Blogs and Freedom of Speech

Harvard Law School holds weekly meetings for blog writers at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society to explore blogging and related technology, answer questions, and give demos. (Photo: Webshots)

A global phenomenon — blogging — has exploded in popularity to the point where there are now more than 20 million blogs being tracked around the world. They have risen in prominence as well as in numbers, with some leading blogs challenging the established order of the mainstream press. Indeed, at times the mainstream media has been put in the unusual position of reacting to news that bloggers generate.

The term 'blog' is a blend of the terms 'web' and 'log,' leading to 'web log,' 'weblog,' and finally 'blog.' Authoring a blog, maintaining a blog or adding an article to an existing blog has been dubbed 'blogging.' Individual articles on a blog are called 'blog posts,' 'posts,' or 'entries.' A person who posts these entries is called a 'blogger.'

According to online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the term 'weblog' was coined by Jorn Barger on Dec. 17, 1997. The short form, 'blog,' was coined by Peter Merholz. He broke the word 'weblog' into the phrase 'we blog' in the sidebar of his weblog in April or May of 1999.

Since 2003, blogs have gained increasing notice and coverage for their role in breaking, shaping, and spinning news stories. Bloggers provide nearly-instant commentary on televised events, creating a secondary meaning of the word 'blogging' — to simultaneously transcribe and editorialize speeches and events shown on television.

In 2004, the role of blogs became increasingly mainstream, as political consultants, news services and candidates began using them as tools for outreach and opinion forming. Appropriately, that year Merriam-Webster's Dictionary declared 'blog' as the word of the year.

'The Blossoming Of Citizen Journalism'

London's BBC (June 5) welcomed the new Internet craze in an article titled, "Why we are all journalists now," which said: "The blossoming of citizen journalism stands as one of the Internet's most exciting developments. With millions of bloggers, tens of millions of Internet posters, and hundreds of millions of readers, online news sources have radically reshaped the way we access our daily news. While mainstream news organizations initially expressed doubt about the news value of online sources such as blogs, in recent months many have launched their own blogs, frequently maintained by some of their most distinctive voices. Indeed, the remarkable growth of the blogosphere is enough to convince even the most die-hard skeptic that something important is afoot. Technorati, a blog search engine, reports that it tracks 75,000 new blogs each day."

A more detailed look at blog growth was provided by British business Web Site, Vnunet.com (May 26): "A new blog is created every second, adding to the 37 million that already exist, according to David Sifry, founder of the Technorati weblog data-set and link tracker/search engine. This staggering rate of increase equates to a sixty-fold growth of the 'blogosphere' within the past three years. There are no geographic or demographic boundaries to blogging. Ray Valdes, a web services analyst at Gartner, observed that the total number of bloggers worldwide makes it difficult to conclude that one geographical region could have a higher concentration of blogging activity than any other.

There are a number of blog formats, but according to Singapore's SDA Asia Magazine (May 25), the dominant computer operating system manufacturer has taken the lead: "MSN Spaces, Microsoft's free blogging platform, launched in Dec. 2004, has taken off in a big way in less than two years of existence. According to a data released by comScore Networks Inc., an independent Internet audience measurement and consulting company, MSN Spaces is the most widely used blogging service worldwide with more than 100 million unique visitors.

People all over the world have discovered profitable ways to incorporate blogging into their personal and business lives. OhMyNews International (May 11) reported: "In Africa, there are ways to extend the Internet as part of other methods of communication. This can be through SMS on mobiles or conventional radio for local relays. There is a flourishing blogging scene, featuring such blogs as Kenyan Pundit by Ory Okolloh. The Mail and Guardian hosted a blog for all politicians in recent local elections. This resulted in many comments and helped to encourage debate. There is also the start of a citizen journalism site at Reporter.co.za. The session started with a protest at the Reuters selection of images about Africa that reinforced assumptions about poverty."

Some blogosphere demographics were provided by India's Hindustan Times (June 2): "According to an Internet survey, blogging has more female addicts than male, with over 68 percent of bloggers being women. Although it is picking up in popularity with adults, blogging is still largely the domain of teenagers with nearly 58.8 percent of bloggers worldwide falling in the age group 13 to 19. … Blogging has its benefits even as far as one's emotional and mental health is concerned. When a number of people worldwide gather to express like viewpoints on an issue, it helps in collective ventilation whereby one derives confidence by sharing the same sentiments with others. Said Rahul Dewan, a blogger and a student of engineering, 'I find it (blogging) better than writing a book, because you can say exactly what you want, without interference from anyone else. You have your own space on the Internet, which people visit, read and comment upon. This way you also receive feedback over your post which can be used constructively.'"

