The Internet is a unique communications medium. Like no other medium before, it allows individuals to express their ideas and opinions directly to a world audience and easily to each other, while allowing access to many more ideas, opinions and information than previous media have allowed. Consequently, there is a vital connection between the Internet and human rights. The Internet is a democratizing medium; Uniquely Suited to the Promotion of Human Rights.It is more than a mere industry. The current regulatory framework is compatible in the context of the traditional print media, and the relatively newer media of radio and television broadcasting, telecommunications, films and videotapes. If censorship on Internet is to be enforced on an agreeable way, the present laws should be updated. In fact legislation always lags behind the changing technologies. Mailing lists via email and bulletin boards on the Internet enable people to speak out without the fear of being heard. It allows them to step out of their cultural and political boundaries as well by encouraging a true participatory democracy. Preventing this means it would be impossible to create a vocal and active global community, which transcends race and geography. This is insufficient to have a look at the Internet from one perspective. There are many human rights issues regarding the Internet. In this paper I will see it from three different perspectives. This paper will analyze the prospects of Internet medium for promoting human rights and how this medium can be a tool for organizations. It is also highlighted here in this paper that what international laws protect freedom of expression and privacy. The paper critically analyzes the nature of repressive government’s censorship on Internet and how they violate freedom of expression and interfere with privacy of individual.
2. The Internet and Human Rights Work: why Internet is powerful medium?
The Internet is one of the best means for communicating on human rights, because it is inexpensive and global. E-mail makes point-to-point communication between human rights workers and among NGOs (non-governmental organizations) cheap and easy, and allows for better coordination of actions. Furthermore, the Internet has the potential of reaching global audiences, including those most in need of such information. The Internet is important to those working for human rights, as it can provide a secure means of communicating between and coordinating the work of human rights groups. Internet in human rights is as a great tool for NGOs and activists to be in touch with each other, to share information privately, and to coordinate actions. Activists can expose human rights violations and let people know about them over Internet. Many human rights organizations throughout the world have instituted e-mail lists to propagate their press releases, alerts and denunciations vis a vis human rights violations[i]. Internet Access is important for the promotion of Human Rights. Net access without civil liberties guarantees in technology and in law may not benefit individuals and may be coupled with government control and extended surveillance capability[ii]. Governments take out the benefit of laws to impose censorship on Internet. Unfortunately autocratic governments make and use law as slave to work in favor of them and violate the right to access Internet. A good government should provide full disclosure of information infrastructure development plans and encourage democratic participation in all aspects of the development process. The idea of extra-territoriality is what the Internet is able to offer. Books can be physically turned back at the border or destroyed during a raid, but work published on the Internet is permanent and there is a greater potential of reaching the millions out there. As Internet is a global technology having fastest and cheapest communication channel, it has the ability to work for the universality of Human Rights. Internet is the network of networks; therefore, I believe it can help to integrate human rights activists’ networks worldwide.
2.1 Human Rights NGO: prospects and problem
Internet is the revolutionary medium for human rights NGOs. Large NGOs such as Amnesty International (AI), with over 60 offices and a million members, rely heavily on e-mail and the Internet for sharing information, consulting about strategy, debating new ideas, maintaining archives and initiating quick responses to current events[iii]. Similarly Human Rights Watch, Save the children, Action aid and many other international NGOs have adopted Internet technology not only by using e-mail and developing web sites but also by introducing net conferences, net messages, news groups, bulletin boards and online publications. On the contrary hundreds of small and medium scales local or national NGOs of developing countries are struggling to adopt Internet. Lack of Internet infrastructure, budget, technology skill, and training about Internet know how are the barriers to popularize Internet as a medium among these NGOs. In some countries where governments have control over other type of media as radio, television and print, Internet medium can be the only way for human rights activists to fight against government repression. Human rights communities that would find it difficult and dangerous to acquire hardcopy reports have been able to obtain and circulate them through cyberspace[iv]. Repressive governments have realized the power of Internet medium and started imposing restriction on free flow of information through Internet and nowadays maintain extreme control over it. These governments especially target to suppress human rights NGOs. For most human rights communities, therein lies the dilemma: it is precisely those communities in greatest need of empowerment that is least likely to have access to the Internet[v]. The de-centered, anti-hierarchical, network oriented, democratic natured and electronic modes of communication like the WWW encourages new ways of thinking, writing, reading, creating, communicating, organizing and learning. For grassroots organizations these attributes of the Net allow them to utilize technology which reflects their ideals of networking, inclusion and participation[vi]. From my point of view promotion, dissemination and awareness building programs can be run in faster pace through Internet by the human rights organizations that have been working for civil and political rights as well as for economic, social and cultural rights.
