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You are here: Home Blogs RMS The WSIS in Tunis (2005-11-16 to 2005-11-21)

The WSIS in Tunis (2005-11-16 to 2005-11-21)

by Richard Stallman Contributions Published on Jul 13, 2010 10:45 AM
Richard Stallman participates in the United Nations summit in Tunis after being invited by his friends in the Asia Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP).

After my experience at the first World Summit on the Information Society, I concluded that it had little potential to do much good.  In the official plan, which was approved by the first summit, the US had excluded any proposal to do anything to promote free software, and would have expunged all mention of it except that Brazil refused to stand for that.  The second summit did not officially have the power to change those plans, even supposing the balance of power would support a different outcome.  Further, it was hosted by Tunisia, a dictatorship famous for its censorship of the internet.

However, my friends in APDIP asked me to go to speak in their event, and I said yes.  They convinced me by telling me that they had invited a BBC documentary crew, which could have more effect than a speech itself.

On the taxiway, as I was filling out the immigration form, a burst of rebellious spirit came over me.  In the slot that asked for my profession, I wrote down "troublemaker".  The agent at the special WSIS entry booth paid no attention to that, but this did not reflect a general policy of relaxation: the president of Reporters without Borders was denied entry and thus excluded from the summit.

I arrived during the first official day of the summit.  By that time, an unofficial event where international human rights activists wanted to meet with Tunisian human rights activists had been blocked by the police.  (See http://www.pambazuka.org/index.php?id=30399.)  Tunisia demanded the cancellation of an official summit event called "Expression under Repression", where speakers from several countries were invited to discuss their experiences using the internet to publish dissident political material.  However, the organizers refused to back down, and it was held anyway.  The exposure of Tunisian tyranny to foreigners was the only beneficial effect of the summit that I know about.

The only official thing I did that day was to get my badge.  The badge held not only my photo, but also an RFID taped onto the back.  I was disgusted by it, so that evening at dinner I asked the restaurant for some aluminum foil to cover the badge with.

The following day I went to the exhibit half of the summit area, to meet the APDIP people and get interviewed by the BBC.  I removed the aluminum foil from the badge to let the security checkpoint check it--I was not protesting against having security around the summit--then put it back on while inside.  I told various people about the issue of RFID, and urged them to obtain aluminum foil for their badges the next day.  An RFID communicates with radio waves, so if it is completely surrounded by metal, it cannot be scanned.  By covering our badges, we could prevent our movements within the summit, and our movements outside, from being scanned; we could also make a visible protest against the surveillance society that many governments are trying to impose.

There were several more interviews, one with a Tunisian who asked me what I thought of his country.  I told him I could not give him an answer he would be allowed to print.

That evening I went to a place in the old center of Tunis, and received a prize--the "Minimum Prize" of Fondazione Pistoletto.  I received it from Gilberto Gil, who is Brazil's Minister for Culture, in a ceremony attended by perhaps a hundred young people.  I made a brief speech, saying everything in both French and English.

Then someone asked me to sing the Free Software Song, accompanied by Gil.  I don't recall why, but I went on singing other filk songs I've written, including "My Ronnie Lies over the Radio", "Old MacDonald Lost His Farm", and "Servin' 'em the Writs". Then I excused myself to leave the stage to real musicians.

A young Tunisian then came up to me and told me that he wished his country could have other kinds of freedoms, aside from that of sharing and changing software.  I realized that this unofficial event was probably the only place a Tunisian without official support could approach any of the thousands of international visitors to the summit.

The next morning I took a cab to the summit venue, so I could stop at a store and buy a roll of aluminum foil.  I had to show the badge several times just to reach a point about half a mile away from the venue, at which point the guards? police? forced me to take a shuttle bus across the parking lot; to walk through the parking lot was forbidden.  I suspected that the purpose of this is to prevent Tunisian dissidents from approaching us visitors.  Not only were they unable to get inside the summit, they could not even speak to us outside.

Once inside, I gave out aluminum foil to a number of people, then went to my first speech, where I did the same.  Before the actual event started, police tried to take away my roll of aluminum foil, but I held on to it and took it back.  They said they wanted to speak with me privately, so I responded, loudly, with "Whatever you want to say to me, you can say right here."

At the end of the event, UN police blocked me as I tried to leave the room--demanding that I remove the aluminum foil.  I shouted out, "I am being kept prisoner in this room", and told them that if they wanted me to wear the badge exposed, they should not have put an RFID in it. After a minute they let me out into the corridor, where immediately people came up simply wanting to talk with me.  Eventually they let me proceed back to the exhibition area.  At that point I remembered that I was supposed to be in another event which had started just as the previous one ended.  I tried to go there, but was never able to find it.  People tried to guide me there but nobody knew where that room was located.  At one point we tried to pass through doors that (I later realized) went back to the summit area, and Tunisian security guards physically blocked me from passing through.  They told me it was against the rules for me to pass; when I shouted "Why can't I go through?", they only told me to wait.  A camera crew recorded some of this.

After this had gone on for several minutes, I told them the name of the room I was headed for.  A guard told me that room was in a different direction.  So I went away and looked for it following their directions.  I did not find it, and eventually I gave up and returned to the APDIP stand.  The same camera crew which had captured the actions of the police then came to interview me.

When that was done, it was time for my third event.  This one I knew was in the summit area, and I didn't know if I would be blocked again, so I invited them to come along with me.  This time, instead of just revealing the badge photo for the guard to look at, I removed the foil while still around the corridor corner from them.  Thus, I approached them with an ordinary badge.  This altered nothing; they once again physically barred my path, once again refused to tell me why.  But the interviewer of the camera team asked why, and they told him there was a specific order to block me.  I sent him along to the event, and he returned with Marco Ciurcina.  The guards did not care what Marco thought, so I said to him, "Bring the event here!"  He walked away towards the event.

Then a couple of uniformed UN police came by and asked to see my badge.  The Tunisians let them.  The UN police looked at the badge and said, "His badge says he's authorized for this area--so let him in." The Tunisians obeyed.

At this point I was in a hurry, because the people in the event might at any moment follow Marco back to the checkpoint.  I ran to the room, and reached it before they left.  In my haste I did not immediately start putting the aluminum foil back on the badge--and then I passed the UN security person who after the first event had told me to keep my badge visible.  It struck me that he might think, from seeing my badge without foil at that moment, that I was complying with his demand (which I had never accepted).  I was intensely embarrassed by the thought, so I then put the foil back on as quickly as I could--while still running--but it was too late.  In fact, he later told a reporter exactly what I feared he would say.

As this event ended, I decided to strip off the RFID from the badge. However, many others seemed to have badges with RFIDs embedded inside them.  They had no such option.

On returning to my hotel, I discovered that guards were checking summit badges simply to let people into the hotel's yard.  Apparently the whole hotel was reserved for summit visitors.  I began to wonder if the purpose of this was to prevent Tunisian dissidents from approaching us there.

The next day I did a little tourism, visiting the ruins of Roman Carthage (nothing survives of the older city that Rome fought), and the Bardo Museum which is an Ottoman-era palace full of transplanted Roman mosaics.  Something electronic in my camera died during that visit, so I borrowed a camera, and the photos can be seen in http://www.maxigas.hu/gal/stallman/stallmanday.html

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