Prague, 15 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The UN organizers of the World Summit on the Information Society say they expect this week's three-day event in Tunis to include heated debates about the future governance of the Internet.
Summit spokeswoman Francine Lambert says delegates also will focus on how to implement decisions made when the first phase of the summit was held in Geneva in 2003.Connecting Every Community
"There was a declaration of principles [in 2003] that focuses on the major issues that should be the framework within which the information society is to develop or evolve," she said. "And [also] ways [for the Internet] to connect all the communities of the world by 2015 through a 15-point action plan. The idea in 2003 was to put the goals forward, and the purpose of the second phase of the summit is to find the practical ways to achieve those goals."
"You can access the Internet quite freely now in Afghanistan [and it] is not censored. There are even people who have started blogging.... It shows that the Internet in Afghanistan is developing well, even if...it is a poor country."
Those principles encompass freedom of expression and the protection of human rights in cyberspace. They also focus on how to create equal opportunities around the world for people to access information on the Internet.
Lambert says the goals are based on Article 19 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That declaration states
that all people have the right to freedom of opinion and expression -- including the right "to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders says much work needs to be done before the principles of the 2003 declaration are achieved. Julien Pain heads the group's section on Internet freedom. He says the biggest threats to human rights in cyberspace are repressive governments: "The most repressive regimes in terms of press freedom start trying to control the Internet, as well. It's the case in China. It's the case in Iran. Every dictator around the world is now trying to spy the web, track down dissidents on the Internet, and filter the web [to prevent the spread of uncensored information]."China Tops List Of Enemies
Pain says Reporters Without Borders will present a list of countries that are "enemies of the Internet" during the Tunis summit: "The Chinese are, by far, the most repressive government in terms of Internet freedom [and] the most efficient at censoring the Internet. They have acquired technology from American companies which enable the Chinese authorities to censor very efficiently the Internet and to block access to every political voice which disagrees with the government's official position."
Pain says Iran and Belarus are on the "enemies" list because the governments there apply Internet censorship strategies similar to those used in China. In contrast are Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, whose approaches to the Internet Pain compares to those in Cuba or North Korea.
"Basically, there are two solutions to controlling the Internet," he said. "The first one is the Chinese one. You buy lots of equipment to control the Internet, but at the same time you try to develop this new media because it is important economically. And the other solution is the Cuban or North Korean solution. You don't even let people access the Internet."
Pain notes that in Iran, authorities for the past two years have been arresting people who post critical remarks about the government on Internet sites known as weblogs, or blogs: "Iran is already censoring thousands and thousands of websites. And now it is trying also to control weblogs and bloggers because many political weblogs have appeared in recent years. What the Iranian government is trying to do now is prevent them from talking politics and prevent them from criticizing the government. That's why many, many bloggers went to jail in the past two years just because of a few posts on their weblog."Criticizing Lukashenka
In Belarus, investigations into Internet usage is easier than in other countries because the servers that provide Internet access are controlled by state firms that willingly provide private information to police.
Last summer, Belarusian authorities launched investigations into the Internet activities of a youth organization called The
Third Road after it posted political cartoons on its website ridiculing President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
Third Road member Pavol Marozau notes that Belarusian law also forces anybody who wants to use the Internet at a computer cafe to register using their passport and home address. Belarusian computer cafes also have security programs that record all information about a visitor's Internet activity.
Pain describes Turkmenistan's government as a repressive regime that has prevented the Internet from developing. "The Internet is accessible only to a minority of people in Turkmenistan," he said. "It is very similar to what is happening in Cuba where only government officials and a few businessmen can access the Internet freely. In Turkmenistan, if you don't work for a foreign company or if you are not a government official, you won't be able to access the Internet."Pressuring Uzbekistan's ISPs
Uzbek President Islam Karimov has spoken positively about developing the Internet in his country. He says it would be impossible for his government to censor the Internet: "I disagree with the opinion that information coming via Internet has a negative impact on the situation [in Uzbekistan]. Why? Because the Internet is like a huge supermarket where you go and buy what you need. Shutting the Internet down is a silly idea. It's absolutely impossible. Who tries to do so is a fool because an attempt brings no results."
But Pain says Karimov is only paying lip service to the concept of freedom of information on the Internet: "For Uzbekistan, we know that President Karimov is making statements about how he wants to develop the Internet. But at the same time, he is also well aware of the power it has and the threat it could be to his own power. So he's been trying to control the Internet at the same time. The security services in Uzbekistan are very involved in controlling the Internet and putting pressure upon the ISPs -- the Internet service providers -- so that they block opposition websites."
Daniil Kislov is the editor of ferghana.ru -- a Moscow-based website that reports on political, social, and cultural issues in the Ferghana Valley of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Kislov says he is sure that authorities have blocked access for Uzbek users to some articles on his website.
"It is not [entire] websites that are not blocked," Kislov said. "For example, ferghana.ru, centrasia.ru, or freeuz.org can be accessed. But particular articles are blocked. I guess that the authorities -- or whoever is in charge -- see some oppositionist, anticonstitutional, or antigovernment ideas in those articles. But it is obvious that those websites don't have [an antigovernment] agenda."
Lambert, the UN spokeswoman for this week's Internet summit in Tunis, admits it is impossible to force countries to allow freedom of information on the Internet. She says steps to pressure repressive governments into allowing uncensored access to the Internet are a matter of international diplomacy.
But she says creating an international standard for Internet freedom is a step in the right direction.The Internet In Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, And Iran
Pain, director of the Internet Freedom section of Reporters Without Borders, spoke as well about the situation for Internet users in Kazakhstan: "In Kazakhstan, many scandals were revealed on the Internet. That's why it is a very important [form of] media in Kazakhstan because President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev really realized that if he wanted to prevent scandals about corruption [from being] revealed he had to control the Internet. We've had many, many stories recently about websites which were harassed by the authorities [in Kazakhstan]. The authorities first just tried to sue the websites."
Pain also spoke about the situation for Internet users in Afghanistan: "You can access the Internet quite freely now in Afghanistan. So there is no problem. The Internet in Afghanistan is not censored. People are using it more and more. And there are even people who have started blogging in Afghanistan. So it is very interesting information. In Afghanistan, a few bloggers are doing a good job trying to dig out and bring different kinds of information [to the attention of people]. It shows that the Internet in Afghanistan is developing well, even if, of course, it is a poor country."
Sam Ghandchi, editor in chief of the Washington-based iranscope.com, said this about the situation in Iran: "Especially since the new government came to power -- the government of [President] Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- filtering [as a method of censoring websites] in Iran has increased significantly. Even groups like the Freedom Front [have confirmed this]. So today [the authorities] use semantic filtering -- meaning that they have a [computer] system to check websites that use words like 'freedom' and 'human rights.'"