2.2 Freedom of expression and privacy: why these are essential to strengthen Internet as medium?
Online communication must therefore be fully protected by international guarantees of the right to freedom of expression. Let us see how we can strengthen the platform of Internet media by understanding international laws. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and other international human rights agreements enshrine the rights to freedom of expression and access to information.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, and regardless of frontiers.” Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” Article 19, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of borders.” Article 10, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
The Internet is a medium for both public and private exchange of views and information. People must be able to express opinions and ideas, and share information freely when using the Internet. The potential of the Internet to allow public participation in governance processes, at international, national and local levels, should be utilized to its full. At the same time, there should be mechanisms in the public domain to oppose – or in extreme cases, ban – the publication of content that is harmful to women, children and other vulnerable groups, or content that can incite violence and hatred[vii]. Applying laws and licenses, content filtering, tapping and surveillance, pricing and taxation policies, telecommunication markets manipulation, hardware and software manipulation can restrict freedom of expression and limit access to information. Government-mandated use of blocking, filtering, and label systems violates basic international human rights protections. Efforts to force all Internet speech to be labeled or rated according to a single classification system distort the fundamental cultural diversity of the Internet and will lead to domination of one set of political or moral viewpoints. Free expression should not be restricted by indirect means such as excessively restrictive governmental or private controls over computer hardware or software, the telecommunications infrastructure, or other essential components of the Internet. Governments in Western democracies often appear guilty of violating human rights, especially the right to privacy and freedom of expression, and then governments in less democratic countries will use all infringements of the principle of freedom of expression on the Internet as excuses to strictly control how citizens use the system. Human Rights Watch seeks to encourage governments to strengthen protections for freedom of expression at this early stage of the Internet’s development.
The Universal Declaration, the European Convention and international human rights instruments protects the right to privacy. These core documents explicitly protect the privacy of correspondence and communication:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” Article 12, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.” Article 17, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” Article 8, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
Privacy is becoming increasingly important for citizens in the information society. Electronic communications can be very easily intercepted by anyone who wants to. Sending an e-mail message is thus the equivalent of sending a postcard. In the human rights arena especially, many matters discussed among NGOs are extremely confidential. Names of witnesses to human rights violations, for example, need to be kept from those who would harm them. Repressive governments commonly use their intelligence services to tap the phone communications of human rights groups and intercept their mail. It is very likely that they are also intercepting electronic mail. A global study of Internet censorship in over fifty countries and regions finds that Internet restrictions, government secrecy and communications surveillance have reached an unprecedented level across the world[viii]. Singapore’s citizens are still fearful. A bureaucrat told a local Internet service provider to scan 80,000 e-mail accounts of university researchers for pornographic material and in April, Singapore’s internal-security agency secretly scanned 200,000 private computers[ix]. Similarly the government of Burma and China has dishonored Internet privacy of individual, families and organizations. Basically repressive governments fear from the accessibility of Internet medium. I think that the nature of such ruling system is to oppress the freedom of speech and expression. In the early age it was quite easier to control press, audio and visual medium but the emerging Internet medium has unpredictable technical capacity that ensures privacy of users. Nevertheless Internet has encouraged millions of people around the world to exchange their ideas, visions, cultures, political debates and beliefs. Internet has become a threat for the dominating rulers. As it is difficult to have control over Internet medium, some governments have been installing filtering and baring technologies by spending millions of dollars. I believe governments are imposing censorship on Internet users to protect incoming- outgoing information and ideas because they scare from free flow of information. Governments should not require the identification of Internet users or restrict the ability to express political beliefs on the Internet anonymously.
