Arik Hesseldahl

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AllThingsD Sprouts Up at the Brussels Forum, Rubbing Elbows and Talking Tech

Since Thursday morning, I’ve been in Brussels, the capital of both theKingdom of Belgium and the European Union.

I’m here attending the Brussels Forum, which has been described to me — I think accurately — as a D: All Things Digital conference for people who care about transatlantic cooperation. It’s put on by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a policy organization that promotes “better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues.” It’s about the same size, has similarly high-impact speakers and panels — it even has red chairs on the stage for those speakers.

I’ve never been to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, but people at Brussels Forum compare it to Davos — but without the annoyance of celebrities trying to be photographed trying to look serious. “We’ve been to Davos, but we prefer this,” observed former Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah, who was having breakfast with his wife at the table next to mine in the hotel restaurant.

Bennett was only one of the people I recognized here: There’s a handful of people attending from the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire was on a Friday panel about Europe’s place in the world; Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida has been impressing everyone — including me — with his frank and forceful views on the humanitarian crisis in Syria. I’d quote him, but the session was off the record. More on that later.

Syria was top of mind during Friday’s main event here, an address by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark who is now the Secretary General of NATO. He made news by saying that NATO has no intention of intervening in Syria. (See the first video, below.) Meanwhile, there are a pair of Washington-based Syrian activists here (one of which you’ll see in the second video, below), basically pleading for the international community to do something, anything, to help them out just a little.

Syria is a big topic here. The newspapers are buzzing about the sanctions imposed by the EU on Asma al-Assad, the British-born wife of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. While he’s been on a determined campaign over the last year of systematically killing pretty much anyone in his country who thinks he ought to leave power, she’s been saddled with sanctions that ban her — personally — from entering all EU member states except the U.K. (she was born there, after all). Her taste for luxury shopping and travel amid the outrageous slaughter that is taking place in that country has finally proven too much to bear for the EU.

There has also been a lot of chatter about the leaking of some 3,000 personal email messages to and from the Assad household, showing that while the Syrian president is carrying out his campaign to stay in power, he’s concerned about his inability to buy songs on iTunes, and has sought the help of a friend in Lebanon.

The Brussels Forum is not a technology conference, by any stretch of the term. People here are discussing world-changing ideas such as food security, the Iranian crisis, the Arab Spring and President Obama’s strategic “pivot to Asia.” Yet technology hangs in the backdrop of many of the discussions.

Access to technology and the ability to share information and organize has been a core feature of the many changes that have shaken the Middle East during the past year. When Egypt tried to cut itself off from the Internet, it made headlines around the world.

On that topic, I made the acquaintance last night of two people with interesting views. I made Twitter friends with Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament. She serves on the EU Parliament’s committee on Foreign Affairs, and is also a founder of its Intergroup on New Media and Technology. I hope to chat with her about her ideas on making sure that people in Iran — despite the many economic sanctions imposed on that country — still get access to tech tools they need to express themselves and organize politically. She has also been tweeting like crazy about the Brussels Forum proceedings.

My neighbor at dinner last night was Jovan Ratković, the foreign policy adviser to Serbian President Boris Tadić. Ratković was a founder of Otpor!, a Serbian resistance movement that stood against the nationalist government of Slobodan Milosevic. Had Facebook and Twitter existed during the heyday of Otpor!, they would have been excellent tools for that group. As it was, Otpor! — the word means “resistance” in Serbian — used the Internet early and often to organize and get its message out.

Otpor! led directly to the foundation of CANVAS, the Belgrade-based Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, which has had a direct influence on the protests in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. CANVAS, I’m told, has been so influential on the various youth uprisings around the world that it is soon to be the subject of a profile on the CBS TV news program “60 Minutes.” In short, having Ratković walk me through all this made for an interesting dinner conversation, with a not-inconsequential tech theme.

So the question you’re probably have is, what the heck am I doing here in the first place? I’ve been asked to moderate a Sunday morning panel entitled “The Future of Privacy in the Digital Economy”; the panel participants are Alma Whitten, Director of Privacy for Product Engineering at Google, Erika Mann, Head of EU Policy for Facebook, and Alexander Alvaro, vice president of the European Parliament.

Like most of the other panels here — except for those held in the main ballroom — the proceedings will be conducted under “Chatham House Rule,” which is a polite way of saying the discussion will be off the record. I hope to talk about with the panelists in an on-the-record setting, as well, though probably not all together.

The subject of consumer data privacy is certainly heating up on both sides of the Atlantic. On Monday, the U.S.S Federal Trade Commission is expected to lay out a new, wide-ranging policy framework on the subject. Expect lots of references to “do-not-track” mechanisms. And earlier this year, the EU unveiled a draft of a new European Data Protection Regulation. In Europe, the view of privacy is very government-centric, and data privacy is considered a key piece of human rights law. In the U.S., there’s a lot more willingness among policymakers to let companies regulate themselves. One question I’m definitely going to ask my panelists: How do the different legal approaches change how they do business in Europe versus the U.S.? I’ll bring you what on-the-record answers I can.

So, anyway, that is what I’m doing here in Brussels.

(Image is of the Grand Place, one of the primary tourist attractions in Belgium that I hope to visit.)


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