Watching Them, Watching You

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Governments all over the world are trying to censor internet dissent.

The issue of censorship and the internet has once again reared its ugly head in the last month. Firstly the French authorities came under fire when, as the first days of rioting spread in Paris, they forced Skyblog, a French web hosting company, to close down three blogs that they alleged had posted messages inciting people to join the riots. Three young French men face prison for running these sites.

Unsurprisingly though, there was no internet censorship for French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. The Guardian reported that he took out internet ads on the French Google site so that people who searched for words such as 'riot' or 'burned cars' were offered links to a site to sign a petition in support of Sarkozy.

All this happened at about the same time as delegates gathered in Tunisia for part two of the World Summit on the Information Society. Much has been written about how the US managed to retain its control over the medium at the summit. But less has been written about the criticism the United Nations received for holding the conference in a country with a poor record of human rights and a reputation for censoring the internet. Several NGO representatives were involved in a 'violent scuffle' with 70 policemen after trying to meet to discuss alternate plans for their 'citizen summit' when their existing venue had mysteriously cancelled their booking at the last moment, according to the Guardian.

Another country with a poor record of human rights and cyber freedoms, China, was also involved in further censorship this month. Fresh from blocking a new Chinese language version of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, they closed down the website of pro-democracy writer Wang Yi.

Reporters Without Borders (RWB) say that the plug was pulled just days after the blog was nominated for a 'freedom of expression' award in a contest organised by a German radio station. RWB say, 'Bloggers are often the only real journalists in countries where the mainstream media is censored or under pressure. Only they provide independent news, at the risk of displeasing the government and sometimes courting arrest.'

This is certainly borne out by the facts - in addition to the censored blogs mentioned previously several countries, such as Iran, have imprisoned citizens for posting on blogs or other websites recently. Many others, including Cuba, North Korea and Syria, restrict or block the internet. Other countries simply restrict access or allow only a few privileged people to use the web.

But RWB also warn of dangerous practices regarding the internet in other more surprising countries. For instance, they accuse the US of 'not providing enough privacy guarantees for users' and the EU of creating a system where Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are responsible for deciding if a website is illegal or not. This means that 'technicians thus do the job of a judge'. The EU is also considering proposals to oblige ISPs to retain records of customers' online surfing.

Ironically, as mentioned previously ,Tunisia itself blocks many websites... including that of Reporters Without Borders.

To counter some of these problems and offer advice to those trying to use the internet in places where it is restricted or censored, RWB issued a 'Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents'. This handbook offers advice on blogging anonymously and getting round censorship. So it is with irony that I must report to readers that this handbook was produced with financial support from the French government. For the young French activists arrested for daring to use the internet to encourage people on their estates to resist the police, this will be little consolation.