2.3 Censorship on Internet: how has it become an evil force of repressive governments?
The Internet has the ability to explode information onto every user. More information can be gathered and distributed at a faster speed, meaning that the flow of information in circulation increases at an exponential rate. Technology and censorship are often seen as opposing forces in the information age. The problem of censorship and new technology is best highlighted by the Internet. The Internet is an example of a convergent medium: it has a mail function, a news-reading function and a computing-software function. Convergence poses problems for censorship because it becomes difficult to classify the new medium and to decide who regulates them and how. Singapore’s current censorship regime assumes that the media are distinct and separate from one another. Censorship does not sit well with computer culture, where maximum freedom is celebrated. Cyberspace culture privileges free speech and the free flow of ideas as a route to social and intellectual progress. For example, the US Senate Commerce Committee’s proposal to ban obscene material in cyberspace faces strong opposition from Internet users. I think the process of censorship in the age of new technologies is problematic, as new laws tend to be inadequate modifications of old laws applied to older technology. The National University of Singapore, for example, has different servers for staff and students. The idea is that staff will get materials with less censorship than students. The lesson from the West, however, appears to be that censorship using technology does not work well. Filtering and prohibiting technologies may not always work with accuracy. It may create some adverse effects or interruption to normal data transmission. Currently, Usenet groups in Singapore are censored using guidelines issued by the Ministry of Information and the Arts, the government body in charge of media censorship[x]. There are no widespread, uniform guidelines or procedures for restricting use of any Internet services, and local administrators have to make arbitrary decisions on access. Harish Pillay, who heads Singapore’s Internet Society, says “Singapore Internet users are always fighting the censorship in their own mind, the perceived fear .. that someone will come knocking on your door.” This is important to point out that Singapore government has already created panic among Internet users by the activities of censorship. I am quite sure that freedom of expression of the citizens is violated in Singapore as well as arbitrary interference of right to privacy is committed by ruling authority.
So when does it require to censor the Internet? Perhaps it is becoming obvious that the Internet now plays an important tool in politics, particularly for oppressed societies who can only transmit stories of state crime, in the hope that the global community will respond with help. It is therefore imperative that the Internet should not be permitted to be censored. In Burma, a law passed in September 1996 obliges anyone who owns a computer to declare it to the government. Those who fail to comply may face up to 15 years in prison. The introduction of the Internet to the Burmese diaspora in mid-1990 changed the power equilibrium, while the Internet has become the single most important medium among Burmese exiles in terms of debating issues, discussing ideas, drawing up strategies, and doing the lobbying work that helps to mobilize effective international pressure on the regime.[xi] Realizing the influence of Internet, Burmese military rulers have upgraded themselves with latest Internet infrastructure. In addition they have restricted the expansion of Internet among the Burmese people and the ISP is totally state controlled. Cyber cafes are very few in numbers and also monitored by the state officials. According to me Burmese government have brutally prohibited the citizens from accessing Internet or having an e-mail address, which is a massive violation of human rights regarding access to information.
Like Burma some governments take numerous steps to prevent their citizens from gaining access to the Internet. Nations such as Belarus, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Vietnam put lot of efforts to prevent Internet access. Also identified countries are of Central Asia and the Caucasus, like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. China’s authorities have spent the summer tightening up supervision of the Internet, clamping down first on domestic web portals, then Internet cafes and foreign-owned portals such as Google and Yahoo.[xii] Digital spying is part of China’s online economy that has received major investment. Human rights activists believe the effort employs 30,000 people. Since 2000, they say, China’s web filtering has overtaken Saudi Arabia’s in scale. The firewall now surrounds the country, not just a few cities. It works by scanning for suspect words as digital documents cross the international gateways and needs big banks of servers. In China over the past year, new regulations and controls have been imposed on use of the Internet, including censorship of foreign news sites, the creation of special Internet police, and actions to shut down Internet sites posting information on corruption or articles critical of government. Internet cafes are required to register and inform the police about their customers. The Ministry of State Security has installed tracking devices on Internet service providers to monitor individual email accounts. And bulletin boards critical of the government have been shut down. There is no doubt that these censorship activities have weakened freedom of expression of the mass. Monitoring individual e-mail account is severe interference of individuals’ privacy.
