Friday, July 04, 2003

Not in My Territory

We want to place Simputers in villages and enterprises all over the world, and we are getting a lot of interest from almost everywhere in the world, but there are a few places where we are legally barred from doing business. There are export controls and sanctions imposed by the US and other countries, but that isn't what I am talking about. I mean countries that won't let us in.

The top place on the list goes to North Korea. The population is allowed no contact with foreigners. especially with anybody who speaks Korean, like me. (I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Seoul in the 1960s.) South Korean tourists aren't allowed to talk to any North Koreans other than their minders. With rare exceptions, you can't make phone calls into or out of North Korea. Aid workers are not permitted in to see what happens to the aid they provide.

Burma (Myanmar) makes it almost as hard for the public to get on the Internet. The government has a big official Information and Communication Technology Park, but no communications technology for the people. Burma has tight laws regulating modems, requiring explicit government permission for any individual to own one, and they don't give permission to anybody who wants to empower the poor. Since Simputers have modems built in, that rather limits the possibilities.

Libya used to be a problem, but recently Internet service has been offered to anybody with a telephone connection and enough money. That still isn't a lot of people, but it is a big improvement.

The rest of the legal restrictions we face on deployment are in the few countries that deny Internet service to minorities. This mainly concerns severe restrictions and outright repression of Kurds in Syria and Turkey. Iran regards the Kurds as Persians who talk funny, since Kurdish and Persion (Farsi) are about as closely related as Spanish and Portuguese or Catalan (another language banned in its own country for decades). So Kurdish access to the Internet is restricted in Iran, but not more so than everybody else's.

Turkey is different, because of Turkish fears that the Kurdish part of the country, containing about a fifth of the population, will secede. The Turkish government, under the impetus of that fear and of the previous humiliation of the loss of the former Turkish Empire, for fifteen years implemented almost every counter-productive policy toward the Kurds that one could well think of, including arrests, paramilitary actions, forcible drafting of Kurds to fight Kurds, extra-judicial executions, torture, banning the Kurdish language, putting Kurdish children into Turkish-only "boarding schools", and imprisoning a duly elected Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament for violating Article 81 of the Law on Political Parties, which forbids mention of racial or religious minorities. "Leyla Zana, a HEP deputy, appeared wearing the 'Kurdish colours' (red, yellow and green) in her hair and announced in Kurdish that she was taking her parliamentary oath in Turkish under protest." Kurds in Turkey were not allowed to watch satellite TV shows in Kurdish. And after all of that, the Turkish government was surprised that Kurds wanted to secede even more.

Under EU pressure Turkey began lightening up on the Kurds in 2002, legalizing the language and lifting some other repressive laws. The EU has stated that Turkey cannot move to the next stage in the process of joining the EU until these laws are seen to be implemented fully. With the prospect of enforceable civil rights, the Kurds have given up armed conflict and entered a purely political struggle. Who would have thought? Not the Turks, anyway.

Syria is in some ways worse for the Kurds. The Syrian government treats about 200,000 of their Kurds as stateless non-persons. These people have no citizenship, cannot get birth certificates or passports, cannot send their children to school, cannot get government jobs, and face denial of many other human rights.

In stark contrast the Kurds in Iraq have been self-governing for more than a decade, and had Internet cafes in cities and many towns while Arab Iraqis could get Internet access only in Baghdad and only under heavy security surveillance and numerous restrictions. For example, e-mail was not permitted, and many sites were blocked. There is currently one public Internet access point in Baghdad, and no others in Arab Iraq at all. The Occupation forces don't forbid access, but neither are they doing anything to make access available.

The Indian government cut off Internet service in Jammu and Kashmir in January 2002 as an "anti-terrorist" measure, but restored it in June 2002.

It wouldn't surprise me to hear of other instances of laws depriving minorities of access to the Internet. If you know of any, please send me the information and if possible a Web link to sources.

Intentional deprivation of access to information is a clear violation of the UN Declaration on Human Rights (See my post of yesterday), so it is time that somebody got organized to protest against it.

There are also countries that jail citizens for posting political messages on the Internet, notably China, Tunisia, and Vietnam.

We can't very well deploy Internet service in combat zones, such as Congo, Liberia, or Sudan, although the contending militaries could if they wanted to. But that is a topic for another day.

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