From March 10–15, the Human Rights Foundation made its way to Austin, Texas, for our fourth appearance at SXSW, the world’s largest interactive festival. We’re always thrilled to be a part of such a robust community of creative professionals from so many different industries including tech, entertainment, interactive media, and more, because it gives us a unique opportunity to grow the human rights movement.
Through our annual presence at SXSW since 2015, HRF has been able to activate thousands of people to join our programs and has introduced them to courageous human rights activists and journalists like North Korean defector Yeonmi Park, Saudi women’s rights advocate Manal al-Sharif, Cuban democracy activist Rosa María Payá, Pakistani squash star Maria Toorpakai, and Afghan technology entrepreneur Roya Mahboob.
This year, we focused on exploring the ways that new technologies can be used to advance human rights — or to harm them. The panel, which was moderated by HRF Chief Strategy Officer Alex Gladstein, featured Tahir Imin, Uighur rights activist and survivor of China’s “reeducation camps”; Megha Rajagopalan, BuzzFeed News international correspondent and expert on tech and human rights; and Melissa Chan, a journalist for the Global Reporting Centre known for her excellent writing on technology’s negative influence on democracy and society.
The panel took place on Sunday afternoon, March 10, and we were greeted with a full room of more than 200 attendees. During the conversation we focused on how big data analysis, facial recognition, DNA sequencing, movement tracking, and social credit are being used to control, surveil, and promote state propaganda in China — and how this technology is now being sold to authoritarians in other parts of the world.
The panelists described the way that China’s government has developed its surveillance technologies and engaged in a “cultural genocide” against the Uighur people, having detained more than a million of its citizens in internment camps where they are tortured and forced to undergo medical testing and data collection, renounce and act against their Muslim faith, and memorize Chinese Communist Party propaganda.
The Daily Dot covered the panel in this profile, where they mentioned that we “asked whether the piece of technology that lives in your pocket or in your hand is a tool of surveillance or a tool of liberation. Increasingly, in various countries around the globe, it’s more the former than the latter. And eventually, it could affect everybody in the world.”
This year, our staff met with hundreds of SXSW participants in the Social Impact section of the buzzing trade show floor. We drew their attention to the ways that technology can be used for good. Flash Drives for Freedom, which has been a big hit since we first unveiled the program in 2016, highlights just one way that technology — even old technology — can become a powerful tool to advance freedom and human rights in closed societies.
Curious visitors who found their way to our booth suddenly found themselves taking action by donating flash drives after having learned more more about the deplorable state of human rights in North Korea.
We were also visited by Oslo Freedom Forum speaker Fred Warmbier, whose son, Otto, was arrested and detained by North Korea in 2016. After spending a year in detention, Otto fell into a state of an unresponsive wakefulness and was returned to his family; he died one week later. Since then, Fred and his wife Cindy have channeled their grief into activism and have filed a lawsuit against the Kim regime. Fred visited HRF’s Trade Show booth along with two of Otto’s former classmates.
HRF is grateful to its supporters and fans around the world for making this year’s SXSW appearance possible. If we had not gone, there would have been no human rights related content touching on China or North Korea, which seems hard to believe, but is true. We look forward to returning next year to activate a whole new crowd of creatives in 2020.