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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Freedom to Blog?

Siobhain Butterworth, the Guardian Readers' Editor, had a comment piece in the paper on Monday about the Free Speech and the Internet conference that took place at Cumberland Lodge last week. English PEN director Jonathan Heawood summed up his experience of the conference as part of the Guardian's multi-authored blog on on the issue. Heawood concludes that he:
came away from the conference convinced that we need to strengthen the international human rights framework if we are to realise the internet's capacity for freedom of speech. For this reason I believe we need an international treaty on the internet – not to encourage censorship, but to underwrite freedom of speech. One contributor to the conference suggested that the internet has "globalised the First Amendment".

Unfortunately, this simply isn't true for bloggers in Iran, Egypt, China and elsewhere who have been imprisoned for expressing their views or transmitting information online. Nor is it true for those of us whose searches are blocked, whose downloads are monitored, and whose postings are subject to "take-down" notices without any right of reply.
He points out that even in the UK and US, where democracy and freedom of speech are supposedly universal rights,
National legislators are struggling to keep up. Where they do create laws on the internet, they often do so badly, or without regard to the consequences. Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 creates an offence out of downloading material which might be useful to a terrorist. It led to the detention of a junior academic at Nottingham University who was legitimately researching terrorism.
The case brought home to (perhaps complacent) UK internet users the extent to which their web use (even on a personal computer, from home) is monitored, for political as well as commercial reasons.

It's a reality that bloggers in the Middle East and China face far more explicitly -- but the internet also gives them a way not only to speak out against censorship, blocking, take-downs, and arrests, but to be heard globally. Global Voices today has statistics on internet use in Egypt from Bloggers Times [Ar], showing (unbelievably) that
the number of internet users in Egypt increased from 650,000 users in 2000 to 9,170,000 users in 2008.
Marwa Rakha, who translates the blog, notes that
One in every three people in the sample [of 1,338 Egyptians 18-35] has a blog.
and that 89% of them are in favour of an internet censorship law, details unspecified.

There's a contrasting view from blogger Khalid in Bahrain, who writes (in Amira Al-Husseini's translation) hopefully that in the blogosphere:
Writing has become without limits, or outside the scope of being limited
. Like Heawood, he believes that
writing today needs a code of conduct, and what is this code? Who will write it? Who will approve it? The government, or the people, or the writers, or the intellectuals, or the clergymen? There will continue to be writings, and these writings will remain outside the restrictions.

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