Options for Protecting Bloggers

February 22, 2009

While it is appalling to many “internet optimists” that today, more bloggers than traditional journalists around the world are currently in jail for expressing their political opinions, few agree on what should be done to protect bloggers.

Let’s discuss several options: (1) create a universal declaration of bloggers’ rights similar the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would be endorsed by an international institution and upheld by international law (2) leave it up to civil society in each country to demand civil rights protections for bloggers and to codify country-specific bloggers’ rights protections (3) use the sometimes superior technology services/products of multinational corporations to leverage the human rights protections of bloggers living in repressive regimes.

 Of the three options I’ve listed, (1) is the weakest.  The effectiveness of law (or some code) depends on the ability for the law (or code) to be enforced.  Laws of a nation (municipal law) are usually effective because there is an uncontested authority to enforce the laws and procedures to determine whether someone has committed wrong-doing.  There is no such authority in the international sphere.  Laws in some countries make it illegal to publish political dissent, and lacking a global sovereign, there is no uncontested outside authority who can go into Country X and say, “Your laws are wrong.  You can’t persecute bloggers for publishing dissent.”  

Assuming that an international code or law protecting bloggers is created and some states become voluntary signatories of it, there is still no one to enforce it or to compel all states to agree to this law.  The United Nations (or another international institution) will resort to naming-and-shaming if a signatory breaks this law, but there probably isn’t much else that can be done.  Respecting state sovereignty, foreign governments will probably not choose to intervene in a country’s affairs over the issue of bloggers’ protections.

Option (2)–codifying bloggers’ rights on a national (municipal) level—can be a real possibility in liberal democracies, and perhaps these efforts can eventually lead to codification on a grander scale.  There has been much debate in the U.S. over whether bloggers should be afforded the same legal status (and, hence, protection) as journalists, and if bloggers are afforded the status of journalists, then bloggers’ have the opportunity to be well-protected from punishment for the publication of political opinions, whistle-blowing, etc.

 Option (3) is probably the most tenable.  I mostly agree with Zuckerman when he says that “If US companies disengage from China entirely, Chinese companies will happily take up the slack,” but I think that U.S. companies can and should be doing more to leverage their sometimes superior web services and products in order to protect political bloggers by giving these countries an ultimatum—if you don’t let us offer our services operating under our (liberal) terms, then your country will lose out on having the benefits of our service/product.  In some repressive regimes where the opinion of the populace is still important for legitimizing the regime, if the demand for certain products/services is great enough, governments’ refusal to cooperate with the companies and allow their products to enter their markets may make them very unpopular and they may be compelled to agree to the liberal companies’ terms. 

 A good example is Wikipedia’s refusal to censor its content for Chinese users in 2006 and the Chinese government’s response: to block Wikipedia entirely.

However, facing extraordinary pressure from internet users who staged protests over the blocking of Wikipedia, the Chinese government caved in to popular demand and “quietly dismantled its digital barriers against the service” several months later so that all of Wikipedia was searchable and accessible. 

Of course, since then, China has developed more sensitive filtering techniques which blocks some of Wikipedia’s content without blocking Wikipedia completely, but the noncompliance of Wikipedia is nevertheless is a noteworthy example of the leveraging power companies have. 

 And American companies are in the process of organizing themselves so they can do more to protect bloggers—for example, by refusing to comply with demands by a government to disclose the identity of a blogger.   A project organized by the Berkman Center or Internet and Society, something described as the Sullivan Principles for Cyberspace, is bringing together companies such as Microsoft, and Google to band together and voluntarily agree to items such as opposing forking over private information to countries that will use it to identify and jail political bloggers.  If enough web service providers of liberal democracies participate en masse, it’s hard to see how companies in China or Iran will be able to fill the void created by the voluntary disengagement of these companies (or in the very least, companies in these countries might find it difficult to speedily develop comparable services/products before public opinion turns on these governments).  What one could optimistically hope for, then, is China’s or Iran’s coming to terms with more liberal protections of bloggers.  

–Laura Fong


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