Was the Squeeze Worth the Juice?

Nov. 2, 2019
People sitting in auditorium


As a graduate student, relevant conferences can help you think about strategies to approach your research and establish collaborations that inspire you. Attending a conference can also help develop your professional identity as an expert and offer an essential reminder that you are not on your own in your discipline. I will use my recent experience as a participant in an international conference to answer the burning question I imagine you all have: Was the squeeze worth the juice?

Graduate school is not primarily about structured objectives and outcomes. Graduate school is also very much about learning to craft the future you want for yourself in your discipline. If you’re feeling less than confident in your current abilities in crafting your future, do not fret, one immediate impact on your goals can be as simple as participation in a professional conference.

Relevant conferences, webinars, lectures, seminars, workshops, and symposiums can help you think about strategies to approach your research, contemplate the bigger picture, and establish collaborations that inspire you. Each venue type has benefits and drawbacks, as explained in this Northeastern University article on how venues differ.

Attending these types of events also helps you develop your professional identity as an expert because ideally, you might be attending to present your research or to serve as a discussant on someone else’s work. Participation is a vital stepping stone to joining the conversation of academic peers, finding out where your ideas, thoughts, and research sit and the opportunity for gaining genuine feedback and making connections with those who may invite you to collaborate on research projects and contribute to particular issues in peer-reviewed journals or other outlets.

“Surveillance tools can interfere with human rights, from the right to privacy and freedom of expression to rights of association and assembly.”

— David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Participation also offers an essential reminder that you are not on your own, which is particularly helpful if there are not many people at your institution, conducting related study or research.

There is a Chinese proverb which states: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.” As one who is “coming back,” I will outline in this article why conferences offer an excellent opportunity to concentrate on issues in your specific discipline while showing the relevance of your work beyond the boundaries of higher education. I will use my recent experience as a participant in an international human rights and technology conference to help answer: Was the squeeze worth the juice?

Why attend a conference on human rights and technology?

Every facet of human rights is impacted by technology. Let me repeat—every facet of human rights is impacted by technology. No issue can be considered in a silo due to the intricacies we face when defending human rights in the digital age. Going forward it is vital for human rights practitioners/defenders, policymakers, technology developers, international organizations, civil society, and all other stakeholders to unite around a shared understanding of how their work uniquely impacts human rights in the digital age.

Take the issue of safety for human rights practitioners/defenders. I learned through my recent apprenticeship (aka graduate school) that at a scale never thought possible human rights practitioners are vulnerable to physical, rhetorical, and online attacks. These harms include exposing their identity, location, and other sensitive information through surveillance, technology confiscation (mobile phones and laptops, especially), judicial harassment, slander, beatings, death threats, and killings. 


During my capstone research, I spoke with front line human rights practitioners/defenders who identified information gatekeepers that had attempted censorship and other forms of technology and information control on them directly or their staff, which violates human rights practitioners’ protections and fundamental rights outlined in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. I also interviewed leadership from Amnesty InternationalPrivacy International, and Front Line Defenders which are among some of the human rights organizations focusing on the importance of understanding how technology is shaping the field of human rights advocacy in the digital age. The message was the same; human rights practitioners/defenders need to be educated on how to survive and thrive in a digital advocacy world.

One organization, Access Now, continually surfaced as an organization addressing technology and human rights concerns. Access Now is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that “defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world.” (Access Now–About Us). Access Now combines direct technical support, comprehensive policy engagement, global advocacy, grassroots grantmaking, and hosting convenings such as RightsCon.


Access Now hosts the RightsCon conference where the world’s technologists, engineers, business leaders and investors, human rights practitioners, and government delegates collaborate to build partnerships, form global norms, showcase emerging technology, and address challenging issues of human rights and technology. The Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference as RightsCon was initially named rotated between San Francisco and another global city. RightsCon today is an annual event that brings the conference to global cities that are power centers for technology and human rights.

