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Tale of 2 cyber-confabs: Govts, nerds on one side. Shock hotel room searches on the other

The offline and online worlds are so similar now

Analysis Last week, the fourth annual global conference on cybersecurity (GCCS) was held in The Hague in the Netherlands.

The two-day conference is put on by a different government each year, starting with the first in London in 2011. It is billed as a place for "representatives from governments, private sector and civil society" to meet in order to "promote practical cooperation in cyberspace, to enhance cyber capacity building, and to discuss norms for responsible behavior in cyberspace."

Although aimed at government wonks shaping the rules of the internet, the organizers have purposefully increased the presence of civil society at each conference over the years – and this time even held a one-day pre-event for those who try to represent the average netizen. One internet governance blogger was even paid to attend and encouraged to tweet.

And yet, at the end of the conference, while government and business representatives were reportedly very happy, and the technical community put together a joint statement praising the "innovative and successful conference," the civil society peeps reported feeling frustrated, unheard, mistrusted, and even scared.

So what is with this tale of two conferences?

Asleep and naked when the police came in

Jillian York – the EFF's Director for International Freedom of Expression – finished up her vacation in time to fly to The Hague and act as an invited panelist on "The Ethics of Algorithms" session. She arrived, headed to the conference hotel, had a shower, and then got into bed to rest. It was around 4pm.

She awoke to find her hotel room door open with a briefcase next to it. Perturbed, she look down the corridor, saw no one, moved the briefcase into the hall, and closed the door. Soon after several men turned up at her door, and demanded to search the room. She asked for their badges. They duly showed them, and then searched the bed, closets, and shower.

When they left, Jillian spoke to the hotel and asked what the intrusion was about. They told her it was standard procedure, refused to apologize, but did offer a free sandwich. A few hours later, the men turned up again, this time with a sniffer dog that proceeded to clamber over her clean clothes while searching, presumably, for bombs. The men were polite, Jillian explains, but insistent.

When word that an invited panelist had had her room searched twice without notice spread, the hotel claimed it had informed everyone in advance that it would search rooms given the number of VIPs attending (mostly government ministers). Jillian says she was never told, and there was no notice in her room.

Empty seats, full rooms

Later on in the conference, during some of the busiest sessions, several civil society members staged a "sit out" when people were prevented from entering the room, despite there being a significant number of empty seats that had been reserved for government representatives.

Numerous attendees commented on the heavy security arrangements for the event, lengthy scanning and searching procedures, and particular attention paid to people's laptops.

Others complained that the event itself had a number of spots where people could eat, but several were restricted to specific individuals, selected by the event's organizers.

The civil society reps cautioned one another about leaving laptops in their hotel safe – a precaution usually reserved for visitors to Beijing. And the hotel itself had a significant number of secret police in place, something that the Tunisian government was widely mocked for when it held the World Summit on the Information Society back in 2005.

Many of the panels did not have civil society representatives on them. The seating and arrangements were very much in the United Nations style that governments are most familiar and comfortable with.

And most significantly, the one subject most important to civil society – namely the Edward Snowden revelations of mass online surveillance by the US and UK governments – had no place on the agenda.

When the subject did make it into one of the opening speeches given by the Web Foundation's Nnenna Nwakanma she received so much applause that she has to ask the audience to stop because of her ten-minute time limit.

The seeming refusal to discuss mass surveillance even led one group to organize around the term "the elephant in the room" including a hashtag and even a giant inflatable elephant in a square close to the conference center. But neither the discussion, nor the protestors, nor the inflatable elephant made it into the venue, save an occasional mention, quickly ignored.

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