Dealing with censorship and other nonsense

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The discussion on my previous post has raised some interesting and valid points regarding holding conferences in countries like China that block some (or all) internet traffic. Given that the conference has an audience that extends beyond the location of the conference, how can this audience be served in the presence of country-sponsored firewalls? Specifically, how can we get access to the Twitter stream and to other media being generated by the conference?

When ACM and its SIGs negotiate to hold a conference in a particular venue, whether it is Florence, Vancouver, San Jose, or Beijing, they should insist on the following conditions:

  • The contract should specify that the venue will either provide a wireless network with adequate bandwidth, IP addresses, and other parameters to make the network usable by the attendees, or to allow the conference organizers to install their own such network.
  • The hosting country should agree to allow the conference to set up a VPN or other channel through which all conference traffic (generated by authenticated users on the conference network) can pass without being filtered, throttled, etc.

These conditions should make the events at the conference more accessible to people both inside and outside of the hosting country. At the same time, they set a reasonable, achievable, goal by focusing only on the conference traffic rather than on all traffic in the country. This narrow opening should be more palatable to those wishing to control information while providing adequate flow for the purposes of the conference.

Given that the goal of these conferences is the unrestricted exchange of information, the above criteria should be mandatory for any conference in any location. Thus the goal of the policy is to encourage openness and outreach to the people—the very reasons it makes sense to take conferences to countries such as China—while at the same time sending a very clear message to the government about the kind of engagement that is expected. The ACM and its SIGs should be operating from a position of strength in this negotiation since the hosting country benefits both economically and through increased prestige while the conference can be held anywhere.

I agree that having outreach is a worthy goal, but I also believe that we have a responsibility—and an opportunity—to promote openness actively rather than merely paying it lip service.

2 Comments

  1. Jofish says:

    I know this isn’t the core point of your post, and people who have actually chaired a conference might have specifics to share with you, but I’ve been told by multiple CHI/CSCW chairs regarding this:

    >The contract should specify that the venue will either provide a wireless network with adequate bandwidth, IP addresses, and other parameters to make the network usable by the attendees

    that the contract, invariably, *does* state this — i.e. the one in Vancouver did — but they’re simply not ready for a real computing audience. The general assumption that conference venues and wireless providers use is that n people means n/10 IP addresses, and when you complain they’ll be, oh, ok, and kick it up to n/5 IP addresses thinking you’re mad — and then it turns out that our actual need as a community is something like 1.5*n.

    The more serious point is this one:

    >The hosting country should agree to allow the conference to set up a VPN or other channel through which all conference traffic (generated by authenticated users on the conference network) can pass without being filtered, throttled, etc.

    Well… they don’t. So there. Whatcha going to do about it, sez the Chinese government. And making requests like this can really hurt local researchers who have put their reputations and relationships with the government on the line. So I don’t think your proposal is actually reasonable…

  2. I understand your point about the host country’s researchers’ relationship with their government, which is why I think this policy should be clear up-front, before any specific individual gets involved.

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