The vast new potential of the Internet for expanding access to information and participation in government and civil society has already begun to show itself with concrete contributions to democracy and human rights. The Internet has opened up new opportunities for matters on political, intellectual, and personal. The Internet’s architecture allows for a diversity of views and exchange of information that is simply not possible in any other media. As of August 1998, one service identified 29,000 IRC (Internet Relay Chat) channels, 30,000 Usenet newsgroups, and 90,095 mailings lists — each one representing a network of individuals worldwide interested in a particular subject. The rise of the Internet also requires a reexamination of the meaning of the concept to “seek and receive” and to “impart” information. National restrictions on local speech have a direct and negative impact on the ability of Internet users around the world to “seek and receive” information and ideas, as well as their right to “impart” information. For example, if citizens of one country are prohibited from discussing political issues critically online, then not only are their rights infringed upon, but also the right of others around the world to “seek and receive” that information is directly implicated. In Internet citizens from the most repressive regimes are able to find information about matters concerning their governments or their human rights records that no local newspaper may dare print, while denouncing the conditions under which they live for the world to hear. The Internet allows us an intimate look at other countries, other people and other cultures that few before were ever able to attain. This power to give and receive information, so central to any conception of democracy, can be truly achieved on the Internet, as nowhere before. Attempts to suppress information and communication on the Internet, therefore, not only violate international human rights laws; in the end they are likely to be futile.
Censorship and Internet A Singapore Perspective, Dr. Peng Hwa Ang and Ms. Berlinda Nadarajan, http://normative.zusammenhaenge.at/beitraege/sg-censorship.html
Grassroots Organisations and the New Information Technologies: the Personal Computer, Email, the Internet and the World Wide Web, BY REBEKAH PASQUALINI, http://communication.students.rmit.edu.au/projects/burma/grassroots.html
Human Rights NGOs: Our Love Hate Relationship with the Internet, Patti Whaley, Human Rights and the Internet, Edited by Steven Hick, Edward F. Halpin, Eric Hoskins, p.30.
Huridocs-tech Singapore to relax Internet censorship laws From: Debra Guzman, Edited/Distributed by HURINet – The Human Rights Information Network, http://www.hrea.org/lists/huridocs-tech/markup/msg00252.html
Internet for social justice and development, The Associations for Progressive Communications, Internet and ICTs for Social Justice and Development, APC Internet Rights Charter, http://www.apc.org/english/rights/charter.shtml#7
Mobilizing online, The Burmese diaspora’s international lobby against the junta, Zaw Oo.
Silenced, an international report on censorship and control of the Internet, http://www.privacyinternational.org/survey/ The cost of China’s web censors, By Mary Hennock, BBC News Online business reporter , http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/2264508.stm
The Internet and Human Rights: An Overview, Center for Democracy and Technology, http://www.cdt.org/international/000105humanrights.shtml
[i] The Internet and Human Rights: An Overview, Center for Democracy and Technology, http://www.cdt.org/international/000105humanrights.shtml
[iii] Human Rights NGOs: Our Love Hate Relationship with the Internet, Patti Whaley, Human Rights and the Internet, Edited by Steven Hick, Edward F. Halpin, Eric Hoskins, p.30.
[iv] Ibid. p.32
[v] Ibid. p.38
[vi]Grassroots Organisations and the New Information Technologies: the Personal Computer, Email, the Internet and the World Wide Web, BY REBEKAH PASQUALINI, http://communication.students.rmit.edu.au/projects/burma/grassroots.html
[vii] Internet for social justice and development, The Associations for Progressive Communications, Internet and ICTs for Social Justice and Development, APC Internet Rights Charter, http://www.apc.org/english/rights/charter.shtml#7
[viii] Silenced, an international report on censorship and control of the Internet, http://www.privacyinternational.org/survey/censorship/
[ix] huridocs-tech Singapore to relax Internet censorship laws From: Debra Guzman, Edited/Distributed by HURINet – The Human Rights Information Network, http://www.hrea.org/lists/huridocs-tech/markup/msg00252.html
[x] Censorship and Internet A Singapore Perspective, Dr. Peng Hwa Ang and Ms. Berlinda Nadarajan, http://normative.zusammenhaenge.at/beitraege/sg-censorship.html
[xi] Mobilizing online, The Burmese diaspora’s international lobby against the junta, Zaw Oo.
[xii] The cost of China’s web censors, By Mary Hennock, BBC News Online business reporter , http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/2264508.stm