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Google wants to bring out the digital activist in you

Advancing Human Rights attempts to open closed societies and crowdsource aid for dissidents with new hi-tech platform

David Keyes, left, and Robert Bernstein, the brains behind Advancing Human Rights. (courtesy)
David Keyes, left, and Robert Bernstein, the brains behind Advancing Human Rights. (courtesy)

NEW YORK — David Keyes wants to show me something in his email. The login screen on his laptop prompts him to input a multi-digit, constantly changing security code sent to his phone. We wait. “Two-step verification, obviously,” explains Keyes, and his phone pings, dutifully on cue. “It’s very important.”

Keyes trades in security on a global scale. But he’s not a government employee, nor is he an underground hacker out to disrupt the establishment. He is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights, the umbrella human rights organization operating Movements.org, a crowdsourcing platform connecting dissidents in closed societies with those who might be able to help all over the globe.

Online social platforms have made it easier to stay in touch with friends and fund new albums from your favorite bands, and Keyes believes similar ideas can be used to change the world for the better. This is human rights in the Facebook age.

And like Facebook or Twitter, Movements.org is years in the making. The project is actually the latest incarnation of an idea Keyes has been tinkering with for some time.

While working for former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky in Israel, Keyes founded CyberDissidents, a site meant to, as Keyes puts it, “highlight the voices of democratic online activists in the Middle East.”

David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights (courtesy)
David Keyes, executive director of Advancing Human Rights (courtesy)

Keyes admired Sharansky’s work as an activist, and wanted to expand on his mentor’s gains with modern technology. At first CyberDissidents was merely a database, a means to corral articles written by activists fighting against dictatorships into one, cohesive digital location. There was no direct call to action — not at first.

Keyes got his chance in 2010, when former president and chief executive of Random House and veteran human rights activist Robert Bernstein — one of the original founders of Human Rights Watch, and chairman of the groundbreaking organization from 1978 to 1998 — asked him to help establish a new group called Advancing Human Rights.

At the time, Bernstein was experiencing some friction with Human Rights Watch and wanted to find a method for getting information in and out of closed societies. For Bernstein, closed societies demanded the undivided attention of human rights organizations, whereas the new leadership at Human Rights Watch had begun to allocate resources to otherwise freer nations. Bernstein took particular offense at Human Rights Watch’s level of involvement in Israel.

The terms “open society” and “closed society” were first coined by philosopher Karl Popper in his 1945 book “The Open Society and its Enemies.” According to Popper, an open society is one where information is able to travel in and out readily, and basic freedoms are granted under the law. Those freedoms include freedom of the press and freedom of speech, among others.

‘There’s been a muddling of the vast, vast difference between democracies and dictatorships’

A closed society, on the other hand, is one where the government limits expression of democratic rights and freedoms, and maintains a stronghold on disseminating information into and out of the country. The distinction, for Keyes, is key.

“There’s been a muddling of the vast, vast difference between democracies and dictatorships,” says Keyes. “To even speak of them in the same breath does a disservice, I think, to the foundations of human rights.”

In a 2009 Oped for The New York Times, Bernstein publicly broke from Human Rights Watch, the organization he helped found and long oversaw, citing, “the organization, with increasing frequency, casts aside its important distinction between open and closed societies […] Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.”

In a 2009 Oped for The New York Times, Robert Bernstein publicly broke from Human Rights Watch, the organization he helped found and long oversaw. (Elisabeth Bernstein)
In a 2009 Oped for The New York Times, Robert Bernstein publicly broke from Human Rights Watch, the organization he helped found and long oversaw. (Elisabeth Bernstein)

Human Rights Watch issued a response to Bernstein’s Oped, stating, “Mr. Bernstein brought his concerns about our work on Israel to a full meeting of the Human Rights Watch Board of Directors in April [2009]. The board unanimously rejected his view that Human Rights Watch should report only on closed societies,” elaborating that, “human rights records of ‘closed’ societies are [not] the only ones deserving scrutiny […] ‘Open’ societies and democracies commit human rights abuses, too.”

In Keyes’ work on CyberDissidents — whose database focused exclusively on so-called closed societies — Bernstein saw potential.

“It occurred to me that this was the new way of getting into closed societies,” recalls Bernstein. “What we had to do in very difficult days, getting stuff in an out [of the Soviet Union] was very, very difficult. And this offered a new opportunity, and I got very excited about that.”

And so with the birth of Advancing Human Rights, the two activists sought to nurture a marriage of seasoned experience and cutting-edge tech, folding CyberDissidents into a new, larger organization intent on rendering a tactile purpose for the database’s stockpile of information.

Enter: Movements.org, the cornerstone of Advancing Human Rights’ work, and the result of a lucrative collaboration with Google — and the head of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen. In fact, it was Cohen who initially started Movements.org as a producer of conference and how-to guides for digital activists. Cohen approached Keyes and Bernstein in 2012 to take it over, and run with it.

Google Ideas head Jared Cohen (photo credit: Google)
Google Ideas head Jared Cohen (photo credit: Google)

“When Jared Cohen came to us, he said he made a survey of all of the human rights organizations,” says Bernstein. “And even though we were tiny, you know, compared to say, Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty, he said that we were the only ones that seemed to be using technology.”

A true melding of Bernstein’s experiential wisdom, Keyes’ future-focused vision, and Cohen’s reach and resources, the new Movements.org relaunched in July 2014, thanks largely to a $250,000 seed grant from Google. The platform bills itself as the first to directly connect dissidents in closed societies with journalists, lawyers, technologists, artists, and other experts willing to help, empowering “average people with unique skills” to make a difference.

