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Internet Force For Freedom

During the Kosovo conflict in 1999, a sixteen-year old ethnic Albanian girl, nicknamed "Adona", began an e-mail correspondence with a junior at Berkeley High School, America. She wrote of Serbian forces holding her village to ransom, killing journalists and community leaders, raping women, and finally of her friends and family deserting the village. Meanwhile a dissenting radio station, B92, was being given Internet access by a Dutch ethical Internet Service Provider (ISP) called XS4ALL, over which the journalists were able to send their usual transmissions via a proxy in Holland. Seeing that their censorship methods were proving useless, and trying to appease foreign aggression, the government soon allowed B92 to resume it's transmissions over radio.

Toward the end of the war, Witness.org trained four Kosovars to document human-rights abuses on digital video, which were sent back to Witness.org via the Internet. These videos, along with the accounts of Adona and many others, are now being used as evidence in The Hague to put away Serbia's war leaders.

Because of the anarchistic, anonymous nature of the Internet, the Serbian authorities could do nothing to stop this flow of information between its citizens and the outside world, which meant that it could no longer censor all information. This not only gave the people of Kosovo who had some access to these Internet organisations hope and a sense of purpose during the conflict, but helped the international community better understand the circumstances in Kosovo during and after the conflict. Having the Internet was like having top secret agents all across Kosovo who would then report to the whole world, not just top intelligence organisations.

There are similar tales of people using the Internet to fight repression across the world, from the indigenous Zapatistas of Mexico, to journalists in China and Tibet. This revolution is being fuelled by a growing number of groups dedicated to bring the power of the Internet to people fighting for freedom. The most prominent perhaps is the Independent Media Centre, or Indymedia for short. They started up in 1999 in Seattle as a news service for protestors in the famous street battle, and have since spread across the world providing the technology and to some extent the funding to give people on the ground a voice without having to use the corrupt governmental and corporate media sources.

Meanwhile in Britain and other developed countries the story is completely different. The Internet is another shopping channel, a great way to keep in touch with friends, and a dangerous source of information for children. There have been countless calls for increased regulation of the Internet, and more control for the government so that they can censor web sites and other information sources and keep a tab on what we in Britain can look at. These suggestions have been fuelled by a fear of paedophiles using the Internet (and more specifically Internet chat rooms) to lure children into their homes.

These suggestions of censorship are utterly absurd, not least because of the technical reasons that make it almost impossible. For the government could impose extremely tough censorship laws on ISPs, blocking dangerous people from the Internet. But then with half a brain they could connect anyway. All you need is a computer and a phone line. And meanwhile this censorship would prevent the ordinary citizens in Britain from looking at a whole range of information that the government deem to be damaging. For example, last year the Home Office shut down a web site called www.new-labour.org, presumably because it was a satirical attack at New Labour's terrorism laws, which label any protestors as terrorists.

And the censorship the government could then wield would spread, as other governments follow our lead and learn to better censor the Internet. Soon across the world this valuable media outlet, the bastion of liberal freedom, would be shut down for the ordinary citizen and subversive ideas would once again be suppressed. We would be forced back into the corporate media's lap, without a real voice for the people.

This level of censorship is unfortunately now being discussed by a large range of nations, under the title of The Hague Convention. They want to give governments the power to completely censor ISPs and information servers in any way they wish, just as they can with the more traditional media. We, in the Western world, should have no need for this kind of censorship, and should see the massively damaging effects it will have on unstable and developing countries, to whom the Internet's freedom is a route to future political freedom. There must be a balance between interests.

The most absurd thing about the media's reaction the Internet, which is really giving the government direction for legislation, is that they aren't using their common sense. For example, we teach our children not to talk to strangers in the street, lest they are paedophiles. We also try to give our children a basic moral system, and teach them to discern between nonsense, such as racially motivated views, and good argument. So why can we not teach our children to be careful about talking to strangers on the Internet, and to be careful about what they read on the Internet? And is it too much to ask that parents also use a bit of common sense and monitor what their children look at, using prevention software like Net Nanny if necessary? A bit of common sense could easily quash the dangers of the Internet for people, if not for our governments.

We should also see the positive social side of the Internet, shaking off misconceptions of unfriendly, isolated hackers, and realising the true social nature of the hackers that built the Internet (I should note at this point that in its original meaning a hacker is somebody who likes to play with computers and programs. The villains the media talk about are actually known as Crackers). One can tell a group's character by their work, and the Internet is built around mutual co-operation, sharing and a strong sense of community. Instead of creating a network which they could profit from, hackers kept every detail of the network completely open and freely available, creating a set of standards that enabled it to grow and grow freely, both in the sense of cost and freedom.

Interestingly it is this freedom that has started to make companies who use the Internet quite uneasy, as they like to function in a very closed world keeping everything they do secret, and the idea of working in a truly open medium that doesn't lend itself to profit seems ludicrous. There have been heated debates on this subject on a favourite news discussion site called Slashdot.org, with business men posting news articles arguing that the Internet should be superseded by a network that follows profit margins rather than technical limits and dreams. Hackers have countered with arguments claiming that the various freedoms given by the Internet make it superior to any corporate-driven network, and that such an anarchistic collective can in fact be extremely productive.

The leading light of the hackers' dream, and the justification of their arguments, is the Free Software Foundation, founded by Richard Stallman in 1984. This is a group of hackers who have created an entire Operating System (OS, like Microsoft Windows or Apple's MacOS) called GNU/Linux, and hundreds of programs to go with it. The OS is free to download, and you are free to copy, modify and then redistribute any of the code to anybody. The FSF epitomise this sense of community and sharing, and are perhaps a leading light not only on the Internet, but also in a world where sharing and community seem to have lost out to profit and selfishness.

So rather than calling for increased censorship and more secure shopping Web Sites, maybe it is time we looked at the Internet as a force for freedom and social cohesion. We should not be lobbying our government to introduce laws like the Hague Convention, we should be lobbying them to introduce laws that ensure it's political and social freedom, and that encourage it's social values. Maybe then we will reap some real benefits from this much talked of but hugely misunderstood information resource.

This article is copyright (c) Tom Chance, 2001 and released under a license that allows you to copy, modify and redistribute the work so long as you attribute me and share under the same conditions. It appears under these terms on Remix Reading.