From the Caribbean, the Jamaica Gleaner (May 3) reported: "Blogging, which might be a new word to many readers, is being grasped both here and abroad not only as the future of press freedom but also as an opportunity to develop media careers. … Peter Dean Rickards is a Jamaican photographer who, since 1999, has used his website The Afflicted Yard (www.afflictedyard.com), which includes a blog, as an online portfolio leading to work and recognition from leading international style magazines such as Fader, i-D and Vanity Fair. 'The Web's been a very effective tool for me. It serves primarily as a portfolio and allows me a great deal of independence as it relates to my own work,' Mr. Rickards said. 'It's allowed me to compete with writers and photographers around the world who have the advantage of being able to walk into offices and present their work in person.'"

Free Speech

The issue of free speech is very important in discussions about blogs and blogging, as noted in London's business-oriented Web site Silicon.com (May 15): "In the same way that the Internet and technology provided the original facility for both sides — those who want to be free and those who want to constrain — it also provides new opportunities for communication and anonymity. IP tunnels, proxy servers, encryption, phantom email accounts and spoof addressing are among the obvious examples — not to mention the hiding and/or embedding of data in apparently passive files! And then there are all the tools used by the spreaders of viral infections and bot networks. All could be turned and used to keep free speech alive and safe."

World events have exterted a major influence on the growth and influence of blogs, according to Australia's The Age (June 2): "Although the technological capacity had existed for some time, and pioneering blogs such as the Drudge Report had been active since the 1990s, Sept. 11 fueled the explosion of what we now call the blogosphere — millions of websites operated by opinionated amateurs with access to the means of digital media production. Today, bloggers and citizen journalists increasingly shape the global media agenda. During the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Baghdad Blogger provided global audiences with a glimpse of what life was like for ordinary Iraqis stuck between an invading army and a brutal dictator. The Asian tsunami of 2004 was a global news story told largely with home video footage."

Reuters South Africa (May 6) reported on one of the hottest blogging scenes: "Blogging is booming in China with the number of bloggers expected to hit 60 million by the end of this year. China is the world's second-largest Internet market after the United States, with more than 110 million users. A survey by Chinese search engine Baidu.com put the current number of blog, or web log, sites at 36.82 million which are kept by 16 million people, the official Xinhua news agency said. But the Communist Party's propaganda mandarins are obsessed with control and have closed down some outspoken blogs. Chat forums and online bulletin boards are routinely monitored for controversial political comments and sensitive words such as 'freedom' and 'democracy' are censored."

As Silicon.com (June 5) reported, the censorship debate has heated up: "… Internet companies have also come under fire lately for some actions in China, including Google for saying it would block politically sensitive terms on its website in the country and Microsoft's MSN for shutting down a blog under Chinese government orders."

Government Censorship

A bulletin from France's Reporters Without Borders (May 3) presented a foreboding look into the possible future repression of bloggers' freedom of expression: "Dictators would seem powerless faced with this explosion of online material. How could they monitor the e-mails of China's 130 million users or censor the messages posted by Iran's 70,000 bloggers? The enemies of the Internet have unfortunately shown their determination and skill in doing just that. Censorship of the Web is growing and is now done on every continent. Traditional 'predators of press freedom' — Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Libya, the Maldives, Nepal, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam — all censor the Internet now. In 2003, only China, Vietnam and the Maldives had imprisoned cyber-dissidents. Now more countries do.

"A score of bloggers and online journalists have been thrown in jail in Iran since Sept. 2004 and one of them, Mojtaba Saminejad, has been there since Feb. 2005 for posting material deemed offensive to Islam. In Libya, former bookseller Abdel Razak al-Mansouri was sentenced to 18 months in prison for making fun of President Mohammar Khaddafi online. Two Internet users have been jailed and tortured in Syria, one for posting photos online of a pro-Kurdish demonstration in Damascus and the other for simply passing on an e-mailed newsletter the regime considers illegal.

"A lawyer has been in jail in Tunisia since March 2005 for criticizing official corruption in an online newsletter. While a U.N. conference was held in Tunis in Nov. 2005 to discuss the future of the Internet, this human rights activist was in a prison cell several hundred miles from his family. It was a grim message to the world's Internet users.

"The situation has worsened in the Middle East and North Africa. In Nov. 2005, Morocco began censoring all political websites advocating Western Sahara's independence. Iran expands its list of banned sites each year and it now includes all publications mentioning women's rights. Some Asian countries seem about to go further than their Chinese 'big brother.' Burma has acquired sophisticated technology to filter the Internet, and the country's cyber cafés spy on customers by automatically recording what is on the screen every five minutes."

In Iran, the situation appears to be particularly dire. According to London's Online Press Gazette (June 5): "Locking up bloggers remains a favorite practice of the Iranian authorities. In January, Arash Sigarchi received a three-year prison sentence for 'insulting the Supreme Guide' and for 'propaganda against the regime.' Sigarchi has kept a political and cultural blog since 2002."

