The Internet – (no longer) a tool of freedom and democracy?

UAE blocked site graphic

The internet has generally been seen as a very major tool in increasing freedom by giving unprecedented access to information. In a 2006 testimony, the US House of Representatives heard that

The Internet should be fostered and protected as a worldwide vehicle for reliable information and communications, personal expression, innovation and economic development

and lately, in January 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke, championing Internet freedom as a vital tool to open governments and promote transparency:

There are more ways to spread more ideas to more people than at any moment in history. Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.

This challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic.

But lately, this tool of freedom has come under increased pressure:

  • In China, Internet traffic is heavily monitored and regulated – the controversy with Google was heavily published and China’s practices in denying free information flowing to it’s people heavily criticised.
  • In the wake of the 2009 presidential election in Iran, turmoil and protests erupted and the regime there was the target of most of the world’s criticism for blocking and controlling traffic to websites such as Twitter and Facebook that the protesters were trying to use to inform the world about what was going on in the streets of Iran.
  • In Denmark, legislation has led to blocking of the AllOfMP3 and Pirate Bay websites as well as foreing gambling sites that conflict with Danish legislation (and, not in the least taxation). Latest initiative is a suggestion to block sites selling pharmaceuticals. In the name of public health, of course.
  • In the US, the air force has now blocked access to the New York Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais, Le Monde, … (link)  All well respected news media websites, but as they publish Wikileaks-based articles, they’re now out in the dark. And not only that, but violators are warned that they face punishment if they try to view classified material from unauthorized Web sites.

4 examples of Internet censorship.

Cutting to the bone, what is the difference between them? Is there any difference? I’d say no. None at all.

In the Western world, we generally have been quick to vent our outrage when totalitarian regimes such as Irand and China violates human rights or the free access to information. And rightly so.

So why are the same tools now increasingly often put to use in the very same countries that criticise Iran and China? “I’ve always been an advocate of free speech and acces to information but oops, now it bit my behind and I think we have to regulate it!” Have you seen any leading politician say that on prime time TV?

Me neither.

Dear politicians, legislators, generals – people, actually – in what we tend to call the free world: This will not do! Get your act together, acknowledge that the freedom to access information and make your own educated evaluations and decisions about them is a right that is fundamental to us in this age.

And stop the hypocritical use of the same blocking tools that we rightly scold dictators, human rights offenders and mind-controlling totalitarian regimes of using.

Photo courtesy of khilwar on Flickr
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