UN goons destroy academic poster describing China's censorwall

JZ sez, "The OpenNet Initiative, a joint effort of U. Toronto's Citizen Lab and Harvard's Berkman Center, tracks Internet filtering by governments around the world. We published a book detailing such filtering in 2008 called Access Denied, and the sequel is about to come out, called Access Controlled. ONI colleagues Ron Deibert and Rafal Rohozinksi were at the Internet Governance Forum today in Egypt, where they hosted a reception about Access Controlled. It featured a poster describing the book. The poster contained the following sentence: The first generation of Internet controls consisted largely of building firewalls at key Internet gateways; China's famous 'Great Firewall of China' is one of the first national Internet filtering systems. That was apparently enough to trigger concerns on behalf of the Chinese government, and UN-liveried security guards knocked over the poster and then later removed it."

IGF 2009 event rattled by UN Security Office (Thanks, JZ!)


  1. I love how the response to a rude and unnecessary action is to stand in little groups and quietly discuss the event and its implications.

  2. Interestingly enough the poster contained factual and undisputed information and did not appear to make any moral assessment of the situation (well not in the sentence quoted in the article).

    Why this would be interpreted as an attack on the U.N. member China is beyond comprehension.

  3. I’d have to echo one of the comments on the youtube page– what’s the entire backstory? Were there rules for this event that made the security guards’ supervisor feel justified in taking it down? Regardless, this is still probably a foolish decision, and likely defeats the purpose of this event. Context is always important, though. Also, the fact this takes place in Egypt– not exactly known for its immaculate track record protecting freedom of expression– may play a part here.

  4. Psssst: they are not “security guards” (unless you refer to some third-party contracted guard). They are full-fledged staff officers, much like a Political Affairs Officer or an Economics Affairs Officer, etc.

  5. Seems ironic and sad at the same time, but then, it’s a little hard to tell how outraged to be from the material given.

    Just as the expansion of the WWW and the ready availability of software like FrontPage meant that any doofus with a PC and Internet access could put up a Web page, even if it was only about their cat’s eating habits or Why The USAF Is Hiding The TRUTH, so now the presence of YouTube and the availability of phone-cams allow anybody to put up a wandering, wobbling, unexplained video of anything they happen to see while their batteries are still good.

    If the anonymous “ONI Asia member” credited at the YouTube post really cared about, um, whatever this is showing us, it seems like a small marginal effort to make a couple of comments about what we’re supposed to be looking at (when the camera’s steady). I need more than a claim that ONI Asia was “censored” (we’re-just-calling-it-that quotation marks on the word “censored” and “censorship” not mine).

    Who were those people standing around? What authority did UN security have there? (The linked Computerworld article mentions “the United Nations-sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF)” but the YouTube post doesn’t explain it.) Why were we shown certain words on the poster? Why not the whole poster? What was the importance of all those shoes and elbows we looked at? What significance did the shots of the recessed lighting at 00:43 and 3:40 have? Why is a knocked-down poster better for discussion purposes that a standing-up one?

    The Computerworld article says, “The poster promoting ONI’s forthcoming book, “Access Controlled” was removed by the IGF’s organizers because a sentence in the poster apparently violated UN policy.” Does anyone know what policy that would be?

    1. ‘carted off’? More like ‘vandalized and stolen’. Why didn’t one of the poster authors or one of their colleagues who were standing by offer to roll it up and stick it in a cardboard tube for safekeeping? Large format full-color posters aren’t cheap, and I’m sure the authors would have preferred to take their poster home with them to a free country.

      Why were there UN goons there in the first place? Doesn’t Egypt have its own security forces? Fuck that. Next conference I get invited to in Egypt, I’ll decline and cite the asshattery displayed in this video.

      1. The authors, etc., refused to take it. I want to be clear that I don’t object to the message on the banner, I merely object to the use of the word ‘destroyed’ to describe what happened.

        “When we refused to remove it, their security guards bundled it up and took it away.”

        1. I believe the term “destroyed” in the BB title comes from Cory’s interpretation. It’s not in either the YouTube posting or the Computerworld article.

          Likewise the rather sensational “UN goons”, which appear to consist of some guys in suits talking and a single uniformed security officer who (did anybody else notice?) seemed enterely unconcerned by the camera a foot away from him.

          I guess while we’re picking Cory’s headlines apart, we can get even more pedantic and mention that “describing China’s censorwall” might be more accurately replaced by “mentioning China’s censorwall”. It’s hard to tell, though, because Cory’s post quotes text different from the image pointed to by misterfricative.

  6. Why pick Egypt as the venue for a convention on internet governance? Was Mordor booked?

    In a statement Reporters Without Borders said: “”It is astonishing that a government that is openly hostile to internet users is assigned the organization of an international meeting on the internet’s future.”


    1. Remember, this is the same organization that put Sudan and a few other states with questionable human rights records on its Commission on Human Rights (contributing to that commission’s eventual dissolution).

