Saffron Through the Firewall

By Roby Alampay
Special to's Think Tank Town
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; 12:00 AM

BANGKOK - European Union justice and interior ministers met in Lisbon early this week to discuss how to inoculate the Internet against forces that can threaten the free world. By November, they expect to put together a raft of proposals to somehow secure the internet from, say, websites that recruit terrorists or teach you how to make a bomb.

States have come far in such discussions and in reaching some levels of consensus. International standards have greater impetus, evidently, when they seek to cap that which they perceive as threatening to the civilized world: child pornography, organized crime, terrorism, and SPAM. This much is understandable.

What the international community has barely begun to discuss, however, is the other side of the dilemma: What should be the international standard on ensuring Internet accessibility and openness?

The more compelling Internet story last week took place as far away from Europe as one can get. It was from Burma -- via defiant blogs, emails, and phone-cam videos posted online -- that the world witnessed the other argument: that when it comes to the Internet (and all forms of media, for that matter) "standards" is a legitimate topic not only with respect to limiting the medium's (and its users') potential harm, but more importantly in setting and keeping the medium (and its users) free.

Burma's slippered, bloodied citizens could not have been more eloquent with the silent, choppy videos they smuggled and posted online. Even as it is abused by the unscrupulous and the perverse, the Internet is a sanctuary and weapon for freedom fighters and humanitarians. It is also potentially a refuge and archive for justice.

The documentary effort of blogs and all the videos on YouTube already trumps the sense of state impunity that comes with the complete isolation of whole populations. The ubiquity of phone cameras and the pervasiveness of the Internet are what initially kept the Burmese military uncharacteristically restrained. It was the junta shutting down state-monopolized Internet services that allowed the military's full, sadistic fury to be unleashed, consistent with its deserved notoriety. One wonders how Tiananmen would unfold in an era when citizen journalists are everywhere. What would Google and Yahoo do, now that they have agreed to be cooperative with the information gatekeeprs of Beijing -- replacing China's great walls of old, with the firewalls of today.

Even (or especially) as the repression of Burma continues, the time has perhaps come to seriously consider a universal principle and/or instrument that will guide the international community on the value of an Internet that is always there and always accessible, anywhere. The world must agree on a minimum standard for such access; governments failing to meet the bar can only be assumed to be up to no good.

The flood of Burmese refugees that Thailand is now bracing for is indicative not only of a looming or ongoing humanitarian crisis. It is also a throwback to all centuries past, when the flow of information literally rode on the flow of humanity. In this light, the brave efforts of Burmese exile news groups in Thailand and South Asia must be hailed and quickly supported. With journalists denied entry into Yangon, Burmese newspapers shut down, telecommunications restricted, and finally the Internet cut, it should shame the world that it would take people risking their lives to cross rivers and mountains to let the rest of us know what other untold horrors they have had to wade through. It is an insult especially considering that even in Burma until last week, people of all nations progressed to the point that we were all linked by ones and zeros crossing national boundaries at the speed of light. It is an outrage that a country run by ruthless generals can overnight plunge a whole society back to the loneliness and despair of the 20th century.

In 2006 the U.S. State Department created what it called the Global Internet Freedom Task Force. Notwithstanding its tacky and presumptuous acronym, it would be worth hearing what GIFT has actually demonstrated by way of governments' will to keep the Internet a free medium worldwide.

The task force's mandate is to consider aspects of Internet freedom, including "the use of technology to track and repress dissidents; and efforts to modify Internet governance structures in order to restrict the free flow of information."

In such work, however, perhaps it would be enough for government to simply support groups like the Open Net Initiative -- a collaboration between Harvard, Cambridge University, Oxford University, and the University of Toronto -- which already monitors Internet freedom with greater impact and efficiency. Instead of monitoring on its own, perhaps government would be better tasked to building international consensus that access to the Web is access to the world, and is thereby one clear indicator of global commitment to human rights.

As the demand and criterion for free access grows, so does the anxiety of governments and Internet pillars like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft. But it is also hard to imagine the citizens of Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Redmond not being moved by the testimony of Burma: Thanks to the same Internet-based innovations that governments and markets are trying to co-opt, the Internet not only chronicled death, it saved lives.

Whether or not consensus is easy, the need for universal principles governing access to the Internet is clear. The Burmese will say it is painfully obvious.

The author is a fellow of the Asia Society and Executive Director of the Bangkok-based Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

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