I’m in Budapest today, enroute to Tunis for the World Summit on the Information Society. Like many of the friends I hope to see over the next three days, I’m attending despite deep misgivings over the usefulness of the gathering, the absurd cost of the meeting, and the fact that it’s being held within a deeply repressive country with a history of detaining people who use the Internet to exercise their right to free speech.
My excuse for attending is that Global Voices has been invited to organize a session, titled “Expression Under Repression” at the conference on Thursday and Friday, under the sponsorship of OSI and Hivos. We’ll be running a series of panels on Thursday featuring bloggers and journalists from around the world, talking about the challenges of building local blogospheres, and whether there are valid limits to freedom of expression. On Friday, we’re going to offer some hands-on workshops on circumventing censorship, sending secured email and anonymously publishing to a blog. (And then I’m planning on jumping on a plane to Paris immediately after closing this potentially controversial session… :-)
On the one hand, I’m looking forward to seeing friends of mine from around the world who are engaged with the challenges of bringing IT to the entire world – the vast majority of folks I know from the world of ICT4D seem to be attending, including those (like me) who threatened to boycott this meeting.
On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to be optimistic about WSIS. If a large contingent of funders were coming to scout great projects and put multiple millions of dollars to work, I’d be more interested. If I thought an actual solution to the debate over future governance of the internet were in the offing, I’d be deeply excited. But I get the sense that most people are attending out of either a sense of duty, or because it’s a good chance to see the other thousands of people who are attending for reasons difficult to explain.
I’m a little sorry that my meetings in Budapest have kept me from some of the pre-summit events. Friends have been involved with organizing a counter-event, a “citizen’s summit” which should be interesting. A meeting to plan that summit was banned by Tunisian authorities, who prevented Tunisian and European activists from entering the Goethe Institute, where the meeting was being held. It will be interesting to see what will happen when these groups – including Human Rights Watch, Frontline Defenders and Association for Progressive Communications – try to hold an actual public gathering.
Meanwhile, Andy Carvin features a report from a Pakistani blogger who was briefly detained for taking photos at WSIS registration. He was informed that only accredited journalists would be allowed to take photographs. Like Andy, I’m not planning on curtailing my photography based on this report – given the insane amounts of money many NGOs and world governments are spending to participate in this summit, and the sparse attention the summit and surrounding events are likely to receive in the US press, it seems fairly important to try to share some accounts, photographic and otherwise, from inside the WSIS halls.
Update: Tunisian dissidents are protesting Ben Ali’s presidency online through a campaign titled Yezzi Fock, which means, in Tunisian arabic, “Enough”, a reference to the Tunisian leader’s long, undemocratic reign. The site was blocked in Tunisia 18 hours after being launched.
Andy Carvin is rounding up blogs from people attending WSIS on an aggregator – a good read to get a sense for what’s going on in Tunis.