LONDON (Reuters)- Amnesty International marked its 45th anniversary on Sunday by launching a global campaign to stamp out state censorship of the Internet.
The human rights pressure group called on Web users to sign a pledge calling on governments to stop censoring sites and urging technology corporations not to collude with them.
Arguing that online censorship is a new threat to freedom, Amnesty claimed to have uncovered Internet repression in areas around the world from China and Tunisia to Vietnam, Iran, Israel and the Maldives.
Calling for the release of “cyber dissidents” jailed for expressing their political views online, Amnesty said Internet cafes are being shut down, computers seized, chat rooms monitored and blogs deleted.
“The Internet is a huge, powerful tool. We see governments censoring access to the Internet or locking people up for having conversations about democracy and freedom,” said Kate Allen, UK director of Amnesty International.
Launching a new irrepressible.info Web site to challenge Internet censorship, Allen said “I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression and on companies to stop helping them do it.”
The world’s largest Internet providers have become embroiled in an international debate about Web censorship, especially in China.
Earlier this month, Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO – news) said it was seeking the U.S. government’s help in urging China to allow more media freedom after reports linking information it gave to Chinese authorities with the jailing of a dissident.
The case was the latest to highlight conflicts of profit and principle for Internet companies in the world’s second biggest Internet market.
Web search leader Google Inc, has come under fire for saying it would block politically sensitive terms on its new China site, bowing to conditions set by Beijing.
The new campaign for freedom on the information superhighway was launched in the Observer newspaper. In 1961, an article by Peter Benenson in the same newspaper, calling on governments to stop persecution, led to Amnesty being founded.
Corporations accused of collusion were quick to defend themselves in the newspaper with Yahoo corporate communications manager Alex Laity telling The Observer: “We condemn punishment of any activity internationally recognised as free expression whether that punishment takes place in China or anywhere else in the world.”
Amnesty, which once relied on letter writing campaigns to bombard governments with pleas to release political prisoners, now has 1.8 million supporters in more than 100 countries.
Adapting “People Power” to the electronic age as a tool for pressurising international opinion, Amnesty urged Web users to sign an online pledge which will be presented to a U.N. meeting on the future of the Internet in November.