Today's date:
Winter 2002


Human Rights and Cyberspace

William F. Schulz is executive director of Amnesty International USA.

Washington - Pope John Paul II recently announced that a Web site has been established in the name of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, which accepts petitions for heavenly help and offers real-time Mass. It is now at least theoretically possible to be the recipient of a miracle over the Internet.

With cyberspace being used for everything from solicitation of children by pedophiles to the auctioning of used socks, it is hardly surprising that human rights activists have seized upon the medium as a major tool in counteracting repression. Indeed, no development in the struggle for human rights over the past five years has been more revolutionary than the explosion of Internet power. It is virtually impossible today for a violation of human rights to take place, even in the most remote corners of the globe, without the rest of the world knowing about it within hours, if not sooner.

But the Internet is not just being used to exchange information. It is also at the heart of efforts to organize change. The overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, for example, was orchestrated in part by the youth organization, Otpor, which used electronic communication to flash the message "Gotov je"-"He's finished"-to allies around the country even before the dictator had fallen, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cyberspace organizing played a role as well in the capitulations of President Suharto of Indonesia in 1998 and President Joseph Estrada in the Philippines in 2001. In the latter case, Filipinos used text messaging through their mobile phones to summon more than 100,000 people to demonstrate against the incumbent.

Where street demonstrations remain tightly restricted, as in South Korea, the Internet can provide a virtual substitute. Park Byung Ok has organized "Internet rallies" which link more than 500 civic groups demanding an end to government corruption. By publishing details of politicians' shady dealings and attracting 50,000 hits a day from the more than a quarter of the population that uses the Internet, Park's cyberspace organization, Citizens' Solidarity, has shamed normally cautious newspapers and television stations into action and forced a revision in the electoral code. And in Muslim countries like Egypt women are using Islam Online and other web sites to challenge orthodox interpretations of the Koran regarding women's roles.

Such connectivity is particularly useful for global organizations like Amnesty International (AI) which has been e-mailing action alerts about victims of torture or abuse to its members on a daily basis since 1987. Those members in turn contact the governments at issue, which have been known to complain that their fax and e-mail systems become overloaded with messages of protest. A new AI Internet network called FAST (Fast Action Stops Torture), launched in late 2000, has attracted close to 30,000 members who have managed to help set free about 60 percent of those whose cases have been highlighted.

The availability of Internet communications can obviously level the playing field, at least a bit, between governments and their political opponents. Some observers have gone so far as to predict that the growth of the Internet will carry democracy along with it in countries like China. President Bill Clinton famously observed that the Chinese government's attempts to control e-content was "like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall" and in 1997 predicted that "the availability of information from the outside world," along with economic change, would "increase the spirit of liberty [in China] over time. I don't there is any way [to] hold back that, just as inevitably the Berlin wall fell. I just think it's inevitable." Newsweek concurred, calling China's attempts in 2000 to clamp down on cyberspace "futile." "The revolution has barely begun," the newsmagazine trumpeted.

Other commentators, though, have been far more pessimistic. "The United States should not harbor hopes for Internet-led democratization in China," Nina Hachigian, a former member of President Clinton's National Security Council, wrote in the March/April, 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs. The Economist had gone even further a few months earlier, debunking the very notion that the Internet could contribute to peace-making or reduce inequality at all. All the magazine would admit was that "This open network, so hard for governments to control, may indeed help give more power to individual citizens...," an assertion that, despite its tentativeness, would hardly seem worth debating.

Where does the truth lie when it comes to the role that electronic communications will play in the spreading of democracy and human rights? Certainly repressive governments the world over fear the power of cyberspace and some have gone to great lengths to try to control it. In Burma (Myanmar), for example, it is a crime to own a computer modem, send e-mail or enter the Internet, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. In Uzbekistan, the US's ostensible new ally in the war against terrorism, all traffic is controlled because all service providers are required to use a government server. Having blocked Amnesty International's Web page in Tunisia following a critical report on that country, the Tunisian government even went so far as to design its own Web page disguised as an Amnesty site upon which it touted its "clean" human rights record. In all, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) has listed 17 other nations (Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam) that try to bar the Internet from their borders and another 45 that "severely restrict" it.

Because it is the largest of the countries that RSF calls "enemies of the Internet" and, with 23 million Internet users (estimated to rise to 120 million by 2004), has the biggest challenge controlling access, the case of China is particularly instructive. Depending on the measure, the Internet came to China either in 1987 when researchers at the China Academic Network sent to a German university the first Chinese e-mail or in 1993 when the Institute for High Energy Physics established China's first direct link. In any case the Chinese government has been engaged in a delicate pirouette when it comes to new communication technologies ever since. Beijing is well aware that China's economic future depends upon how well wired it is to the rest of the world. That is why it has, for example, forced its major telecom provider to reduce access charges. On the other hand the government is only too conscious of how useful a tool such technology can be in the hands of those who would seek social and political change.

To counteract that possibility, China has sought, with diminishing success, to block "unsuitable" foreign Web sites, such as that Amnesty International created to inform the Chinese people of what is happening to political and religious dissidents in their country. Many users can get around such blocks, however, through the use of proxy servers that detour around them. More effective from the government's point of view has been intimidation of Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Web developers and chat room hosts. Content that reveals "state secrets," "disturbs social order," spreads rumors, promotes evil cults or slanders the "honor" of China-all vague and malleable categories-is outlawed. ISPs must track their subscribers' site visits and, if deemed inappropriate, stop the transmission and report the transgression to authorities. And many chat rooms employ enforcers, popularly dubbed "big mamas," to monitor the content their customers access.

