The issue of 'openness' is all
free expression's collisions with control
By Janna Quitney Anderson, Director of Imagining
the Internet and Assistant Professor of Communications,
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -
Confrontations like the one that just took place in
Myanmar and the one taking place right now in Pakistan
make it plain that modern communications are making it
tough for authoritarian structures to shut down free
speech. The Internet, mobile and satellite
communications tools of all sorts are presenting new
of the Internet is the theme for a grouping of issues
being discussed at the Internet Governance Forum in Rio
de Janeiro this week, and it strikes directly to the
heart of IGF participant Shazad Ahmad, who works for a
civil society group named Bytes for All, located in
Islamabad, Pakistan. He left home for this conference
just as President Pervez Musharraf declared martial law
in his country, closing down radio stations and
"There is a ban on the import and selling of what
I would say are 'weapons of mass destruction'
– digital receivers and decoders and dish
antennas," he said, explaining that he has still
been receiving text messages and e-mail from his
friends at home, informing him of the restrictions on
free speech. "I denounce this state of affairs,
this is our civil right this is a human right. This is
In the past 10 days the Pakistan Supreme Court has
been dismissed, independent news stations have been
silenced and thousands of opposition party workers,
lawyers and human rights activists have been arrested.
Ahmad is upset by the lack of discussion of this
important issue at an event where the ultimate goal is
to assure positive communications for the common good.
"There's no mention of this at this
international UN conference; this is frustrating. I am
preparing myself for life without the Internet. A
journalist friend of mine told me they are now working
with ISPs. Musharraf thinks anything against him to be
obscene and immoral. My friend told me total Internet
blackout is in the cards.
"The Internet is still creating problems for him.
We're monitoring things closely. People should be
free in accessing any kind of information, whatever
they want, and they should be free to express their
It's hard to say how IGF participants would react
if Musharraf next takes down the Internet in his quest
to control information in Pakistan. It is possible
there has been no reaction from IGF attendees yet
because information by mobile phone and Internet is
still flowing in most areas. But Ahmad's concerns
are sincere and the threat is real. Can the world react
in anticipation of an act of such censorship?
Many questions can be raised when you consider the
"openness" issue and the Internet.
What happens when a person or group's free
expression on the Internet threatens the very existence
of a government or insults a cultural group? Who is
going to decide when the government or group that has
been threatened is deserving of criticism and when it
What if the same freedoms that allow people
communications tools to fight for justice are used to
support terror or crime, and who decides what is
"terror" or what is a crime?
What if one person's free expression in a blog
posting damages another person's reputation or
violates someone's privacy?
And if your idea of freedom of expression includes
sharing my creative works, my photos, original writing
or music, doesn’t that violate my property
In the past, communications censorship took place
mostly behind the scenes in non-democratic nations and
did not generally get global notice. A government could
shut down radio and television and only allow
state-supporting publications and government-run media
to operate, and its people would be swallowed up by an
The stakes for free speech were high this fall with
the violence in Myanmar, where the military government
attempted to shut down Internet communication in the
face of insurrection by people who were rising up
against 45 years of oppression.
Most media reports had been stifled, but citizens used
the Internet to share news of massive protests and the
Myanmar military junta's deadly retaliation. At
least 10 people were killed, likely many more, and
thousands were injured or arrested.
The government in Myanmar cut off Internet access, cut
off phone landlines and tried to confiscate mobile
phones. But satellite connections were harder to block.
Students used hidden cell phones to send out text
messages and blogs to the outside world. Memory cards
with photos and videos were smuggled out of the
country. And the government found that stopping the
flow of information is nearly impossible, as scenes of
monks in the streets and chaos and violence made their
way to the world's news media and UN officials
demanded a meeting to try to resolve the conflict.
A less-important but representative example of public
censorship ensued when an anonymous person posted a
44-second, mocking video clip about Thailand's King
Bhumibol on YouTube. The video showed a caricature of
the king with an image of feet near his head, a highly
insulting portrayal in Thai culture.
The Thai government’s response was to block all
of YouTube for all users in the country. After five
months of negotiations, YouTube agreed to block access
to the offending video clip only for users in Thailand.
Did YouTube make the right call? Is it YouTube’s
responsibility? Is it any Internet site content
provider's responsibility to censor its content in
an effort to respect the individual wishes of all
people in all cultures? How can that be accomplished
while still allowing people free expression?
By most Western standards it's easy to criticize
the system in China, where
30,000 “Internet police” monitor
citizens’ internet use and have blocked many
forums and websites from being accessed from computers
inside the country.
If you want to get online in China be prepared to
check in with the government and register to get your
Internet-use permit, and understand they’ll be
watching where you go, what you look at and what you
This seems heavy-handed to people with democratic
sensibilities, but the government in China argues that
it is protecting people from all sorts of dangers:
pornography, criminal activity, scams, misinformation
and threats to society. They say the government is just
doing its job – a line former UN ambassador for
China and current UN official Sha Zukang repeated at an
IGF press conference Monday, saying, "Freedom
doesn't mean you are free to do anything."
Since 2000, many governments and corporations have
been working to filter or even selectively cut off the
Internet and its flow of information, proposing that
this will help control crime, keep watch over terror
groups and protect children. Governments and
corporations also propose that filtering the internet
and even setting it up in separately-priced tiers will
allow them to smooth the flow of online traffic,
provide the finances to make the internet faster and
better and establish appropriate control of
Citizens are inclined to agree to accept some
formalized structures when they are told that their own
monetary gain, children, privacy or safety are at risk.
But the very structures that would allow governments
and corporations such control over privacy and content
can be used to stop free expression and cut off the
flow of information needed to build a more open world.
And how can anyone establish rules on these issues
that make sense across national boundaries?
When people at the Internet Governance Forum discuss
openness, they are also discussing the protection of
privacy and its relation to free expression; the
relationship of national regulations of free expression
and the border-free internet; citizens' rights to
be creative and share information and how those rights
relate to the rights of intellectual property owners;
and open-source software and standards.
Forcing Western practices and laws onto countries with
a different view of Internet openness could lead to a
fragmented future in which some governments decide to
opt out of the Internet and create their own
"walled gardens" with laws and practices
consistent with their beliefs. Through discussions such
as these at IGF, the world is trying to find ways to
maintain a borderless Internet that adequately balances
the rights of individuals with the rule of law and the
interest of our nations.
Shazad Ahmad says there are 4 million dial-up Internet
users and 54,000 broadband users in Pakistan, and
it's easy to shut it down. "I hope it
doesn't happen," he said. "I am seriously
concerned. The way they are treating various other
mediums of information they may end up blocking it or
jamming it. It is quite possible in Pakistan because
all bandwidth is routed through one place."
Ahmad said he thinks structures like IGF should more
directly work to be proactive in situations like this
– crisis situations.
"There should be a way forward," he
said, "a concrete way forward which helps
(Michele Hammerbacher and Dan Anderson made
significant contributions to this article.)