In the cause of freedom

Forty-five years after Amnesty International was founded in London’s Observer, the two come together again to launch a campaign for internet freedom: This campaign is not just about getting governments to behave civilly, it is also about getting companies to act responsibly.

The Observer and Amnesty target technology companies. But I would add media companies, who depend on freedom of speech and have an ethical, a moral responsibility to stand up for that freedom for others. I find it disturbing that tehy have not stood up. At the We Media conference in London, sadly, we heard mostly the company line: that you have to abide by the laws of the country where you choose to do business. I fear we will look back at China and other repressive nations in a generation and see the lost opportunity to free people; I fear the internet will have its S.S. St. Louis. We should stand for nothing less than freedom for all people and we should fight to make the internet an instrument of that freedom.

Says the Observer editorial:

States that cannot tolerate dissenting voices have previously found it relatively easy to stifle them. Presses can be confiscated and radio signals jammed. But the decentralised nature of the internet – the way it routes information around the world with no regard for national borders – makes it difficult to censor. That has not stopped authoritarian regimes from trying. Citizens of countries such as China, Iran, Vietnam and Syria have been targeted – sometimes jailed – for posting opinions online….

Amnesty has a long and proud tradition of defending those who are silenced by the unjust exercise of state power. But one thing that makes this new campaign different is that it calls also on the private companies that provide the bulk of internet services to take some responsibility for what happens to dissidents. Digital giants such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft stand accused of working in complicity with authoritarian regimes, customising their content at the behest of state censors.

In their defence, they say they are simply doing what all businesses do by obeying the laws of the land in which they operate. That is disingenuous. These companies have come from nowhere in a very short time to dominate a global medium. They do not own the internet and yet, de facto, they run it. They must accept that they have obligations to the wider online community as well as to shareholders and the bottom line….

There is a new interconnectedness to global issues that demands co-ordinated global action.

Amnesty UK Director Kate Allen writes, referring to the founding of AI:

Much has changed in those 45 years. The Iron Curtain has been torn down and apartheid has ended; we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And the world has moved on technologically: in 1961 people were expressing their opinions in books and newsprint; Amnesty members responded to their repression by writing letters. Now we have the internet; and Amnesty is able to mobilise its supporters online to lobby governments with emails and web-based campaigning.

Sadly what remains the same is that people are still being imprisoned for peacefully expressing their beliefs. Benenson started Amnesty after reading about two students arrested in a Portuguese cafe for raising a toast to freedom: 45 years on, we were recently made aware of three young Vietnamese people arrested after taking part in an online chatroom debate about democracy….

Another massive change since 1961 has been the rising power of multinationals, but some companies have been complicit in these abuses. So Amnesty is increasingly lobbying not just governments but powerful firms to respect the rights of ordinary people.

The internet is big business, but in the search for profits some companies have encroached on their own principles and those on which the internet was founded: free access to information. The results of searches using China-based search engines run by Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and local firms are censored, limiting the information users can access. Microsoft pulled down the work of one of China’s most popular bloggers who had made politically sensitive comments. Yahoo gave information to the authorities that led to people being jailed for sending emails with political content. We do not accept these firms’ arguments that it is better to have a censored Google, Yahoo or Microsoft in China than none at all.

So Amnesty International is again calling on Observer readers to join with us to take a stand for basic human freedoms….

The first case Amnesty is focusing on is that of Shi Tao, the Chinese journalist serving a 10-year sentence for “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities” — that is, Allen says, “emailing a US pro-democracy site about warnings from the Beijing authorities to news outlets against covering demonstrations to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests.” At his trial, “account-holder information provided by Yahoo’s Chinese partner company was used as evidence to convict him.”

Amnesty asks that we go to and sign this pledge:

I believe the internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the internet, and on companies to stop helping them do it.

I was one of the first thousand to sign.