      It seems to me that in certain higher international diplomatic circles there’s an almost magical idea that giving a state with a poor history in human rights/free speech/etc. a seat at the table will somehow promote human rights/free speech/etc. in that state.

      My impression is that this tends to offer such states unearned respect and a platform to justify their behavior, usually at the expense of maintaining appropriately high standards.

      Will Rogers (or Wynn Catlin, depending on who you ask) supposedly said that diplomacy is the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock. So, maybe hosting the IGF is a figurative pat on Egypt’s nose–if that’s not too Orientalist an image–which makes me wonder what the rock could possibly be in this context.

  7. Along the lines about having a conference on the Internet a few years ago in Tunisia, a country that censors all media and tries as much as it can to control the internet…The UN, for its principles or just pleasing its members, however against the principles they may be?

  8. Because China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is the sort of secret that would rock the world if it was widely discovered. Governments would topple as they tried to loosen the newly discovered vice that is China’s censoring of it’s ‘net feed.

    Also: Eqypt. Land of the free, open, untouched Internet. Perfect country to host and organise such an event. Logical!

  9. The trouble with the UN is that it is a quasi-representative body in a world where most governments are better left unrepresented. Their ostensible commitment to human rights is distinctly secondary.

    Let’s see, this is(to my knowledge) the second time that a UN body has picked a completely bullshit location for an internet conference(the first was Tunisia, this time Egypt, both notorious best buddies of internet freedom). Not to mention the whole “Hey guys, let’s let a bunch of theocratic hellholes write our next declaration on religious freedom” incident.

  10. Since no-one else has so far thought to do so, here’s a link (from the youtube info box) to an image of the offending poster. It’s not a photo of the actual poster, but presumably it’s identical — and there is indeed no mention of Tibet, which is consistent with what was said in the video.

    This suggests that the offense must simply have been to mention the Great Firewall of you-know-where. Which I suppose goes against UN policy of not saying anything to upset China. So thank heaven for US President Obama and his principled insistence that he wouldn’t snub the Dalai Lama on his recent visit just because China wanted him to. Oh wait.

  11. The First Rule of Internet Governance Fight Club is that you can’t talk about what Internet Governance is for. Previous Internet Governance Forums have mainly been about three issues

    • Bridging the Digital Divide so people in poor countries can have affordable computers and internet access.
    • Replacing US-controlled ICANN with an international forum that will support International Domain Names and not implement US-centric policies like blocking .xxx
    • Allowing governments to govern their people’s access to the Internet.

    The mobile phone industry, OLPC, and Moore’s Law are significantly reducing the costs of computing and communications around the world, and while ex-colonial governments don’t like to talk about the most important way to reduce communications costs, which is to eliminate the clumsy monopoly and ex-monopoly telephone companies, the mobile phone business has largely leapfrogged them, and there’s lots of off-shore fiber just waiting to be connected to. And while ICANN picked the appallingly mal-technical Punycode approach to IDNs, they’ve at least started to do something.

    What’s really left for the IGF to do, other than having bureaucratic junkets to pleasant resorts around the world, is very much about governmental controls of their populations’ internet access, and if you can’t talk about what’s being done and question whether it’s good or bad, it’s time to junk the whole process.

  12. China’s Government are a bunch of bullies. They make constant unreasonable demands and then get all pouty when the world declines, and then exact payback via underhanded means.

    Recently the Chinese Embassy in Australia demanded that the immigration department cancel a visa for visiting ‘activist’ Rebiya Kadeer – in Australia to see the premiere of a film about her life and work at the Melbourne Film Festival. http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2008/s2646172.htm

    Chinese officials also demanded that the film not be shown, and threatened to end a sister-city relationship between Tianjin & Melbourne (personally I welcome such action – I want no connection with China or their foul government). http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14259099

    This is a typical example of China’s presumptuous and insane requests. I find it hillarious that the request was even made and I would have taken great pleasure in having received the request personally, only so I could have broken into a hearty gut-laugh whilst pointing at the indignant look on their faces.

    China made a massive f-up of the recent Olympics. The IOC is a laughing stock for allowing them to hijack the games and put them on without any regard for free speech or human rights.

    China: don’t expect the world to play nice if you intend on continuing your Nineteen-Eighty-Four-style Ministry of Truth campaign. You can censor what you want inside China (while the world laughs at you), but don’t expect the world to censor ourselves at your request. We don’t believe your lies and don’t accept your campaign to mislead. Kindly fuck off and mind your own business!

  13. Check the website for the rules:


    Under advertising section:

    Q: Can participants put up commercial logos, flags or advertisements?

    A: Commercial logos, flags, banners or printed publications are not allowed in the Main Meeting Halls.

    So it appears it had nothing to do with censorship of the book, appears they were just enforcing the rules. Unless they allowed Chinese propaganda to stay and took this down there is no conspiracy here.

