The events in Egypt last February where the government of ousted President Hosni Mubarak unplugged the African country from the Internet- showed that the "network of networks" is no more a site where everything may be said without fear of reprisals. Nonetheless, dictatorships are not only liable to restricted dissemination of messages in the cyberspace; western democracies are taking steps to regulate it. International human rights advocates, such as the IACHR, expect that such limitations will not include prior censorship
The only rule is that there are not rules. For quite a while, this was what most people thought of the Internet. It was reasoned indeed. At an early stage, the network of networks was the ground where whatever might be said without running the risk of any reprisals.
Nonetheless, lately, elsewhere in the world, many events have spoiled this myth.
Last February, the government of ousted President Hosni Mubarak took Egypt out from cyberspace in a desperate attempt at preventing the young leaders of the revolts from continuing rallying with the help of social networks Facebook and Twitter.
The events in the land of Pharaohs showed that the national government learned the lesson experienced in Iran almost two years ago. There, thousand youngsters flooded the streets to demonstrate against the reelection of fundamentalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and they managed to pass over the information blockade imposed by government authorities on the traditional media by means of social networks.
Earlier, any reference to censorship on the Internet usually pointed to the Cuban case.
In the Caribbean island, users can hardly use the e-mail, mostly because government authorities have not invested in infrastructure. Nor do they allow for free inflow of computers in the country for fear of any comments on the regime.
China is another example of what should not be done. According to organizations such as Freedom House, Reporters without Borders or OpenNet, in the Asian giant there are 119 detained bloggers; almost 30,000 security agents watch what 400 million netizens consult and computers come already from manufacturing plants with embedded software that prevents the access to "harmful" contents.
Not only countries with a questionable background concerning democracy and respect for human rights have taken action against free flow of ideas on the Internet. Australia, the United Kingdom, France and the United States, among others, also have set some mechanism to curb the dissemination on the web of selected contents or punish the people responsible for it.
In a recent report, OpenNet disclosed that 20 percent of censored websites belonged to bloggers, closely followed by websites of political parties (19 percent).
The report found the following as part of the rationale provided by government authorities to take such measures: keeping traditional social values; keeping political stability and safeguarding national security.
"The Internet cannot be something where you can do and say whatever you please; every country needs to set its own guidelines," Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez said in March 2010. Shortly after, he instructed the parliament to regulate it.
The order did not fall in deaf ears. Last December, congressmen passed a reform of the Radio and TV Social Responsibility Law to punish individuals who spread any messages by electronic means which could create "anxiety" or "ignore the authority." The measure also applies to the respective media outlets.
Catalina Botero, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Organization of American States (OAS), lamented the amendment. In an interview with El Universal, she said that it is a breach of the American Convention on Human Rights.
"The right to expression on the Internet may be subject only to legal restrictions that may be imposed by law in accordance with the standards of international law on human rights, which prohibits anonymity, solicitation to hatred and war and any attack on reputation. Thus, any responsibilities arisen from the exercise of freedom of expression are subsequent and prior censorship is prohibited. Therefore, any leak from the government or any other stockholders on Internet service suppliers cannot be justified," she admonished.
In the opinion of Marcelino Bisbal, an expert in communications, the reform reveals "that the government is deadly scared of the media." "This government cannot tolerate criticism, because it would not take on any responsibility. Therefore, it needs to neutralize the media, including the e-media. These, while can be controlled, also have mechanisms to get around controls, unlike radio or television."
The expert cautioned that the legal amendment opens Venezuela the doors to the club comprising Cuba, China and Iran.
As for Botero, she expects that Venezuelan government authorities think it over and realize the great potential of new information technologies to fight corruption, for instance.
Translated by Conchita Delgado
At first she agreed that I use her real name, that she had no problems with that at all. After all, living with HIV had driven her to help others – as a workshop facilitator giving talks and conducting seminars, or as a volunteer for local AIDS Service Organizations like Acción Solidaria (Solidary Action) and Mujeres Unidas por la Salud (Women United for Health, or Musa), a support group network for HIV-positive women. But when we were well into the interview, the realization that she might lose her private health insurance coverage made her change her mind.