A group of Asian journalists assailed Internet companies Yahoo and Google for siding with governments that curtail freedom of expression and information in cyberspace.
Members of the South East Press Alliance (SEAPA) revealed that Yahoo, Google, and even software manufacturer Microsoft have agreed to compromises regarding people’s access to information in exchange for the opportunity to do business in 15 Asian countries, one of which is China — the biggest market in the world with a population of over 1.3 billion.
In a conference entitled “Free Expression in Asian Cyberspace: A Conference of Asian Bloggers, Podcasters, and Online Media,” SEAPA members highlighted the threats and actual attacks against free expression in the Internet, particularly in countries such as Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Iran, Libya, Nepal, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Maldives, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
The event, the first conference of online news and commentary providers in Asia, was held last April 18 to 21 at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) in Makati City.
Filipino journalist Manuel L. Quezon III, who participated in the event, said SEAPA online journalists and bloggers consider themselves already in danger, thus the need to organize conferences to exchange information and even tactics. Manila was chosen as the site of the first conference as it has a more liberal government regime.
SEAPA executive director Roby Alampay, who is also a Filipino, said the countries and societies that really enjoy a high level of freedom are actually in the minority. He said the Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia are very fortunate to enjoy a very high level of access and freedom when it comes to the Internet.
Alampay explained that Internet companies have different ways of curtailing freedom of expression, either through technology or otherwise, such as through the “application of laws, defamation laws, censorship, filtering searches, and blocking of IP addresses and monitoring of activities on the Internet.”
Jeff Ooi, of the Paris-based press freedom body Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF, also known by its English name Reporters without Borders), reported in the conference that Cisco, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Google have given in to pressure from the Chinese government to limit its citizens’ access to information via the Internet.
For instance, he said, Yahoo releases user identities to Chinese authorities; Google blocks specific cache pages; Microsoft shuts down MSN Space; and Internet routers are installed to filter content.
As a result of Internet companies giving away user information to governments, many journalists, media assistants, and activists are killed, harassed, or imprisoned, RSF claims.
According to the RSF’s Press Freedom Barometer 2006, 56 cyber-dissidents in Asia have been imprisoned — 48 of whom are from China.
Isaac Mao, one of the early bloggers in China, revealed that the “Great Firewall of China” is an Internet backbone that aims to control and filter people’s access to the Internet. It also blocks thousands of overseas Web sites to prevent people from accessing them. One of the banned Web sites is Wikipedia, said to be the biggest encyclopedia in human history.
“I think the system is very effective but very bad to knowledge sharing and to the civilization of people,” Mao said.
Mao said Internet companies are very eager to enter the Chinese market, but reason — as their excuse for curtailing the users’ access to the Net — that they have to follow the laws and regulations imposed by the Beijing government.
“I think it is not an understandable excuse. Actually, they can provide services without limiting people’s access to information,” he said.
Mao said Google, for instance, would deploy many servers in China but take out many search indexes from their servers. He describes such moves as contributing to the “brain-shrinking” of Chinese citizens.
Similarly, Rebecca MacKinnon, a research fellow at Harvard Law School, believes that Internet companies are compromising users’ well-being for financial reasons.
“I think they’re doing it for business reasons. They want to make money and they feel they need to do this in order to be in those markets,” she said.
MacKinnon believes Internet companies should be on the users’ side. “Because the users are their customers and, if they are abusing the trust of the users, then they would ultimately have very little business because nobody will trust them,” she noted. “So if users cannot trust these companies, they will definitely choose not to use their services as soon as there are other alternatives.”
To protect journalists against abuse, SEAPA offers training on everything from basic to more advanced investigative journalism courses, and teaches the importance of ethical standards and self-regulation.
Quezon said the types of protection taught basically take the form of recognizing the legal rights of individuals, both as journalists and bloggers. Specific lessons are also taught to enhance the security of communications and expressions. “By these, it extends to everything from making sure people don’t read your e-mail, that they don’t use your computers or messages to land you in jail,” he said.
Aside from technological, personal, and lawful means, Alampay said the most effective way to protect journalists and their rights is to report abuses against them.
“Basically, our mode of protection is to make a lot of noise about it,” he pointed out. “So every time we issue an alert, it goes around the world. We make statements and so on, but not only that, we also work with lawyers and journalists’ groups of different countries.”
Alampay said SEAPA in the past has raised funds for the defense of journalists in court and, once, the organization was able to get a journalist out of a dangerous situation.
He added that the call for free expression in cyberspace is very significant, describing the Internet as an important medium that must be kept accessible and free for everyone — even in countries living in closed societies or under a dictatorship.
The Internet, according to SEAPA members, stands today as the only viable medium for offering independent news, information, and commentary. It is seen as an alternative to state-controlled news and information regimes.