A group of Asian journalists assailed Internet companies Yahooand Google for siding with governments that curtail freedom ofexpression and information in cyberspace.
Members of the South East Press Alliance (SEAPA) revealed thatYahoo, Google, and even software manufacturer Microsoft have agreedto compromises regarding people’s access to information in exchangefor the opportunity to do business in 15 Asian countries, one ofwhich is China — the biggest market in the world with a populationof over 1.3 billion.
In a conference entitled “Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace: AConference of Asian Bloggers, Podcasters, and Online Media,” SEAPAmembers highlighted the threats and actual attacks against freeexpression in the Internet, particularly in countries such asBelarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Nepal, North Korea, SaudiArabia, Syria, Maldives, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, andVietnam.
The event, the first conference of online news and commentaryproviders in Asia, was held last April 18 to 21 at the AsianInstitute of Management (AIM) in Makati City.
Filipino journalist Manuel L. Quezon III, who participated inthe event, said SEAPA online journalists and bloggers considerthemselves already in danger, thus the need to organize conferencesto exchange information and even tactics. Manila was chosen as thesite of the first conference as it has a more liberal governmentregime.
SEAPA executive director Roby Alampay, who is also a Filipino,said the countries and societies that really enjoy a high level offreedom are actually in the minority. He said the Philippines,Thailand, and Indonesia are very fortunate to enjoy a very highlevel of access and freedom when it comes to the Internet.
Alampay explained that Internet companies have different ways ofcurtailing freedom of expression, either through technology orotherwise, such as through the “application of laws, defamationlaws, censorship, filtering searches, and blocking of IP addressesand monitoring of activities on the Internet.”
Jeff Ooi, of the Paris-based press freedom body Reporters SansFrontieres (RSF, also known by its English name Reporters withoutBorders), reported in the conference that Cisco, Microsoft, Yahoo,and Google have given in to pressure from the Chinese government tolimit its citizens’ access to information via the Internet.
For instance, he said, Yahoo releases user identities to Chineseauthorities; Google blocks specific cache pages; Microsoft shutsdown MSN Space; and Internet routers are installed to filtercontent.
As a result of Internet companies giving away user informationto governments, many journalists, media assistants, and activistsare killed, harassed, or imprisoned, RSF claims.
According to the RSF’s Press Freedom Barometer 2006, 56cyber-dissidents in Asia have been imprisoned — 48 of whom arefrom China.
Isaac Mao, one of the early bloggers in China, revealed that the”Great Firewall of China” is an Internet backbone that aims tocontrol and filter people’s access to the Internet. It also blocksthousands of overseas Web sites to prevent people from accessingthem. One of the banned Web sites is Wikipedia, said to be thebiggest encyclopedia in human history.
“I think the system is very effective but very bad to knowledgesharing and to the civilization of people,” Mao said.
Mao said Internet companies are very eager to enter the Chinesemarket, but reason — as their excuse for curtailing the users’access to the Net — that they have to follow the laws andregulations imposed by the Beijing government.
“I think it is not an understandable excuse. Actually, they canprovide services without limiting people’s access to information,”he said.
Mao said Google, for instance, would deploy many servers inChina but take out many search indexes from their servers. Hedescribes such moves as contributing to the “brain-shrinking” ofChinese citizens.
Similarly, Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at Harvard LawSchool, believes that Internet companies are compromising users’well-being for financial reasons.
“I think they’re doing it for business reasons. They want tomake money and they feel they need to do this in order to be inthose markets,” she said.
MacKinnon believes Internet companies should be on the users’side. “Because the users are their customers and, if they areabusing the trust of the users, then they would ultimately havevery little business because nobody will trust them,” she noted.”So if users cannot trust these companies, they will definitelychoose not to use their services as soon as there are otheralternatives.”
To protect journalists against abuse, SEAPA offers training oneverything from basic to more advanced investigative journalismcourses, and teaches the importance of ethical standards andself-regulation.
Quezon said the types of protection taught basically take theform of recognizing the legal rights of individuals, both asjournalists and bloggers. Specific lessons are also taught toenhance the security of communications and expressions. “By these,it extends to everything from making sure people don’t read youre-mail, that they don’t use your computers or messages to land youin jail,” he said.
Aside from technological, personal, and lawful means, Alampaysaid the most effective way to protect journalists and their rightsis to report abuses against them.
“Basically, our mode of protection is to make a lot of noiseabout it,” he pointed out. “So every time we issue an alert, itgoes around the world. We make statements and so on, but not onlythat, we also work with lawyers and journalists’ groups ofdifferent countries.”
Alampay said SEAPA in the past has raised funds for the defenseof journalists in court and, once, the organization was able to geta journalist out of a dangerous situation.
He added that the call for free expression in cyberspace is verysignificant, describing the Internet as an important medium thatmust be kept accessible and free for everyone — even in countriesliving in closed societies or under a dictatorship.
The Internet, according to SEAPA members, stands today as theonly viable medium for offering independent news, information, andcommentary. It is seen as an alternative to state-controlled newsand information regimes.