Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Leaving WSIS

It’s 6pm on the final day of WSIS and I’m in the Tunis airport nursing a beer and waiting to start the long trip home. It’s been an exhausting three days, though rewarding, and I feel pretty good about the small way in which we were able to influence the character of the discussions at WSIS.

Rebecca, my partner in crime, took over the task of blogging today and has two posts on events, one on the workshop I ran this morning with a “dream team” of anticensorship and secure computing geeks – Dmitri Vitaliev, Wojtek Bogusz and Nart Villeneuve, another summarizing the events and mood of yesterday’s controversial session.

In her post, Rebecca makes a point of praising our Dutch sponsors and their actions to ensure we were able to hold our seminars as planned. I can only echo her sentiments and offer my grateful thanks. Both Hivos and the government of the Netherlands put themselves on the line to ensure that our guests were able to speak about freedom of expression around the world and learn tools and techniques to combat net censorship. An activist NGO like ours couldn’t hope for better friends. We very much hope to work with Hivos again in the future and are grateful for the chance they gave us to put together these sessions of WSIS – thanks, guys.

It’s too early for me to offer any wisdom about whether the summit accomplished any of its goals. I’m skeptical that three days of meetings and networking brought rural Africa any closer to full inclusion in the information society. While I had a lot of fun seeing old friends and meeting international bloggers – and Huawei and ZTE probably sold a lot of censorship-enabled routers – I’m still skeptical that WSIS was anything more than a vast trade show.

But I’m deeply pleased that WSIS forced the Tunisian authorities to loosen some of their restrictions on freedom of speech, if only for a few days. I’m encouraged that the press conference opening the Citizens’ Summit was able to proceed. And, thugs aside, I’m pleased we were able to carry out our sessions.

The question for me now – will there be a backlash on speech in Tunis after the summit? Will the brave folks who spoke out at the citizens’ summit or attended our sessions see repercussions from their actions over the next weeks?

And most importantly, will the rest of us keep a careful eye on Tunis, for the next two weeks… and the next few years?

Update: speaking of bullshit in Tunis, it’s worth reading this press release, regarding the refusal of Tunisia to admit the director of Reporters Without Borders, who was accredited to attend the summit, but wasn’t allowed to leave the airp[lane he arrived on. And a BBC story on this, and related matters…

2 Responses to “Leaving WSIS”

  1. Brian says:

    at first, i thought it was absurd to hold a summit based on the premise of freedom of expression and information in Tunis, but then i realized just how much press attention was subsequently focused on the absurdities and war against those freedoms by the Tunisian police state.

  2. Ethan says:

    It’s a really good point, Brian. It’s certainly got people talking about the topic. But I’m still not sure it was worth the compromise – I think Ben Ali will be wrapping himself in the “success” of WSIS for some time to come…

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