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Net a focus in human rights struggle

The world observes Human Rights Day and the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with a special emphasis on the Internet.

The world observes Human Rights Day and the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today with a special emphasis on the Internet.

Events held everywhere from the United Nations to San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch to the Net itself demonstrate that the Internet has transformed the landscape for human rights activists and the governments they challenge.

The U.N.'s 1948 declaration is the focus of much of the day's observations. The world body is hosting a series of commemorative events, some of which are being Webcast beginning at noon, PT. The events include addresses by U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan and French president Jacques Chirac, as well as the presentation of human rights awards.

In San Francisco, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is sponsoring an event entitled "Cyber Rights = Human Rights: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is Not a Local Ordinance in Cyberspace." The event will feature guests including EDVenture chair and high-tech pundit Esther Dyson and congressional representative Zoe Lofgren (D-California).

Online, several human rights crusades launched today. One is an email campaign to Chinese officials to protest the arrest and trial of Shanghai dissident and software engineer Lin Hai. Chinese officials ordered the arrest of Lin in March after he sent 30,000 Chinese email addresses to a U.S.-based pro-democracy newsletter known as "VIP Reference." Another Chinese dissident, physicist Wang Youcai, also has been detained on charges related to an email protest. He will face trial December 17.

"The Internet is becoming an increasingly important tool for human rights activists, and the events in China over the last few weeks make that plain," said EFF president Barry Steinhardt. "It's important that human rights principles be applied to communications on the Internet, particularly the principles of free expression, which are spelled out in article 19 of the declaration, as well as the rights of privacy and freedom of association. Since the Internet is an inherently global medium, it's essential that international human rights principles govern and limit what governments can do to limit speech or supress privacy."

Article 19 of the declaration reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Activists assuming the U.N. human rights declaration mantle include cryptography advocates. One online campaign, sponsored by Canadian security firm Zero-Knowledge Systems, protests cryptography export regulations implemented by the United States and embraced by a consortium of other nations. Through its FreeCrypto site, ZKS is protesting the December 3 approval of export restrictions on mass-market cryptography products by the 33-member Wassenaar Arrangement in Vienna.

Human rights watchdog group Amnesty International has posted a special declaration site, which is soliciting individuals' support of the declaration.

In Germany, a human rights group is using the Net to promote its fax campaign in support of Tamil refugees it claims the German government is deporting to Sri Lanka.

A speaker at tonight's EFF event plans to address the disparate effects the Net has had on developed and underdeveloped nations in the area of human rights.

"In the developed world, the Internet has had a very significant impact," said Patrick Ball, deputy director of the Science and Human Rights Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Everything we do to advance a human rights campaign is easier thanks to the Net--it's easier to reach people, easier to express ideas, and to present richer information."

But in the underdeveloped world, the impact is more diffuse, Ball said. For one thing, vast proportions of poor populations do not have the basic literacy skills required to use the Internet, much less the expensive hardware required to access it. But Net access does provide literacy advocates with a powerful tool, Ball noted. It also enables distance learning for people geographically separated from educational institutions.

"We have to bring access and give people the kinds of intellectual tools they need to use it," Ball said. "That's our challenge in the next 50 years of the human rights declaration."