Washington, 14 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An e-mail campaign to free two Chinese dissidents who had been using the Internet to promote democracy calls attention to the ways in which the struggle for freedom and human rights has not so much changed as shifted onto a new battleground.
Last Thursday, the U.S.-based Digital Freedom Network (DFN) announced plans to use the Internet to defend Lin Hai and Wang Youchai who are being punished for sending pro-democracy materials via electronic mail.
One reason Beijing has come down so hard on these two, representatives of DFN says, was because the Chinese authorities understand that the Internet channel reaches the country's elite, the only part of China's enormous population that has access to it.
And consequently, DFN indicates, it would use its resources and those of allied groups to send e-mails in the same way that earlier democratic activists had used letter-writing campaigns. Such efforts, they note, not only put pressure on the regime but increased the number of people aware of the problem.
Both the actions of Lin and Wang and DFN's response highlight the hopeful side of Internet activity, the ability of this electronic network to spread democracy and freedom through the open communication of information and analysis.
But the limits on the possibilities of both pro-democracy activists and their supporters are far greater than just the actions of repressive regimes like the one in China.
That is because the same channels that carry messages of freedom and democracy are also increasingly being used to carry other messages, of hatred, violence and anger. The number of websites and e-mail messages featuring such anti-democratic ideas continue to rise.
And just as pro-democracy messages threaten a repressive government because they reach elites, anti-democratic messages carried on the Internet increasingly worry all those concerned about human freedom.
Speaking to an RFE/RL seminar in Washington last week, Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee and Micah Naftalin of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews warned that these new websites of hate are helping to power anti-semitic and extreme nationalist groups in several post-communist countries.
Baker reported that several human rights activists have proposed holding an international conference to discuss what should be done, proposals that Naftalin and other participants at the seminar warmly supported.
Up to now, those most worried about this development have been divided on how best to respond.
Some have advocated the introduction of some form of censorship in order to restrict the spread of hate speech on the Internet. But others have insisted that the best way to counter hate messages is with better and more insistent presentation of good ones.
As most participants in this debate acknowledge, neither of these positions is without its difficulties, given the nature of the Internet itself.
On the one hand, the Internet is at least at present a very free place. Any attempt to impose restrictions is likely to backfire both because of disagreements on what those restrictions should be and because of the ability of those on the Internet to evade them.
And on the other, the Internet provides ever greater opportunities for virtually anyone to send his or her message across its channels, a feature that means each side in any particular fight can easily escalate it in response to the actions of the other side. That limits the ability of either side in such Internet debates to overwhelm the other as one side or the other can do in the press or in other forms of the electronic media.
That suggests that the Internet will remain a battleground for a long time to come. The actions of Lin and Wang show that supporters of freedom can do so on the Internet just as effectively as they have done elsewhere.
But the actions of the Chinese government indicate that the friends of freedom will have to be just as vigilant in this medium as they have had to be everywhere else.