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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March 2005, 12:21 GMT
Net gets anti-terror talk going
By Clark Boyd
Technology correspondent

Candles in Madrid
The terrorist attacks killed more than 200 people
An international summit on terrorism, democracy, and security is underway in the Spanish capital of Madrid.

A group of ex-world leaders, the Club of Madrid, has convened the summit on the anniversary of the terror attacks.

Its aims are to discuss how governments can better respond to terrorist threats.

But it is not just big-wigs who will get a chance to potentially shape public policy, thanks to a global on-line effort.

The group has also decided to reach out beyond Madrid, by using the internet to organise small meet-ups around the world which will complement the summit.

The Club of Madrid invited about two dozen presidents, prime ministers and kings, and about 200 experts on terrorism to the Spanish capital.

They will discuss everything from nuclear threats, to terrorist financing, to how terrorists use the internet.

'Ordinary citizens'

Earlier this week, former Brazilian leader Fernando Henrique Cardoso, president of the Club of Madrid, praised the Spanish response to the 11 March 2004 attacks.

"What was so important in Madrid is that people responded with dignity to the terrorist attack," Mr Cardoso says.

"They did not become afraid or paralyzed."

He added: "More than the government, the people are learning how to work to counteract terrorism."

That is consistent with the approach the Club of Madrid is taking, according to the Club's found Diego Hidalgo.

People are now used to the idea that the internet is a tool that enables political action. They've seen that in the US presidential campaigns last year, in consumer activism and stuff like that
Bill Thompson, net commentator
"It's not just experts or governments that have the monopoly on responding to terrorism," says Mr Hidalgo.

"It's the ordinary citizen who is affected by terrorism, and many times ordinary citizens will think and come up with possible solutions that will not occur to experts or to governments."

At first, the Club of Madrid considered hosting citizen forums in the Spanish capital to coincide with the summit.

But instead the Club of Madrid turned to the London-based group, openDemocracy.net, a web-based magazine and debate forum.

"We proposed we organise small meetings to take place around the world," says openDemocracy.net editor Anthony Barnett.

"We didn't want big meetings where people were shouting, and not protests.

"We wanted groups of four or five people, maybe six or seven, where people can have a say without necessarily speaking in public about what their concerns are, or how they feel that they can secure democracy against terrorism."

Feeding back

OpenDemocracy is not organising online meetings, but real world get-togethers of ordinary people, maybe during lunch or over a drink.

Anyone wishing to host such a gathering can log onto the group's website and register.

The meetings can be among friends, family, or colleagues from work.

They are scheduled to take place on Friday, the one-year anniversary of the attacks in Madrid.

Train wreckage from one of the 11 March blasts in Madrid
What we expect at the end of the day is that people will send feedback from the meetings. We want to hear their points of view, and we want to make sure it gets to people who actually make decisions about these sorts of things
Solana Larsen, openDemocracy.net
"The fact that we're asking all these people to meet on one day, 11 March, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Spain, is only possible because of the internet," says openDemocracy.net's Solana Larsen.

"What we expect at the end of the day is that people will send feedback from the meetings.

"We want to hear their points of view, and we want to make sure it gets to people who actually make decisions about these sorts of things."

OpenDemocracy.net is trying to keep the process, like the web itself, as decentralised as possible, according to UK internet consultant Bill Thompson, who led the design of the meet-up website.

"People are now used to the idea that the internet is a tool that enables political action," Mr Thompson says.

"They've seen that in the US presidential campaigns last year, in consumer activism and stuff like that. It's not unusual to use the net in this way."

Mr Thompson thinks the 11 March meet-ups are an example of how the web is changing the relationship between the government and the governed.

"What counts is getting away from the idea that the population, the people of the world, the electors, the ones who vote, needs to be managed, needs to be spun.

"We want to get away from the idea the electorate is just this dumb mass that needs to be managed by elected leaders," he says.

OpenDemocracy.net admits that the traditional news media might not cover the meet-ups.

But editor Anthony Barnett does not think that is a problem. "The great thing about the web," Barnett says, "is that you don't need to read about it in the papers to know that it's happening.

"You can see for yourself. You register your meeting, and in doing so you see where else people are having meetings, having conversations."

"In that sense," says Mr Barnett, this is the beginning of a democratic politics that is about more than just voting."

The idea is proving popular. So far, more than 500 people, including individuals from the US, Brazil, Ghana, Saudi Arabia, and even Iraq and Iran, have agreed to host meet-ups.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production.


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