Yahoo conference focused on human rights

May 5, 2009 8:26:29 PM PDT
Three major high tech companies are joining forces for reasons beyond business. They intend to create a human rights agenda, giving people around the world the ability to exchange ideas on the internet. It sounds noble, but there are some daunting obstacles.

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Americans may take blogging for granted, but bloggers showed up for at a gathering of journalists and human rights advocates to chart a course to win freedom of expression globally.

"There is no freedom of expression in Ethiopia," Addisvoice.com editor-in-chief Abebe Gellaw said.

Gellaw is an Ethiopian exile and runs his news site from London, relying on a network of more than 100 sources in Ethiopia. He says those sources are very much at risk.

"Anyone who criticizes the government is at risk, not just journalists, any private individual who criticizes the government can be jailed without trial," Gellaw said.

China has been criticized for blocking anti-government Web sites. However, it has adopted a new strategy; Georgetown University professor Gaurav Mishra says paid propaganda is replacing censorship.

"China is beginning to do that with things like the 50 cent Army, which is basically a volunteer force of 350,000 active surfers who are paid 50 cents for every comment they post in favor of the Chinese Communist Party," Mishra said.

The world is filled with countries with different values, and change may be difficult.

"I want to work to change those countries, but I also think that the more we work to bring these services to people, these are tools of democracy, and that they will win out in the end," Leslie Harris of the Center for Democracy and Technology said.

Yahoo says it is working with rivals Google and Microsoft on a human rights agenda.

"We're indeed fierce competitors, but on human rights issues we walk arm-in-arm and we realize there's strength in numbers, so we're much more powerful working together," Yahoo Deputy General Cousel Michael Samway said.

All of the participants acknowledge there is a long road ahead. And while Americans consider the Internet's influence to be pervasive, in other countries, that is not the case. In India, 40 percent of the population is illiterate, and only 4 percent have access to the Internet.

Below are some websites created by panelists who are providing grassroots news coverage in parts of the world not known for their freedom of speech:

  • http://globalvoicesonline.org
  • http://www.addisvoice.com
  • http://www.gauravonomics.com

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