Dissent On The Hard Drive

The no-frills brick building in downtown Hackensack, N.J., is an unlikely setting for an attack on censorship around the world. But entrepreneur Howard Jonas thought it was the perfect place to start an electronic bulletin board that puts banned books on line. The building is actually the home of Jonas's company, IDT, which provides discount telephone service. Since he already has plenty of computers and telephone lines, Jonas says, it wasn't hard to set up the Digital Freedom Net, which uses the Internet, the international computer network, to circulate material outlawed in the authors' home countries.

So far, there are only three works in this month-old library -- excerpts from the writings of Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Iranian writer Esmail Fassih. But Jonas hopes to have many more available. In the first three weeks, Jonas says, 25,000 people logged on for free (the Internet address is gopher.iia.org). ""The Internet,'' Jonas predicts, ""will spread the American ideal of liberty.''

Whether or not Jonas's project succeeds in its lofty goals, the Internet is turning into a powerful communications weapon because it can bypass governmental restrictions and provide instant communications. Jonas's new network is just one of dozens of on-line projects aimed at fighting censorship and human-rights violations. Fax machines and satellite transmissions helped hasten the fall of communism in Eastern Europe; the Internet represents the latest marriage of technology and social change. ""We're all putting our feet in the water and we're all looking at what we want to do in the future,'' says Lucy Komisar of PEN, the writers' group.

An early pioneer in this part of cyberspace was PeaceNet, a nonprofit on-line service in San Francisco that has been operating for more than a decade. Dozens of human-rights groups, from Africa Watch to the Lawyers Committee for Tibet, use PeaceNet to post notices of abuses and distribute reports. Amnesty International and similar organizations also post on Usenet, a vast bulletin-board system available through the Internet. The list of topics in the Usenet newsgroup on human rights (its formal name is soc.rights.human) reads like a litany of trouble spots around the world: Timor, Malawi, China, Haiti and Rwanda, among others.

Quick action: Networks can get quick action. Nick Fillmore heads IFEX, a Toronto-based clearinghouse for press-freedom violations. Recently, Fillmore says, the group heard about a journalist from the former Yugoslavia who had been imprisoned in Serbia. A notice of the jailing went out over IFEX; within a few days, the reporter was released. His jailers had been bombarded with dozens of faxes from around the world, Fillmore said. Guards told the reporter: ""You must be someone important.''

In the last few weeks, a handful of major human-rights groups have been meeting to try and figure out how to use the Internet to communicate with each other as well as the outside world. Robert Kimzey of Human Rights Watch says they're ""at a very early stage'' of developing a human-rights ""gopher'' -- a system of organizing information to make it easier to find on the Internet. That way, the groups could double-check trouble re-ports with other organizations before taking action.

Unfortunately, many people who need help can't afford computers and access to the Internet. ""There are huge imbalances between regions in the use of computers,'' says Philip Spender of the Index on Censorship, a London magazine that prints banned writing and gave Wei Jingsheng's work to the Digital Freedom Net. But, he says, even when preaching to the converted, ""the more people there are in the world who know and understand what has happened . . . the greater the likelihood that . . . the offending censor . . . will be more widely exposed.'' Every day, it gets harder and harder to hide from the Net.