The Internet - weapon of mass attraction

Article published on July 13, 2004
community published
Article published on July 13, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Three ideas for how new technologies can be used in the fight for freedom across the world.

During the last World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) the UN General Secretary Kofi Annan termed freedom of opinion and expression ‘the cornerstone of the information society’. The sonorous declarations of principles must, however, be followed up with concrete proposals and action.

Following Soros’s example

Contributing to the further spread of the internet is the first task that the richer states should take on (and also could take on). George Soros’s work in Russia can be taken as an example. Since founding a Russian branch of the Open Society Institute in 1998, the billionaire and philanthropist has supported the growth of so-called ‘civil society’ and has invested more than one billion dollars in education, research and, above all, the development of the internet.

For example, a project whereby dozens of Russian universities, research centres and libraries were connected electronically has already been finalised, which appears to be an attempt to create a climate of freedom, competition and research activity similar to that which prevailed in the early days of the internet in the USA. Similar experiments, also led by the OSI, have been carried out in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan. And when we consider that ‘only’ 10 million dollars was initially allocated to the internet project, we realise what the aforementioned states could achieve with just minimal budgetary resources.

Another potential plan would be to make the internet indispensable for all dictatorial regimes wanting to share in the economic advantages of globalisation. If electronic networks are developed in democratic countries for trade purposes, it will surely be difficult – and grave from an economic point of view – for important trade partners such as China, to reject these developments. This is the only way we could exploit politically the economic openings in such countries.

The Global Internet Freedom Act

But that’s not enough. The best idea comes from the US Congress, to whom Cox and Lantos presented a draft bill, which we Europeans can also draw inspiration from. The two Congressmen are working on the assumption that ‘we need more than military force to win the war on terror’ and are convinced that new technologies could turn out to be strategic weapons in getting rid of dictatorships. The bill, christened ‘Global Internet Freedom Act’, refers to ‘the governments of Burma, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Vietnam’ – among others – who ‘want to deny their citizens free access to the internet’.

But the two delegates go further than that. In their view, a ‘solid policy of internet freedom’ should be pursued immediately, putting the most authoritarian regimes under political and diplomatic pressure, even with the help of UN measures. And that’s not all. Cox and Lantos maintain that an office should be created within the International Broadcasting Bureau, with the express function of accelerating ‘the development and application of technologies guaranteeing worldwide internet freedom’. This aim cannot be achieved merely with the state funds that have already been invested in international data transmission, but will require bringing in ‘the private sector involved in developing and implementing such technologies, so that many of the technologies being used now in trade circles to safeguard financial transactions are used to further freedom and democracy’.

Big Brother is watching you?

Setting out on the road of non-violent struggle to destabilise authoritarian governments is a precarious undertaking, but a farsighted one as far as promoting democracy is concerned.

The USA, Europe and all other states wishing to take part, would have to support the independence of the media under such regimes. The proposal put to Congress by Cox and Lantos is pointing in the right direction. Adapting it to the reality of transnational politics and presenting it to international organisations for inspection - such as the UN, the EU and the future World Democracy Organisation suggested by the Radical Transnational Party - might help to finally avert the ‘1984’ danger that constantly looms over countries ruled by authoritarian regimes. A danger which nips all possibility of developing more freedom in society and politics in the bud.

As far as the practicability of the project is concerned, those behind the bill are optimistic. For American Senator Wyden, ‘there are technologies that can be wiped by the firewalls and filters dictatorial regimes have in place. Applications such as proxy servers, intermediary servers, so-called “Mirrors” and encryptions may all be useful here.’ But the American government has done little so far to encourage finding a technological solution to the problem.

’This country invests a considerable amount in preventing the radio programme „Voice of America“ from being cut abroad. Up to now, however, only one million dollars have been made available for creating technologies against censorship and screening on the net.’ The principle of free circulation of ideas, that in the past has always been positive for everybody, remains a principle that must be emphatically upheld and advanced. The international community will have to monitor, curb and tackle certain states’ drive to stifle freedom, in order to protect and nurture that ‘libertarian spirit’ seen by Manuel Castells as a basic prerequisite to the rise of the internet. If we want to protect the libertarian chromosomes in the internet’s genetic makeup and prevent monstrous mutations, then we also have to protect the possibilities the net offers in terms of assuring freedom and democracy for all.