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Feb 24, 2009
The intensifying battle over Internet freedom

From China to Syria, repressive nations are cracking down hard on digital dissidents.

By Joanne Leedom-Ackerman

Eleanor Roosevelt never imagined the Internet.

Neither did the other framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 60 years ago when they enshrined the right to freedom of expression. Yet they wisely left room for just such a development by declaring in Article 19: "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."

Today, the Internet is both the vehicle and the battleground for freedom of expression around the world. The struggle between writers and governments over this free flow of information has escalated this past year and promises to intensify. Those supporting open frontiers for ideas and information need to be on high alert and take steps necessary to protect those silenced and to keep the Internet unencumbered.

Last year became the first time that more Web journalists were jailed than those working in any other medium, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

China, Burma, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, and Zimbabwe have led the clampdown. They have arrested writers, blocked websites and Internet access, set strict rules on cyber cafes, and tracked writers' work. In response, some writers have used proxy search engines, encryption, and other methods to try to get around censorship and detection.

"As in the cold war [when] you had an Iron Curtain, there is concern that authoritarian governments, led by China, are developing a Virtual Curtain," says Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "There will be a free Internet on one side and a controlled Internet on the other. This will impede the free flow of information worldwide."

In the past year, writers in general have been arrested and imprisoned for such alleged charges as "inciting subversion of state power" (China), "insulting religion" (Iran), "threatening state security" (Burma), "defaming the President of the Republic" (Egypt), "storing cultural products with contents against the Socialist Republic" (Vietnam), and "spreading false news" (Syria).

"The Internet is reshaping society from the ground up," notes Larry Siems, the director of the Freedom to Write program at PEN American Center. "For instance there are two new novels from girls who are housebound in Saudi Arabia, but these were published on the Internet." The question remains whether the writers can maintain their freedom in cyberspace, which they do not have in their physical space.

International PEN's Writers in Prison Committee regularly tracks approximately 900 cases of writers around the world who are under threat, arrested, attacked, or killed, with roughly 150 new cases each year. "There has definitely been a rise in the numbers of Internet writers, editors, and bloggers attacked," notes Sara Whyatt, director of International PEN's Writers in Prison Committee. "The Internet has caused an explosion of free speech. Governments of all sorts are finding this a challenge."

China, which is particularly adept at blocking Internet use, leads the list of countries with long prison terms and the highest number of writers in prison. China's crackdown on writers before the Olympics and the arrest in December of leading dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, one of the authors of Charter 08, which advocates democratic reform in China, contradicts the government's claim that it is easing up on restrictions. In spite of Liu's detention, Charter 08 has circled the globe via the Internet, gathering signatures of Chinese from the mainland and the diaspora.

Because the Internet operates outside the structures of government, it challenges hierarchies of power and empowers the individual voice as never before. As many as 40 countries are engaged in some kind of Internet filtering and censorship, according to OpenNet Initiative. To counter these restrictions, human rights organizations and private companies, including Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo launched the Global Network Initiative (GNI) this fall. GNI, which sets voluntary standards to safeguard privacy and curtail censorship, is worthy of support.

The US Congress is watching its implementation closely and will also be considering legislation (the Global Online Freedom Act) to prevent Internet companies from assisting foreign governments in censoring content and revealing user information.

There are legitimate concerns about those who misuse the Internet, but a balance is possible between privacy and a government's ability to track criminal and terrorist networks. Authoritarian governments should not use law enforcement needs as an excuse to shut down opposition and muzzle free expression. Keeping the digital highway open for the hundreds of millions of legitimate users is vital to freedom of expression and the free flow of information worldwide. It will take vigilance, agreed standards, and technological innovations to protect the Internet's open structure.

One can imagine Eleanor Roosevelt today sitting at her computer sending out protests, even blogging as she and others frame the principles to keep this corridor of communication unfettered and free.

Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, a former Monitor reporter, is a vice president of International PEN and a board member of Human Rights Watch.

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Posted: Feb 24, 2009 10:50am
May 8, 2008
American Civil Liberties Union
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On March 22, 2007, the ACLU declared victory in its challenge to the "Child Online Protection Act" (COPA.) A federal district court ruled that COPA violates the constitutional right to free speech.

This challenge to Internet censorship in ACLU v. Gonzales (originally ACLU v. Reno, then ACLU v. Ashcroft) began in October 2006. The law threatened draconian criminal sanctions, with penalties of up to $50,000 per day and up to six months imprisonment, for sites presenting online material acknowledged as valuable for adults but judged "harmful to minors." Clients included a broad coalition of writers, artists and health educators with a diverse Web presence.

Patricia Nell Warren, one of the ACLU's plaintiffs on the case, blogs about how enforcement of the COPA laws will personally affect her:
"If the law is found enforceable...My body of work, which I have spent 35 years creating and publishing, could disappear in the blink of an eye."

