UN demands free-speech advocates remove poster mentioning China censorship at Net conference

By Tarek El-tablawy, AP
Monday, November 16, 2009

UN demands removal of China poster at Net event

SHARM EL-SHEIK, Egypt — United Nations officials forced free-speech advocates to take down a poster over its reference to China’s Web restrictions at an Internet conference focused on freedom, saying Monday that it violated a ban on posters at events organized by the world body.

The OpenNet Initiative, which focuses on Internet freedom around the world, had placed a banner at the Internet Governance Forum mentioning China’s censorship of the Web. U.N. officials said an unnamed delegation objected to the poster, and others objected to another flier from the group also relating to China.

“We have a no poster policy, be they commercial or political,” Markus Kummer, the forum secretariat’s executive coordinator, told The Associated Press.

He said the OpenNet Initiative had been granted a meeting room after officials were unable to accommodate their late request for an exhibition booth at the forum.

The policy exists because “we don’t want to turn into a censorship office,” he said. “Had they had the booth, that would have been the place to put the poster.”

Ronald Deibert, one of OpenNet’s co-founders, said his staff was instructed to remove it by U.N. officials because of the China references. He said he repeatedly asked to see a copy of the rules banning such posters at U.N.-sponsored events.

“They did not give us any, only referring to the objections of a member state,” Deibert said.

The incident occurred Sunday, the first day of the gathering, which has drawn fire from some advocacy groups because of the choice of Egypt as a venue.

While the Egyptian government, unlike many other Arab governments, does not restrict Web access, advocacy groups say it does police the Internet with a particular focus on political bloggers. Such individuals have faced sharp crackdowns for critical postings.

The theme of this year’s forum has been expanding Internet use in emerging markets and developing nations, with a focus on reaching out to the three-quarters of the world’s population currently unable to access the Internet — whether because of restrictions, money or other factors such as illiteracy and disabilities.

Participants have stressed that opening the Net to a broader swath of the world was a key to development and economic growth and have noted that a good deal of the new users are those who access the Web through mobile devices.

That has been the case in Egypt, where there are now over 50 million mobile phone subscribers — people who government officials say may first experience the Web through such devices instead of computers.

The forum also gave Egypt a chance to apply for the first Internet domain name written in Arabic.

A leading Internet policy organization approved the use of non-Latin character domains for the first time three weeks ago.

Egyptian Information Technology Minister Tarek Kamel said Egypt had applied to register the domain “.masr” — meaning Egypt in Arabic — adding that the new address would open the door to tens of millions of new users in Egypt who have so far been stymied in part by language limitations.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers had approved allowing domains in languages such as Chinese, Russia and Arabic in a bid to open the Internet to more of the roughly three-quarters of the world’s population currently not online.

Rod Beckstrom, ICANN’s chief executive, said six countries had submitted applications for domains in three languages, including Arabic and Russian.

“More than half of the world’s Internet users do not use a Latin-based script for their native language, so this marks the beginning of a process that will make the Internet more accessible to millions of those online users today and potentially billions tomorrow,” Beckstrom said.

An ICANN release identified two of the other countries as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Much of the conference’s focus, however, was on the issue of freedom, as well as security and giving youth a greater voice in setting policy. That put the OpenNet banner issue in a particularly ironic light.

Kummer said that the decision to have OpenNet remove the banner was a question of policy and that the U.N. does not want commercial sponsorship at its events. But at the forum, there were several other banners with the names of computer giant HP, as well as Vodafone, Egyptian Internet provider LinkdotNet and the state’s Egypt Telecom. All were listed as sponsors.

OpenNet’s Deibert said there were other posters and banners in many of the other meeting rooms.

(This version CORRECTS name of OpenNet Initiative co-founder).)

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