From China to Syria, repressive nations are cracking down hard on digital dissidents.
Washington – Eleanor Roosevelt never imagined the Internet.
Neither did the other framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago when they enshrined the right to freedom of expression. Yet they wisely left room for just such a development by declaring in Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Today, the Internet is both the vehicle and the battleground for freedom of expression around the world. The struggle between writers and governments over this free flow of information has escalated this past year and promises to intensify. Those supporting open frontiers for ideas and information need to be on high alert and take steps necessary to protect those silenced and to keep the Internet unencumbered.
Last year became the first time that more Web journalists were jailed than those working in any other medium, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
China, Burma, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe have led the clampdown. They have arrested writers, blocked websites and Internet access, set strict rules on cyber cafes, and tracked writers’ work. In response, some writers have used proxy search engines, encryption, and other methods to try to get around censorship and detection.
“As in the cold war [when] you had an Iron Curtain, there is concern that authoritarian governments, led by China, are developing a Virtual Curtain,” says Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “There will be a free Internet on one side and a controlled Internet on the other. This will impede the free flow of information worldwide.”
In the past year, writers in general have been arrested and imprisoned for such alleged charges as “inciting subversion of state power” (China), “insulting religion” (Iran), “threatening state security” (Burma), “defaming the President of the Republic” (Egypt), “storing cultural products with contents against the Socialist Republic” (Vietnam), and “spreading false news” (Syria).
“The Internet is reshaping society from the ground up,” notes Larry Siems, the director of the Freedom to Write program at PEN American Center. “For instance there are two new novels from girls who are housebound in Saudi Arabia, but these were published on the Internet.” The question remains whether the writers can maintain their freedom in cyberspace, which they do not have in their physical space.
International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee regularly tracks approximately 900 cases of writers around the world who are under threat, arrested, attacked, or killed, with roughly 150 new cases each year. “There has definitely been a rise in the numbers of Internet writers, editors, and bloggers attacked,” notes Sara Whyatt, director of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. “The Internet has caused an explosion of free speech. Governments of all sorts are finding this a challenge.”
China, which is particularly adept at blocking Internet use, leads the list of countries with long prison terms and the highest number of writers in prison. China’s crackdown on writers before the Olympics and the arrest in December of leading dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, one of the authors of Charter 08, which advocates democratic reform in China, contradicts the government’s claim that it is easing up on restrictions. In spite of Liu’s detention, Charter 08 has circled the globe via the Internet, gathering signatures of Chinese from the mainland and the diaspora.
Because the Internet operates outside the structures of government, it challenges hierarchies of power and empowers the individual voice as never before. As many as 40 countries are engaged in some kind of Internet filtering and censorship, according to OpenNet Initiative. To counter these restrictions, human rights organizations and private companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo launched the Global Network Initiative (GNI) this fall. GNI, which sets voluntary standards to safeguard privacy and curtail censorship, is worthy of support.
The US Congress is watching its implementation closely and will also be considering legislation (the Global Online Freedom Act) to prevent Internet companies from assisting foreign governments in censoring content and revealing user information.
There are legitimate concerns about those who misuse the Internet, but a balance is possible between privacy and a government’s ability to track criminal and terrorist networks. Authoritarian governments should not use law enforcement needs as an excuse to shut down opposition and muzzle free expression. Keeping the digital highway open for the hundreds of millions of legitimate users is vital to freedom of expression and the free flow of information worldwide. It will take vigilance, agreed standards, and technological innovations to protect the Internet’s open structure.
One can imagine Eleanor Roosevelt today sitting at her computer sending out protests, even blogging as she and others frame the principles to keep this corridor of communication unfettered and free.