John Marburger, director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy, told delegates that it was important that the Internet be viewed "not only as a vehicle of commerce, but also as an extraordinary vehicle for freedom and personal expression."
In a statement distributed after Marburger's speech, the U.S. offered a more pointed criticism of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's autocratic regime. It expressed "disappointment that the government of Tunisia did not take advantage of this important opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and assembly."
Ben Ali has received international notoriety for the extensive Internet censorship and surveillance conducted by his secret police forces. Encryption is outlawed without prior approval, lesbian and gay sites are blocked, and entire Web portals such as ourworld.compuserve.com and geocities.com are cordoned off for Tunisians, a new report from Human Rights Watch says.
Other human rights groups have accused Ben Ali of torturing Tunisians who criticize the government. The U.S. government has pointed out in the past that the country is a one-party state in which Ben Ali is regularly re-elected with nearly 100 percent of the vote since seizing control of this tiny African country--which borders Libya and Algeria--in 1987.
For its part, Ben Ali's regime claims that "freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Tunisian constitution. Most of the opposition parties publish their own newspapers wherein they express their views, without any constraints."
At a press conference this week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he had raised the topic of civil liberties directly with Ben Ali, while defending the U.N.'s decision to hold the World Summit on the Information Society in a repressive regime. "Putting the spotlight on them where these issues of human rights are decided is extremely helpful and pushes that cause forward," Annan said.
French journalist Christophe Boltanski, who had arrived early to write about Ben Ali's civil-liberties record, was not aided by nearby police. On Thursday, Tunisian police barred the head of Reporters Without Borders from exiting the plane to attend the United Nations summit.and