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Is there a boycott of Wikimania 2008?

Egypt Like just about everything else having to do with Wikipedia, planning for this year's Wikimania Conference has been a long and drawn-out process, full of discussions about grammar, location and even the conference's website ("the bright colors hurt my eyes," one poster complained). But this year's conference, which takes place next week, has stirred more than the usual controversy among Wikimedia's army of volunteers.

That's because it is being held in Alexandria, Egypt, which beat out Atlanta and Cape Town in a process, that, much like the Olympics, was voted on by a panel, and whose decision, again much like the Olympics, angered many.

What riled the feathers of the Wikipedians this time? The allegation that Egypt is a country that censors and imprisons bloggers and restricts freedom of speech. One poster wrote that Egypt imprisoned a blogger in 2007 for insulting Islam and defaming the president of Egypt. Lesbian and gay Wikipedians expressed concern about Egypt's treatment of homosexuals. On the Wikimania talk page, others detailed instances of the Egyptian government censoring the Internet and accused Wikimedia of taking "a step backwards in its core philosophy."

One person summed up the objections: "Why hold a conference of a foundation that is based entirely on FREE media when that country and the government don't even support free speech?"

The nonprofit Reporters Without Borders indicates some of the accusations aren't far from the truth. It reports that ...

...a blogger named Abdel Nabil Suleiman was sentenced to four years in prison for inciting hatred of Islam; a blogger named Abdul Moneim-Mahmud was also imprisoned, likely for posting text and photos exposing torture.

Some called on Wikipedians to boycott the conference. Others encouraged participants to protest or speak out against Egypt's human rights record while in Alexandria. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales promised to speak about freedom of speech, human rights and free culture at the conference in response to the concerns.

Wikimedia spokesman Jay Walsh said that about 600 people will be attending the conference this year:  a bit fewer than usual. High airfares and the economy are likely to blame. But is it evidence of a massive boycott?

Maybe, but not necessarily for the reasons mentioned above, said Andrew Lih, who is currently writing a book about Wikipedia and online collaboration. He suggests low attendance is less of a boycott and more of a "malaise in the community." Participation in the English-language version of Wikipedia is flat, and people don't seem as excited as they do in the early stages, he said. At the conference, he'll be talking about whether Wikipedia is a "community in crisis."

We've written in the past about Wikipedia's growing pains, but it looked like the nonprofit was getting back on track, hiring a major gifts officer and head of community giving and hoping to actually make some money. Executive Director Sue Gardner has said she hoped this is the year Wikimedia will grow up and become a sustainable organization.

Perhaps by the next Wikimania, things will have settled down, especially if volunteers pick a less controversial place for a conference. Anyone up for Wikimania Tulsa 2009?

-- Alana Semuels

Semuels, a Times staff writer, covers marketing and the L.A. tech scene.

Photo: Bibliotheca Alexandria, the location of Wikimania 2008. Credit: Amr Nabil / Associated Press

 
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