Normally I respect the fairly decent restrictions FT.com puts on its content. But this story does not belong behind a registration wall. It’s too important, and too soulful. It speaks so well about the passion and power of tech over old business in the pursuit for a better world. So be it. I hope everyone agrees with my good intentions, even the author and the fine people at Financial Times. And that more companies will follow AnchorFree, Bambuser and others. Be honest and do good shit. 

Rights business: events such as the uprising in Egypt point to the power of new technology

At their launch in 2006 the founders of AnchorFree had the same high hopes for their technology start-up as any other: to woo elite businesses and make money.

But when activists in Egypt and Syria found a new use for the technology, the Silicon Valley company decided to weave helping revolutionaries sidestep government firewalls into its business plan. The free application, which had previously been reserved for business travellers surfing the internet from airports and their hotel rooms, encrypts all websites so that email and social networks can be as secure as a bank portal. It also routes internet traffic through its private proxy servers, so, for example, people in Cairo can appear to be using a computer in Germany.

“It was intended for a boring, old commercial purpose,” says Esther Dyson, a prominent technology investor who backed AnchorFree. “But the same things that make an office more efficient make a movement more efficient.”

David Gorodyansky, AnchorFree’s 29-year-old founder and chief executive, decided he didn’t have to wait until his company went public to start on his philanthropic goals. Instead, he could fold changing the world into his business plan and pursue both interests simultaneously. He responded to the activists in the Middle East as a new client base that needed to be catered to. “Enabling freedom is a business strategy,” he says. “I think if there are 6m people living under censorship, giving them freedom is an amazing business opportunity.”

In the wake of social uprisings around the world this year, AnchorFree has become a poster child among human rights advocates for embracing the unintended uses of technology. Facebook was first used for tracking university friends; Twitter, to plan parties. YouTube and Bambuser, a live streaming video service based in Sweden, originally hosted home-made movies. All have become instrumental in facilitating and documenting social movements, from the Arab spring to Occupy Wall Street. In June the UN declared internet access itself a human right.

Technology companies have accepted these new responsibilities to varying degrees, some begrudgingly reshaping internal policies to account for their wider role in society and a few, such as AnchorFree, interpreting them as a strategic opportunity.

The range of reactions is giving rise to fresh tensions between Silicon Valley and international human rights organisations, with rights advocates directing the forces and rhetoric usually reserved for dictators against the technology services being tapped to topple them. They have been calling on chief executives to adapt to activists’ needs and establish human rights policies before crises erupt, and beseeching young start-ups to build human rights considerations into their mission statements.

“The right to communicate and the business model of communication actually overlap,” says Brett Solomon, executive director of Access, a digital media rights advocacy organisation. “Our right to freedom of expression [helps to drive] technology companies’ network traffic.”

At the first Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference, organised by Access and held in San Francisco in October, it was the bloggers and “hacktivists” who were the cool kids, leaving delegates from Facebook, Yahoo and Google on the defensive.

“We come to these things and they like to tell us what to do,” one Facebook employee said in a huff. “But really we’ve been paying attention to this for quite a long time and we have some good ideas of our own on how to deal with these issues.”

Rights advocates dominated a discussion about social media in times of crisis, riding the moral high ground to a fever pitch. “These companies have built their business plan squarely on human rights, freedom of expression, information and privacy,” said Widney Brown, a director of international law and policy for Amnesty International. “Your profit motive is on rights. When you actually profit and thrive in this area of rights and make it a commodity, then you have an obligation to protect those rights of your users.”

But even if businesses want to support human rights in theory, the execution can give rise to a range of dilemmas and obstacles, particularly when such a strategy clashes with the fundamental precept of the business.

Facebook, for example, is in a difficult position as activists make demands that counter its founding principles of transparency. The network has always insisted that users set up accounts with their real names but rights advocates say pseudonyms are a matter of life or death for activists living under repressive regimes.

Furthermore, Facebook only allows users themselves to delete their accounts, but rights advocates say that activists’ friends’ lists could be compromised should they be detained and their accounts hacked by rogue police.

“A year ago it was very difficult to even find the right person within Facebook to respond to an egregious situation,” Mr Solomon says. However, since then, he notes that “Facebook has become a lot more savvy”.

Older tech companies have also had difficulty squaring business interests with human rights concerns, particularly when they ventured into China in the mid-2000s. Google gave up trying to do business from a base in the country after contending with censorship laws, and Yahoo faced much criticism when it gave data about dissidents to the Chinese government.

Both companies, along with Microsoft, are now part of the Global Network Initiative, a coalition of communication companies and human rights organisations committed to upholding principles of privacy and freedom of expression.

Several large companies, including Nokia Siemens Networks, have also written their own official human rights policies attempting to forbid corrupt uses of their technology, and established procedures for responding to unlawful data requests.

However, advocates complain that they are neither sufficiently thorough nor transparent. Instead, they have more hope in newer start-ups – especially those led by young, idealistic founders. “Start-ups have no excuse now,” Mr Solomon says.

Silicon Valley offices are nestled within the broader San Francisco Bay Area, one of the largest centres in the US both for non-profit organisations and socially minded for-profit businesses. California legislators passed a law in October that allows businesses to prioritise fair labour practices and clean environmental policies equally with profits.

This mindset ought to rub off on the social networking and mobile application companies but, for now, the actual adoption of human rights strategies remains minimal. Investors who foresee a return on investment in socially minded companies are few and far between.

“Silicon Valley is a really nice place and people who live there get insulated from the rest of the world,” says Ms Dyson. “They all have cars and are mostly middle class and educated. Many of them came from oppressive regimes, and would rather forget about it than fight it.”

Sidebar

Video-stream killed the repressive regime
As protesters in north Africa and the Middle East flock to Bambuser, lifting the real-time video streaming service to the ranks of Facebook and Twitter among activists, the start-up is acting more like a non-governmental organisation than a tech start-up.

“We took a side immediately,” says Hans Eriksson, chief executive of the Stockholm-based site. “We never took that angle from a business side, it was purely emotional.”

The vast majority of Bambuser videos – more than 90 per cent – are of parties and performances, and only 5-10 per cent of protests. Yet 25 per cent of views are of protest videos, according to company data.

Mainstream viewers have followed the activist content to the site, boosting user numbers, but the company continues to prioritise human rights causes over revenues.

“We have no idea where this is going to end, whether it will be a massive commercial success or go belly-up in the end because we didn’t focus on the business at a time that we should have,” Mr Eriksson says. “But we have done something that we can always be proud of in life.”

Article by April Dembosky

Image: The revolution will be mobilized / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA / Mosa’aberising