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Democracy Activists Look at Digital Opportunities, Challenges

Oleg Kozlovsky, Issac Mao, Ernesto Hernandez Busto use the Skype technology to participate in the recent conference on the Internet and dissidents
Oleg Kozlovsky, Issac Mao, Ernesto Hernandez Busto use the Skype technology to participate in the recent conference on the Internet and dissidents

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Mike O'Sullivan

The power of digital devices, such as mobile phones equipped with cameras, was seen in protests that followed the disputed Iranian election in June, 2009.  Postings on such websites as Facebook and Twitter brought thousands to the streets, and digital images from Tehran fueled sympathetic protests around the world.

A recent conference in Dallas looked at the Internet as a tool for democracy activists, and at the challenges facing Internet commentators, or bloggers.

The power of the Web and portable digital devices was seen in Iran last year. It was seen a year earlier in protests in Latin America and other parts of the world against kidnappings by the Colombian rebel group FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Dissident bloggers involved with some of the protests met with Internet experts, and current and former U.S. officials, at a new center and institute named for former U.S. President George W. Bush.  Mr. Bush opened the conference, held at Southern Methodist University.

The cyber-dissidents were joined by two bloggers unable to attend because of flight cancellations following the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland.  They took part by way of the Internet site Skype. "If they arrest one, 10 more bloggers become dissidents," said Russian blogger Oleg Kozlovsky. He described a growing movement of dissidents in his country who post blogs on the Internet, despite the threat of arrest.

Another blogger joined the discussion from China.

"There is no single person can be easily targeted," said Isaac Mao. He said the Chinese censors are not able to crack down on all of the growing dissident voices on the web.

Harvard University researcher Ethan Zuckerman says Chinese censors aggressively block content they disapprove of. "But what they do, which is much more powerful and really much more sinister in some ways, is encourage the development of alternative platforms," he saiod

In March, the worldwide search firm Google stopped censoring its site in China and moved its servers to Hong Kong, but Chinese internet users can easily access the government-favored search site Baidu.com.  China blocks the videos from Youtube, but provides an alternative site, without political content, called Youku.com.

Censorship strategies vary from country to country.  Robert Guerra of the private watchdog organization Freedom House says the Iranian government, faced with images of protests, restricted bandwidth to slow the speed of Internet videos.

"What we've also seen since the election of last June is that they've increased their technical sophistication, so much so that there's real-time surveillance and repression.  People that post a message online or send a message through their mobile phone are tracked down within hours and taken into custody," he said.

Iranian blogger Mohsen Sazegara now lives in America but has felt the long arm of the Iranian regime and its supporters.  Sazegara was one of the founders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard before becoming disillusioned with the Iranian government.  Now he posts videos sent by activists in Iran and says his websites have been attacked.  He believes the group responsible is linked to the Revolutionary Guard.

"They posted a pamphlet instead of my website that said the Cyber Army of Iran has hacked this website and at the same time, they removed all my home videos from Youtube and succeeded to control one of my three Facebook pages," he said.

Blogger Ahed Al Hendi was arrested and jailed in his native Syria because of his online postings.  He now lives in the Uinted State and supports democracy activists worldwide.  He says that in Syria, bloggers still face persecution. "I heard the news of arresting a girl.  She's a high school student.  She's 19 years of age.  Instead of being at her school, she's now in the prison.  Tens of bloggers remain in prison right now in Syria, subject to ill treatment, torture, and they have no access to their lawyer," he said.

Venezuelan activist Rodrigo Diamanti writes blogs critical of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, and Diamanti helped to form a group called Un Mundo Sin Mordaza - A World Without Censorship. "We organized and we have representation in more than 20 countries around the world.  And we all write about the importance of freedom of speech as a fundamental right.  We understand that once you lose this principal right, you will start losing the other human rights," he said.

Cuban Internet activist Ernesto Hernandez Busto blogs from Spain, and he sees growing cooperation between traditional dissidents and Internet bloggers.  He says the partnership bodes well for change in Castro's Cuba.

Colombia activist Oscar Morales Guevara says his experience organizing millions of marchers against the FARC on the Internet site Facebook changed his life. "When we did that and when we saw the power of people organizing things, we decided that we would continue the effort and try to speak up," he said.

David Keyes, director of the organization CyberDissidents.org, is critical of countries like China and Iran, and also of some U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia.  He says the Gulf state limits Internet freedom and has sentenced a man to death for his work in Lebanon as a television psychic.  

But Keyes says digital technologies have changed the political landscape in repressive societies. "The Internet has given democratic dissidents power that's unprecedented in human history, literally the ability to talk to millions of people across the world with a few clicks.  At the same time, there may be deleterious effects to over-reliance on technology," he said.

He says the Internet cannot replace the face-to-face contacts and real-world activism that political change requires.   But Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard says the digital technologies can create a virtual public arena where people living under repressive governments can exchange ideas. "They're not able to write in the newspapers.  They're not able to hold meetings in public.  I think of Egypt, where you literally can't assemble more than five people without getting arrested for holding an illegal demonstration.  But the Internet represents a digital public space," he said.

An Iranian blogger based in Toronto, Arash Kamangir, says the Internet is a place for international conversations, which he thinks most Iranians want.

Internet experts say emerging issues involving the web are difficult.  Robert Guerra of Freedom House worries about  initiatives by democratic countries such as Australia to censor objectionable content.  Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard says the same high tech tools that protect dissident bloggers can also be used by terrorists to conceal their identities.

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