    1. Well spotted! This would also explain why there were no other posters visible anywhere in the room. (This was apparently an ONI reception, but still, it was being held in what looks like a main meeting hall under the auspices of the IGN.) It might also explain the bewildering — and otherwise very depressing — outbreaks of applause as the poster was taken away.

      So it’s got fuck all to do with China or Tibet then? And everything to do with spin and free publicity. Nice going, ONI.

      If there’s a convincing rebuttal to this explanation, I’d be glad to hear it. Otherwise, shame on the original youtube poster, shame on Ron Deibert, shame on the OP for uncritically retailing this story, shame on slashdot too, and shame on me for accepting this undocumented bullshit.

  14. Before you start “shaming” people, a few facts would be helpful

    1. We were told that the banner had to be removed because of the reference to China. This was repeated on several occasions, in front of about two dozen witnesses and officials, including the UN Special Rapporteur For Human Rights, who asked that I send in a formal letter of complaint.

    2. Earlier, the same officials asked us to stop circulating a small invite to the event because it contained a mention of Tibet. They even underlined it in showing it to me. Because the event was just about to start, we said that we would not be distributing any more of these invitations so it was a moot point.

    3. We asked repeatedly to see any rules or regulations governing this act. They did not give us any, only referring to the “objections of a member state.”

    4. There were in fact many posters and banners in many of the rooms that I attended, including others in our own. The video itself shows us, at one point, taking one of the other posters we have and offering to cover up the original one. They objected to that and told us this banner must be removed.

    On another matter of clarification:

    The UN officials did not throw the banner on the ground. They asked us to remove it and one of our staff placed it on the ground for us to consider what to do. That’s where we had the discussion. When we refused to remove it, their security guards bundled it up and took it away.

    Hope this helps to clarify.

    1. It does help, enormously — thank you for clarifying. And I’m very happy to stand corrected.

      FWIW the credibility of this story was undermined by several factors. First, the OP could have been more informative and forthright; the headline alone contains at least two errors (viz, there was no destruction, and no description). Second, it doesn’t help that both Slashdot and Computerworld both quote a witness as saying that the poster had to be removed ‘because of the reference to China and Tibet’ which is immediately suspect because the word ‘Tibet’ doesn’t appear on the poster.

      And then there’s the applause. I still don’t know what to make of that. People at your ONI reception were applauding censorship?? WTF? Or was the applause intended to be ironic or something?

      As for the actual problem, ie the UN’s feeble acquiescence and China’s SOP bullying, I despair, I really do. I was personally involved in a conference last month where, behind the scenes, I saw how the Chinese pissed all over the organizers in childish retaliation for a completely unrelated visit by the Dalai Lama, so yeah, I know the shit they pull is for real.

      I wish you the best of luck with your formal letter of complaint, and also with getting the facts out there clearly for everyone to see.

  15. I was actually – tho my main reaction was wtf is going on. btw Ron did an amazing presentation the day before – get the book!!
    Ren Reynolds

  16. I continue to wonder at how free-speech advocates feel no dissonance and see no irony at jetting off to resorts in repressive dictatorial regimes, inviting known jailers of journalists to speak, and then only when security forces actually penetrate the sanctum of their plush tourist hotels actually say anything about it.

    The echo-chamber of shock and dismay at a poster being taken down now reverberating online has no outrage to spare for:

    – WSIS Tunis inviting Robert Mugabe to speak

    – ICANN 34 being held in Egypt, where bloggers and journalists are routinely jailed.

    – IGF09 being held in Sharm-al-Sheik, a playground in Egypt for the ultra-rich, where nearby children go to “school” to make carpets and other tourist trinkets for attendees.

    -IGF09 inviting Minister Kamel to speak and listening without apparent discomfort as he talks about “grassroots” involvement at ICANN.

    While I support ONI and anti-censorship projects, it’s hard to take the outrage about a poster seriously when there is zero commentary about press conditions in Egypt, and free-speech advocates mingle politely at cocktail hours with the government functionaries who are the actual agents of repression.

    Antony Van Couvering

  17. I agree with those taking exception with the title of this article. Such hyperbole in an attempt to slightly alter reality is something most (all?) of us find worrisome. It smells of Fox News. Keep it up and you will lose credibility.

  18. Ron, thanks for telling us the real story of what happened. I was wondering why someone didn’t put a little chalk outline around the fallen poster before it was wrapped up in a poster-bag and hauled away to the city morgue. Now I know!

  19. Free speech is under fire everywhere, not just Egypt. Just look at the attacks on civil liberties being implemented in beautiful BC this year– supposedly in aid of the upcoming Olympics. It doesn’t matter where you go.

    Are we really surprised that oppressors want to stop this? Oppression is most effective in the dark.

    Real net neutrality is probably the best way to fight for human rights. Hope we get us some soon.

  20. as one behind said firewall I cannot see the video at all. A link to a static image of the poster would be appreciated.

  21. Just so you know, one of the guys in a suit told the guard (in French) to fold it normally gently/nicely at 3:43. So it’s not like they tried to destroy it…

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