Reporters Without Borders notes that today is World Day Against Cyber-Censorship.
For some time now, the organization has been highlighting cases of oppression and abuse of freedom of speech against the world’s online community. For example, it labels Syria an “Enemy of the Internet”:
Bashar Al-Assad’s regime responded with violence when Syrians, inspired by the mass uprisings in the Arab world, took to the streets in March 2011 to demand democratic change. In the weeks that followed, the regime stepped up control of the means of communication and surveillance of dissidents. With the help of its cyber-army, it engaged in a battle of disinformation. Syria’s netizens, the only witnesses still present in the worst-hit areas, continue heroically to risk their lives to inform the world.
Unfortunately, not all netizens act responsibly. For example, while China is also labeled an Enemy of the Internet for its expansive monitoring and censoring of online activities, many of its netizens are volunteers for the government spying on their fellow citizens and conducting foreign espionage.
Chinese netizens have led a surge in cyber-nationalism. According to Mingsheng Li of Massey University in “Chinese Nationalism in an Unequal Cyber War” (China Media Research, 2009), they use the Web to “express their views, voice their concerns, disseminate information, and mobilize and rally the support of millions of Chinese nationals.” Netizens, he argues, are motivated by a distrust of Western media, which they perceive as anti-Chinese. One particular sore point, Li concludes, is the West’s “love affair with Tibet independence and with the Dalai Lama.” “The Chinese people’s feelings,” he says, are “persistently ignored.” This leads online activists to align with Beijing.
According to some forecasts, there could be over 500 million netizens in China by 2020. It remains to be seen whether the government will be able to effectively harness or tolerate cyber-nationalism over the long term. Cyber-nationalism might become the preeminent tool of the People’s War, or it may become the bane of the regime’s effort to control China’s online world. Even as China competes on the Web, competition with the nation’s social networking goes on as well.
While Reporters Without Borders is right to fight for freedom of speech on the Internet, it’s worth remembering that all who speak may not be proponents for freedom and liberty. It’s a “wiki war” out there. Winning the war will require protecting freedom of speech online while at the same time battling bad ideas and malicious activity on the Internet.