Freedoms of the Internet

Last week I wrote about pornography on the internet. Some readers may strongly disagree with my dismissal of attempts to block porn sites. Aside from the technological difficulties that may one day be overcome, I am morally opposed to blocking of web pages and other forms of censorship of the internet. This is because I believe the internet to be a medium that offers unprecedented levels of freedom regarding information and communication. To seek to stem the flow of information and communication, particularly at a legal and governmental level, even in order to remove access to things most people agree are undesirable, is to risk future encroachments on what people can and can’t access. Some readers will already be aware that the Chinese government block access to certain web pages – these pages are not only ones containing images of naked ladies. The Chinese government seeks to stifle criticism and unrest over its policies. (see www.eff.org and www.gilc.org for information on efforts to censor the internet).

What exactly are the freedoms that the internet opens up for its users? I see these freedoms in roughly three areas – freedom of access to knowledge, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Access to knowledge – The information superhighway

The internet holds an ever expanding number of web pages, newsgroups, news feeds, email lists and other assorted sources of information. In the early days, politicians and pundits likened this to a road with many lanes along which information travelled at blinding speeds. What this information superhighway represents is the most powerful way of accessing information ever invented. Those with access to a wired computer (unless in China or other places that
block) have access to all this knowledge. This is hugely empowering for a number of reasons. Firstly, the knowledge and experience of others is available, increasing the choices you have about how to approach. For example if you don’t know how to find water you can search for “locating sources of water” on Google or another search engine, and quickly find how others tackle the same problem.

Another important benefit is equality of access to information. One of the most celebrated uses of the internet in the developed world has been to give access to market prices of cash crops and other farming produce to the producers – see www.prideafrica.com‘s DrumNet for example). This enables them to make decisions on where they should sell their products. Accurate knowledge of current market prices improves the bargaining ability of producers that otherwise might have no choice but to sell at the first offered price.

Equality of access to information also plays a role in the fight against graft and corruption. Corrupt officials take advantage of the ignorance of average people regarding rules and regulations. When access to these rules and regulations is made widely available, ordinary people are able to assert their rights. Governments around the world, including the Tanzanian government are publishing more and more on the World Wide Web. As more forms and procedures become available online, not only are the opportunities for graft reduced, but the inconvenience of having to travel to offices to meet or collect official forms is also reduced. This makes life easier for many people. See www.tanzania.go.tz for what Tanzania’s
government has made available.

The key to accessing knowledge on the web is knowing where to look. Search engines like Google are good places to start. A thorough guide to searching can be found at www.pandia.com/goalgetter/

Freedom of Expression

Perhaps you are looking for information about something important to you, but you cannot find it, or you disagree with what information is available. Around the world many people find that the media available to them – newspapers, television, web pages – do not cover the issues that are important to them, or cover them in ways they don’t agree with. More and more people are using the web to address this problem, creating their own media. Web sites like www.indymedia.org and
www.opendemocracy.org allow people to read material added by people like them, and then comment or add new material. Web sites such as these challenge the visions of the world that are portrayed by the mass media. They are more relevant to their readers because they are created by them.

Freedom of Association

People around the world use the internet to communicate across national and physical borders. A web site created in Chiapas, Mexico can be viewed in Arusha, Ulan Bator, New York and Bombay the moment it is uploaded. This has helped
campaigners and pressure groups to organise internationally – the recent protests at the WTO talks, which helped give delegates from the developing world the courage to stand up to more powerful countries, were largely organised online. When the US attacked Iraq earlier this year, the internet was used by global (e.g. www.lysistrataproject.com) and local (e.g. www.slough4peace.net) groups to coordinate protests. These didn’t stop the war, but they showed that very large numbers of people opposed it.

As you can see, the internet is being used by people everywhere in their daily struggles for peace, justice and every day life. Blocking and censorship of the internet dangerously threaten these freedoms.

Originally published in Arusha Times 295

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