Worldwide: Amnesty warns that Internet ‘could change beyond all recognition’ unless ‘virus of Internet repression’ is tackled

Amnesty International today (6 June) warned that the Internet ‘could change beyond all recognition’ unless action is taken to stop the ‘Virus of Internet repression’ eroding freedom of expression online.

The warning comes ahead of a globally webcast event at Amnesty’s UK HQ from 6:30 tonight, ‘Some People Think the Internet is a Bad Thing: The Struggle for Freedom of Expression in Cyberspace’ sponsored by The Observer. Featuring Internet entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and victims of Internet repression from around the world, thousands are expected to watch the event online at www.amnesty.org.uk/webcast

Amnesty International UK Campaigns Director Tim Hancock said:

“The virus of Internet repression is spreading. The ‘Chinese model’ – of an Internet that allows economic growth but not free speech or privacy – is growing in popularity, from a handful of countries five years ago to dozens of governments today who block sites and arrest bloggers.

“Unless we act on this issue, the Internet could change beyond all recognition in the years to come. More and more governments are realising the utility of controlling what people see online. And major Internet companies, in an attempt to expand their markets, are colluding in these attempts.

“At the moment we turn on our computer and assume we can see all that there is online. The fear is that we will only be able to access what someone wants us to see.”

The human rights organisation highlighted increasing reports of ‘Internet filtering’ around the world, where governments block access to specific sites or sites featuring particular words or themes. The latest Open Net Initiative (ONI) Report on Internet filtering shows that at least 25 countries now apply state-mandated net filtering including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burma, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand and Tunisia.

Amnesty research has also found that companies like Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have been complict in suppressing freedom of speech in China by censoring web content, releasing personal data leading to arrest and providing filtering hardware.

But filtering is only one aspect of Internet repression – politically motivated closure of websites and Internet cafes, as well as threats or imprisonment, are reported far more widely, said Amnesty. Abdul Kareem Nabeel Suleiman, a 22-year-old Egyptian blogger, was sentenced to four years imprisonment in February this year for ‘contempt of religion’ and ‘defaming the President of Egypt’. His imprisonment sends a clear message to Egypt’s burgeoning blogging community.

The event examines the future of Internet freedom, including governments’ attempts to repress freedom of expression and information online - with the help of global IT companies - and how web users are harnessing the power of the Internet to resist them. It also includes contributions from jailed US blogger Josh Wolf and Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software movement.

‘Some People Think the Internet is a Bad Thing’ marks the first anniversary of irrepressible.info, an Amnesty International campaign to combat the repression of Internet users around the world, launched in The Observer in May 2006. Amnesty is relaunching the new http://irrepressible.info website, featuring a news aggregator that will turn the site into an information hub for anyone interested in the future of Internet freedom.

The irrepressible.info campaign seeks to harness the power of the Internet, mobilising web users to take action against governments who are censoring and blocking sites or imprisoning web users.

Tim Hancock added:

“Web users have been both victims of human rights abuse and successful campaigners against it.

“The Internet is the new front in the battle between those who want to speak out, and those who want to stop them.”

Amnesty is calling for governments and companies alike to respect people’s right to freedom of expression online. However the organisation recognises that there are some limits to free speech, such as stopping sites promoting racial hatred, violence or child pornography.

Sami Ben Gharbia, Tunisian blogger and cyber activist said:

"The Internet is a bad thing for two groups: for governments who are realising that they are losing control of information and are trying to restrict the use of the Internet; and for the victims of those governments, individuals who are imprisoned for simply using the Internet to post and share information."

Sami Ben Gharbia, lives in The Netherlands as a political refugee. His blog ‘fikra' (which means ‘idea’ in Arabic) has been censored in Tunisia since 2003. Sami now works for Global Voices as Advocacy Director.

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