Blocking the net: Corporations help governments shut down the information superhighway

Vietnam’s communist government knows that it is impossible to monitor the country’s 5,000 cyber cafes, so it’s forcing the cafe owners to be its eyes and ears. Last July, a government directive informed cafe owners that they will have to take a six-month course so that they can better monitor their cyber customers. The Vietnamese government is justifying its move for reasons of “national security and defense” — that is, to protect itself against online journalists who, it says, “provide sensationalist news and articles while others even publish reactionary and libelous reports and a depraved culture.”

Reporters Without Borders (RWB), the Paris-based media watchdog group that monitors press freedom worldwide, condemned the Vietnamese government’s directive. “It is individual freedoms that will suffer dramatically as a result of a law like this,” RWB warned in a press release. “These measures are a complete negation of the free enterprise principles espoused by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which Vietnam is trying to join.”

But whether the WTO will consider Vietnam’s censorship move a strong enough reason to deny Vietnam membership remains to be seen. The fact is that many of the WTO’s members are erecting significant barriers to the free flow of information and communication online.

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Currently, there are 70 cyber prisoners worldwide who have run afoul of the repressive rules set by certain governments, according to the RWB, and these numbers will surely grow. In one incident last April, Tunisian journalist Mohammed Abbou was sentenced to three-and-half-years in prison by a Tunisian appeals court for publishing an article on a website that compared the torture of political prisoners in Tunisia to abuses committed by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. The Tunisian government offered Abbou a deal: In exchange for your release, give us an apology and request a pardon. Abbou responded by going on a hunger strike.

The culprits involved in censoring the Internet include not only the usual dictatorships but also Western countries that preach the virtues of democracy, an informed citizenry, freedom of speech, and the other platitudes we’ve been hearing lately from George Bush, Tony Blair, and their allies. Moreover, some of the world’s biggest multinationals and high tech companies are complicit in this trend.

First, let’s look at some of the usual dictatorships, or as RWB has labeled them, “the habitual human rights violators.” They include small fry like Cuba, Burma, the Ukraine, and Belarus, but the biggest offenders in this category are China and Iran.

The Internet may seem like a medium that can democratize China, but the Chinese authorities have developed effective ways to sabotage online dissent. In fact, the RWB believes that “the way the Chinese government has stifled online dissent offers a model for dictatorships in all corners of the world.”

Moreover, the Chinese have help from the West to achieve their repressive objectives. Several large multinationals, including Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo!, have been willing to allow China to censor ideas and stifle free expression in exchange for profit. Last June, Microsoft began blocking consumers of its new China-based Internet protocol from using such “dangerous” words and phrases as “freedom,” “democracy,” “human rights,” “demonstration,” and “Taiwan independence.” Users who fail to comply get this message: “This item should not contain forbidden speech, such as profanity.”

In a society as tightly controlled as China, Microsoft has become a willing participant in sustaining one of the world’s most repressive regimes. The newspaper USA Today eulogized about the bitter irony: “What’s actually profane is a company that built its future on the freedom provided by the American system helping a repressive regime censor such ideas.”

Microsoft certainly has company. In 2002, Yahoo! China signed a pledge not to allow the placement of “pernicious information that may jeopardize state security,” while in 2004 Google launched a new search engine in China that omitted sites the Chinese government didn’t like, such as the BBC and Voice of America.

In an ominous sign for Internet users anywhere, Yahoo! seems particularly eager to please the ruling class by providing information about its customers. The RWB reports that Yahoo! supplied information to the Chinese government regarding an IP address, which led to Hong Kong journalist Shi Tao being sentenced to 10 years in prison this April. “We already knew that Yahoo! collaborates enthusiastically that the Chinese regime in questions of censorship, and now we know that it is a Chinese police informant as well,” RWB said in a press release.

U.S.-based companies are also supplying commercial software to help countries “filter” — that is, censor information. Last June, the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) released a report titled “Internet Filtering in Iran,” which documents how the Iranian government has used the commercial filtering software SmartFilter to control every aspect of its citizens’ cyber experience, from websites and e-mail to blogs and online discussion forums. Made by the U.S. based company Secure Computing, the software is helping the Iranian government block internationally hosted sites in English, as well as other sites hosted in local languages.

In its report, ONI accused Secure Computing of complicity in helping Iran violate the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Ronald Deibert, one of the report’s authors and directors of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, charged that the “thriving Internet censorship market — spread like a virus from China to Iran to an increasing number of countries worldwide — calls into question not only the trumpeted slogans of high tech firms that the Internet represents ‘freedom’ and ‘connectivity’ but simplistic divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as well.”

As developments in Western countries show, the line between the “us” and the “them” is blurring when it comes to censorship and the Internet. In what is perhaps a first for a Western country, the British government announced in August that it would outlaw the downloading or viewing of violent sexual images on the Internet. For the British government, offensive material will include “extreme pornographic material which is graphic and sexually explicit and which contains actual scenes or realistic depictions of serious violence, bestiality or necrophilia.” Those convicted could receive three years in prison.

Chris Evans, a spokesman for the group Internet Freedom, summed up the feelings of the opponents of the proposed legislation: “The idea that you can prevent violent action by banning such images is nonsense.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, a series of congressional initiatives threatens freedom of expression and what people will see, hear, and read on the Internet. The strategy of the Internet censors is to apply the FCC’s so-called “decency” standards to cyberspace. David Mason, a republican Federal Election Commissioner, told the Washington Post last March what it means: “We are almost certainly going to move from an environment in which the Internet was per se not regulated to where it is going to be regulated in some part. That shift has huge significance.”

According to reports by CNET and the LA Weekly, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is even considering regulating political bloggers by using the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law as its authority. In response, bloggers have organized a group called the Internet Coalition, which is petitioning the FEC to “grant blogs and online publications the same consideration and protections as broadcast media, newspapers or periodicals by clearly including them under the Federal Election Commission’s media exemption rule.”

Given the current political climate, however, it is doubtful whether anyone on Capitol Hill will listen, let alone act. The days of the free and unfettered Internet may well be numbered.

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