Tech can play key role in protecting free speech: UN High Commissioner & Microsoft President

UN/Microsoft free speech event at UC Berkeley

With freedom of expression being challenged around the world—and in clashes on the UC Berkeley campus—is there more that the technology industry can do to protect free speech and other human rights?

The answer to that question was a resounding “yes,” as the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, and Microsoft President Brad Smith spoke last Thursday at a Berkeley-Haas Dean’s Speaker Series. The panel was co-sponsored by the Berkeley-Haas Center for Responsible Business’ Peterson Speaker Series, as well as the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law.

The panelists agreed that technology allows for better tracking of abuses around the world, while also enabling better communication with political dissenters—and that technology companies themselves have an important role to play.

Microsoft Brad Smith
Microsoft President Brad Smith

Smith reiterated Microsoft’s pledge to help the Human Rights Commission strengthen its work by embarking on a five-year, $5 million partnership. “We are a company that believes that a better-funded, more diversely financed UN Human Rights Commission will do more to protect people—not just their right to speak but even their ability to stay alive,” he said.

More diverse funding, Smith said, would serve to insulate the UN commission from threats by governments to reduce their contributions when the UN’s contribution is contrary to their own. “Governments want the High Commissioner to be vocal when he is poking other governments, but are less enthusiastic when he is poking them,” said Smith, in an apparent reference to President Donald Trump’s recent attacks on the UN.

Free speech threat on rise

Haas Dean Rich Lyons framed the discussion—which was moderated by Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Lawby noting that some 75 percent of governments around the world restrict freedom of expression, according to Amnesty International. Threats to a free press are also on the rise, he said.

“You may be tempted to think this is a ‘them-not-us’ situation, but the US ranks number 43 on the World Press Freedom Index, ranking just below the West African country Burkina Faso,” he said. The US had a higher ranking last year and “statements such as labeling the press as counter to American interests will probably weaken our standing further.”

Although Americans overwhelmingly support the right to free speech, that doesn’t translate into support for hate speech, he said. “Recent events at Charlottesville have brought hate speech to the forefront of our nation’s conscience and reignited calls for censorship.”

UN High Commissioner Zeid
UN High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

Balancing two conflicting priorities “requires fine-tuned thinking,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the sixth UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the first Muslim to hold the position. “With internet freedom on the decline we must wage a bare-knuckles fight for rights.  We have to become human-rights brawlers.”

“We need transparency”

The high commissioner said Microsoft’s technology has improved the commission’s ability to communicate with dissenters it could not normally reach, and to sift through data on alleged ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. It now has the ability to analyze video images for evidence and is developing a dashboard to give commission staffers a real-time snapshot of human rights around the world.

While calling on technology companies to do more to further human rights, the high commissioner warned that companies like Facebook may not be adhering to standards developed by the UN.

“We need transparency. We need to know what criteria they are using.  If they are going to police these issues, they have to police and judge according to international standards,” he said.

Indeed, Facebook has been criticized for Russia’s use of the social media platform to buy political ads and use fake accounts to target users with messages designed to inflame religious and racial tensions. The company recently agreed to turn over to Congressional investigators more than 3,000 ads paid for by entities linked to Russia.

Universities, too, have a role in protecting free speech. But education is only part of the answer, the high commissioner said.  Noting that many of the top Nazi Party members were highly educated, the high commissioner stressed that what the world needs most is educated people with empathy and compassion.

He referenced Charlie Chaplin’s character in The Great Dictator, who said: “More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.”

Watch the full video:


Top photo (L-R) Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Microsoft President Brad Smith. All photos: Manali Sibthorpe