The nettlesome Net

The regime in Burma, like China's, discovers the Internet can expose its atrocities.

Burma's uprising was crushed last week with both bullets and shears. The junta first cut phone lines to keep protesters from organizing. Then it hit Internet servers to block images and reports of its brutality from reaching the world.

Such a crackdown on communications was easy in Burma (also known as Myanmar). Its phone lines are crude, and less than 1 percent of the population has Web access. Many closed societies, such as Burma, North Korea, and Cuba, have been blocked from completely joining the Information Age. Their leaders wouldn't stay in power long if dissidents could fully use blogs, e-mail, minicams, Facebook, text messaging, and other digital marvels to challenge the authoritarian regimes and expose their atrocities.

The Internet itself is just the latest advance in communications that has held the promise of accelerating progress in democracy and human rights. Ronald Reagan called information "the oxygen of the modern age," able to seep into closed borders. He may have been referring to the influence of West German TV broadcasts to foment dissent in East Germany and help dissolve the Iron Curtain.

But he could just as well have cited the US satellite images of the 1995 Srebenica massacre that helped end the Bosnia war. Or the updated phone lines in Manila that helped a 1986 "people power" revolution topple a dictator. Or the 2003 camera images of US soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison that helped turn opinion against that war. Or the religious sect Falon Gong's use of e-mail to organize a 1999 challenge to China's regime. Or the power of CNN, BBC, and VOA to influence "color revolutions" in former Soviet states.

Each new technology, of course, can be a two-edged hacksaw.

The sermons of Ayatollah Khomeni were smuggled on cassette tapes into Iran in the 1970s, helping to overthrow the Shah. Even though Congress keeps passing the "Global Internet Freedom Act" and funds ways to combat Internet jamming by ruthless regimes, it also must outlaw Internet gambling and enable US efforts to block Al Qaeda and other terrorists from using the Net to plan attacks and spread violence.

And nothing irritates the Pentagon more than Al Jazeera's broadcasts of civilian deaths in Iraq reaching millions of satellite dishes in Muslim nations.

China employs some 50,000 Internet police to jam uses of the Net that threaten the regime, which is in an Internet arms race, trying to outpace the latest software that can crack the digital Berlin Wall.

By its very nature, the Internet opens up the public sphere and accelerates the flow of ideas, just as 18th-century coffee shops in Europe helped speed the Enlightenment and the printing of the Bible led to the Reformation.

The internet was invented by the Pentagon to speed up communication between its research labs. But the Internet may end up doing more to spread freedom than any war. It can quickly form communities of cyber-dissent that turn into hurricanes of social force.

Last week's events in Burma showed how much has changed. The last uprising, in 1988, was little witnessed by the world. Yet thousands died. This time, fewer protesters may have been killed, but even China was forced by the transmitted images of bloodied monks to urge the junta to change. An evil exposed to light can't survive.

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