Saturday, September 17, 2005

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

Vermont Guardian


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.

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