United Nations Accused of Censoring Criticism of China at Internet Event

By Patrick Goodenough | November 17, 2009 | 4:52 AM EST

This screenshot from a video clip posted on YouTube shows a U.N. security guard removing the ONI poster. (Image: YouTube)

(CNSNews.com) – United Nations officials on Monday defended their decision to prevent a large poster, referring to China’s Internet censorship system, from being displayed at a meeting in Egypt focusing on Internet governance and freedom.
 
The poster had not been “pre-approved for posting” outside a room allocated to the Open Net Initiative (ONI) – a free speech non-governmental organization – spokesman Farhan Haq told a briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York.
 
After ONI representatives on Sunday refused “repeated requests” to remove the poster, a U.N. security guard folded it up and took it away, he said.
 
Haq acknowledged that “other delegates [had] complained” about the poster, without elaborating. ONI said its members were told repeatedly that the problem was the reference to China.
 
The group said in a statement that its members had asked U.N. officials to show them rules relating to the displaying of posters. “They did not give us any, only referring to the ‘objections of a member state.’”
 
ONI co-founder Prof. Ron Deibert also said there were many other posters and banners displayed at the event venue.
 
ONI is a joint project involving researchers at Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and Toronto universities who investigate and analyze Internet restrictions around the world.
 
The poster at the center of the row, advertising the launch of an upcoming ONI book, included a reference to China’s “Great Firewall.”

A portion of the poster removed by U.N. security officials at the Internet Governance Forum on Sunday, November 15, 2009. (Image courtesy of ONI)

ONI and other researchers say China – which has the world’s largest number of Internet users, almost 30 percent – oversees the most pervasive and sophisticated state online filtering system in place anywhere.
 
Earlier in the day, U.N. officials also asked ONI to stop handing out invitations to the book launch, because the invite included a reference to Tibet.
 
Haq said the invitations were a problem because Tibet had not been mentioned in ONI’s original request for the use of the room, and it “concerned a political issue not related to” the event underway at Sharm el-Sheikh. (ONI said the Tibet reference related to a film clip about censorship around the world.)
 
The two incidents took place on the opening day of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a gathering of governments, NGOs, businesses and media discussing issues relating to the way the Internet is run. Its main themes are access, diversity, openness, security and critical Internet resources.
 
‘Self-defeating and stupid’
 
The Chinese government is renowned for its sensitivity about criticism over its human rights record and has frequently been accused of using intimidation and bullying tactics at U.N. and other international forums.
 
At a town hall event in Shanghai on Monday, President Obama responded to a question about China’s Internet censorship by describing himself as “a strong supporter of open Internet use” and saying “unrestricted Internet access … should be encouraged.”
 
A research and advocacy network at the forum, opennet.asia, accused the U.N. officials of censorship.
 
“Apparently, the reason for the disapproval of the United Nations Security office is that it might displease the Chinese government officials who are attending the IFG meeting,” it said.
 
A representative of an opennet.asia member group, Al Alegre, criticized officials for “trying to impress” Beijing.
 
Prof. Milton Mueller, a member of an academic policy group called the Internet Governance Project, also commented on the incident.
 
“The intervention was typically self-defeating and stupid one; the process of negotiating over the banner attracted a great deal of attention and dozens of attendees took pictures of the banner,” he wrote. “Word spread instantly on Twitter and blogs. The book will be helped by this.”
 
Mueller, from the Syracuse University School of Information Studies, said the point of Chinese officials’ intervention had clearly been to show that they “could retaliate against their critics in the U.N. environment and use the apparatus of U.N. rules to do so. The global governance implications should be obvious.”
 
A clip of the security guard removing the poster was posted on YouTube, and as of early Tuesday it had been viewed around 20,000 times.
 
Host nation decision criticized
 
The IGF was established as a result of the World Summit on the Information Society, a U.N.-sponsored event held in Tunisia in 2005. Some developing nations, including China, Brazil and India, pressed for an end to what they regarded as U.S. “control” of the Internet.

The U.S. fended off the challenge, and the IGF was born as a compromise. It enables governments, businesses, NGOs and others to discuss issues around Internet governance.
 
The U.S. does not “control” the Internet, but a California-based regulator, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), assigns protocol addresses and oversees Web domains.
 
The meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh is the fourth annual IGF session. Organizers earlier came under fire for holding the event in Egypt, a country whose government free speech advocates frequently criticize for restrictions. It is being chaired Egypt’s communication and information technology minister, Tarek Kamel. 
 
“It is astonishing that a government that is openly hostile to Internet users is assigned the organization of an international meeting on the Internet’s future,” press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said last week.
 
“Egypt is one of the enemies of the Internet and if Internet governance requires a degree of regulation, it should be of a liberal nature and not the kind that the Egyptian government would like to impose.”
 
Reporters Without Borders compiles an annual press freedom index and this year Egypt is ranked 143rd out of 175 countries this year (China is 168th).
 
The first three IGFs were held in Greece, Brazil and India, respectively at 35th, 71st and 105th place in the 2009 press freedom index.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow