Better to Light a Candle…

Amnesty International takes on the fight against Web-censorship.


Article created by The Century Foundation.

To commemorate their 45th anniversary, Amnesty International (AI) is launching a new program called Irrepressible.Info in a rigorous attempt to end Web-censorship. AI has teamed up with the UK-based paper, The Observer and the OpenNet Initiative, whose mission is to “investigate and challenge state filtration and surveillance practices.” AI’s online campaign asks Webmasters and individuals to use Internet censorship to defeat itself by either posting on their Web sites or in e-mails “badges” that contain censored information. Kate Allen, the UK director of Amnesty International described the badges in the Observer as “a fragment of Web content that somebody somewhere has tried to suppress.” Allen went on to say “The Internet is a huge, powerful tool. We see governments censoring access to the Internet or locking people up for having conversations about democracy and freedom.” AI believes that those who “badge” will in effect undermine the various censorship regimes by infinitely replicating the information of those who have been suppressed.

AI’s foray into to the fight against Web-censorship comes in conjunction with another anniversary: May marked 40 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China. To celebrate, Beijing trumped up charges of “disclosing state secrets” against Zhao Yan, a New York Times researcher; sentenced Internet blogger and online pollster Yang Tianshui to 12 years in prison; and Baidu, China’s largest Internet portal and NASDAQ listed company, launched a censored version of the famous online encyclopedia Wikipedia renamed Baidupedia.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution kicked off a ten year campaign in May of 1966 intent on “purifying” the communist party from “intellectual” and “bourgeois” influences. This ideological war was waged by the infamous Red Guards, mostly teenagers and young persons that tortured and murdered hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens. Forty years later, China’s leadership has learned little from the mistakes of Chairman Mao. Mao, who once said, “All erroneous ideas, all poisonous weeds, all ghosts and monsters, must be subjected to criticism,” echoes in the views of President Hu himself. Today, Beijing has sanctioned their Red Guards, the thousands of Internet censors, to find and delete the “poisonous” ideas from the Internet and arrest those who write them. Sadly, it is American corporations that provide the technology for the newly formed Red Guards’ mission—to Censor and Destroy.

AI’s realization that American corporations are complicit in providing these censorship regimes with the tools of control is an important component of any effective anti-censorship campaign. AI has stated, “IT companies have helped build the systems that enable surveillance and censorship to take place. Yahoo! has supplied email users’ private data to the Chinese authorities, helping to facilitate cases of wrongful imprisonment. Microsoft and Google have both complied with government demands to actively censor Chinese users of their services.”

AI’s campaign does not solely focus on China, but on the widening net of censorship on the Internet from Burma to Vietnam to Israel and to Saudi Arabia . This campaign targets not only the corporations that enable such censorship, but the governments that continually violate the fundamental freedom adopted in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration for Human rights—freedom of expression.

Amnesty International originated 45 years ago when Peter Beneson wrote an article for the Observer, a partner in this campaign, titled “The Forgotten Prisoners,” which appealed for amnesty for those who are “imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government.” Beneson’s call led to a 45-year history that has successfully campaigned for the rights of political prisoners and dissidents; it is as pertinent today as it was 45 years ago. Beneson ended that pivotal article by saying, “Governments are prepared to follow only where public opinion leads. Pressure of opinion brought about the emancipation of the slaves. It is now for man to insist upon the same freedom for his mind as he has won for his body.”

It is time for the global community to stand up and decry that the Internet—the most egalitarian tool of communication—will not be hijacked by corporate interests and government controls. When AI presents it findings to the United Nations this November, the UN must undoubtedly act to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and insist that the Internet must not and cannot be used as a tool to violate fundamental human rights.