A number of ACM groups have recently made decisions to hold their conferences in China. The list of major conferences includes CSCW2011, SIGIR2011, Ubicomp 2011, and ICSE 2011, just to name a few. This seems like a strange trend. The purpose of academic conferences is to disseminate ideas in an open and public manner, and thus the argument has been made that taking these conferences to China will help expose China and Chinese researchers to these Western ideals. Yet what we see conference after conference are the restrictions that China imposes on electronic communication.
While ten years ago this kind of communication might have been mostly private email and some web browsing, today we expect conferences to include a significant online presence, whether it is through streaming live presentations (as the WWW conference has done), through Second LIfe (JCDL) or through blogs and Twitter comments related to the conference presentations. Thus the conference now happens not only in a physical location but also simultaneously on the Web.
Choosing locations that in effect foreclose on people’s ability to communicate about the conference as it is happening limits the reach and effectiveness of the conference in its mission to to disseminate and discuss ideas. ACM and its SIGs have pursued a policy of engagement with China that has the predictable side effect of excluding online participation. While the goal of reaching out and locating conferences in Asia is laudable, perhaps selecting countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. might be just as effective at reaching non-Western audiences without the need to make significant sacrifices in terms of freedom of expression.