Highlights of the Openness session

The gem from this session was an exchange between the audience and the panelists from Microsoft and Cisco over their complicity in the repressive Chinese content regulation regime. Fred Tipson from Microsoft began with the line that “the condition of doing business in a country is to abide by the law in the country”, and Art Reilly from Cisco pushed the view that “it is essential that there be security and network management capabilities to allow owners of the equipment to manage their network and security” and that “we are selling the same product in every country around the world”. However when it was noted that Cisco had sold product to the Chinese police, and Art was asked by the moderator “Do you ever say no?” he faltered a little when replying weakly, “There are business considerations that exist with regard to the sale, establishing price and our ability to actually deliver”. Catherine Trautmann of the European Parliament interpreted his answer to mean that “it’s market laws that are considered of more importance than freedom of expression.” Paschal Mooney from Ireland attacked Google on the same basis for its activities in China, but Vint Cert, though not on the panel, pointed out that Google does indicate in its search results when content is being suppressed at the request of the Chinese government. Google also chose not to offer certain services in China, such as Gmail and blogging, to avoid the risk of being asked by the Chinese government to reveal information that would identify individual parties. Richard Sambrook stated that the BBC had taken an even stronger stand of principle on openness, in allowing its Web services to be blocked there altogether due to its refusal to restrict its journalists in writing on topics such as democracy and Falun Gong. A Chinese government representative from the audience (who insisted that he had no problems accessing the BBC Web site from his office in Geneva), insisted with a straight face that there were no restrictions on access to Internet content in China, provoking derisive laughter from the audience. Joichi Ito from Creative Commons (and ICANN, but he’s one of the good guys) was a moderating voice in pointing out that institutions like Microsoft and the Chinese government are not homogenous entities, and that there are also progressive elements within them. It was important in his view not to demonise them over single issues, as this could sabotage endeavours to work with them productively and cooperatively on other issues. Milton Mueller from Syracuse University and the Internet Governance Project however pointed out the potential benefit of corporate codes of conduct in limiting the use of the company’s products by repressive regimes, as occurred in the apartheid era in South Africa. (Though he did not say so, the IGF could be an appropriate forum in which for such codes to be drafted in model form.) Discussion then moved on to copyright and patent rights. Creative Commons licensing was isolated as a partial solution to the lack of a public information commons on the Internet. Interestingly for me as the former publisher of a Doctor Who fanzine, Richard Sambrook indicated that as the BBC is publicly funded, people should not only have access to the BBC’s Internet content but should be able to repurpose it under a Creative Commons licence. Joichi Ito spoke about the remix and mash-up style of new media production, including amateur documentary videos, which are strictly illegal. I said “we are inhibiting a completely new type of free speech that would emerge like crazy on the Internet if we didn’t have DRM and lawyers going around taking down sites of people who are making amateur videos”. Jamie Love from CPTech agreed, saying that “that people are right and the lawyers are wrong on some of this stuff”. Alternative suggestions from the panel included the use of public funds to provide access to information resources by qualifying non-profit and educational users, and similarly that governments could digitize library content and make them available for fair use under appropriate terms. The discussion moved on to other freedom of expression issues such as defamation, but I was unable to catch the end of the session as I moved on to the Participation workshop next door to catch its last half hour.

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