If the Internet is a force for democracy, then is there a moral imperative to bring the World Wide Web to citizens living under repressive regimes?
The West can also help by considering ways to facilitate electronic freedom.The U.S. government voiced protest and sent to the region four ships laden with relief, along with aircraft for delivering it. The junta has allowed a small amount of the aid that is needed to enter into some regions, but refused to grant permission for the ships to land, or for necessary supplies to reach the hardest-hit areas. Though activists urged the United States to deliver the supplies anyway, airdropping them if necessary, on June 5 the United States capitulated and withdrew the ships. Yet in an increasingly global community, we will increasingly face moral dilemmas of whether and when to intervene in humanitarian ways. The Internet is creating global communities. But global communities mean global responsibilities. As reformers in a country communicate with the outside world, sending vivid images directly in “real time,” and seek to establish close bonds with us, how should we respond? When, if ever, do we have any responsibilities to them, and if so, what are they? Many observers around the world have predicted that the Internet would readily lead to democratization and peace. Yet despite the Web’s spread, free speech is still limited or threatened in most countries in the world. Fierce battles for freedom rage from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. A critic can argue that we must respect first and foremost the sovereignty of a regime over the emails of its citizens. But what if the legitimacy of that government is questionable? As walls between nations shrink, we need to consider how best to help reformers in a repressive country. We must consider what rights they have, and what rights we have to intervene. As the world becomes more global, in many ways we are entering a new Internet-driven era of “post-nationalism.” The full implications of this development are not wholly clear, but in the case of Myanmar, we can do several things. The West can first supply and deliver more humanitarian aid, and second can apply further political pressure. India, China, and Thailand all still support the junta, and Chevron is involved in building an oil pipeline, supplying the regime with about $1 billion last year alone. Congress is considering ending tax breaks for Chevron as a result, but could apply more pressure. But importantly, the West can also help by considering ways to facilitate electronic freedom. For example, in October, Burmese protesters asked U.S. and U.K. embassies and the United Nations to make free wireless Internet access available. It didn’t happen. But in countries where regimes control Internet use, questions arise of whether the West should ever make Wi-Fi freely available, and if so, when. Just as the Voice of America reached millions in totalitarian countries, should we not develop the Web of America? The junta also uses California-made censorship software to limit the availability of websites to the Burmese. The West could consider scrutinizing the sale of such censorship tools to repressive regimes, perhaps as it monitors sales of armaments. Relatedly, the United States needs to protect and promote human rights more vigilantly and consistently. More reformers will need to feel that they will be supported. Their dreams will only be dampened by the United States disrespecting human rights and overlooking human rights violations in Iraq and elsewhere. Three years ago, I wondered what the monks beside me were writing. I didn’t know, but sensed hope. The media seemed the message. Unfortunately, it is not enough. Over the past few months, the tragedies in Myanmar have saddened me all the more. These men were reaching out to new worlds that I wish don’t now let them down. I could not see their words—only their fingers flying rapidly over the keys. But I will never forget their intense and hopeful gazes. The screens before them revealed both distorted reflections of the small dark room around us, and the great World Wide Web beyond. Robert Klitzman is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and the Director of the Ethics and Policy Core of the HIV Center at Columbia University.
Science Progress proceeds from the propositions that scientific inquiry is among the finest expressions of human excellence, that it is a crucial source of human flourishing, a critical engine of economic growth, and must be dedicated to the common good. Scientific inquiry entails global responsibilities. It should lead to a more equitable, safer, and healthier future for all of humankind.