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[] Cyber-dissidents under attack around world,


Nov. 16, 2003. 01:00 AM

Cyber-dissidents under attack around world


Leading Chinese democracy activist He Depu last week joined the
swelling ranks of jailed cyber-dissidents after being handed an
eight-year sentence for posting his political views online.

A veteran dissident who helped found the China Democratic Party, he
was the first of six democracy advocates sentenced in the past week by
the year-old Hu Jintao government, which has made China the world
leader in jailing those who use the Internet to express dissent.

But China is not alone.

Authoritarian governments around the world, from Tunisia to Vietnam to
Malaysia, are cracking down hard on the Internet in an attempt to stem
the tide of alternative political information pouring into their

"We've seen a real growth in the last five years," says Minky Worden,
electronic media director for Human Rights Watch, "growth that mirrors
the growth of the Internet. So, just as in the old days the government
might shut down a newspaper, now they shut down a Web site."

Nobody knows how many cyber-dissidents are currently in jail, but
there are at least 48 widely publicized cases. Rights groups are
responding to the surge in reports with new campaigns, among them the
inauguration of the Cyber-Freedom Prize, awarded by Reporters Sans
Frontières. This year's winner is Tunisian cyber-dissident Zouhair

The surge has also reinvigorated stalled talks on the distinct human
right to communicate.

"It goes beyond freedom of expression," says William McIver Jr.,
professor at the School of Information Science and Policy at the
University at Albany in New York state.

McIver says the difference between the right to free expression and
the right to communicate is essentially the difference between content
and means.

"One has the right to write or to speak on the corner," he explains,
"but what about having access to the technologies of communication, to
the means that are necessary to actually convey the information to
others, and to receive information?

"The information society is about tools and applications, but it
really should be about meeting human needs."

In July, the United States government took an unprecedented step in
addressing those human needs when it passed the Global Internet
Freedom Act (GIFA), which could see up to $50 billion (all figures
U.S.) earmarked to combat state-sponsored Internet censorship around
the world.

"Oppressive regimes habitually monitor activity on the Internet,"
notes Congressman Christopher Cox, a key author of the bill. "In this
way, technology has become a new tool of the police state.

"The GIFA will give millions of people around the globe the power to
outwit repressive regimes that would silence them."

But critics point out that the U.S. government and American
corporations are responsible for developing the technologies
repressive states use to control Internet access.

"There is an inherent contradiction when you have an increasing level
of electronic surveillance in the United States and yet there's a
movement to allow more democratic access to the Internet and
communications technologies abroad," says Cory Smith, legal counsel
for the New York-based Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights.

The Chinese government has purchased vast amounts of mostly
Western-made equipment to jam Internet access for its 1 billion
citizens, says a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit. And a
top Chinese engineer told the London Observer last year that
U.S.-based multinational Cisco Systems essentially custom-built the
Chinese government's firewalls.

"After Sept. 11, the U.S. started to surveil the Internet with
sophisticated software and new laws, and every country imitated them,"
says Julian Pain, director of Internet research at Reporters Sans

"In the U.S., the laws are dangerous, but that's nothing compared with
the same laws applied in Asia, where they don't have the same human
rights record.

"In that respect, the U.S. showed a very, very bad example. Because
the right to communicate is a basic human right ? one of the most

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