By day Wang Xiaoning was an engineer in the Chinese city of Shenyang. But in his spare time Wang wrote about political reform in China using the Internet, like millions of other people around the world, to spread his ideas for change. Today he is serving a 10-year jail sentence for “incitement to subvert state power”, while his wife is taking legal action against software giant Yahoo which stands accused of releasing key information that led to Wang’s arrest.
Wang’s fate is shared by a growing number of cyber-dissidents around the globe. They are victims of governments who fear that the very technology needed to promote investment and economic competitiveness–the world wide web–also allows their citizens access to unprecedented power to make their voices heard.
One year ago Amnesty International launched the irrepressible.info campaign to highlight the plight of these cyber-dissidents and to celebrate the people’s fight for freedom of expression even when the consequences are dire. For Internet repression is rapidly expanding. According to the Open Net Initiative, five years ago serious and systematic Internet filtering was applied by three countries–China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Today they have detected filtering in more than two dozen countries.
The most talked about example of Internet censorship still remains China, a country surrounded by “The Great Firewall of China”, a filtering system which prevents tens of thousands of political, social, religious and cultural Internet sites reaching people inside the country. The firewall is backed by a matrix of control including a force of net surveillance police said to reach tens of thousands in number. On 6 March this year the Government banned the opening of further Internet cafes.
The Chinese government has promised “complete media freedom” surrounding the Beijing Olympics in Summer 2008. But so far movement has been backwards. On 24 January President Hu Jintao ordered officials to “purify the online environment” ensuring online information is “healthy” and “ethically inspiring”.
Around 60 cyber-dissidents like Wang Xiaoning remain in prison for Internet activity: Shi Tao who emailed information about restrictions on journalists; Li Zhi who criticised official corruption; and Jiang Lijun who published an open letter to the Chinese Communist Party calling for democratic reform.
The issue of Internet repression has come to a head in China not merely through the sophistication of its control system, but because China is a market like no other, with over 140 million web users. Western companies have been drooling over the potential it offers them for market expansion–and to date the commitment of these companies to freedom of expression has come a sorry second.
While Google launched a censored version of its search engine–www.google.cn–Microsoft closed down a political blog at the request of the Chinese government and Yahoo stands accused of releasing private information about its users which has led to the identification and arrest of cyber-dissidents like Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning. It is on this basis that Wang’s wife–Yu Ling–has filed a legal case against Yahoo in the US, supported by the World Organisation for Human Rights USA. Wang’s lawyer Morton Sklar is clear that divulgence of information from Yahoo about Wang was “an act of corporate irresponsibility”.
What has really shocked campaigners over the last year is the growth of Internet repression. Experts speak of the export of the ‘Chinese model’: extensive use of the Internet for economic purposes, with severely curtailed political potential. The latest Open Net Initiative (ONI) Report on Internet filtering shows that at least 25 countries now apply state-mandated net filtering including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burma, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand and Tunisia.
But filtering is only one aspect of Internet repression–politically motivated closure of websites and Internet cafes, as well as threats or imprisonment, are reported far more widely.
22-year old Egyptian blogger Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman was sentenced to four years imprisonment in February for ‘contempt of religion’, and ‘defaming the President of Egypt’. His imprisonment sends a clear message to Egypt’s burgeoning blogging community.
In Iran Internet surveillance is increasing and journalists and bloggers have been sentenced to prison and flogging. In Oman, Saudi Arabia and Syria Internet postings have reportedly formed a key part of activists’ arrests. In Vietnam 25-year-old Truong Quoc Huy, 25, was arrested in an Internet café in Ho Chi Minh City after logging on to a PalTalk website. He had already served nine months in 2005-6 for Internet crimes.
Meanwhile reports of various means of cyber-censorship and intimidation are reported on the Internet nearly everyday–from Russia and Uzbekistan to Pakistan and Fiji. In a new development, ONI recently reported that Cambodia ordered mobile phone message services to be cut off during elections. Iran is reportedly also considering targeting multi-media phone messages.
Many web activists also ask questions about encroaching censorship in Western states themselves. Popular US website BoingBoing found itself banned from Boston’s free WiFi network, apparently a mistake, but one which shows the danger of untargeted web filtering. Moreover, the role of large companies in shaping the way people see the world looks likely to grow as a few businesses come to dominate the Internet. Google CEO Erik Schmidt recently told a conference that: “The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask the question such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?'”.
The reason for this clamp-down is based on a realisation of the power of the Internet. Even in China, the announcement of the banning of eight books by well-known authors in January caused an outcry online. In Vietnam Bloc 8406–a group of democracy activists calling for peaceful political change and respect for human rights–started as an online petition in April 2006, gathering 2,000 signatures. In Mexico a report was leaked onto the Internet detailing more than 700 cases of enforced disappearances and 2,000 cases of torture.
In November 2006, the University of California came under scrutiny after a YouTube video taken on a mobile phone showed an Iranian-American student being tasered several times after refusing to show his library ID card. In the same week there were two other instances of American police brutality shown on YouTube.
Around the world human rights defenders and activists are using the Internet to report, mobilise and campaign.
The Internet is difficult to control by it nature–but the determination of governments to do so should not be under-estimated. As the Internet reaches more people, government desire to censor grows, as does their reliance on companies to help them do that censoring.
Governments and Internet companies today enjoy enormous potential to control the way we see the world and, through the unprecedented amount of personal information they hold, the way we live in that world. As Cory Doctorow, founder of BoingBoing says, “the difference between a utopian future and a dystopian future is whether the computers control us, or whether we control the computers”.
But the Internet also provides ordinary citizens with the means to find out and to fight back. At the heart of the Internet is a promise, the promise of free speech and access to uncensored information for millions of people. We have got be on our guard against those who want to control access to information and take that free speech away. We must not let them stop that promise being delivered.
KATE ALLAN works for Amnesty International, which sponsored “Some People Think the Internet is a Bad Thing”, a global event examining the future of free expression on the Internet on 6 June. You can download the webcast at: www.amnesty.org.uk/webcast