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The Superhighway of Good Intentions

By Joab Jackson | Posted 9/23/1998

Aug. 24 was a great day of change for India. On that day India's first privately run Internet service provider (ISP), Dishnet Ltd., was unveiled.

By the end of next year, Dishnet expects to sign up 150,000 customers frustrated by India's state-run ISP. Communications consultant T.H. Chowdary, in a September 1997 article for the trade magazine Telecommunications, noted that at that time India had just a fraction of the number of users that smaller Asian locales such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong had online. In China the electronic wall is also starting to crumble. As reported by Murray Fromson in the Online Journalism Review (, 40,000 Chinese surfed the Web in 1996. The number grew to 250,000 at the end of last year and is expected to exceed 1 million by the year 2000.

It's been said the great thing about the Internet is that it is worldwide and anyone anywhere can access it. That's not strictly true--many countries lag behind in connecting, their governments ambiguous about the idea of their subjects getting wired. In America it's easy to get caught up in the hype that technology is better than no technology, that all information is better than no information. And as the Internet spreads, so do these values, which will have an effect elsewhere.

"Ultimately it is impossible to maintain a closed society if you introduce widespread Internet access. Just look what goes on in the U.S. with attempts to restrict pornography and hate speech on the Net," says Bobson Wong, executive director of the Digital Freedom Network (http://www. Wong is in a unique position to understand the intricacies of the Internet's international reach--his organization posts on the Net information on human-rights violations that has been suppressed elsewhere in the world.

Will a worldwide Internet favor, even foster, more open governments? Certainly any tool that lets people converse with each other in relative privacy will generate greater discussion about government. But does this amount to a form of electronic imperialism--undermining a nation's values in the political, religious, even sexual realm through cyberspace?

Part of some nations' reluctance to allow widespread Internet use has been the threat to long-held values. India's use of a central, state-run provider was prompted in part by worries about content that might challenge traditional religious, political, and cultural views. "In India," Chowdary writes, "some of the fears expressed are about national security, entry of pornography and violence over the Internet into Indian homes."

"Do we run the risk of cultural imperialism?" DFN's Wong asks rhetorically. "That's an issue we think about a lot. We're trying to give individuals a direct voice to others around the world. Now, obviously there is some sort of ideology to what we choose to put up, but it's not as if we're imposing American ideas on the rest of the world."

DFN's guiding premise is the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights ( rights/50/decla.htm), which

says no one should be subject to "arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile," and that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." The site was started and largely funded by Howard Jonas, chief executive officer of IDT Corp., a New Jersey—based Internet telephone company. It includes a letter sent by Bao Ge, one of China's leading pro-democracy dissidents, to the Chinese government in June 1994 that called for democratic reform and freedom of the press. The letter was banned, and Ge was imprisoned for three years. (China, Wong tells me, imposes fines for online publication of material on sex, human rights, Tibet, and Taiwan.) Similarly, visitors to the site can read "The Homeland Belongs to Us All," an essay written by four Cuban intellectuals who, according to DFN, were jailed for their efforts.

"The bottom line is that there is no way for governments to really control everything out there on the Internet. It's inherently decentralized," Wong says. "You can try to force everyone who gets a computer to register, as does Cuba, but if somebody is really determined to get information on the Internet, the person will get it."

Locally, Baltimore resident Max Obuszewski runs a mailing list (e-mail for the American Friends Service Committee, an arm of the Quakers. He sends out about 45 press releases and news items weekly to let people know about local protests and global events of relevance to the "progressive peace and justice movement." One example is an upcoming vigil for Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, who was jailed for exposing his country's secret nuclear-weapons programs.

For Obuszewski, technology is politically neutral--and governments that don't embrace it are suspect. He recalls reading 10 years ago that copy machines were outlawed in the Soviet Union for all but official government uses. There must be something inherently wrong, he concluded, with any government that feels the need to restrict public access to technology.

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