Press freedom groups like CPJ have traditionally focused their attention on defending news gatherers. These strategies remain crucial, but in order to more effectively defend press freedom in the new global information environment we need to devote more resources to defending the Internet itself. CPJ, for example, is adding a full-time Internet advocacy coordinator in 2010 to do just that. Our goal is to get media organizations to understand that they have an enormous stake in the outcome.

To be effective, journalists, media organizations, and press-freedom groups need to form alliances with the ISPs and tech companies that maintain the Internet’s infrastructure. These companies are coming under tremendous pressure from repressive governments to enforce government censorship. Too often they have complied and have been justly criticized for doing so.

That is why Google’s recent stand in China is so important. Refusing to comply with Chinese government censorship “was a statement that doing the moral and ethical thing is good for business,” says Rebecca MacKinnon. “When your business is transmitting, publishing, amplifying, and hosting the most intimate details of people’s lives and their most sensitive political conversations, then your users have to trust that you’re not going to be tossing information to the nearest dictator.”

Good for business, but also good for journalism. However, these kinds of efforts will only be effective if companies agree to abide by minimum standards that prevent competitors from exploiting another’s principled position. A new organization called the Global Network Initiative was set up to do just that. The organization, which expects to hire an executive director in the next few months, is made up of leading Internet companies—Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft—along with human rights organizations and socially responsible investors. Robert Mahoney, CPJ’s deputy director, represents us on the initiative’s board.

A united front has proved effective, as was shown last summer when international tech companies forced the Chinese government to back away from its plan to require the installation of filtering software called Green Dam/Youth Escort in every computer sold in China.

Governments, too, have a role to play in defending press freedom online. “We stand for a single Internet, where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in a January speech at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Turning that lofty rhetoric into effective policy will be a major challenge.

The goal of everyone fighting for press freedom on the Internet is to bring together journalists, ISPs, tech and media companies, freedom of expression and human rights groups, and even supportive governments in a broad international coalition to preserve and strengthen Internet freedom and push back against countries that seek to restrict it. The future of free journalism may depend on the success of this coalition.

Technology will play a role, but it’s only one tool. Equally important is consistent public pressure on governments that employ censorship. The perception that dissident voices rather than repressive governments have benefited more from the advent of the Internet is probably correct—but only for the moment. As MacKinnon notes, “The Internet is an extension of human activity, and secret police and criminals have moved into cyberspace along with the wonderful democracy activists we all like.”

 

Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.