As I learned to ask in my nongovernmental organization management class: how is the organization funded, and how is the funding used? Funding support comes from foundations, governments, companies, individuals, and civil society organizations, and ticket registration fees. Funding support covers the required costs of the conference, including the venue, staffing, food, transportation, audiovisual equipment, and essential services like the 24/7 Digital Security Helpline.

It also helps support civil society participation with 1) travel scholarships to cover the flights, accommodations, and visas for grassroots activists attending from the Global South, 2) ticket subsidies to provide free tickets to those who would not be able to participate otherwise, and 3) exhibition booths for civil society organizations and educational programs to promote their work.

RightsCon event sponsorship is a notable listing of tech companies like AmazonGoogle, Facebook, MozillaFord Foundation, Microsoft, Cisco, and Vodaphone. There are copious human rights organizations involved such as Amnesty InternationalBerkman Klein Center Harvard UniversityGulf Centre for Human RightsHuman Rights WatchICANNRanking Digital Rights, and many of the UN System organization and entities.

RightsCon Tunis 2019

In 2019, approximately 3,000 participants from 120+ countries and 700+ organizations traveled for the first Middle East and Africa RightsCon conference held in Tunis, Tunisia, June 11- 14. The conference offered 450+ sessions across 18 different theme tracks. During the Call for Proposals, RightsCon identified four key trends from the submissions that cut across thematic tracks: Elections, Digital ID, Content Moderation, and Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence. The session programming is community-led through a public proposal submission process, evaluated by Program Advisors, and managed by Access Now staff.

RightsCon publishes a 5-step guide to submitting a successful proposal. For context, in 2018 they had 800 submissions (this is not a typo!), with an acceptance rate of 60%, resulting in the 450 sessions for the final program. It is essential to be informed of submission dates and other activities (opportunities to shape the program, community highlights, and special discounts and event invites) by signing up for the RightsCon Rundown email list.

While the sessions are the core of RightsCon, there were several other important ways to participate such as The Community Village, a dynamic, mixed-use space for connecting and showcasing projects, initiatives, tools, and research throughout the conference. Representatives from SMEXMicrosoftInternewsFacebookAPCOne Trust, and many more were present. It was a terrific space to make an impression and meet like-minded researchers and activists.

RightsCon also featured a cool way to up your advocacy game by offering skill-building sessions for campaigning. Toolkit design and development sessions were offered to improve reporting skills and access to software to augment lobbying and advocacy on the ground and “boost your confidence to advance social justice causes before international bodies, national parliaments, and the tech sector.”


Tech demo blocks were offered in a collection of dynamic presentations on tech innovations, emerging software, circumvention tools, and digital security strategies. You could meet practitioners, advocates, and entrepreneurs who are tackling human rights issues and creating the advocacy technologies of the future.

There were also regional lunches to enable more connections to your regional colleagues, and participants were encouraged to join any lunch based on interest.

Private meetings are also available, and attendance is by invitation only. For example, I was contributing to a session where I mentioned my digital health background. After the session, the UNDP HIV, Health and Development group invited me to their private meeting for elaborating a set of principles on a rights-based approach to digital technologies and data. The group coalesced and is now collaborating regularly while also preparing for proposal submissions to RightsCon 2020.

The opportunity to meet thought-leaders such as The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is made very easy and comfortable by the overall collaborative spirit of the conference. It is also possible to witness history in the making such as when the U.N. Special Rapporteur, David Kaye, released an official UN statement to stress the importance of defending human rights in the development, use, and regulation of digital spaces.

Conference participants were invited to join the global #KeepItOn coalition to speak out against the internet shutdowns in Sudan. It is noteworthy that the concern around Internet shutdowns is becoming of critical importance in the U.S. as President “Trump points a finger at ‘dangerous’ internet following Texas and Ohio shootings."

In 2020, RightsCon will convene in the vibrant, flourishing city of San José, Costa Rica from June 9-12. It is the first summit in Central America where for many in the region, it is becoming increasingly difficult to advance their work securely.



Now is the perfect time to consult with your advisor and prepare to submit proposals for RightsCon 2020 furthering your reach and that of the University of Arizona M.A. program. There will be critical dialogs about “environmental justice, indigenous rights, sustainability, and technology in the time of climate crisis.” (Thank You, Tunisia – Hello Costa Rica!). For example, how do we collectively address the impact of technology on the environment? What is the best route for engaging and connecting human rights defenders from all focuses, including indigenous community organizers? How can we promote connectivity for rural communities, accessibility for all internet users, and sustainable development that is equitable and built on a foundation of respect for human rights? 

Was the squeeze worth the juice?

Without exception, the answer is a resounding YES!

RightsCon participation helped me think about strategies to approach my post-graduate life, contemplate the bigger picture, and establish collaborations that inspire me. The RightsCon community energy, generosity of spirit, and commitment to building a better future made RightsCon Tunis 2019 hands down the absolute best conference I have attended, and I have attended hundreds(!).

See you at RightsCon 2020!

Preparation Insights

Make the squeeze worth the juice for most any type of venue.

Conferences, webinars, lectures, seminars, workshops, and symposiums can be byzantine and esoteric and not easy for the uninitiated. In my case, I drew heavily upon my former career, where I attended and exhibited in a multitude of domestic and international conferences.

To maximize the return on my money and time investment, I learned to approach participation (the squeeze) in a somewhat soldierly fashion. I used several approaches for RightsCon to ensure I met the people I wanted to meet (the juice) and was well prepared for impromptu meetings (juice++).

Feel free to email me additional questions and suggestions at beboyett(at)gmail(dot)com.

Preparation Strategies

  • After securing my event ticket, hotel, and flight, I purchased a small quantity of inexpensive, professional business cards which offered my preferred contact information and clear insight into my goals with a tag line.
    • Because I knew this conference was forecast to be well attended, I included a headshot on the back, making it easier to recognize me in sessions and social activities, offering another opportunity to continue the conversation.
    • Believe it or not, I used my cards as early as the Tunis airport departure gate in Frankfurt. I began introducing myself to people I recognized from their RightsCon profile pictures, and it had a cascade effect as others began to introduce themselves to their seatmates.
  • I created an “elevator pitch” that I was ready to fire off at a moment’s notice, such as when I was getting lunch or standing in a queue… alternatively, even riding in an elevator!
    • Business websites can be your best guide for developing your personal and professional story like Forbesthe balance careers, and Inc.
    • Practice, practice, practice before you get on the plane.
  • I identified the program sessions I wanted to attend well in advance of arrival. Even with the great organization on the RightsCon website, this step took weeks of review due to the many sessions.
  • While RightsCon can’t share contact details of participants for privacy reasons, it is easy to look up participants as most have a digital footprint via their LinkedIn profiles.
    • I sent an advance introduction email to attendees or speakers I wanted to meet. If they responded positively, and 99.99% do, then I offered a specific date and time to meet.
    • There are websites for learning how to send an introduction email to someone you do not currently know, and LinkedIn is the right starting place.
    • Housekeeping tips: if you use LinkedIn, ensure your profile is 100% up-to-date, and if you use your private email, create a professional signature suitable for a graduate student/budding human rights professional.
  • I created an email template in advance that I could use when the time was constrained, such as during a coffee break because this is no time for a shy approach. Greet the individual and tell them you want to meet them to discuss whatever it is (be concise!) and ask for their business card. I use the template I created to quickly send a brief email with my full contact info and a prompt on our follow-up, which might have been as simple as see you in the [named] session or offering a time to meet for a complete chat.
    • Mistakes are never a great impression. That is why it is essential to use a pre-constructed template that can be quickly edited.
    • Write on the back of the acquired business card a note about your conversation. It’s an excellent prompt for that late evening prep for the next day.
  • On the journey home, I put together follow-up emails and save them as Drafts. Wait until you get some rest before hitting the Send button! Mistakes are never a great follow-up, so give yourself plenty of time to ensure it is the right content and context.