Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and the Russian rock band Pussy Riot make headlines, but theirs aren’t isolated cases of dissidence—or as democracies define it, speech. Aiming to extend to every citizen the freedom these artists insist upon, PEN International’s Declaration on Free Expression and Digital Technologies, adopted at the September 2012 PEN Congress in South Korea, proclaims the right of all people to free expression through digital media without fear of reprisal or persecution. It declares that every individual has the right to seek and receive information through digital media and to be free of government surveillance in doing so. The NET, says PEN, is not a zone of legal or ethical exception: freedom online is as basic a requirement as freedom in the streets.
Brave words, certainly, worth putting down on paper—or in the cloud. But it is hard to be optimistic in the face of so many authoritarian governments that fear freedom of expression by their citizens. China censors online content (the infamous “Great Firewall”), deleting Internet posts, blocking anti-government sites, and banning YouTube, Google+, Twitter, Dropbox, Facebook and Foursquare. This past July the Russian parliament unanimously adopted legislation increasing government control of digital communications. During the January 2011 uprising in Egypt, the besieged regime shut down the Internet. The same is now threatened in Syria. Importantly, the PEN declaration insists that the private sector must not become a party to state surveillance and coercion. (A Human Rights Watch report has documented the ways, alas, in which Yahoo!, Microsoft, Google, and Skype have assisted the Chinese government’s system of political censorship.) But despite this gloomy reality, the new PEN Declaration has a place. It is a rallying cry that sets a standard, helps frame the debate. It is aspirational, like the ever-emerging voices of the people.