After more sanctions, Serbs fear they'll be forced offline
Services by US companies could be curtailed. State Department says it's
BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA — By noon, the computer terminals are full at the Internet Cafe in downtown Belgrade.
Miodrag writes an e-mail to his friend in Canada. Milos types away to Beirut. And Dunja Petrovic sends a few words of hope to a professor in Japan.
"I don't want you to feel sorry for me because I take this bravely and proudly," she writes.
There are an estimated 100,000 Internet users in Serbia - and never have they been more reliant on the World Wide Web than now. Some send letters to worried relatives abroad. Some surf the Net for objective news coverage. Others put out desperate appeals to NATO to stop the bombing.
But after a new round of sanctions against Yugoslavia, many fear they will be forced offline.
"There was a rush here [recently] when people heard on the news that the Internet would be shut down," says Borivoj Ivanovic, the Web master at the Maverik Multimedia Center in Belgrade.
Several Internet providers say they have received letters from the American companies that provide them with satellite links, saying service will be cut off because of new sanctions against Yugoslavia.
The possible suspension comes after President Clinton signed an executive order "prohibiting the delivery of any services by a US entity into [Yugoslavia]," according to a letter from Loral Orion, a satellite connector in Rockville, Md.
The US government denies it is trying to cut off the flow of information to Serbia. "The Serbian people deserve access to independent and objective information, whether by the Internet or other media," State Department spokesman James Rubin said May 14.
But the effects of the measure are still unclear. Some Internet servers here could bypass an embargo via terrestrial connections to other countries, such as the Netherlands. But those lines are few and may not have enough capacity for all of Yugoslavia's users.
"[The Internet would] remain alive, but it [would] be much slower," says Mr. Ivanovic, who, with a goatee and baggy clothes, looks and talks much like any other young computer whiz around the world.
At the very least, cutting off satellite connections would lead to a boom in business for those with ground lines. Not surprisingly, the Yugoslav government owns all the terrestrial links - whereas many of the satellite-driven companies are owned by private entrepreneurs.
It could be another example of airstrikes helping the regime and hurting the average Serb, critics say.
"Of course the government [would] benefit," says Jacob Salom, the assistant general manager at Informatika, a private Internet provider that works with small companies. "This [would] slow us down quite a lot - and probably damage revenues." He says his satellite connector, Loral Orion, has informed him that no final decision has been made about how to proceed in light of Mr. Clinton's executive order.
Mr. Salom says it is ironic that most Serbs who use the Internet are progressive, well educated, and not traditional supporters of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president. Computers are too expensive for most Serbs to afford, and they are common only in large cities.
Through two popular sites here, Beograd.com and Inet.co.yu, Serbs can warn of incoming airstrikes, find out what's happening in different parts of the country, and try to console one another.
One Serb from the town of Kikinda writes: "We have some good news from the northeast of our Serbia. It is quiet, raining, and we have electricity and water nearly all the time. We are almost ashamed because everything seems to be in order here. And it will be elsewhere, just hang on."
The Internet is also a rare chance to connect to the Western world, where many Serbs dream of going but cannot because of visa restrictions. Many have found a level playing field in chat rooms, where wits and typing speed are more important than ethnicity and religion.
"The Internet is something that is global and democratic," says Aleksander Mutavdzic, the Internet operator at Informatika. "That is something that nobody can cut off."
Mr. Mutavdzic says he will try to build a new connection with anther country in Eastern Europe, or possibly Russia, if his company gets clipped from the American system.
But not all Serbian computer users are about democracy and apple pie. Serbian hackers, some known as the Black Hand, have been accused of assaulting US government and Albanian Web sites.
Chinese hackers have also been accused of disrupting US government sites after the bombing last week of their embassy in Belgrade.