Crossing national borders: Is the Internet a danger and a blessing?

This is a liveblog of a panel at the Google Liberty at 2010 conference in Budapest, September 22, 2010.

Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders (France) introduces the panel; we will hear from several bloggers and activists from various countries to get a sense of restrictions on Internet and bloggers globally.


First up is Esraa Rashid of Egyptian Democratic Academy (Egypt).  “First of all, in Egypt, we have our own model.”  The Egyptian government doesn’t yet filter websites.  She mentions that Facebook plays a huge political rule in Egyptians’ lives, but that Egyptians still worry that the site could be blocked; yet, she states that Egypt cares too much about what the rest of the world thinks.

Rashid notes that Egypt has arrested multiple bloggers; mentioning the well-known case of Kareem Amer and the more recent case of young Syrian blogger Tal Al-Mallouhi (whom Egyptian activists have been fighting for outside the Syrian embassy).

Rashid also mentions the case of Khaled Said, which was spread widely via the Internet.  In particular, a photo of the beaten young man by a witness was spread globally, resulting in protests.  The campaign was successful because of the Internet, but Rashid says that, as a result of how it spread online, it was also successful offline.  She also notes that 300,000 Egyptians were involved online in the campaign.

Rashid is concerned that the Egyptian government is creating Facebook groups that target activists, describing them as colluders with foreign governments; she notes, however, that a young activist infiltrated one of these groups, changing its name.

The group Rashid is involved with is launching an Arabic Ushahidi platform for election monitoring; she is concerned that the government will block the site.


Next up is Azerbaijani [name unknown; not in program].  He starts by describing the unique situation of Azerbaijan, surrounded by diverse countries.  Discussing the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (ceasefire 1994), he notes that the succeeding 16 years have been peaceful, but that this year there is possibility of a new war.

He also states that there is an “informational war”, started in 1998, and that in this “war”, the Internet is the most important weapon.  He states that there is censorship that international organizations can do nothing about, and that there is a big problem with hackers as well (and DDoS attacks).

He says bloggers have a lot of potential, and that since “the old instruments are no longer working,” bloggers are being paid attention to by international organs.  Journalists and bloggers have a peaceful role in the conflict, mostly, he says.

“Many countries have problems with bloggers–neighboring Georgia as well,” he mentions, but states that “when something bad happens to bloggers, other parties shouldn’t be happy about it, because such a bad situation can happen in any country.”  He notes that if something bad happens to bloggers in Azerbaijan, neighboring countries such as Armenia and Georgia could follow suit.

“Because the Net doesn’t have a nationality, it can be a bad weapon,” he concludes.


Supinya Klangnarong of the Campaign for Popular Media Reforms (Thailand) speaks next.  She first gives tribute to Thai people who are in jail for exercising free speech online.  Specifically, she mentions a colleague of hers being charged under the cybercrime laws in Thailand.

“Internet freedom in Thailand is being violated,” states Klangnarong.  Mentioning the military coup of 2006, Klangnarong states that Internet freedom started being restricted as a result.  She says the cybercrime act has been used to arrest journalists and bloggers, and that Emergency Law, still in effect in Bangkok, has also been used to arrest people.

“Even though we’re a democratic country, we still have limitations in expression.  We’re free to talk about one thing, but not the other.  This is a dilemma in Thai society,” states Klangnarong. “The government uses tough laws in the interest of ‘national security'” says Klangnarong, but people want more freedom.  She states that the government claims that if it doesn’t block websites or arrest its critics, it will also be attacked.

“Thailand is at a crossroads,” she says, but notes that people in Thailand are aware of the issues.  She wonders if Thailand will “go east or go west” — by “go east” she means follow a Chinese model of restricting the Internet, but she doesn’t think “going west” (an open model) is likely; people are still concerned about certain security issues, as well as the monarchy, and she doesn’t think the society will rapidly open.  She thinks there needs to be a compromise.

Klangnarong states that she believes in an open society, and wonders what the solution for Thailand is.


Carlos Afonso of the Internet Steering Committee (Brazil) speaks next, noting that he doesn’t want to speak only of Brazil, as he’s concerned with global Internet issues.

“In 1867, at the Philadelphia Exhibition, a certain Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his invention, the telephone, for the first time.  The first caller was Don Pedro II of Brazil, who also helped fund the venture,” begins Afonso.  “123 years later, groups of NGOs from various countries oriented to social development gathered in San Francisco and founded in May 1990 the Association for Progressive Communications.”  He notes that involvement was difficult or illegal from some countries, and notes the contrast between this and the telephone.

“The technical complexities of the network of networks was confounded by an extremely diverse cultural and political environment in each place that the network of networks evolved,” states Afonso.  “Just as climate change is hard to predict, so is the future of the Internet,” he adds, concluding his talk.


Morillon asks each panelist a question next, before turning to the audience.

“What kind of impact, positive or negative, did the Internet have on Brazilian society?  What about bloggers?” Morillon asks of Afonso.

He responds that Brazil is a very good case of Internet evolution, noting that the work of some academics and civil society organizations in confronting the idea that the government would only run one ISP (in the late 1980s).  He says that, from the beginning, the success was a result of the participation of various sectors, throughout the process of development of legal and regulatory aspects of the Internet.

