crucial it is to try to understand them.