Last month, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced the creation of a new group to exert control over what has remained a rare bastion of freedom: the Internet.
The group's forum is the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). Its 40 members, all appointed by Annan, include Cuba, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and Tunisia. In other words, several of the world's most repressive regimes will decide on matters of freedom of expression. Pakistan, Russia and Egypt, whose governments heavily censor Internet activity, are group members as well. Their selection for WSIS comes as no surprise, given the UN's past appointments of Libya to head a human rights committee and Saddam's Iraq to sit in a disarmament group.
At a Geneva meeting in November, WSIS members outlined an ambitious task that includes "definition of the Internet and Internet governance" and identifying "the main [Internet] players and their functions" as well as "current Internet governance mechanisms."
Of course, controlling the free flow of information is a complicated task that requires considerable work and study. The members agreed to produce a preliminary report that will be presented to another preparatory committee in April 2005. Curiously, the meeting is to take place in Tunisia, where in April 2003 nine young Internet users were sentenced to up to 26 years in prison for downloading files deemed by Tunisian authorities to be "dangerous."
But international task forces often take time to move forward and, apparently, there are those too impatient to wait. Some WSIS member states decided to implement some of their own recommendations before they were debated or ratified by the task force. While the 40 UN members met in Geneva, Syria decided to set up its own conference to build a partnership for an "information society" for the Arab world.
One world organization, Reporters Without Borders, holds undemocratic states to higher standards than the UN. "Holding a [UN] summit in Tunisia about the free flow of online information is already absurd," stated a recent report of the media watch-group. "But holding a preparatory meeting in a country like Syria, where an Internet user is in prison for simply e-mailing a newsletter, is chilling. Does this mean the Internet policies of these regimes are acceptable choices for the rest of the world?"
A quick glance at the "freedom of information" procedures currently implemented by some WSIS member countries may provide a partial—and gloomy—answer…
In Iran, two women journalists, Mahboudeh Abbasgholizadeh and Fershteh Ghazi, were arrested in October in connection with their work for pro-reform websites.
Abbasgholizadeh, the editor of Ferzaneh, a magazine about women's issues, was arrested following her return from the European Social Forum, where she addressed the issue of women in Iran. Ghazi, for her part, was accused of "immoral behavior" following her public writing about the violation of women's rights in Iran.
Saudi Arabia has created one of the world's most extensive national Internet filtering systems. According to official Saudi announcements, the government blocks access to nearly 400,000 web pages with the aim of "protecting citizens from offensive content and protecting the principles of Islam and the social norms." The Saudi Internet Services Unit (ISU) maintains the Internet censorship system, even offering an online form and e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) for Internet users who would like to report sites they think should be blocked.
Syria, the host of WSIS's preparatory conferences, has only two Internet Service Providers (ISPs), both state-controlled. The Syrian Computer Society (SCS) intercepts e-mail in order to identify and monitor dissidents. For this reason, web-based e-mail services such as Hotmail are inaccessible in that country. Abdel Rahman Shagouri, a Syrian citizen, was arrested in February 2003 for mailing a newsletter, Levant News, from a banned website, www.thisissyria.net.
Massoud Hamid, 29, a journalism student and a member of Syria's Kurdish minority, was arrested in July 2003, accused of posting photographs of a peaceful Kurdish demonstration in Damascus on a Kurdish website. Shagouri and Hamid remain in solitary confinement, where Shagouri is reportedly tortured on a daily basis.
The list of cyber dissidents continues to grow at an alarming rate. The Internet, one of the few vehicles of free expression in the non-democratic world, is crucial to the work of freedom activists—and problematic to the regimes that seek to control the flow of information.
If only the UN would exert its power to secure freedom of expression, rather than bolstering the regulation of it. Hopefully, European and American representatives at WSIS will speak out—or else assaults on Internet freedom will go unpunished.
Nir Boms is Vice President of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.