So I’m sat in the opening ceremony of the Internet Governance Forum in Sharm El Sheikh – a cosy cinema seat at the further front-right of a giant summit hall – watching the various dignatories giving a wide variety of dull speeches.
The first thing that strikes you is how much more professional this meeting has become since its inception four years ago.
It helps that the venue is ideally suited – plenty of rooms in a self-contained space with enough room to install all the endless components that make up a big meeting – but even so, for a meeting whose very existence is up for discussion this week, it is a pretty self-assured animal.
I put my money on the IGF becoming a set-in-stone institution. For the next decade anyway.
Oh no! I’m being censored again
Just as inevitable as dull speeches at these events is the Grand Censorship Moment. It’s come early this year, barely hours after the doors opened.
Yes, it’s time to get up in arms at the evildoers that stop us, the people, doing whatever stupid nonsense enters our skulls.
Inevitably it was the Chinese (isn’t it always?). Some group decided the IGF was the ideal spot to launch a new book about efforts to censor content on the Internet.
In order to get as much attention as possible, a banner advertised that the book contained information about the Chinese government’s firewall. The advertising worked – a Chinese government official saw it and asked the organizers to take the banner down. So they did.
Cue much tweeting, frothing and wailing as the brave stood up to the oppressors. And lost. Again. But there’ll be hell to pay this time, you mark my words. The people will rise up. This was the spark. This one. A book about censorship censored for chrissake! (Well, a banner about a book taken down – you can still get the books in the lobby I believe).
I understand the Chinese government is going to erect a huge banner tomorrow describing the book as “not that interesting” and “nothing new really”. And we’re ready to pull that one down as soon as it goes up – are you with me, brothers? The revolution begins here!
Vote now for the dullest speech
Jerry Yang – a tedious rundown of history of Yahoo! – a company that is still desperately trying to find its reason to exist.
Tim Berners Lee – a lovely bloke, hugely intelligent but a dreadful, nervous speaker
Hamadoun Toure – it’s either mad frothing nonsense or hollow threats about the ITU working with other organizations as partners. The latter this time around.
Sha Zukang –UN top nob. A wandering missive about how great the Net is and how great the IGF is, unless of course it’s actually rubbish. Either way, Zukang wants to tell you that he wants to hear from you.
Egyptian prime minister – I genuinely don’t remember what the leader of this land said.
Tarek Kamel – Egyptian telecoms minister, a lovely guy but addicted to namedropping and rabbiting on about how he is best mates with Vint Cerf etc . He was *there* you see. He may have invented the Internet in Egypt.
All equally unimportant
There’s always magic snapshots at events like this. As I strolled out the venue to head back to my hotel for a quick lunch, I wandered across a red carpet flanked by velvet ropes. Just as I did so, a noticed a small gaggle of blue suits at the other end.
Sure enough, there was head of the ITU, Hamadoun Toure, being given due deference by three Egyptians, having been driven in through a special gate and dropped off with a 50-foot red walk to the conference doors.
I could go on about the ITU and the Internet and how this fantastically self-important organization remains convinced it can change a global communications network to fit with its own false pre-conceptions. But I won’t.
I will note though that the great, extraordinary thing about the Internet is that it accepts no kings, and it polishes no egos. Sure, people can get up on a stage and bore us shitless with their wise words while their image is projected 20-foot high behind them – but it’s just theatre. If you got a comedian up there that banged out a few good Internet jokes, the whole room would be grateful and the rest of the speeches would be completely forgotten.
Apart from the three Egyptians, the two men whose job it was to open the door and this lowly representative of an Internet organization, there was no one there to see Toure’s grand entrance. And the thing is: no one cared. There were all too busy figuring out how to deal with the various problems the Net continues to throw up.
Not that there is any shortage of egos in the Internet Governance world – the funny thing is that there are SO MANY. At least one in three people wandering around here is utterly convinced of their own brilliance. But the heros of course are the people that spend their time working on giving everyone else out there somewhere greater influence.
There is a very simple index to figuring out how important or influential a meeting is: the number of extremely attractive women.
I’m not daft enough to try to explain why this is, it’s just a fact, like the number of fast food joints in poor areas or the amount of gold-plating in newly-rich people’s houses.
The Totty Index™ for IGF 2009 is high – about halfway between a wine bar on a Friday night and a book launch in the West End. But it’s still not World Summit status. And although I was sat next to a high-class Russian prostitute on the plane in from Cairo, there are surprisingly few pros hanging around the hotel bars.
They ran out of non-Egyptian wine yesterday so last night hundreds of attendees were introduced to the delights of the local stuff.
It is dreadful. In a desperate attempt to buy their way out of the situation, one table ordered the most expensive bottle on the menu. Everyone tried hard, whoosing the contents around their mouth in the hope it might run out of energy and reveal a hidden taste of grapes beneath, but no go – the best compliment came out as “actually, it’s not that bad”.
Compared to the whisky though, it was liquid love. I never thought I’d see the day where I left a glass of whisky behind. To be fair, I’m pretty sure it was actually a glass of hairspray. Which would explain the waiter’s matted crop of smelly hair.