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Last Updated: Friday, 10 June 2005, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
A little less censorship?
Internet censorship is increasingly common, says technology commentator Bill Thompson, but making small gains in freedom may be enough.

Chinese Expo
China is keen to promote the use of the net for business
We shouldn't be surprised to learn that the Chinese authorities have finally turned their attention to weblogs and decided that they have to be censored.

After all, a government that has put so much effort into controlling the free flow of information was hardly going to ignore a publishing tool that is easily accessible by 78 million net users.

Now anyone in China who wants to blog has until 30 June to register or face criminal sanctions, and according to the ministry of information a web-based crawler program will monitor all weblogs within China and report unregistered sites.

Access to non-Chinese blogging sites has been blocked for some time, and commercial websites already have to be registered with the government.

Adding blog registration to this scheme will not be difficult, so we can expect to see the country's 700,000 blogs fall into line with the new rules.

As a result any pressure for change in the country will be reduced, and the space for net users to share their experiences or organise around calls for a democratic political system will vanish.

This is, of course, the point of the exercise, even if the official announcement says it is being done to stop blogging about "sex, violence and feudal superstitions".

Complex controls

A report from the OpenNet Initiative, a university-based partnership that monitors net filtering and censorship, notes that China "operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated, and broad-reaching system of internet filtering in the world", supported by "an equally complex series of laws and regulations".

But while China may be the most sophisticated, it is hardly alone. Around the world, from Singapore to Saudi Arabia, internet users find their activities monitored, restricted and sometimes criminalised.

Bill Thompson
China and other countries could be asked to open up net access if they want trade deals and access to European expertise

In Iran bloggers are arrested and imprisoned with depressing regularity, largely for writing anti-government propaganda.

The same thing happens in China, Kuwait, Tunisia and - although without such dire consequences for those involved - France, where the author of a blog criticising the mayor of Puteaux was almost arrested by local police because of what he had written.

Here in the UK weblogs, like any other form of publishing, are subject to a wide range of laws. If you defame a person or company, reveal state secrets, post obscene material or material likely to incite racial hatred, or host anything that someone else claims copyright over then you will quickly discover just how willing your ISP is to pull your site.

At least in the UK we don't have to register before we can start a blog, and it is still legal to blog anonymously or use services that are hosted in countries that have slightly more respect for freedom of speech.

And while you may get into trouble with your employer, you're unlikely to be jailed or harassed by the authorities for expressing controversial views on your personal website.

Small steps

As more and more governments start restricting what their citizens can say online, those of us who live in relatively open societies need to decide what to do.

Computer users in Iran
Iran is one of the countries in the Middle East trying to control the net
There is an argument, most often expressed by vocal North American defenders of freedom of speech and the US Constitution's First Amendment, that any restriction on what people say, offline or online, is unacceptable.

Some of them want to make anti-censorship software and send it to people in China, Iran and elsewhere, giving them the tools to get around government restrictions.

They don't seem to realise that encouraging people to break the law and risk imprisonment by doing something that will simply annoy the authorities may not be the best way to improve the situation.

Perhaps we need to accept that small gains and slight shifts in direction can make a difference to people's lives, and work for them instead of trying to blast down the walls of repression with a single blow.

When the Labour government came to power in 1997, they offered us an 'ethical foreign policy', saying that they would not sell arms to repressive governments and that they would pay attention to human rights around the world.

The policy didn't last long, but it could form the basis of a productive approach to online speech.

The persuaders

Just as Turkey is under a lot of pressure to improve its record on human rights if it wants to join the EU, so China and other countries could be asked to open up net access if they want trade deals and access to European expertise.

There are times when constructive engagement is the only way forward, even when you profoundly disagree with someone. When it comes to free speech on the net, I believe it's the only sensible strategy.

After all, we're not going to persuade the Chinese government to allow free and unrestricted blogging overnight, but we might be able to persuade them to relax their more restrictive laws if we offer something in return.

If those of us who care about free speech continue to highlight the excesses of net censorship around the world while those making deals - commercial or political - make it clear that repression gets in the way of working together, we might see things start to change.

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

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