Yesterday, we were warned that our session could be cancelled by the Tunisian authorities. We also discovered that the session wasn’t listed in the official program guide. Today, we came to the room where the session was to be held and there was a sign on the door stating that the workshop was cancelled. Friends who passed by the UNDP booth on the WSIS floor earlier today heard gossip that the security forces would appear at our session and anyone who attended would be arrested. And I got a few SMSs from people who’d asked about our session at the information booths and had been told there was no information on our session.
This low-grade harrasment did nothing to dampen our turnout for the session. The room is literally standing room only and people are listening in through the doorway. Unfortunately, about half an hour into the session, it became clear that some of the folks in the doorway were associated with Tunisian security forces. There was some shoving as some of these individuals struggled to get into the room, whcih was already filled with attendees.
Jaap Dijkstra made an allusion to these circumstances when he opened our “provacatively named session” with the observation that he was pleased that such a meeting as ours could take place at WSIS… just as he was pleased that Tunisian human rights activists could hold a press conference last night at the Tunisian Human Rights League. Dijkstra argued that human rights issues, especially the rights of freedom to speak, were central to the issues at WSIS, more than technological issues.
Rebecca MacKinnon is chairing the first panel and opens with an introduction to our blogger colleagues with a discussion of the importance of online freedom of expression. She explains her decision to leave mainstream media for new media, getting involved with tools and technologies that allow people’s voices to be heard directly, not through the filter of a foreign journalist. Our joint project, Global Voices, is all about finding ways to call attention to conversations taking place in Citizen’s media… and our first panel includes two GVO regulars, Isaac Mao and Hossein Derakshan, as well as Taurai Maduna, from Zimbabwe.
Before introducing our citizen journalists, Rebecca talks about one of the critical issues we’re focusing on for the next two days: Internet filters. She mentions the just-released Open Net Initiative report on Tunisia, demonstrating how a US firm – Secure Computing – helps the Tunisian government censor the internet. Rebecca shows us pages that are blocked by the Tunisian firewall, as well as net censorship in China (including a comparison of a Google search for Tianeman Square Massacres from within and outside China.)
Rebecca rejects as absurd the idea that expression under repression isn’t relevant to ICT and development, as had been suggested by Tunisian authorities in reacting to our panel. She points to the spread of SARS in China as an example of the ill consequences of blocking communications between citizens. The blocking of sites that report on anti-corruption efforts probably costs real money, as politicans continue putting money in their pockets at the expense of the wider populus. But she points out that filtering occurs in the United States as well, through things like filters in libraries that prevent teenagers from finding out about reproductive health.
The goal is not the elimination of filtering entirely – we want filters to block things like viruses and spam. But we need the process of filtering to be far more transparent, and we need to hold responsible the companies like Cisco, Yahoo and Google that are cooperating with filtering efforts.