When self-censorship has failed, the government has not hesitated to use force. The ?rst person convicted of an Internet crime in China was probably Lin Hai, arrested in 1998 for providing 30,000 e-mail addresses to VIP Reference, a US-based publisher of an electronic pro-democracy newsletter distributed by e-mail to more than a quarter million people in China. After a 30 minute trial Lin was sentenced to two years in prison but, thanks to international pressure generated in large part through the use of cyberspace, was released six months early.

Taking a cue from Lin's experience, four Chinese dissidents launched The New Culture Forum, the first pro-democracy web site in China, on April 29, 2000, but registered it under the false name of "Xin Wenming." To protect themselves, the web team maintained the site by working in a wide variety of Internet cafes spread throughout China's major cities. In just a few months over 2,000 hits had been counted. But the arrest of Huang Qi, publisher of the electronic magazine Tianwing, in June, 2000, for posting a list of those still missing following the Tiananmen Square massacre, signaled a new and more aggressive approach by state security forces. As a result, one of the founders of The New Culture Forum ?ed China and in August the site was shut down for posting "reactionary content." The government's Computer Inspection Office blocked Internet access for all users registered with the Forum's host, Million Internet Company, and threatened to eliminate the company entirely if "Xin Wenming" was not turned in. When the company complied, it discovered, however, that "Xin's" contact number on the registration form was a public phone and his ID a fake, thereby allowing the Forum's founders to escape detection. But though it was stymied in this case, the government has remained vigilant and just last December another pro-democracy activist, Wang Jinbo, was sentenced to a four-year prison term for posting articles on overseas Internet sites demanding a reassessment of Tiananmen.

And yet, despite all this repression, Web users keep defying the Chinese government's ban. Perhaps the most determined are Falun Gong practitioners in China who, though subjected to treatment of the most brutal sort, continue to reach out to Falun Gong sites overseas. But whether they and others will in the long run be successful in employing new technologies to advance their human rights, in China and elsewhere, will depend upon several factors largely beyond the users' control.

One such factor is the extent to which large Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Microsoft, America On-Line and AT&T recognize that, inasmuch as restrictions on the Web constitute constrictions on their potential customer base, it is in their ?nancial interest to utilize what leverage they can muster with foreign governments to ease up on access. Few of them have yet taken up that challenge, afraid as they are to alienate powerful governments like China's, but, as the promise of connectivity grows in the developing world, more companies may be motivated to advocate openness as a means to optimize profits. After all, most Web users are young (in China, 85 percent are between the ages of 18 and 35) and the young are often, as witness Iran, the spearheads of greater democratization. At some point the ISPs may find a sympathetic approach to human rights simply a demand made of them by their markets.

In the meantime the broader distribution of encryption devices offers a way to protect activists from potentially deadly exposure. Developments in this area are mixed, however. In 1999 Germany abolished the need for an export license for the transfer of encryption products to developing countries. But, particularly in the aftermath of September 11, restrictions on such exports from the US that had previously been motivated by concerns about pornography and organized crime have multiplied. Indeed, the threat of terrorism has encouraged the wider use of such Internet surveillance systems as the special monitoring computer called Carnivore that can be placed on network servers and capture all e-mail or Web-based transactions of its target. Such devices in the hands of an authoritarian government would make Internet activism almost impossible.

But then in good measure the most effective uses of cyberspace on behalf of the victims of human rights violations may depend less upon the degree of access inside repressive countries than it does upon the uses to which the Internet is put among sympathizers outside. The Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, for example, managed to generate worldwide sympathy for their cause not by using the Web to organize the Indian community-a community that epitomizes the so-called "digital divide"-but by convincing their supporters around the world to fill sites with messages from Subcommandante Marcos, calls for demonstrations at Mexican embassies and pleas for money. Large human rights organizations in the US and Europe can keep on their own databases encrypted membership information for their smaller indigenous counterparts overseas, secured by Web-based arrangements-data which, in the wrong hands, could mean torture or death to those listed. And, while repressive governments go about disrupting the e-mail conversations or Web sites of dissident groups, it is also true that skilled hackers can wreak havoc with those governments' own communications from thousands of miles away.

Ultimately, of course, the extent to which any new tool can be utilized to promote political change depends upon the imagination and fortitude of those who desire that change. "The old aristocrats in 1930s Germany... thought they could control Hitler because they owned the newspapers," writes David Brin in The Good and the Bad: Outlines of Tomorrow. "He went around the press reaching vastly greater numbers with the new, hypnotizing power of radio and loudspeakers...The Ayatollah Khomeini bypassed the Shah's monopoly on radio and television by smuggling into Iran one single cassette tape per week. Within days, that cassette had been duplicated a thousand times, to be circulated and played aloud in every mosque." The moral of Brin's tale seems to be that new technologies can almost always be used to trump old. But then he continues his litany of examples with this observation: "Fax machines came close to serving the same insurrectionary functions in China during the Tiananmen uprising which nearly toppled the old communist aristocracy..." And yet, though they may have "come close," they didn't succeed because the democracy movement wasn't well enough organized and Western governments pulled their own punches.

The new technologies have placed a powerful new tool in the hands of the international human rights movement. But that technology is only as good as its users are visionary. The Internet can create millions of followers but only if those who love freedom are willing to lead.