‘We wanted to focus on what we thought was an unmet need, which was supplying direct help to potentially vast numbers of dissidents and human rights activists’

“So much has changed in the human rights field,” says Keyes. “During the Soviet era, people didn’t know what was happening, so the importance was getting information out. But now we know everything that’s happening in Syria because there are YouTube videos every few seconds of a massacre. So the challenge has shifted from information to help, to access, to giving the people on the front lines all the tools and resources and skills they need to succeed.”

This methodology, says Keyes, is a stark shift from the old-guard’s mode of activism.

“We use crowdsourcing platforms in everyday life. We buy books on Amazon, we buy couches on Craigslist, we find places to stay on AirBnB. But human rights is stuck in, I think, a different generation, where traditional human rights work is still being done — writing long-form reports, press releases, conferences, kind of traditional things. […] We wanted to focus on what we thought was an unmet need, which was supplying direct help to potentially vast numbers of dissidents and human rights activists,” says Keyes.

Since its relaunch, Movements.org has brought some 100,000 activists to the site, says Keyes. The landing page prompts users to request a need (highlighted in red), or offer a skill (rendered in blue). Red dominates the page: the requests far outnumber the offers.

With this surplus of voices in need, Advancing Human Rights and Movements.org are comfortable focusing on serving those aforementioned closed societies: countries governed by dictatorships, designated by Freedom House as “Not Free” or “Partially Free.”

“It’s quite obvious to me,” says Bernstein, “that while all nations have faults, in the human rights field there are many people fighting besides human rights organizations in open societies — whereas in closed societies, human rights organizations are often the only people fighting, and trying to get people who want their rights, their rights.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures gestures as he speaks during a press conference at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne) on April 2, 2015. (Photo credit: AFP/ FABRICE COFFRINI)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gestures gestures as he speaks during a press conference at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne) on April 2, 2015. (Photo credit: AFP/ FABRICE COFFRINI)

Movements.org focuses on populations of over 5 million people in countries including Iran, Syria, North Korea, and China. As the platform expands, it hopes to include smaller nations as well.

The platform provides opportunities for the otherwise nameless among the oppressed. But Advancing Human Rights as a whole strives to highlight notable names — or at least names largely assumed to be notable in the human rights field.

Keyes made news following his 2013 confrontation of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, an interaction Keyes chronicled for The Daily Beast and shared on Kambiz Hosseini’s satirical news show, Poletik — Iran’s answer to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Recounts Keyes today, “I walked right up to [Zarif] and said, ‘Do you think it’s ironic that you enjoy posting on Facebook when your government bans it in Iran?’ He laughed and went, ‘Ha ha, that’s life,’ I said, ‘When will [prominent Iranian human rights activist and prisoner] Majid Tavakoli be free?’ He said, ‘I don’t know who that is.’”

Tavakoli was freed temporarily shortly after Keyes appearance on Poletik. Despite Tavakoli’s subsequent re-imprisonment, Keyes considers the episode a crucial step.

“We need to focus the world’s attention, and massively raise the pressure against the Iranian regime. Confrontations are one way, like I did with Zarif.”

Keyes’ experience is reminiscent of a famous anecdote shared by Canadian Parliament Member Irwin Cotler, who represented Sharansky during his imprisonment in the 1970s until his release in 1986, and currently sits on Advancing Human Rights’ board of directors. When Cotler asked Mikhail Gorbachev at a conference in 1997 why he freed Sharansky, Gorbachev revealed that before he became president of the Soviet Union, he “had never heard of Anatoly Sharansky.” Meanwhile, leaders all over the world asked him constantly when Sharansky would be freed.

A similar scenario to Keyes’ interaction with Zarif to be sure, but bearing one critical difference: today we have the Internet.

Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler speaks to the media during a press conference in Jerusalem, Dec. 30, 2009 (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)
Former Canadian justice minister Irwin Cotler speaks to the media during a press conference in Jerusalem, Dec. 30, 2009 (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

Says Cotler, “The Soviet Union was a very closed society at the time. It was before the Internet era, before you had social media. And looking at Gorbachev’s role as minister of agriculture, it’s conceivable that this is not something he might’ve known about. Today I think it’d be virtually impossible [to not know] given the Internet, and given the advances in technology and social media and the like.”

Raising awareness and holding governments accountable are the tenets of another Advancing Human Rights project, Dissidents Squared, a campaign to rename the streets facing embassies for dictatorship-ruled nations after political prisoners. Keyes and Sharansky presented the proposed bill to the U.S. House Appropriations Committee in 2014, who in turn voted to rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy “Liu Xiaobo Plaza,” after the human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient who has been imprisoned since 2008.

‘Can we just appoint David Keyes to lead the nuclear talks with Iran?’

“The Chinese government went crazy about it, and issued a bunch of furious denunciations,” says Keyes. One Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told The New York Times that the renaming was “a complete farce,” while another Chinese government representative told The Washington Post the move was “really absurd and provocative.”

The official Chinese reaction was a small victory unto itself, says Keyes, and proof that the symbolic gesture raised major awareness. “We’re going to try to do that against Iran throughout the world, too.”

On his laptop screen, his email has loaded. Turns out what he was looking for wasn’t on email, but on Facebook. So many platforms to manage. Keyes clicks over to Facebook, finds the quote on his own profile, and reads it aloud. He says it’s from Ben Birnbaum, writer for The New Republic: “Can we just appoint David Keyes to lead the nuclear talks with Iran? He’s accomplished what sanctions, international isolation, and the threat of military action has not: force the regime to do something.”

Keyes laughs. “Bit overstated, but I just think that if the example of one person confronting one diplomat with one name can lead to such a thing, imagine the possibilities if the West was mobilized and really holding the regimes’ feet to the fire. Immense things could happen.

“So we’ve had 100,000 activists come to Movements. If we get hundreds of thousands on it everyday getting help, that’s something that I think a regime like Iran will really see.”

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