15 December 2005

Those autocrats/bureaucrats don't get it. They have been trying everything to block what's inevitable: free word, free exchange, free communications. At times, some governments put their faith in something called smart filters, in the illusion that they can block Internet access to their peoples. Then they thought of an international conference under the banner of the U.N. and one of its specialized agencies, International Communication Union. If heads of governments, supposedly decision-makers, assembled together in Geneva to decide where all electronic messaging should go, then matters would come under firm control. Committees and sub-committees producing "non-papers" (that is, with no signature to trace), could produce prohibitive rules and regulations reflecting the consensus will of the international community. Things did not go according to plan. Half of the heads of states did not show up in Geneva -- the key half; that is, countries with real Internet power. Those that came either made their speeches and joined their First Ladies in the Rue du Rhone or arranged to meet other heads of states to discuss completely differently issues. For example, Presidents of Egypt and Iran took the opportunity to warm up their cold relations with a first meeting ever between them since Teheran named one of its main streets after the assassin of President Sadat.

Another attempt to control an expanding free Internet gathered momentum after Geneva to prepare for a "resumed" summit in Tunis. This time -- bureaucrats, autocrats and opportunistic allies tried different tactics. Aware that free speech was an inalienable right inscribed under Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights, they raised questions of privacy and the need for protection of society from dangerous trends. One international official took it further to caution against Nazi-propaganda, another produced a story sourced by Geneva-based High Commissioner for Refugees that poor refugees were being exploited through claims of jobs on the Internet. There was also the inevitable claim that big private companies were exploiting small poor people in the Third World. That was not convincing, as an average Third Worlder knows that most Internet companies mushroomed through creative initiatives of young hard-working people totally unrelated to conglomerate corporate culture.

Not only did governmental attempts in Tunis fail; they drew a backlash. To begin, it was no more a "summit" -- less than 30 out of 191 heads of state showed up. Poor U.N. leadership at the conference floated the proposed plans from nowhere to nowhere at all. Even Secretary General Kofi Annann shifted gears at the last minute and, realizing the risk of the autocratic alliance on his own reputation, opted for "no need to control" the sites. Instead of debating the real and many relevant issues, precious time was wasted by governments trying to avert the inevitable. Senegal's President Abdallah Wad reflected their frustration by publicly saying how sorry he was for allowing free press. A statement by the Swiss President calling for breaking down communications barriers was censored by official media but was welcome by popular demonstrations on the street. A unique opportunity in -- and for -- Tunis turned into a controversy. As Lebanese columnist Sahar Baasari wrote in Beirut's main daily An-Nahar, the meeting focus turned out to be on limits of free speech rather than the best ways to handle Internet problems.

That failure by the bureaucrat/autocrat alliance did not dissuade them from trying further.

Now they are trying to take on Google, one of the most successful ventures of the 21st century.

This summer that continuously helpful and innovative search engine introduced a free global location tool for anyone to see satellite photos of anywhere in the world. Great job. Kudos for Google. Ah, but not for the same old gang that doesn't get it. Some governments are afraid that their military equipment would be exposed to their adversaries (as if those satellites orbiting the earth have not been doing it for years!). An Indian official, President Abul Kalam, expressed concern that the new venture would expose the Indian Parliament. With all due respect to the President, anyone with a camera can take a picture of that Parliament, with its most prominent members posing for it.

There must be an angle by a potential competitor. Some "professors" are digging -- again -- to exploit some United Nations resolution. One researcher came out with one taken in 1986 decision data gathering activities which shall not be conducted "in a manner detrimental to the legitimate rights and interests of the sensed state." But that decade's old general guidelines dealt mainly with military secrets in mind. Otherwise, television broadcasts across all international borders will have to be blocked, especially when they argue counter viewpoints or display landscapes of "sensed" countries. That would mean the end of TV as we know it.

Hey. Listen. We're at the beginning of the 21st century. A new brave world is out there and Google is a glorious part of it. If you don't want to stand up for it, don't stand in its way.