As the “Stainless Steel Mouse” was released from jail in China
last Sunday, Internet censorship and original arrest of “Mouse” and
other “cyberdissidents” became a visible issue yet again.
Accused of posting Internet articles criticizing the government,
“Mouse” (the nickname of Chinese college student Liu Di) was jailed
due to the Chinese government’s “concern about political speech on
the Internet” and its forceful attempt to “monitor political speech
aggressively and block particular Web sites, particularly those
that deal with taboo subjects like the banned Falun Gong spiritual
movement,” according to the New York Times. Posting about Tiananmen
Square and human rights, Liu was seen as a subversive element by
the government and arrested in her dorm room for her Internet
With the Internet becoming a more and more popular forum for
expression around the world, concerns over governments violating
the right of freedom of speech and the right of privacy in cases
such as Liu’s are growing, and indeed are providing a cautionary
lesson for all nations dealing with this newer technology.
As in China, recent arrests of “cyberdissidents” in Vietnam have
caught the attention of human rights activists as well. “In the
recent crackdown…individuals have been arrested for… exchanging
e-mails with contacts in the Vietnamese diaspora, and posting
articles critical of the government,” Amnesty International says of
Arrests, such as that of Professor Tran Khue, are usually for
e-mailing pro-democracy literature, or in Tran Khue’s case, writing
about corruption in the government on Internet forums. Besides
restricting the freedom of speech of these activists, the
government of Vietnam is also violating the privacy rights of the
arrested people, with the government “monitoring e-mails, Web
sites, and online forums” according to Amnesty International.
Besides these cases of political dissidents being jailed, there
is the issue of government in China in particular cracking down on
Internet sites they find socially disruptive in any way.
Mu Zimei, a popular advice columnist for a Chinese magazine, had
her Web diary detailing her casual sexual liaisons censored by the
government due to its supposedly offensive material.
“The Mu Zimei phenomenon is another example of the government’s
struggle to keep a grip on social change in China,” says Jim
Yardley of the New York Times. “Her writings have prompted a raging
debate about sex and women on the Internet.”
Challenging long-held views about women and sexuality by writing
details of her numerous encounters with men in her Web log, Mu and
others suggest she was banned because her attitude and the
acceptance of it represents a change in perceptions of women in
With estimates of 10 million visits a day to her online diary,
Mu certainly has captured the interest of the nation and the scorn
While not political restriction, Mu’s censorship is still a hot
button issue in that the government is restricting expressions of
social attitudes that contradict with their own.
In all these cases, be they political dissent or actions
perceived as socially challenging, the fact that authorities are
banning works or imprisoning writers is a troubling issue. A clear
breach of the Johannesburg Principles of 1996, which state “no
restriction on freedom of expression or information on the grounds
of national security may be imposed unless the government can
demonstrate that the restriction… is necessary in a democratic
society to protect the legitimate national security interest,”
these imprisonments and restrictions are disturbing rights
Certainly, these e-mailing dissenters and Mu’s writings on
sexuality cannot be seen as compromising national security.
With the swift growth of the Internet in these nations (in
Vietnam’s case, an explosion of 2.5 million users since 1997)
governments are struggling to know what to do with this new forum.
Censorship and violations of privacy, however, should not be the
With the recent concerns over censorship in America, as well,
(due in part to the passage of the USA PATRIOT ACT) this lesson for
governments overseas should likewise be heeded at home.
Meg is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs