Censoring conferences

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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.

22 Comments

  1. I disagree (and note conflict: I’m co-general chair of UbiComp 2011 and am living in China).

    First, there was a significant twitter presence at CSCW 2011. Many people these days have VPNs for corporate and campus security reasons as well as simply to keep their personal data safe when using wireless networks. Clearly plenty of folks used these at CSCW (I can’t speak for SIGIR as I’m not following it). In addition, VPNs can be had for as low as $20. I will make sure to give instructions for those who need this for their “security” needs.

    Second, having conferences in other parts of Asia will not lead to a very large number of Chinese participants. Many students and faculty simply cannot afford to travel. There are over 1000 CS departments in China and the growth of the field is astounding, but in many ways it is still a very pour country. These people are YEARNING to be included and learn what good research looks like firsthand. I think it is shortsighted of us to think to not come to China for the one year where social media might be a bit harder to connect with.

    Third, who said there wasn’t going to be other ways to participate (ala video). I’m not promising anything here…. but, don’t assume.

  2. James,

    It sounds like you’re planning to address some of these issues, which is great. My concern is that conferences don’t pay enough attention to this, or give it lip service (hell, it was hard to get on the wireless network at CHI in Florence and in Vancouver!) thereby undermining what is now an important aspect of the conference.

    With respect to China, there ought to be (at least) two agendas for bringing conferences there: one is to engage with the researchers, and the other is to pressure the government into relaxing their grip on that society. Because an international conference brings money and prestige to the hosting country, that can potentially be a point of leverage. It would be good if ACM had a coherent policy aimed not only at reaching out to researchers but also at effecting top-down change. While this is a much harder problem, it is, in my opinion, socially irresponsible to pretend that the political repression in China is something to be accommodated rather than opposed. And by opposed, I mean in deed as well as in word.

  3. I agree with Gene. I had a lot of the same thoughts. The discussion of SIGIR is way down this year compared to previous years when it was held outside China.

    The barrier to information dissemination for conferences in China has a significant detrimental effect on the conference whose purpose is to share the research with as wide an audience as possible.

    Requiring a VPN to get through the information barrier is not acceptable. There should be fewer barriers to dissemination of the research digitally, not more.

  4. I find myself feeling very uncomfortable with the idea that foreign delegates would access the internet, social media, etc. in ways that would most likely get a resident of the host nation in trouble. This just feels like a very nasty double standard that is just wrong.

    That said I think allowing researchers in developing countries to be a part of the international community is vitally important. But, I do not know that holding an international conference in their home city/country once every X years is really in the end that significant. The international events are often out of reach as a venue for publication and presentation, and they really are designed to serve that international community (rather than the local one). Is it valuable to watch other presentations and perhaps meet people from other places with similar interests? Certainly. But, I really don’t think big-name international conferences coming to town every now and again should be over-valued as a way of helping the host nation’s research community.

    It seems much more likely that the host nation/government sees this as an opportunity to make a good impression on the foreign delegates. That’s where I think we as foreign delegates do have an obligation to say “this does not make a good impression”, to the point where we might not even want to be here…

  5. Jofish says:

    http://twapperkeeper.com/allnotebooks.php?type=&name=cscw&description=&tag=&created_by=

    Clearly, both Gene and James have points here.

    I don’t think one can deny that there is a real impact from the Great Firewall. As one data point, have a look at these statistics:

    #Hashtag #cscw11 Tweets from the CSCW 2011 conference in Hangzhou, China wollepb 68 11-11-10
    #Hashtag #cscw2010 ACM CSCW 2010 conference WGL 743 02-09-10
    #Hashtag #cscw2011 Tweets from the CSCW 2011 conference in China wollepb 687 09-09-10

    If we combine the #cscw2011 and #cscw11 tweets we get 755 to compare to 743 the year before. Recognizing there’s probably some duplication there (“I’m looking forward to #cscw11 #cscw2011!”), and the significant growth in twitter use during that time, I think we can agree there does seem to be a real effect. My guess is if we looked at the distribution of tweets is it’d be down: what we’re seeing is a smaller number of people tweeting more.

    Second, James, I think your point about VPNs is a bit disengenuous. Yes, I have a corporate VPN, and I bought a personal VPN for use while I was in China as well. But graduate students are extremely price conscious, and many of them aren’t going to do that. There’s also significant impact on tweeting from mobile devices, many of which either can’t use VPNs or can only use VPNs with significant setup costs. James, how about providing a VPN for use by students attending Ubicomp on request? That might mitigate that problem.

    Third, I agree that it’s important to engage researchers in China. But I also think it’s important to engage researchers in Malaysia and Thailand and India and Bangladesh. I do think that there’s real value in having a conference in Asia as opposed to Minneapolis or Atlanta or Seattle, or Aarhus or Florence or Paris, for that matter.

  6. I just did a quick comparison of the tweets archived by TwapperKeeper for CSCW2010 and CSCW2011, using the Summarizr service. While the numbers for CSCW 2011 are somewhat lower despite the relative growth of Twitter user over the year, the distribution of twitters is much more telling. In CSCW2010, the top 10 tweeters accounted for 34% of the tweets, whereas in CSCW2011, the top 10 tweeters accounted for 47% of the tweets. The top 3 in 2010 represented just over 14% of all tweets, while in 2011 the top 3 produced 28%. These numbers suggest much broader participation, which is what the medium is about. The fact that VPN makes it possible to communicate does not mean that it makes it easy to do so. We must look beyond the proof of concept to actual use to argue that the barriers imposed by China are not impacting communication.

  7. FD says:

    I would not use SIGIR2011 as an example since the lack of tweets almost certainly has more to do with the non-existant wifi in all of the session rooms.

  8. Don’t even get me started on the wifi rant :-)

  9. LJH says:

    Hi Gene:

    I’m a Chinese student in U.S. I fully understand your concerns but still think some of them are not really valid.

    The research community in China is growing extremely fast. Taking SIGIR as an example, just count how many papers are from China these years. Therefore, not holding conferences in China is also putting another kind of barrier for Chinese researchers since it’s difficult to get VISA to travel overseas for many of them, compared to Twitter barrier in your case. Can we also raise the similar question to other governments, like U.S., to loose the VISA policy for researchers?

    We always have different kinds of barriers, no matter where you organize a conference. The question is whether we work towards solutions or not. I personally would think that this trend will continue because you can’t simply ignore a huge body of research community. The question should be, how can we deal with it?

  10. Personally, I’d boycott SIGIR because of their closed proceedings. I no longer review for closed access publications.

    Last I heard a call to boycott conferences, it was for the U.S. One reason was the problem in getting visas to enter and one was civil rights abuses by the U.S.

  11. If we set the bar high enough to restrict venues to countries with fewer civil rights abuses than the US, it’s not clear how many countries we’ll be left with. Certainly a significant number of European countries would not make the cut. But this is straying a bit from my original thesis, which was the need to balance participation from under-represented countries with the need to have unfettered online discussion related to the conference.

  12. I would not use SIGIR2011 as an example since the lack of tweets almost certainly has more to do with the non-existant wifi in all of the session rooms.

    And what if that fact that there was non-existent WIFI is not unrelated? If so many things are censored anyway, why would the local organizers put up a WIFI connection to highlight that fact for all their international guests? Not to mention risk a tech-savvy crowd being able to VPN their way through the firewall, and tweet anyway.

  13. FD says:

    You should have that conversation with Jian-Yun, Jeremy. He is quite nice.

  14. @LJH Thanks for your comments. I have a couple of questions that I hope you can shed some light on:

    1. Do Chinese conference attendees use some version of weibo to comment on conferences as they happen?

    2. How difficult is it for established Chinese researchers to travel to nearby countries such as Korea, Singapore, Japan, etc.?

  15. You should have that conversation with Jian-Yun

    He’s from Montreal, is he not? How is that local?

