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‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant’: Clooney, Microsoft unveil TrialWatch app

A panel including George and Amal Clooney and Microsoft President Brad Smith discuss the new Trial Watch app at Columbia University. Jeremy Kaplan/Digital Trends

Microsoft and The Clooney Foundation for Justice unveiled the TrialWatch app Thursday during an event at Columbia University — a new tool in CFJ’s ongoing effort to shine a light on injustice in courts around the globe.

“A large number of countries allow women and girls to be prosecuted for abortion,” George Clooney told a crowd at the Jerome Green Hall in Harlem Wednesday afternoon. “In some countries you can be imprisoned or killed for who you love.” Clooney’s wife Amal, a Lebanese-British lawyer and co-President of the Foundation, detailed a variety of specific cases she had witnessed first hand. “Without the fair administration of justice, it is not possible to hold the powers that be to account. There can be no democracy, no freedom of speech, no safety for minorities,” she explained. “That’s why we are today launching TrialWatch,” she explained. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

“In a lot of courtrooms around the world, they still put defendants literally in cages,” David Pressman, executive director of the Clooney Foundation, told Digital Trends in an exclusive interview ahead of the event. “And that’s not unusual, unfortunately.”

CFJ’s TrialWatch program, which formally launched this year, aims to monitor trials around the world that pose a high risk of human rights violations: trials that oppress vulnerable groups, silence speech, or target political opponents. Through the program, a small group of trial lawyers and activists are trained to report on legal proceedings, boiling a trial down to a series of facts that can be easily recorded and ultimately compared.

The new app augments the ability of TrialWatch’s monitors, making it easier to document happenings in a courtroom. It offers a platform to record audio and take pictures of people and documents, which are then uploaded to the cloud. Microsoft’s A.I. can do speech-to-text translation, simplifying the job of documenting a trial. And once in the cloud, A.I. can translate that text so that experts around the globe can analyze it, regardless of language. The app took the work of dozens of staffers working nights and weekends, explained Microsoft President Brad Smith. And then it had to pass the ultimate test.

“I’ve sat through product reviews with Bill Gates,” he joked. “You should sit through a product review with Amal Clooney!”

But the app is an important one considering our sobering times, Smith told the crowd. We live in a time when cameras can be on every corner, and governments can access information in a data center and know everything you read, everything you watch. Technology is one of the most powerful tools dictators can use, he noted — and the Clooney Foundation and TrialWatch aim to hit the problem square on the nose.

“It’s a straightforward vision: to make the world a witness to what happens in courtrooms around the world,” Smith said. “We decided this was a problem that technology could solve.”

Also in attendance at the event, and speaking on a panel moderated by Nick Kristof of the New York Times: Bob Carlson, President, American Bar Association; Lee Bollinger, President, Columbia University; and Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“A trial is a window into the soul of a country,” explained al-Hussein. “A trial is not here simply to prosecute the guilty. A trial is there to defend the innocent.” Too often governments are fearful, unwilling to speak out in the face of obvious crimes and violence, he said. Those in power are not the courageous heroes they should be, he noted. “They’re weenies.”

“TrialWatch is an effort to get them to be a little more courageous. It shouldn’t just be the people on this stage and the people in this forum.” He called the new app “a seminal contribution to ensuring that there is rule of law and justice in countries that desperately need it.”

“We will be the beacon for the rule of law around the world,” Carlson added.

What will define our success is how much support we get from people like you in the room,” Amal said, encouraging people not just to donate money but their time. The group is actively looking for volunteers to make the program a success.

The partnership between Microsoft and CFJ is part of growing trend within the tech industry of companies trying to address social problems, a topic Digital Trends is broadly investigating through its recently launched Tech for Change portal. By helping bridge the digital divide, shining a spotlight on inequality, improving education, and so on, technology companies big and small are showing that technology isn’t a scary term that’s synonymous with privacy concerns and security breaches.

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