HRW 2007 Report’s essay on Internet & Web Censorship – Lessons for Lanka?

Wr2K7 Cover

The Human Rights Watch 2007 report has an interesting essay on internet censorship:

The “war on terror” did not cause, but did exacerbate, the trend towards restriction of the internet and the proliferation of surveillance through modern technology. Governments that once invoked child pornographers as a good reason to censor internet publications shifted emphasis to terrorism as a rationale. Corporations became willing assistants in the fencing and filtering of access, even while justifying their cooperation with repressive governments in terms of expanding public access to information (and of course, their own access to markets). Surveillance and data collection grew exponentially, not only because developments in modern technology made such practices more economically feasible, but also because security fears made them more politically palatable.

The essay goes on to detail middle eastern and the chinese regimes in particular as the worst offenders of internet freedom.

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However, as the diagram above, from RSF shows, they are not the only offenders. While the Sri Lankan government, for instance, is not (as yet, or to the best of my knowledge) directly censoring content on the web and internet, the blanket anti-terrorism and emergency regulations give them the necessary means through which to curtail online free speech. In other words, in countries like Sri Lanka, while censorship of online content may not be overt, existing legislation and other regulations may in effect have severely detrimental effects on media freedom in general, and its corollary, freedom of expression on the web. Censorship of print and electronic media have, in other words, a direct effect on web and internet free speech – and it is the contest between local censorship and the global diffusion of voices & nodes of dissent that the web & internet offers that will be an increasing battle-ground for free speech advocates and those who are opposed to it.

RSF & the OSCE came out with a joint declaration that is particularly instructive in this regard:

  1. Any law about the flow of information online must be anchored in the right to freedom of expression as defined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  2. In a democratic and open society it is up to the citizens to decide what they wish to access and view on the Internet. Filtering or rating of online content by governments is unacceptable. Filters should only be installed by Internet users themselves. Any policy of filtering, be it at a national or local level, conflicts with the principle of free flow of information.
  3. Any requirement to register websites with governmental authorities is not acceptable. Unlike licensing scarce resources such as broadcasting frequencies, an abundant infrastructure like the Internet does not justify official assignment of licenses. On the contrary, mandatory registration of online publications might stifle the free exchange of ideas, opinions, and information on the Internet.
  4. A technical service provider must not be held responsible for the mere conduit or hosting of content unless the hosting provider refuses to obey a court ruling. A decision on whether a website is legal or illegal can only be taken by a judge, not by a service provider. Such proceedings should guarantee transparency, accountability and the right to appeal.
  5. All Internet content should be subject to the legislation of the country of its origin (“upload rule”) and not to the legislation of the country where it is downloaded.
  6. The Internet combines various types of media, and new publishing tools such as blogging are developing. Internet writers and online journalists should be legally protected under the basic principle of the right to freedom of expression and the complementary rights of privacy and protection of sources.

In Sri Lanka, where media freedom is generally going (rapidly) downhill, it is a when of if, not when, the pall of censorship, threats and intimidation extends to not just those who air opinions unfashionable with the current political dispensation in print and electronic media, but also in online media. As the example of Nepal suggests, it may be impossible to shut down the blogosphere in Sri Lanka completely, and indeed, blogs and online media may be the last bastion of the freedom of expression.

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