Neither Beijing nor Microsoft can shut down Zhao Jing. The blogger better known as An Ti had run a popular blog for over a year, with the Chinese government censoring several of his posts, when he shifted to MSN Spaces. After receiving complaints from a government unused to its citizens expressing themselves freely, MSN controversially pulled An Ti’s blog a few months ago.

MSN was not alone in complying with China’s demands to censor the Net; Google and Yahoo! have faced increasing criticism for their apparent willingness to fall in with the Beijing rules of censorship in order to do business in China. But with the emergence of a strong cyber-dissidence movement online, An Ti and his fellow bloggers are finding ways around the rules.

This week, An Ti restarted his blog (http://anti.blog-city.com in Chinese, and some of his posts are carried in English translation at http://chinathinkbase.com). In Iran, blogger Arash Sigarchi (www.sigarchi.com/blog — currently down, but a search brings up his archives fairly easily) hasn’t been that lucky. He was imprisoned this January for “insulting the Supreme God” and “propaganda against the regime”; this is his second prison term. One of Vietnam’s most prominent cyber-dissidents, Nguyen Khac Toan, has just been released after four years in jail—but he’s sentenced to house arrest for the next three years.

And the continued silence on Radio Free Nepal (http://freenepal.blogspot.com) is worrying, given a September 2005 post: “Radio Free Nepal has been silent for more than three months – not because the problem in Nepal was solved. It was rather because of the problems with us. It’s not always easy to blog anonymously. But now we will write frequently because our fight is not over yet!” Reassuringly, the very similar Free Nepal (http://freenepal.org) has been regularly updated. But a blogger at BloggerNepal reports being threatened; The Committee To Protect Bloggers (http://committeeto protectbloggers.civiblog.org/) has more news.

In most of the world, blogs run alongside conventional media, providing alternative if influential viewpoints, quirky entertainment, sharply focused information. But in many troubled countries, blogs and bloggers play a much more significant role. In China, the controversy over censored blogs and reports of bloggers and other cyberdissidents being persecuted, even jailed, has been balanced by the sheer volume of numbers. Even if MSN, Yahoo!, Google and other tech companies remain willing to play censor or provide censored search engines at the behest of the Chinese government, there are now too many blogs and journals out there for the infamous Great Firewall of China to catch up with every dissident.

The Nepalese government hasn’t always been able to penetrate the anonymity of bloggers; when one site closes, another opens up in its wake. Iran and Vietnam cope with cyber-dissidence by doling out harsh punishments, but media watchdogs are increasingly arguing that bloggers—at least, the responsible ones—are just as entitled to support and protection as more conventional journalists.

Reporters Sans Frontieres maintains a list of jailed and threatened cyber-dissidents, and has just issued a very useful handbook for dissident bloggers (http://www.rsf.org/ rubrique.php3?id_rubrique=542). (You don’t have to be a blogger, or even a dissident, to benefit from the section on ensuring that your email really is private, incidentally.) Elsewhere, one of the best guides to blogging from war zones, hostile countries and other areas of risk is at the AnoniBlog Wiki (http://anoniblog.pbwiki.com/). As they write, “Across the globe, countries that discourage free speech have followed their citizens into the blogosphere… Regardless of your culture, your country, your politics or religion, we believe you deserve to speak your mind without falling afoul of state power…”

With luck, Indian bloggers will never need the RSF handbook or the services of AnoniBlog. In countries where bloggers don’t comment on the news but make the headlines themselves, a guide to effective cyber-dissidence is never going to go out of style.

(Published in the Business Standard in February 2006)