The World Bank announced Tuesday that fear of protest and disruption had prompted it to shift the venue of next weekend's conference on Third World development from the Catalan city to cyberspace. The online conference is an attempt to avoid the now-familiar spectacle of international delegates (sometimes even heads of state) barricaded inside heavily fortified conference venues as riot police outside battle anti-globalization protestors. The World Bank's annual meeting in Prague last September was cut short by street protests, and an outbreak of violence at the European Union summit in Gothenburg last week during which live ammunition was fired at demonstrators by Sweden's quintessentially tolerant authorities underscored the danger. Organizers had feared that a counter-summit organized by French and Spanish groups would disrupt the bank's own proceedings.
Electronic democracy, electronic protest
Holding the development conference which consists primarily of exchanges among economists, political leaders and other stakeholders in the development process online actually allows for greater participation, even if a conference in cyberspace necessarily loses the chemistry of interaction among delegates gathered for a common purpose. Registration is open, and organizers have promised to take questions and open a constructive debate.
Still, the well-meaning development economists of the World Bank may be even more vulnerable in cyberspace than in Barcelona, historically the unofficial capital of European anarchism. The Internet has long been home turf for the anti-globalization movement, which uses electronic organizing methods to rally cosmopolitan crowds for protest events in different cities around the world. The venue shift is all but an invitation to every hacker of vaguely anarchic bent to show that electronic disruption can be even more effective than the insurrectionist tactics of the street. Indeed, a World Bank spokesman conceded that "we've taken reasonable precautions, but if there is a major effort to close us down, I can't promise that the computers will hold up."
Bush on a battleship?
The World Bank's decision doesn't exactly bode well for next month's summit of G8 leaders in the Italian city of Genoa. Up to 100,000 protestors are expected to try and reach the fabled port to register their discontent with President Bush and the other leaders of the world's most industrialized nations and that has city authorities extremely worried, particularly in light of the difficulties in policing its narrow streets. They reportedly considered holding the summit on a ship in the bay, but later decided that would be a colossal humiliation. Still, they're planning to billet the heads of state aboard ships, from where they can be flown to the summit venue, and to create a "ring of steel" around the city in the hope that by shutting it off to the outside world they can keep out the malcontents.
It used to be that holding a summit of some prestigious international body was an opportunity to showcase a city's charms on the international stage; now it's mostly an opportunity to show of the riot-control skills of the local constabulary. Still, there's always the Internet. Or warships. Or China…