Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Committee Room K

Committee Room K is a grey, windowless room in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN agency building in Geneva. There is no natural light, no clocks on the wall. Five rows of desks with ten leather chairs on each row. On the right set back in to the wall on two levels are six smoked glass fronted rooms for the translators. Welcome to a meeting of the ITU`s High Level Expert Group on Cybersecurity.

Earlier this year, I was invited to join the group of advisors by the Secretary General of the ITU, the incredibly charming Dr Hamadoun Toure, a diplomat of pure United Nations class and smoothness. For the next couple of days I am closetted with about 40 other experts from around the world - governments, industry, academia - to advise the "Sec Gen" on global cybersecurity issues.

This meeting really does have a UN feel about it. I am sitting next to a couple of South African Home Office folks. The USA delegation is directly in front, Korea and Russia are behind. Front row sit Brazil, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Germany. Microsoft`s over there. Cisco over here. Verisign to the side, Carnigie Mellon University at the back.....and of course Garlik.

Bearing in mind that I have just flown half way around the world from San Jose, California from a big Valley-style tech conference to be here, the culture shock could not be more profound (or perhaps its the jet lag). Sure there are similarities. In San Jose a thousand or so people gathered to try to improve the digital world. In Geneva fourty or so gathered to try to improve the digital world. But there the similarities end, and there are difference, big differences. The most important are the ties.

You know, those funny bits of cloth than men wrap around their necks to restrict the flow of blood to the brain for reasons that are lost in the midsts of time, but have a suspiciously pseudo-erotic feel about them.

In San Jose I saw no ties. 1,000 people. Zero ties. In Geneva its 100% ties. I brought two with me just in case. We are being grown up here, you know, and everyone knows that you can`t have a really serious meeting without taking a long thin strip of cloth and wrapping it tightly around you neck until you nearly choke.

The conversation here is slow, formal and careful with "all protocols observed". To speak, you turn your name card sideways and wait to be recognised by the Chairman, an eminent European Judge. Someone from industry just randomly spoke up at one point! Shock, horror. How we shufled in our seats! When you speak you thank the Chairman gratiously for calling upon you, you thank everyone for their valuable contributions, you agree completely with the thrust of their comments but you have one small point to add....and then you rip into your target ruthlessly in the most charming way possible. It`s like watching the tango. Glide, step, step, twist. A joy to behold. Wonderful!

I don`t know what will have more impact. The 1,000 strong, tie-less, free flowing Valley boys in San Jose discussing the emerging Semantic Web that will change the shape of the web itself over the coming years or the fourty or so gentlemen in suits and ties representing entire countries in Geneva discussing emerging cybersecurity challenges that will render the web unusable if we don`t stay on top of them. But for me it`s been a fascinating week to have seen and contribute to two such diverse groups on opposite sides of the world in the same week.

These are the sorts of opportunities you get as a tech entrepreneur - wouldn`t have happened if I was stuck behind a desk being a wage slave somewhere.

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