At our European Zeitgeist event, held yearly near London, we usually erect a large marquee for a partner dinner and entertainment. This year we wondered if there was something else we could do with the space once Zeitgeist was over. In that instant, the Big Tent was born.
Canvas aside, the term "big tent" has, of course, a political connotation. Wikipedia defines it as "seeking to draw people with diverse viewpoints...does not need adherence to some ideology as a criterion for membership." That just about sums up the idea at the back last week’s Big Tent conference, which focused on debating some of the hot issues linking to the internet and society.
We invited the advocacy groups Privacy International and Index on Censorship—both of whom have criticised Google in the past—to partner with us in staging the debates, and wanted diverse viewpoints among the speakers and the delegates.
Topics on the agenda included: what was the role of technology in the revolutions in the Middle East? What are the limits of free speech online? Do we need tougher privacy laws or are we in danger of stifling innovation? Can technology and access to in order be used to help prevent conflict?
The result was a motivating day of debate featuring the likes of Big Brother television producer Peter Bazalgette, Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts and the U.K. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt alongside Googlers including Eric Schmidt, Google Ideas’ Jared Cohen and the Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, and a highly occupied and knowledgeable audience of NGOs, policy advisers, tech businesses and journalists.
You can watch highlights on YouTube and see happening feedback on Twitter. We hope to bring the Big Tent to other regions over the coming year.