The Front Line Is Online

Article excerpt

Byline: Julia Baird

Freedom should trump privacy.

It's been a year since Neda Agha Soltan died. Since her dark eyes blazed into the camera of an on-looker while she lay on the ground, muttering, "I'm burning, I'm burning." The powerful, gruesome video of the young musician, taken after she was shot during the Iranian election protests on June 20 last year, was touted as the most widely watched death in history. It's a grim honor, yet this footage--along with many others of the protests, shot by shaking hands and blurred by chaos, running feet, and shouting voices--marked the moment citizen journalism truly entered the mainstream.

And it may have been at this moment that, as millions watched an autocratic regime violently repress dissent, we understood the Internet to be not just a source of information, fun, and power, but a basic right--a right that is crucial to democracy, diplomacy, and open government. A year on, though, we are at real risk of backsliding: people have been jailed in Iran, and elsewhere, for questioning and exposing governments online. Firewalls have been erected; servers have been shut down; online access has been denied. Here, we remain vigilant about fraud and privacy, and rightly harangue Facebook when its wizards compromise our secrecy for commercial ends. But as we veer into debates about the ability of employers to see photos of us dancing on bars, this greater concern--censorship of political dissent online--is getting far less airplay. It is not just happening in China and Iran, but also in Burma, Syria, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Moldova, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

A GlobeScan poll of 28,000 people conducted for the BBC in March found 87 percent of those who use the Net believe it should be a "fundamental right." This is a serious and profound shift in our understanding of rights. One in seven of those who do not use the Internet think they should have the right to if they want. Yet only half of those surveyed felt the Internet was a safe place to express their opinions, and more than half thought that it should never be regulated by the government. Which may suggest that some people are willing to accept some compromises to privacy to avoid the creeping censorship that too easily follows government intervention. The basic tenet of the Internet is openness: you don't need to forfeit all privacy, but if you want to protect it, don't post publicly. …