Sunday, 29 June 2014

Unacceptable and Disgraceful Censorship of Delegate Internet Access to News and Social Media at the 12th World Congress of Bioethics

I'm writing this waiting in my hotel lobby for getting out to the airport to fly home from Mexico City after six days conferencing (and a bit of sightseeing) at the main international event of my central  field of speciality, the biennial World Congress of Bioethics, this time organised by the Mexican  Comisión Nacional de Bioetica, or CONBIOETICA, headed by congress president Manuel H Ruiz de Chávez. The congress tours around the world and is the official core event of the International Association of Bioethics, IAB, thus ultimately representing this global organisation for bioethics researchers (further underscored by the fact that the journal of the IAB, Bioethics, regularly publishes special issues from the congresses), albeit each congress is operated by different local organisers. This means that, to some extent, the IAB as an organisation strongly committed to academic freedom has to accept global variations in national legislation, for instance regarding communication and freedom of speech. This was most obvious when the congress was held in Beijing, China, in 2006, where there was no way of getting around the Chinese censorship of internet access, especially to social media sites. One may, of course, debate how far academic societies should make pragmatic accommodations to such conditions, if at all, but even if the conclusion is that it is to some extent OK to accept such legal restrictions, the main rule for any academic organisation worth that epitet has to be to facilitate and promote the maximum of freedom of communication, speech and expression as possible.

Which brings me to a sad and disgraceful case of the 12th World Congress of Bioethics. Mexico has no legal censorship of internet access, but the conference organisation,. for which Dr Ruiz de Chávez is responsible, provided delegates with a wifi connection that proactively and electively censored all access to news sites and social media of any sort. For most delegates, this was the only way to access the internet at all from the conference site. Only those staying at the (very expensive) conference hotel had the opportunity of buying access via the hotel's service, which did not in any way screen what sites users are using. A select few, among those myself, where "informally" by word of mouth provided access to a special, "secret" wifi meant only for the CONBIOETICA staff, that did not censor access at all. This had the direct effect of effectively radically reducing the online sharing and commenting of talks, debates etc from the congress, which in today's academic world is a standard and increasingly important part of what research is about. This in itself reduces the academic and societal value of the congress and also undermines the status of bioethics as a field of research, but the wider implications of the choice of CONBIOETICA and Dr Ruiz de Chávez go far deeper.

Reflect a bit on this fact: While the CONBIOETICA congress organisers and Dr Ruiz de Chávez made the active choice of censoring and blocking delegate internet acess, they equally actively provided themselves with an uncensored fast lane to access all that which delegates where prevented from using. This is not only totally unacceptable due to default standards of academic freedom of communication and expression in the global research community. It is furthermore deeply disgraceful, as the double standard applied by CONBIOETICA expresses a deep contempt for congress delegates' ability to handle internet access in a responsible way. Shame, shame, shame!