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World: Watchdog NGO Campaigns Against Internet Censorship

  • Jeremy Bransten

An Internet cafe in China's Shandong Province (file photo) (epa) PRAGUE, November 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is holding a 24-hour campaign today, which it calls a “Demonstration Against Internet Censorship.”


A growing number of countries censor their citizens’ access to the web. Among the worst offenders are 13 countries that the NGO labels "enemies of the Internet." They are: Saudi Arabia, Belarus, Myanmar, China, North Korea, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam.


No Frontiers


The Internet opened a world of information for hundreds of millions of people across the globe. And it used to be that it didn’t matter where you lived or who you were.

Some international software companies and search-engine hosts -- eager to increase their profits -- are cooperating with governments that limit their people’s access to the web.

The Internet had no frontiers.


But governments soon devised ways to put the borders back up -- and limit access to information.


In recent years, censorship methods have become increasingly sophisticated.


"There are many ways to prevent free information from circulating on the Internet," says Julien Pain, head of RSF's Internet Freedom Desk. "The most common one is to just block access to the domain name, to the website. But there are more sophisticated ways of censoring the Internet. For example, in Uzbekistan, the authorities have set up mirror websites, which look like the [offending] websites, but which are actually websites that are edited by people close to the authorities. So they are fake websites."


Technical Problems


Being censored -- and not even realizing it -- is one of the most worrying developments on the Internet.


"In China, when you don't access a website because it's censored, it's never said explicitly," Pain explains. "You try to connect to the website and you get a message saying the connection failed or there was a connection timeout -- as if the problem were a technical problem. So that's what's happening in China and that's what's happening in most countries that censor the Internet. It's not done explicitly."


RSF hopes its current campaign will help turn back the tide of censorship.


The 24-Hour Campaign


"During [the next] 24 hours, we'll ask Internet users from all over the world to come to our website," Pain explains. "And on our website, we'll have different actions that can be taken by Internet users. So, for example they'll be able to vote on an interactive map that we've set up. And they'll be able to vote against censorship in several countries. For example, they can vote against censorship in China, in Iran.... All the votes will be counted and at the end of the 24 hours, we hope that 20, 30, or 50,000 people will have voted against censorship."


An Internet user in Belarus (Bymedia.net file photo)

But what about people who don’t have access to the RSF website, precisely because they live in countries like China or Turkmenistan -- where it is blocked?


The NGO has a temporary solution, that it hopes will keep it one step ahead of the censors.


"There are two sites," Pain says. "For people living in democracies, where the Internet is not censored, you just have to go to the RSF website. It's www.rsf.org. If you live in China or in Iran, or in another country where the RSF website is not accessible, then you should go to another [site.] It's: www.boraxx.org/24h."


What’s equally worrying, says Pain, is that some international software companies and search-engine hosts -- eager to increase their profits -- are cooperating with governments that limit their people’s access to the web.


Voice Mail For Yahoo


Last year, Yahoo provided information that helped Chinese state security officials convict a Chinese journalist of posting information on a foreign website.


Through RSF’s website, people will also be able to leave voice messages for the founder of Yahoo -- to register their displeasure. Pain says he hopes ordinary people’s voices will have an impact.


"I think it's very important, because if Yahoo feels that its image is badly damaged by this campaign, maybe it will realize that it has to change its position and behave differently in China," Pain says. "That's what we hope, because private companies don't like their image to be ruined this way. So I think at some point they'll maybe prefer to behave ethically than being attacked and attacked by NGOs like ours."


He also believes today's campaign will strengthen RSF’s voice when it lobbies governments that censor the Internet.


"The first thing is then when we meet governments and diplomats now, we'll be able to say: Internet censorship is not only an issue for us, Reporters Without Borders," he explains. "It's an issue for 20, 30 or 50,000 people, who voted against censorship on our website during these 24 hours. This means that it gives us weight for our lobbying activity. When you do lobbying, it's important to say that you have people behind you, backing what you're doing."

Internet In The Former Soviet Union

(AFP)

BREAKING THE NEWS: In 2000, Internews and the Center for Democracy and Technology established the Global Internet Policy Initiative (GIPI) to promote an open, democratic, and user-controlled Internet in developing countries. Throughout the former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe, GIPI has worked to bring together local stakeholders and advocate policy reforms that will support development of the Internet as a tool of democratization, economic growth, and human development.
On May 3, RFE/RL's Washington office hosted a roundtable discussion of these issues. Participants included PARVINA IBODOVA, chairman of the Civil Internet Policy Initiative and GIPI Coordinator; BOGDAN MANOLEA, Executive Director of the Romanian Association for Technology and Internet (APTI), an independent NGO that works to promote human rights in the digital environment and support digital civil rights in Romanian society; and experts working in the Internet policy development area from Belarus and Uzbekistan. Internet-policy advocates from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Russia, and Ukraine also took part in the discussion.


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