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Internet freedom called vital for global religious freedom

WASHINGTON (BP) — Internet freedom is vital to religious freedom, and the United States should make greater efforts to breach the firewalls of repressive regimes, in the view of Baptist public policy specialist Barrett Duke.

Speaking at a religious liberty conference, Duke said the federal agency that oversees international media — the Broadcasting Board of Governors — should dramatically increase its support of technology to breach Internet firewalls established by authoritarian governments.

Oppressive states are using a variety of methods — including connection disruptions, content blocking and violence against bloggers — to restrict online speech, according to a 2012 report that identified the countries with the worst Internet freedom records as Iran, Cuba and China.

The Internet is “the new public square,” but “too many countries today are actively engaged in preventing people of faith from accessing this electronic public square,” Duke told an audience of religious liberty advocates and congressional staff members. Duke is vice president for public policy and research of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Duke cited seven reasons Internet freedom is critical to religious freedom:

— “Minority faiths need connection for encouragement and protection.”

— Religious leaders with little opportunity for formal theological instruction need access to the Internet.

— “New faith groups need connection to more mature groups to encourage them and assist them” in faithful growth.

— Cults produced by erroneous theology are “less likely when errant interpretations of Scripture can be thoroughly investigated.”

— “Fellowship and communion” are key parts of expressing religious faith.

— “Religious freedom involves the freedom to seek God,” which includes the liberty to ask others about God.

— Collective worship online is a vital part of religious expression.

Freedom House, a Washington-based organization that promotes liberty globally, reported in September that threats to online freedom are becoming more diverse. “As authoritarian rulers see that blocked websites and high-profile arrests draw local and international condemnation, they are turning to murkier — but no less dangerous — methods for controlling online conversations,” said Freedom House’s Sanja Kelly, the report’s director.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) should do more to combat such restrictions, Duke told participants at the June 27 conference sponsored by the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Roundtable. BBG — an independent federal agency that supervises all federally supported, non-military media in promotion of freedom — funds Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia and other networks.

Though the BBG has listed overcoming Internet censorship as one of its 12 “key tactical steps,” it has committed only 2 percent of its $720 million budget toward that effort, Duke said.

Instead, the BBG should spend more “to investigate and implement proven Internet firewall-breaching technologies,” Duke said. That will enable “the faithful to access the Internet and, through it, likeminded” religious groups, he told the audience.

Duke endorsed an April letter from Sen. Roy Blunt, R.-Mo., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., that urged the BBG to use at least 10 percent of its budget on firewall-breaching technology. Duke also encouraged religious liberty advocates to call for Congress to demand 10 percent of the BBG’s budget be a starting point for such an effort.

ERLC President Russell D. Moore joined others in supporting the recommendations by Blunt and Wolf in a June letter to Senate Appropriations Committee leaders. Among others signing onto the letter were representatives of the National Association of Evangelicals, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Evangelicals for Social Action and Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Freedom House’s 2012 report on Internet and digital media pointed to the following among the various government efforts to limit online freedom:

— Paying commentators to exploit Internet discussions.

— Increasing surveillance of regime critics.

— Enacting policies that “either restrict online speech, violate user privacy, or punish individuals who post content deemed objectionable or undesirable.”

The report showed 20 of the 47 countries examined had recorded a negative trajectory in Internet freedom since January 2011. Fourteen countries had demonstrated a positive trajectory, according to the report.

Freedom House named the following countries among those that are “not free” when it comes to the Internet: Burma; China; Cuba; Ethiopia; Iran; Pakistan; Saudi Arabia; Syria; and Vietnam. China has the most Internet users but also “the most advanced system of controls,” according to the report.

The IRF Roundtable is an informal collection of representatives of non-governmental organizations that meets periodically on Capitol Hill to discuss religious liberty issues. The June 27 meeting at a House of Representatives office building included addresses from members of Congress, the State Department and non-governmental organizations.
Tom Strode is the Washington burean chief for Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).