    Perhaps I wasn’t clear: By local organizers, I meant the owners of the hotel — which I assume is the Chinese government. Not the international community of researchers. I mean, you were at a 5-star hotel in the heart of the city. What venue like that doesn’t have wifi?

  16. LJH says:

    @Gene:

    Here are my version to your questions:

    1) There are some discussions about SIGIR 2011 on a Chinese version of Twitter, Sina Weibo: http://weibo.com/k/%2523sigir?Refer=Index_header

    Some researchers including Tie-Yan Liu (http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/people/tyliu/) and others are heavily using it to report details about SIGIR 2011. However, as you expect, almost all of them are non-English.

    But I agree that, in a long term, we need a solution to this problem. The point is that, we can’t expect that Twitter will be available in China in a short future due to many reasons. Therefore, do we just abandon any possibilities to hold conferences in China, or find some alternatives? Yes, the solution might be ugly and kind of heuristic, but it’s better than none.

    2) I don’t have any statistics about your second question. But, I do see numbers of cases where presenters or authors of posters did not show up, in some major conferences, due to visa problems. Remember, for those Chinese who have papers in these conferences, most of them are NOT established researchers but graduate students or young professors.

    For the cases to nearby countries, it’s hard to say. For instance, I don’t see many Chinese researchers in WWW 2011 this year (in India) due to visa problems.

  17. FD – One of the great things about Twitter is that it degrades gracefully with no wifi — all you need is some form of wireless access. Text works fine.

    When there is no cell network, no wifi access that seems like a problem for a major tech conference. These are necessities, not optional amenities.

    I sympathize with the Chinese visa problems. There is no easy solution. Countries need to easy their visa restrictions on Chinese visitors for research/conferences. I’ve seen it first-hand with students in our lab, it’s not good.

    China needs to open up.

    But, both of these are difficult political problems that won’t be solved in the near future. So, what can we do? Virtual conference presentations?

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  19. @LJH It’s hard for students to travel overseas for any conference, whether they are Chinese or American. The travel itself costs too much money. That’s why I think having an online presence for conferences is so important: it allows the conference to reach a much larger audience. As for travel, that’s why I asked about senior researchers, that is, those with appropriate budgets.

  20. Traveling to those countries is NOT cheap for Chinese researchers (almost as expensive as going to the US). Also, they need Visas for them, which is also expensive and time consuming to obtain.

  21. Jian-Yun Nie says:

    Interesting discussions which I happen to go accross.

    Jeremy,
    The fact that there was no (not enough) wifi during SIGIR in Beijing Hotel is not related to censorship. It is simply due to the very limited infrastructure of the hotel for internet communication, combined with the record number of participants. It is indeed strange that a 5-star hotel has not updatd its telecommunication infrastructure, but this is likely related to the way that a government-owned hotel is managed. You can contrast it to Beijing Raffles hotel at the same address but managed by a Singapore group.

    As to the initial question on whether we should boycotte technical conferences in China, my personal anwser is “no”. Conferences are organized for researchers, not for government. The fact to hold SIGIR in China did help the Chinese IR community in various ways: it is an opportunity for many Chinese researchers and students (there were 300 at SIGIR) to discuss directly with international researchers; there were several satellite events related to IR that help promote IR research in China; I’m sure that some students have decided to continue in IR after the conference…

  22. First, conflicts of interest: I fought within SIGIR for 15 years to start rotations to Asia. As a SIGIR Executive Committee member, I voted against the Beijing proposal for 2008 in favor of Singapore, and for the (improved in my opinion) Beijing proposal for 2011.

    My take is that the person-to-person conversations that happen at an academic conference are vastly more significant than any conceivable amount of remote participation. Internet access, censoring, spying are issues significant for each individual participant, but low order bits with respect to the important work of the conference.

    As to whether having conferences in countries with authoritarian governments is a net minus (by giving them respectability) or a net plus (by exposing their citizens to democratic values and reducing mistrust), this is a question that’s been argued by smart people since at least the Cold War. I come down slightly, but firmly on the plus side.

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