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The Battle of the Blog

Prepared by: Andrew Hansen
April 3, 2007

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When an Egyptian court sentenced twenty-two-year-old blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman to a four-year prison sentence for contempt of religion, insulting the president, and spreading false information, the decision, upheld in an appeals court in Alexandria, drew international attention. Known by his Internet nom de plumeKareem Amer,” the college student has plenty of successors. Wael Abbas, another Egyptian blogger who posted videos of torture in an Egyptian prison, reportedly has a warrant pending for his arrest (NPR). Several bloggers were beaten and arrested during protests against constitutional amendments that critics say roll back personal freedoms (HRW).

Although scarce in totalitarian states with ultra-stringent controls on expression, bloggers have emerged in countries like Iran, China, and Egypt, where citizens have access to computers and free speech is somewhat protected (WorldChanging), according to Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Bloggers’ influence has grown across the Arab world (Poynter) and Iran, in which the BBC estimates there were between ten thousand and fifteen thousand bloggers in 2004.  

But regimes are fighting back. Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists says “authoritarian states have made the Internet a major front.” A 2006 report on jailed journalists shows one in three is a blogger, online editor, or Web-based reporter. In additional to prosecuting journalists, governments block blogging sites, require licenses for internet service providers, and hold those providers accountable for the content they carry. Iranian authorities passed a law requiring bloggers to register with the government, which drew strong reactions (BBC) from the Iranian expatriate blogging community.

In some cases, regimes collude with private companies, such as Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! (PDF), who face the difficult choice of acquiescing or completely withdrawing from a country.  A report from the OpenNet Initiative, a project to monitor state filtration and surveillance of the Internet, shows that Internet censorship is spreading, as filtering software gets smarter and regimes learn techniques from China (FT) —the king of web censorship. 

China openly declares its commitment to “purifying the internet” (Reuters). Last year, Beijing silenced (NYT) one of the country’s most popular bloggers, but the sheer number of China’s ten million blogs poses a Sisyphean task for China’s thirty thousand internet police censors. Additionally, China won’t allow the opening of any additional Internet cafes in 2007, establishments on which many Chinese rely for Internet access (BusinessWeek). This Backgrounder offers a deeper look at media censorship in China.

But even as government censors find new ways to block content, bloggers find new ways to evade them. The free expression advocacy group Reporters Without Borders publishes a “handbook for cyber-dissidents” with technical information on starting a blog, publishing anonymously, sidestepping government controls, and establishing some measure of journalistic credibility. CFR Fellows Steven A. Cook and Michael A. Levi want the U.S. State Department to include a status report on Internet freedom in its annual human rights report.

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