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WSIS, first reflections

On the one hand, WSIS has been a bit smoother than I expected. When I showed up this morning to collect my badge and enter the main conference, the process was remarkably easy and smooth. A couple metal detectors, a digital photo, and presto, I’m authorized. And in Tunis, the shuttlebuses run on time.

Once I entered the exhibition space, that illusion of a smooth-running event was quickly dispelled. The logistics may be smooth, but the politics, the rumors and the general chaos surrounding WSIS are pretty profound.

I’m here to help run a workshop titled “Expression Under Repression”, hosted by Hivos and organzied by the Global Voices team. When we arrived at the exhibition hall this morning, we were warned that our workshop could be cancelled. Tunisian authorities looked at the hundreds of workshops being offered as part of WSIS and concluded that five of the workshops might not be permitted. Specifically, it was suggested by Tunisian authorities that “expression under repression has nothing to do with ICT for development.”

We haven’t been informed, officially or otherwise, whether or not we’re going to be able to run the workshop tomorrow afternoon. And we’re planning on going ahead with the sessions and seeing whether we get any resistance – a locked room when we go to give our talk, security barring the door, etc.

While the meeting rooms are in UN territory, the “expo” show floor is in Tunisia. This leads to some interesting phenomena – the internet is unfiltered in the UN meeting rooms – they’ve got a satellite link directly to the ITU in Geneva – but we’re using the Tunisian internet on the floor of the expo center. Which means that we can’t reach politically sensitive sites like citizens-summit.org (the counter-summit being organized by free speech advocates) or Yezzi.org, a Tunisian organization opposed to Ben Ali’s presidency. Hacker friends of mine are busily running demonstrations to teach people how to install TOR, which works in Tunis, though the site to download the software is blocked.

Open Net Initiative’s new report on net filtering in Tunisia was accessible when it was released a few hours ago. It will be interesting to see if that lasts.

(My friend Sebastien took photos of me earlier today showing off the blocked “Citizen’s Summit” site – loaded through TOR – while standing in front of a WSIS signboard. Unfortunately, I’m unable to download photos from my camera at the moment, but I promise to post as soon as I’m able.)

I spent most of my WSIS time today double-checking with tomorrow’s workshop participants and listening to rumors about the decisions in the main hall, the crackdown on protests around town and speculation about the future of our session. On the rare moments I wandered the floor, I literally couldn’t walk ten meters without running into someone I know from the world of ICT for development. Despite the widespread sense that a) the summit is a stunningly unproductive waste of money and b) that it’s a shame to hold the event in a country with so little rehard for freedom of expression, most of the folks I know from the last few years of trying to get the Internet to the wider world are here, and they’re networking.

And they’re getting paid, myself included. A large number of the booths here are sponsored by governments, anxious to show off ideas for how they might bridge digital divides. My friends, who tend to be the sorts of people one hires to carry out projects on the ground, are here in force, running workshops, building wireless networks and generally enjoying the chance to make some bucks doing what they love to do.

Frustrated as I am about the amounts of money spent on WSIS that could be spent on the ground (does a $500k display booth for a World Bank connectivity project really benefit anyone?), I’m glad to see that an idea that was marginal and radical in 2000 – the idea that everyone has a right to create, share and access information – is mainstream enough to draw 18,000 to a conference hall in 2005.