He states that 10 principles for the Internet were built in a multi-stakeholder environment, and that it took a long time to build them, but that because they were built by consensus, they are fair.

He also notes that in Brazil, there are 8.1 million broadband connections.

Morillon then asks Klangnarong if the Emergency Law was at all fair, given the vast amount of hate speech which occurred following the coup.  Klangnarong responds that security was a concern, but that the government takes things too far, blocking any websites and justifying it under the Emergency Law, when normally a court order would be required.  She notes that the government blocks individual pages on Facebook and Twitter, but not the entire sites.

Morillon next asks Rashid if the international attention being given to arrested bloggers in Egypt is helping or causing more harm.  Rashid responds that international attention helps, because it forces organizations to make statements calling for freedom for bloggers; Rashid thinks international attention might provoke response from the Egyptian government.  Generally, she thinks international solidarity can advance human rights, but that she thinks political influence needs to remain outside of it.

She also states that they are calling for solidarity on both democratic issues and issues of human rights.

Morillon asks the Azerbaijani representative if the Internet can help raise hopes in bloggers and journalists, or provide them with better information, noting that she noticed much pessimism while visiting there.

He responds by stating that Internet development indeed provokes societal change, because people can access alternative sources of information.  “Nowadays, the Internet is more controlled,” he notes, stating that bloggers are generally safe.  “There are two types of bloggers in Azerbaijan–those who blog in Azerbaijani and those who blog in Russian,” he says, noting that those who blog on Azerbaijani do so on Posterous, and are more politicized, but the Russian-speaking community is more informative.

He also notes that there are more people who read Azerbaijani than those who can write in it, and also that he believes Internet will help develop the country’s civil society, and society in general.

Audience Participation

Brian Herbert of Ushahidi chimes in to explain the purpose and history of the site, then asks Rashid a “devil’s advocate question,” as he calls it.  He says that, given that Rashid is using Ushahidi in Egypt, does she think it’s worth the risk to people reporting to the system, given that Egypt has arrested so many bloggers.  He also asks the entire panel if it’s worth blogging or commenting on blogs in their countries, given the potential risks.

Rashid says that she strives to protect citizens reporting to Ushahidi; she notes that Egyptians often use their real names on Facebook and Twitter, but that the real problem is the fear that the government might block the platform.

She states that the hope is that enough people will use Ushahidi, thus lessening the risk that the government will arrest anyone.

Kathleen Reen of Internews notes that, although there are a number of similarities across countries, there are unique experience in each and thus the solutions must be such.  She then notes that there is a “paucity and absence of discussion between law enforcement, judiciaries, courts, journalists, bloggers, and freedom of expression advocates.”  She states that, although the IGF has made some progress, she wishes to see more.

Afonso responds to say that there has been some response to this in Brazil.  He says that it’s too easy to blame the government and that we must pay attention to all of the processes across various entities.

He also jokes that Brazil is “a leader in many things” such as football, but notes that unfortunately, Brazil is also a leader in takedown requests.  He also mentions Brazilians’ unique use of Orkut, Google’s social networking site that doesn’t have as much popularity anywhere else (except perhaps India), and states that content regulation exists in the network as well.  He says most of it is related to genuine legal or TOS violations, but not all of it.

Morillon then opens the discussion to further audience participation.

A woman from Thailand notes that, despite the Internet repression in Thailand, Thai people still speak up and find ways to express their views.  She then says that, as an international community, we need to spread the word and work together globally.

Another woman from the Internet and Society Institute in Bangalore criticizes the framing of yesterday’s debate (is the potential of the Internet a force for positive political change being oversold?).  She states there’s too much of a tendency to pit Western countries against developing ones and reduce the debate to one about freedom of expression.

She recommends that everyone read the recent essay from Tunisian exile and blogger Sami Ben Gharbia.

She says it was disappointing yesterday to hear European governments defend ACTA.  She also says that the media highlights certain issues such as the RIM controversy in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as freedom of expression issues, and that there is no focus on India, where security issues often become free expression issues.  She says that, when things are made black and white, she ends up defending the Indian government, which she would not normally do.  She wishes for opportunities to discuss the balance between security and freedom of expression in India.

She also mentions grassroots groups in India, noting the case of one defending a mountain that a mining company wished to mine.  She says that the story got picked up by the Western media and lots of celebrities (in India) got involved, and that though Western support helped, much of the coverage involved objectification of the tribe protesting the mining.

Lastly, she concludes that, “in terms of international solidarity, we have a lot more to talk about.”

Bob Boorstin of Google steps in to note that, in response to the RIM controversy, there was a lot of media coverage from India discussing the balance between national security and freedom of expression.  He also notes that, this afternoon, a panel will tackle that very issue.

Concluding Statements

Klangnarong concludes by saying that if there’s a platform for discussion in Thailand, and if an international movement occurred, it would be helpful in resolving the debate around free expression there.

The Azerbaijani representative says that freedom of expression should not trump all other issues, but that all other issues should involve a discussion of free expression.

The other speakers waive their concluding statements, and Morillon thanks the audience.

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