Things are no better in Egypt, as an article in the Middle East Times (May 19) detailed: "As internationally acclaimed blogger Alaa, of www.manalaa.net, sits in prison waiting to be released, bloggers in Egypt have begun a new campaign to educate Egyptians and the entire world on the situation facing Egyptian bloggers. Manal, the other half of manalaa.net and Alaa's wife, told the Middle East Times, 'Lots of bloggers find freedom of expression attainable with blogs.' Last year Reporters without Borders awarded Manal and Alaa the freedom of expression award for their blogging efforts in Egypt. At the time, Egypt had only a few dozen blogs, but since then, an explosion of bloggers has been witnessed in Egypt. The number is now thought to be in the thousands.

"Alaa has snuck messages out of his prison cell and those have been posted online, in Arabic as well as English. His imprisonment has led more and more bloggers across Egypt to join the bandwagon calling for freedom of expression. Since April 27, blogs have sprung up throughout the country, all calling for action in order to free activists from prison. Among the thousands of blogs, Freealaa.blogspot.com and Freedroubi.blogspot.com are the most notorious. These blogs attempt to expose the ruling regime's tactics and call for people to take action in order to free the activists from what they call unlawful imprisonment."

Fighting Back

Fortunately, there are forces fighting back against the tide of Internet censorship. London's The Observer (June 4) reported on a celebrity-led, collaborative effort: "Chris Martin, Martha Lane Fox, Bob Geldof and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are among nearly 20,000 people who have backed The Observer and Amnesty International campaign to end repression on the Internet. This remarkable response to the launch of Irrepressible.info last week included support from around the world. The campaign — 45 years after a powerful article in this newspaper led to the founding of Amnesty International — recognizes the Internet as a new frontier in the struggle for human rights. It demands that governments stop censoring websites, blocking emails and persecuting and imprisoning bloggers. It also calls for major corporations to stop making it easier for them to do so. … More than 1,000 blogs are already linked to the Irrepressible.info website, and the campaign has been welcomed by bloggers who have suffered under oppressive regimes. Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian now living in Canada, whose blog Hoder.com has been censored in Iran, said: 'By censoring the Internet and specifically blogs, governments are depriving themselves of amazing sources of information about what their population thinks of them and what they are up to.'"

Repressive governments are now being called on to account for their Internet policies, as AllAfrica.com (May 24) noted: "Reporters Without Borders has called on Ethiopia's information and culture minister, Hailu Berhan, to explain why several websites critical of the government have been inaccessible in the country since May 17. Ethiopians have also seen all publications hosted by Blogspot.com disappear from the Internet.

"Even though the authorities have made no announcement, it is likely that the disappearance of the sites is the result of political censorship and not technical problems. 'We would like to know if your government has deliberately blocked access to online publications, a list of which we enclose, thus taking the course of filtering the Internet,' the press freedom organization asked Hailu Berhan in a letter. 'The Ethiopian Internet is dynamic and has seen the development of an extremely active blogging community. It is your responsibility to ensure that all opinions can be expressed online, even when some Internet users directly criticise government action. Preventing debate and controlling news and information circulating online will only aggravate an already very tense political climate. … We also wish to draw to your attention the consequences of filtering a blog tool such as Blogspot.com, which is currently inaccessible in Ethiopia. Blocking access to this service has the effect of censoring all publications which it hosts, the vast majority of which do not deal with politics or with Ethiopia.'"

There have already been some successes in the battle for a censorship-free Internet. According to the Philippines NQ7.net (May 6): "Pakistani blogger Dr. Awab Alvi, on May 3, after almost two months since the initial ban was imposed, the Alvi-e Team — supported by bloggers worldwide joining under the 'Don't Block the Blog' banner — are pleased to report that they again have access to Blogspot blogs in Pakistan. Dr. Alvi said that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had blocked access to Blogspot on March 3, disallowing access to a number of websites for the Internet users in Pakistan. The ban was in response to a list submitted by a Supreme Court decision on March 2 that instructed the PTA to ban 12 offending websites which highlighted the blasphemous cartoons on the Prophet Muhammad.

"Alvi and his fellow bloggers said that the collective efforts of dozens of free speech activists of the 'Don't Block the Blog' campaign and the Action Group Against Blogspot Ban in Pakistan had successfully pressured the government to lift the ban."

An important U.S. court decision was also lauded as a step in the right direction in protecting bloggers' rights. Reporters Without Borders (May 30) noted: "Reporters Without Borders today hailed a Californian appeal court's 'historic' decision on May 26 that online journalists and bloggers have the same right to protect their sources as other kinds of journalists. The ruling was issued in a case between the U.S. electronics manufacturer Apple and websites that posted confidential information about some of its products. In his ruling, the appeal court judge refused to make a distinction between 'legitimate and illegitimate' news reports, warning that any attempt to go down this road would jeopardize the goals of the First Amendment.

Enjoy a fascinating trek through blogs from all over the world in Worldpress.org's World Blog section.