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The intensifying battle over Internet freedom

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

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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."

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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.