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Last Updated: Friday, 2 May, 2003, 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Gagging the bloggers
Iranian women
Blogs criticising government are frowned on in Iran
Blogs are everywhere and governments are beginning to sit up and take notice, says technology analyst Bill Thompson.

You cannot move online these days without falling over a weblog or 10.

All the people who, five years ago, were proudly showing off the shiny new e-mail address on their business cards, are now polishing up their weblogs and hoping they have something interesting to say to the world.

In principle blogging promises us something close to Tim Berners-Lee's original vision of a writeable web because anyone can create their own constantly-updated site.

Reaching out

Linking to other sites, tracking links made to one's own entries and posting comments or opinions creates a seamless and rich web of information, accessible to all - or at least, to everyone with a net connection.

Bill Thompson, technology consultant
Anything which allows more people to share their points of view, record their experiences and reach out to other people is to be welcomed.
Bill Thompson

Of course, the reality is somewhat different, with the complex thread of interconnected diary entries, reviews, comments and cross-references making it incredibly difficult to get a real sense of what is happening.

But sometimes it works, and generally anything which allows more people to share their points of view, record their experiences and reach out to other people is to be welcomed.

While I have never managed to get into the habit of daily blogging myself, I can see why it appeals. And new tools for weblogging will make things easier and better.

We might eventually get tools which create usable social spaces online, along with ways of organising and structuring the vast amount of content being thrown daily onto the Web that do not rely on the search engines that dominate today's network navigation.

Even though the number of bloggers is relatively small compared to the overall net population, with perhaps a million active blogs, this is going to grow, especially if AOL delivers on its promise to offer a free blogging service to its 35 million users.

Freedom of expression

There are, of course, many different sorts of blog.

I am interested in technology and how it is developing, so I spend a lot of time looking at sites dealing with new ways of using the net, and the whole self-referential area where blogs, culture, the network and programming intersect.

Others see the tools as dull and boring, and are more concerned with using this new web-based publishing medium to make a difference in the real world.

And some of these people are now getting into trouble with their governments, especially if they live in countries which do not respect the basic right to freedom of expression.

Lui Di, a Chinese psychology student who posted regularly to bulletin boards and chat rooms, was arrested in November 2002 for criticising the government's restrictions on net use.

She is still being held.

And last month the Iranian police detained Sina Motallebi, a prominent blogger, marking a significant and worrying shift in what had previously been a tolerant approach to the large number of Iranian blogs.

Casualties of blogging

Blogging is important in Iran because it provides a way for people to write freely about a wide range of topics, and to do so relatively anonymously.
Bill Thompson
Sina is still in prison after his arrest on 20 April. The authorities have given no indication of what he is accused of or whether he will be released soon, creating an atmosphere of fear and worry among Iran's estimated 10,000 other bloggers.

His Persian website, www.rooznegar.com, has been taken offline by his family, worried that criticism of the Iranian Government posted there by supporters will harm his case.

An online petition organised by another Iranian blogger, Pedram Moallemian, has attracted over 2,000 e-signatures calling on human rights organisations to press for Sina's release.

Sina's arrest, publicised online by his wife and fellow blogger Farnaz Ghazizadeh, is just the latest of many attempts by the Iranian Government to control the media.

Press freedom campaign group Reporters Sans Frontieres describes Iran as "the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East", with 10 journalists imprisoned at the end of 2002, and continuing closures of newspapers whose editorial views go against government policy.

Now it has become one of the first governments to take direct action against blogs.

One prominent Persian blog is run by Hossein Derskahan, an Iranian living in Toronto.

He argues that blogging is important in Iran because it provides a way for people to write freely about a wide range of topics, and to do so relatively anonymously.

Crucial role

Because many of the blogs are hosted outside Iran, it is difficult for the authorities to trace people, and this gives them more freedom.

Being able to publish a weblog may in fact be more important than being able to read BBC News Online, although our arrogance may sometimes prevent us from seeing this
Bill Thompson
Sina's blog was published under his own name and that in part made him a target.

In open societies we are used to being able to say what we feel, whether about personal matters like attitudes to sex, or more public issues like our views on the invasion of Iraq.

There are limits to free speech, but they seem far enough from our ordinary topics of conversation to be disregarded.

This is not true in closed countries like Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

As Hossein Derskahan says, "individuality, self-expression, tolerance are new values which are quite obvious through a quick study of the content of Persian weblogs".

These values are not endorsed or promoted by the authorities, so it is not surprising that blogs are now being closed down and their authors arrested.

It will discourage others from the sort of self-expression that will, in the long term, do just as much damage to a repressive and authoritarian regime as overt political opposition.

When we campaign for net freedom we should not forget that the freedom to speak one's own truth is just as important as the freedom to read what we in the West have to say.

Being able to publish a weblog may in fact be more important than being able to read BBC News Online, although our arrogance may sometimes prevent us from seeing this.

Do blogs matter? How significant is the rise of blogs? What role do they serve? Send us your comments.

Blogging in my country has also become a cool thing to do, with more and more registering or setting up new ones sites/accounts everyday. Blogging takes a certain amount of time, creativity and most of all responsibility. Just because you have a blog doesn't mean you can say whatever you want in it. If the stuff posted on a blog does breach treason or national laws of wherever one is from, then the one who uploaded those comments should be ready to face its consequences. Most blogs out there are full of nothing but incoherent, nonsensical babblings of pre-pubescent kids. But it is their own personal space to talk about their views and ideas. You don't have to read it.
Krissi, Philippines

As the old saying goes: "Freedom is great but comes at a price". Information is key to educate and freedom of speech is a form of education. Pity some governments don't take heed of what is being said.
Gerald Glover, UK

It took a war to get blogs noticed. I've been blogging for nearly three years and in that time I've seen blogs come and go. In that time they've matured, there arn't so many kids going on about next to nothing anymore. There are more intelligent, more muture bloggers around now with a great deal of important things to say. We all wonder, however, if anybody in listening.
Marc, soliloquist.net, UK

I've blogged on and off for most of my sad little life. Pre-PC it was called a diary and nobody read that either. The point is if you have something interesting and worthwhile to say then a blog should only be the first stop - maybe a forum of like/unlike minded people might benefit from your musings? And of course it doesn't take a genius to work out that despotic governments will frown upon this type of activity. Same way as they stifle free speech of any kind.
Mark, UK

When it comes to freedom of speech, the internet is of course leading the way, but blogs are only the tip of the iceberg. Netizens have been quietly talking without fear of censorship since the internet was created, by systems such as newsgroups. Blogs are merely the most accessible means. Furthermore, systems such as Publius, though less accessible, allow content to be published online with strong guarantees of anonymity and resistance to censure.
Matthew, UK

The fact that repressive governments have taken notice of the power of blogging is in itself a boost to the power of blogging. It also serves as a good indicator of the things the repressive government fears most. If they had any sense, they would ignore bloggers. But since they don't, they only serve to attract replacements.
Vig, UK

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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