Ten Years of Defending Free Speech Online
1996 - Congress first attempted to censor the Internet >>
1998 - Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) >>
2000 - The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was signed into law >>
2004 - The Supreme Court upheld the district court's decision in COPA >>
At the Trial
(More from the transcripts)

> Child Online Protection Act - The Law
> ACLU Cases Concerning Online Free Speech
">> Audio: ACLU Lawyers Discuss COPA
> Transcript: Daily Record of the Trial
> Exhibits Used in the ACLU's Closing Arguments

Blog Updates
> ACLU Staff Observations
> Liveblogging from Rufus Griscom and Moe Tkacik of
> Heather Corinna Blogs About the Trial

News Releases
> Court Rules that Government May Not Censor the Internet (3/22/2007)
> Landmark Online Free Speech Trial Wraps Up (11/17/2006)
> ACLU Returns to Court to Defend Online Free Speech (10/23/2006)
> ACLU Urges Court to Reject Government's Bid for Google Records (3/14/2006)
> ACLU Returns to Supreme Court in Renewed Challenge to Internet Censorship (3/2/2004)
> Ruling a Second Time, Federal Appeals Court Upholds Ban on Internet (3/07/2003)
> ACLU Defends Internet Free Speech in Three Courts Coast to Coast (11/1/2002)
> ACLU Files Brief in Second Supreme Court Battle Over Internet Censorship (11/20/2001)

Legal Documents
> ACLU Brief for the Appellees (10/22/2007)
> Government's Appeal Brief (9/17/2007)
> Decision in ACLU v. Gonzales (3/22/2007)
> Amended Complaint for Declaratory & Injunctive Relief (12/8/2004)

> Report of Congressional Commission on Online Child Protection (October 2000)
> ALA: Child Internet Protection Act
> EPIC: Ashcroft v. ACLU - The Legal Challenge to COPA
> ALA: CPPA, COPA, CIPA - Which is Which?

Joan Walsh is the Editor-in-Chief of, an online magazine featuring articles on current events, the arts, politics, the media and relationships.
> Statement
Mitchell Tepper runs the Sexual Health Network, which owns and operates, a Web site that is dedicated to providing easy access to sexuality information, education support and other sexuality resources.
> Statement
Heather Corinna is a writer, artist, sex-educator and activist whose primary commercial presence on the Web consists of three Web sites that she owns and operates: Scarlet Letters, Scarleteen and Femmerotic.
> Statement
Patricia Nell Warren is a member of the ACLU, an investigative journalist, a columnist and author of gay and lesbian books, including The Front Runner.
> Statement
Aaron Peckham by Hope Harris Photography Aaron Peckham owns and maintains Urban, an online dictionary of contemporary slang with more than 400,000 definitions for slang words and phrases.
> Statement
Adam Glickman Adam Glickman started Condomania, the nation's first condom store and a leading online seller of condoms and distributor of safer-sex related materials.
> Statement

The ACLU represents a broad coalition of writers, artists and health educators. They contend that the government's attempt to limit the Internet to G-rated content effectively suppresses a great deal of speech that adults are entitled to communicate and receive. They also argue that because COPA's penalties include jail time, many people will self-censor rather than risk violating the law's vague prohibition on "harmful to minors" material.

Others >>

1996 - The ACLU's fight against Internet censorship stretches back a decade. Congress first attempted to censor the Internet in 1996, when it passed the Communications Decency Act. The law criminalized "indecent" speech online. The ACLU sued, arguing that the law abridged the First Amendment. All nine Supreme Court justices agreed and struck down the law. For the first time, in ACLU v. Reno, the Supreme Court recognized that online speech deserves full First Amendment protection.

1998 - In reaction to the Supreme Court's decision, Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), a federal law that imposes severe criminal and civil penalties on people who put material the government deems "harmful to minors" on the Web. COPA was obsolete from its inception because Congress, in its haste to regulate the emerging medium, failed to predict that new technologies would render the law meaningless. The ACLU sued the day that COPA came into force and the district court quickly halted enforcement of the censorship law. It held that the ACLU was likely to succeed in proving the law unconstitutional.

2000 - Introduced in Congress in 1999, the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was signed into law in 2000. The ACLU and the American Library Association filed a lawsuit, Multnomah County Public Library et al. v. Ashcroft, seeking to get the law enjoined because it violates the Constitution to require libraries to use filters on public computers. In a nuanced ruling, in 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the law, but modified it so that if a patron asks, the library must remove the filter.

2004 - The Supreme Court upheld the district court's decision to stop the enforcement of COPA. Because the Internet had changed dramatically in the five years since the district court gathered factual evidence, the Justices returned the case to the district court for a full trial on whether there are effective ways to keep children safe online that burden speech less than COPA's criminal penalties.
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© ACLU, 125 Broad Street, 18th Floor New York, NY 10004
This is the Web site of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation.
">Learn more about the distinction between these two components of the ACLU.

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Posted: May 8, 2008 8:56am
Apr 15, 2008

Tim Robbins Decries Media 'Abyss' in NAB Keynote

Tim Robbins

Broadcasting & Cable, April 14, 2008
By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld

Actor Tim Robbins, noting that he has been labeled a traitor for previous comments he made about this nation and its pre-emptive war in Iraq, pre-empted a planned dialogue on new media at the National Association of Broadcasters' annual show and launched a humorous, profanity-laced attack on both the state of the country and the consolidation of viewpoints being carried by national media.

“We are at an abyss as an industry and as a country,” Robbins said. (To listen to audio of the speech, click here.)

Ditching the chance to give his views in an exchange with TV critic David Bianculli, who appears on National Public Radio and in the pages of Broadcasting & Cable magazine, Robbins described that abyss using expletives that would not be allowed on free over-the-air radio or television by the Federal Communications Commission. In addition to using the common vulgarity for copulation, known as the f-bomb, Robbins joked that “Die, you Nazi c___suckers" was the lesser known of Edward R. Murrow's signoffs at the end of his London blitz broadcasts.

To read the article, click here.

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Posted: Apr 15, 2008 11:58am


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