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The Internet - the free and open Web of ideas - has become the new symbol of freedom, or at least one of its more visible prophets. Howard Rheingold, a scholar of the early Internet era, predicted a utopian vision where the "electronic agora" would change the public space and create a free, global society, or an "Athens without slaves."
But Rheingold's vision remains utopian. Research shows that outside the Western hemisphere, it is the terrorist groups that have gained the upper hand on the Internet as they use its free virtual space to support radicalism and extremism rather than democracy and freedom. Today, there are more than 5,000 Internet sites affiliated with terrorist groups.
But the forces of freedom are also making their way on the Internet and, on occasion, one can glimpse interesting examples of a world that may yet be.
In a rare statement on the issue, a Chinese official admitted recently that his country is beginning to lose its tight control over its own virtual space. Wang Guoqing, a deputy minister at the Ministry of Information, was quoted by the state-run China Daily newspaper as saying that "it has been repeatedly proved that information blocking is like walking into a dead end."
CHINA, WHICH is a leading developer and provider of an Internet filtering system - with a respectable client list such as Iran and Syria - appears to admit that there is even a limit to what a powerful government may seek to hide.
Wang's conclusion was even more striking. He said that local governments needed to be more transparent, describing some as being "too naive" in thinking that they can hide damaging information.
"Wang revealed that some local government spokespeople used to believe that 90 percent of bad news could be muffled, while only 10 percent would be unluckily exposed by the media," the China Daily said. He cited the recent case of a slavery scandal that emerged in China's Shanxi and Henan provinces as proof that bad news needs to be managed and controlled, rather than covered up.
Last month, the local police arrested 168 people involved in the kidnapping and enslavement of hundreds of adults and children who were forced to work in brick kilns in central China. Almost 500 people were freed, including 50 minors, some as young as eight.
HUNDREDS, perhaps thousands of people had been forced to work as slaves in brickyards for years and dozens died as a result of maltreatment, a lack of safety equipment and poor medical care. The local government refused to acknowledge any problem until 400 family members posted an Internet petition demanding an investigation into the whereabouts of their missing children. That demand was picked by a local television station, which found that the children had indeed been kidnapped from railway and bus stations in Zhengzhou and then sold by traffickers to kiln owners in Shanxi for 500 yuan ($65).
Keeping the information out of the media spotlight until the scandal came under full public scrutiny left the Shanxi government in a very vulnerable position. Wang admitted that the central government's commitment to transparency, as well as to new information technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones, were making it more difficult for local officials to hide bad news.
China is, of course, not yet an example of "Internet transparency." On the contrary, Reporters Without Borders describes the Chinese government as an "enemy of the Internet." In its annual report in February, the global media watchdog said that China is using "armies" of cyber-police to help repressive regimes around the world restrict the Internet in their homelands. President Hu Jintao also admitted that his government intends to keep as tight a rein on the Internet as it does on traditional forms of the media such as newspapers and television.
THE RECENT Chinese example joins a list of other documented cases from around the world in which the Internet served as a vehicle for democratic change. In Egypt, a blogger by the name of Wael Abnas documented and published video reports on police abuses, torture and violence - reports that found their way to YouTube and triggered world attention that was immediately translated into political pressure on Egypt.
In Iran, following the initiative of blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who developed a simple platform for blog posting in Farsi, there are about 700,000 blogs, a recent estimate provided by Blog Herald. These blogs are often used as a primary vehicle for reporting on human rights abuses, political prisoners, and even for intelligence reports.
True, the Internet may not be able to bring down tyrants and dictators, and it is often an effective tool for spreading propaganda by radicals and terrorists. But it is also able to restrain governments, mobilize democracy activists and even bring the light of day into a dark torture chamber.
There are still slaves in this information era - but it is comforting to know that the Internet has at least helped free a few more.
The writer is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.
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