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Hot on the Web

Someone's paying attention

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 13, 2007
(Issue 2528, Tech Gear Travel Tips)

Amnesty International has issued it's annual report on the state of human rights in the world – this year, for the first time, taking in cyberspace and warning that unfettered access to the Internet is at risk in more and more countries.

But Amnesty has done more than just issue a report: It's launched a campaign to try to educate online denizens about the erosion of free speech online, and started a Web site – – to help counter some of those erosions.

This effort is important to those of us here in the United States because there is a strong push at the United Nations and in other international bodies to move governance of the Internet from the U.S. government – which funded its development and continues to oversee its basic infrastructure – to a global body.

And truly unlimited free speech is pretty much an American value – an anachronism in both history and geography, as the Amnesty report illustrates. (Amnesty only hurts its well-grounded position here, though, when it posts sentences like this: "The initial grace period in which internet-users enjoyed complete freedom, while the authorities caught up with the technology, has ended." Um, AI folks? The Internet was created by the authorities. They understand the technology better than anyone, at least in the U.S. Sigh ...)

Still, Amnesty's campaign is well-designed: It encourages bloggers and anyone else with a Web site to help bypass censorship efforts by re-publishing snippets of banned materials.

It's the sort of decentralized redundancy that makes the Internet itself work as well as it does – only applied to humans instead of computers.

(Dang. Looking over, I see Amnesty International goofed again. They cite the arrest of a reporter in northern California who refused to respond to a legitimate subpoena as a case of "repression." What about the very human right of average citizens to question all witnesses with potentially relevant information? Yeah ... the rich media conglomerates have confounded even the best-intentioned with that bit of smoke-and-mirrors – as if the ability of billion-dollar corporations to defy court orders has anything to do with free speech ...)

Anyway, you can read the entire report at – it's a bit silly at times, treating government monitoring of blogs and Web sites as some sort of evil conspiracy (hey – I want the government to be monitoring what Al Qaida and other terrorists are saying online; besides, you can't have real free speech if government employees aren't just as free as anyone else to read what they want), and is utterly one-sided in its reporting on the Middle East, treating the only democracy in the region as the source of all repression. It's pretty tough to avoid the conclusion that Amnesty has developed a pretty strong streak of anti-Semitism.

But good, bad or indifferent, it's all there for the reading – for you to decide for yourself.

A two-edged sword

One of life's glorious, if aggravating, ironies is that it is full of, well, ironies.

Such as the fact that the Internet is being used to expose Amnesty International's efforts to hush up the fact that it has adopted a pro-legalization position on abortion.

One would think that a non-profit organization like Amnesty, which operates on good will more than anything else, would realize the folly of trying to operate in secret.

And yet its move to abandon its longstanding neutrality on abortion – an issue which divides civil libertarians and human rights activists as much as the rest of us – has been shrouded in secrecy and obfuscation.

In the age before the Internet, the process that led to Amnesty adopting a pro-choice position might have stayed secret.

But thanks to the 'Net, anti-abortion human rights activists have been closely monitoring the decision-making process at Amnesty. With e-mail, they've been conducting campaigns to have their voices heard – albeit, after the decision was made, largely by pro-choice members of Amnesty who apparently excluded dissenters from the process.

Led by Consistent Life, Amnesty International has been "outed" for its secrecy in adopting a controversial position.

Probably embarrassing for Amnesty's leadership, who now undoubtedly wish they had taken a more open approach to the entire process.

But it adds to the irony – for undoubtedly many folks who are upset with the process Amnesty International used in adopting its new policy now see anew the value of having an Internet whose content is not controlled by government or other powers. Of having an Internet that lets average folks shine light on the workings of the powerful.

Some of them may even request that documentation of Amnesty's internal workings be added to its list of censored materials to be shared across the 'Net via