“IT WAS as simple and uncomplicated as shooting demonstrators in the streets. Embarrassed by smuggled video and photographs that showed their people rising up against them, the generals simply switched off the Internet”
Pakistan today, right? Wrong. It’s Burma. That’s how the junta blacked out coverage of the “Saffron Revolution’s” suppression, Seth Mydans of New York Times reported. Government owned one of the country’s two Internet providers. The other belonged to the intelligence chief’s son.
No such problem bugged Marcos. In September 1972, Internet was a gleam in the eyes of it’s inventors: Oxford physicist Tim Berners Lee, Venton Cerf and computer engineer Roy Tomlinson.. Marcos padlocked media, jailed journalists then squeezed the “mosquito press.” “Philippine Journalism Review”, for example, carried an insightful survey of mimeo papers, published mainly by Catholic groups, challenging the dictatorship.
Even with martial law, Musharraf is finding Internet harder to leash than Shwe’s paranoid junta. His country is far larger. Agence France Presse reports that gagged Pakistan’s cable TV stations, run Internet clips. News-starved audiences tripled even as ratings for government media sagged.
Here again is the old lesson that dictators never grasped: The credibility of state mouthpieces sooner, rather than later, hit rock bottom.
Musharraf’s broadcasters or the “New Light of Myanmar” command as much credence as did Marcos “Daily Express”. The only thing you believed was the obituary page. “Their credibility is so low that …even President Marcos admits the press has become too syncophantic and obsequious.” New York Times Sidney Schanberg wrote.
In China, Burma, and now Pakistan, the question is: can Internet buck repression? “Technology is making it harder for dictators to draw a curtain of secrecy”, Mydans wrote.“It is not clear how much longer the generals can hold back the future.”
Or is talk of the Web’s potential to shred dictatorship merely wish fathering thought? Well-wired countries, like the United Arab Emirates and China, cash in on cyberspace benefits but block free flow of information, notes the Atlantic Monthly. “Censorship techniques in these places have become supple over time”.
State-sponsored clamps on the Net, in fact, have spiraled, a study of websites across 120 internet service providers in 41 countries found.. Content filtering was documented in 25 of the countries surveyed. In 2002, such “state-mandated net filtering” occurred in “a couple” of states.
Researchers for “OpenNet Initiative” were drawn from Universities of Toronto, Harvard Law School, Oxford and Cambridge. The study picked countries for the analysis with this main criteria: Where there was “the most to learn about government online surveillance”.
Among countries which filter most are: Burma, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, the study said. Websites and services, such as Skype and Google Maps, were blocked.
“Net filtering almost always happens in the shadows,” John Palfrey, Harvard Law School told BBC. “There has also been an increase in the scale, scope and sophistication of internet filtering.”
Three objectives underpin filtering, the ONI report states: politics and power, security concerns, such as terrorist groups and social norms, like pornography or hate speech: “But once filtering starts, it is applied to a broad range of content. (It) can be used for expanding government control of cyberspace”, often against its citizens.
“China proved that the mass of casual surfers can be effectively blinkered by a committed regime,” censoring even key words like “democracy” and “Falun Gong” Matthew Quirk writes in: “The Web Police.” “Even text messages are now perused.”
Aside from police tactics, pocketbook clout compels private Internet companies to self-censor, notes Xiao Qiang, who directs the China Internet Project at University of California, Berkeley” “And there’s the Great Firewall, which blocks hundreds of thousands of web sites outside of China.” Control of the Internet has become an industry in itself.
“But China is hardly alone”….Liberal democracies also filter the web. “Google first censored its search engine on a state’s behalf, not in January to assist China, but four years ago.” (This) complied with hate-speech codes in Germany, France, and Switzerland.
Worldwide, the main target of government filters is not political speech but pornography, as in Singapore. In Muslim states, sites featuring women’s lingerie, alcohol, other religions, and criticism of Islam are blocked.
There’s irony in Supreme Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary order of March 2006 to block internet sites displaying Muhammad cartoons. Those gagged sites prevented full Net coverage of his ouster by Musharraf. Now, Pakistan blocks even bloggers. Free spirited bloggers, like Manuel Quezon III or former PCCG commissioner Ruben Carranza, would wither there.
But savvy users can drill holes through the internet firewall, to keep ahead of censors. In Cuba, a black market in Internet access has sprung up. Information about China seeps out despite the massive censorship.
In “unplugged nations” like Myanmar and Pakistan, we see the latest of the long story of how news stories get through : from Cleopatra’s messenger, to Reuter’s carrier pigeons, the US pony express to ships, telegraph, telephone, telex and today’s computers. And censors invariably lost those races.