The New York Times is reporting that the military junta in Burma has shut down the country’s Internet. After nearly a month of protests—avidly covered and documented by native Burmese on the web—the regime cracked down hard on the Buddhist monks and their supporters. Many deaths already have been recorded, and some reports suggest an extremely bloody end to Burma’s push for democratic reform.
During the run-up to this massacre, Burmese bloggers provided photographs, commentary, and even YouTube clips from inside the maelstrom. Stirring photographs of monks clad in orange, and riveting hand-held footage of soldiers firing on protesters, gave the events a harrowing immediacy for Internet-users. The Internet blackout terminated this discourse, blocking the atrocities to come from cyberspace and the outside world.
Censoring the Internet has become a major component of totalitarian control, not just in Burma, but in despotic regimes the world over. The Chinese government devotes significant resources to purging their data flow of dissident material. (At the School of Informatics at Indiana University’s homepage, you can play with a brilliant search tool that compares typical Google searches with Google.cn.)
Some American businesses, like Google and Yahoo, have been scrutinized recently for placating Beijing by slipping things down the memory hole. A Google image search for Tiananmen Square in the United States results in the iconic photograph of a man standing before a column of tanks, while the same search in China yields smiling faces and touristy long shots of the square. In other regions of the world, as well, the Internet is a battleground emblematic of larger political struggles. Bloggers in Egypt and Iran have been targeted by their governments, while, since the liberation of Iraq, the Internet has exploded in that country as a viable and democratic source of news.
The freedom and availability of the Internet has become a leading index of political freedom. It would have been much more difficult for the thugs in Burma to hide their slaughter if they hadn’t been able to purge unflattering coverage from the world’s desktops. The protection and spread of Internet freedom—and the censure or punishment of American businesses that cooperate in Internet censorship—should feature seriously in any presidential candidate’s foreign policy platform. It is a simple, cost-effective, and bloodless way to let democracy seep into the oppressed regions of the world.