Amnesty International marked its 45th anniversary yesterday by launching a global campaign to stamp out state censorship of the Internet.
The London-based human rights group used an article in Britain's weekly Observer newspaper to launch the scheme -- irrepressible.info -- and criticize governments for censoring Web sites, blocking e-mails and shutting down Weblogs.
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.
It also slammed technology firms for operating limited search engine facilities to comply with state-imposed restrictions, as Google has done in China.
Amnesty International's use of the Observer as a forum has a precedent. The rights group was launched in 1961 after its founder Peter Benenson wrote in the newspaper about two Portuguese students who were arrested for raising a toast to freedom.
The paper noted that 45 years on, the global organization is now fighting on behalf of three Vietnamese people arrested for taking part in a chatroom debate about democracy.
Kate Allen, Amnesty's UK director, said China was the most obvious example of state censorship of the Internet but evidence had also been unearthed in states such as Tunisia, Vietnam, the Maldives, Israel and Iran.
"The Internet has the potential to transcend national borders and allow the free flow of ideas around the world," Allen said.
"It is the greatest medium for free expression since the printing press ... This is the new frontier in the battle between those what want to speak out, and those who want to stop them," she said.
"We are asking people to show their support for Internet freedom by backing a simple pledge calling on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of online freedom of expression and on companies to stop helping them do it," Allen said.
Rafal Rohozinski, from the Advanced Network Research Group at Britain's Cambridge University, was quoted as saying that while countries like China, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar were open about censorship, "more worrying is the increasing number of countries implementing filtering under obscure national security provisions or other, hidden extra-legal means.
"We are seeing an alarming increase in these practices," he said.
The world's largest Internet providers have become embroiled in an international debate about Web censorship, especially in China.
Earlier this month, Yahoo said it was seeking the US government's help in urging China to allow more media freedom after reports linking information the company 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.
Corporations accused of collusion were quick to defend themselves, with Yahoo corporate communications manager Alex Laity telling the Observer: "We condemn punishment of any activity internationally recognized 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. Amnesty is urging Web users to sign an online pledge which will be presented to a UN meeting on the future of the Internet in November.