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Tech Industry

When blogging can get you locked up

Around the world, Net crackdowns are becoming commonplace. CNET's Charles Cooper asks why Silicon Valley seems indifferent.

Javad Gholam Tamayomi, Omid Memarian, Shahram Rafihzadeh, Hanif Mazroi, Rozbeh Mir Ebrahimi, Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh and Fereshteh Ghazi are some of the most courageous people you've never met.

Not exactly household names, but each deserves a standing ovation.

During a crackdown against Iran's nascent online press last year, these sundry online journalists and bloggers got chucked into jail. The cyber seven were subsequently released but continue to invite the periodic and not-so-tender attention of the local police.

A blogger named Mojtaba Saminejad, also arrested on trumped-up charges at the beginning of November after condemning the jailings in his blog, is still being held in prison.

Increasingly, it seems, blogging can get you in big trouble. And as the number of Web logs and Internet news sites grows, journalists and bloggers regularly find themselves at odds with governments that are unenthusiastic about freedom of expression.

What's more, many governments now routinely filter the Internet, even though that's a clear violation of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which promotes access to information as an entitlement. Truth be told, the litany of examples of Internet repression around the globe makes for dreary reading.

In this post-Patriot Act age, we're all walking on terra incognita.

A recent report written by Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, was appropriately entitled, "The Internet in the Arab World: A New Space of Repression?" Among other conclusions, the report found that many Arab governments view the Internet with ambivalence. "From the governments' point of view, the disadvantages of the Internet stem from its very advantages. This attitude has affected the growth, or the lack thereof, of the Internet in the region."

So it is that some Middle Eastern regimes regularly use Domain Name System redirection or Internet Protocol-blocking techniques to prevent certain Web pages from loading. It's not difficult, and the measures are fairly effective. For example, Saudi Internet surfers looking for sites about Israel receive messages telling them the information has been blocked.

Elsewhere, China, the odds-on favorite to become the fastest-growing economy of the decade, is also the odds-on favorite to become the biggest Internet filterer of them all.

The Chinese government has developed an e-mail interception and Internet censorship technology that is as state-of-the-art as they come. Any cyberposters who stray from the straight and narrow risk a lot: Reporters Without Borders describes China, which, at last count, held 61 Internet users in detention last year, as the world's biggest prison for cyberdissidents.

In Kazakhstan, the government has periodically blocked access to opposition Web sites since 2002. The authorities have since called on one of the country's two main Internet service providers--Kazakhtelekom which is state-owned--to cut off access to sites deemed to be "destructive," or pose a threat to the state.

In the good ol' United States, things haven't gotten that out of hand--at least not yet. But who knows? In this post-Patriot Act age, we're all walking on terra incognita.

The business world doesn't produce heroes, but we should expect its leaders to occasionally demonstrate guts.

In the meantime, journalists and bloggers in the states are in no position to brag about their First Amendment rights. Just this month, we were treated to the spectacle of a bullying corporate entity--Apple Computer-- it wants to silence. Free speech, anyone?

From my little perch in Northern California, I'm amazed at Silicon Valley's studied silence when it comes to the subject of Internet freedom. With few exceptions, there's little enthusiasm for doing much beyond selling gear. I know business and politics mix like oil and water. But isn't there something more the technology industry can do?

Get a backbone
Internet infrastructure providers can't plead willful ignorance anymore. In China, for example, Cisco Systems routers do the heavy lifting for the country's surveillance infrastructure. Internet traffic passes through only five hubs, making it oh so easy to snoop on Web surfers and read private e-mails.

I'm not suggesting that Cisco was complicit in setting up a spy system, but the company's engineers did help program the equipment. Wouldn't it have been something if CEO John Chambers had shown more interest in how his company's technology was going to be used? Who knows--maybe Cisco could have extracted even a small concession from the authorities in Beijing. The business world doesn't produce heroes, but we should expect its leaders to occasionally demonstrate guts.

Do no evil
If a foreign regime is intent on blocking sites that carry "sensitive" news, there's not much an Internet provider can do. So goes the claim. Very well, but at least avoid being complicit.

Yahoo CEO Terry Semel, who has done a remarkable job since taking over as company boss, has a reputation for being a tough manager. It sure would have been nice if he had demonstrated some of that legendary intestinal fortitude when the Beijing authorities put the squeeze on Yahoo. Instead, he wimped out.

Yahoo agreed to control its discussion forums and rig the Chinese version of its search engine to prohibit certain hot-button search terms, as defined by the sensitivities of the government.

Bad precedents like these won't make things any easier for the people who literally risk their lives to reveal the truth. Keeping the flow of information free and unfettered is going to become a struggle in the new century. It is an issue begging for Silicon Valley's attention--all the way from a jail cell in Iran. So far, the response has been studied indifference.