Sunday, May 28, 2006

Amnesty launches

Amnesty International have launched a campaign against online censorship called From that site:
Adj. 1) Impossible to repress or control.

Chat rooms monitored. Blogs deleted. Websites blocked. Search engines restricted. People imprisoned for simply posting and sharing information.

The Internet is a new frontier in the struggle for human rights. Governments – with the help of some of the biggest IT companies in the world – are cracking down on freedom of expression.

Amnesty International, with the support of The Observer, is launching a campaign to show that online or offline the human voice and human rights are impossible to repress.
Amnesty's UK director Kate Allen explains:
'Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government.'

So began an article in this newspaper 45 years ago called 'The Forgotten Prisoners'. The author, Peter Benenson, urged people to call on governments to stop this persecution. The 'appeal for amnesty' that he started went on to become Amnesty International, a movement that now has 1.8 million supporters in more than 100 countries around the world and continues to stand up for freedom and justice wherever it is denied.

Much has changed in those 45 years. The Iron Curtain has been torn down and apartheid has ended; we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And the world has moved on technologically: in 1961 people were expressing their opinions in books and newsprint; Amnesty members responded to their repression by writing letters. Now we have the internet; and Amnesty is able to mobilise its supporters online to lobby governments with emails and web-based campaigning.

Sadly what remains the same is that people are still being imprisoned for peacefully expressing their beliefs. Benenson started Amnesty after reading about two students arrested in a Portuguese cafe for raising a toast to freedom: 45 years on, we were recently made aware of three young Vietnamese people arrested after taking part in an online chatroom debate about democracy.

Governments still fear dissenting opinion and try to shut it down. While the internet has brought freedom of information to millions, for some it has led to imprisonment by a government seeking to curtail that freedom. They have closed or censored websites and blogs; created firewalls to prevent access to information; and restricted and filtered search engines to keep information from their citizens.

China is perhaps the clearest example. Its internet censorship and clampdown on dissent online is sophisticated and widespread. But Amnesty has documented internet repression in countries as diverse as Iran, Turkmenistan, Tunisia, Israel, the Maldives and Vietnam.

Another massive change since 1961 has been the rising power of multinationals, but some companies have been complicit in these abuses. So Amnesty is increasingly lobbying not just governments but powerful firms to respect the rights of ordinary people.

The internet is big business, but in the search for profits some companies have encroached on their own principles and those on which the internet was founded: free access to information. The results of searches using China-based search engines run by Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and local firms are censored, limiting the information users can access. Microsoft pulled down the work of one of China's most popular bloggers who had made politically sensitive comments. Yahoo gave information to the authorities that led to people being jailed for sending emails with political content. We do not accept these firms' arguments that it is better to have a censored Google, Yahoo or Microsoft in China than none at all.

So Amnesty International is again calling on Observer readers to join with us to take a stand for basic human freedoms. The internet has the potential to transcend national borders and allow the free flow of ideas around the world. Of course there is a need for limits to free expression to protect other rights - promoting violence or child pornography are never acceptable - but the internet still has immense power and potential.

Just by logging on to my computer I can exchange views with someone in Beijing or Washington. I can read what bloggers in Baghdad think of the situation in Iraq. I can find a million viewpoints that differ from my own on any topic. It is the greatest medium for free expression since the printing press, a meeting of technology and the social, inquisitive nature of human beings and the irrepressible force of the human voice. This is the new frontier in the battle between those who want to speak out, and those who want to stop them. We must not allow it to be suppressed.
As part of the campaign they've produced some clever html which allows you to display examples of the censored material on your own site, like this:

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