Live Updates: Online Censorship News
This is an on-going log of events concerning censorship around the globe. We update this page with the latest news regarding online censorship. Share
Regular readers of our blog know that there is no such thing as a one-time censorship event.
Governments across the globe are constantly looking for new ways to attack online freedom (as well as other freedoms) and make ‘big businesses’ happier using access to our information as the bait.
At vpnMentor, we think it’s important that you get to see the gravity and breadth of these problems. So, here is a run down of all the tricks, moves, and data sales we have learned about so far, starting with the most recent.
The State of Censorship in the UK
Internet censorship in the UK is on the rise, and most internet users do not even realize it.
Despite the Investigatory Powers Act coming into force last year, there is still the misapprehension that the UK has relatively free internet access.
Censorship in the UK comes under many guises and is usually framed to stop illegal activity such as terrorism, child pornography, and drugs – areas most people would agree with banning online.
However, other content is censored under the broad definitions used within the legal frame work, or at the specific behest of the courts. ISPs also filter and block content as they deem appropriate, and this does not require a court order.
Instagram Submits to Censorship in Russia
All posts relating to corruption in Russia are being blocked by Instagram in response to Russia’s internet censor.
The move is contrary to that made by other online services including YouTube, who now face a complete ban within Russia. A move that has already been implemented by some ISPs.
Canada, Copyright Laws, and Censorship
The International Intellectual Property Alliance has placed Canada on their global watch list, stating that its ineffectual laws make the country a hot spot for copyright infringement and online piracy.
Calls for Canada to do more have been met with the introduction of the Copyright Modernization Act. The act aims to protect copyrights using a range of measures, including technological protection.
However, the debate over protecting intellectual rights, while also protecting consumer rights and online freedoms, continues.
The Fightback Against Censorship in the U.S.
Public meetings are being organized by WSWS (World Socialist Web Site), Socialist Equality Party, and the International Youth and Students for Social Equality to increase awareness of the state of online censorship in the United States.
The abolition of net neutrality, increases in government surveillance, and further restrictions on progressive, socialist, and anti-war websites are the catalysts behind the meetings.
Turkey’s WhatsApp Alternative Raises Censorship Questions
The Turkish government launched a state sponsored online messenger service this month. Its inception raises numerous questions about the freedom of the internet in Turkey.
Over the last eighteen months there have been several internet black outs, hundreds of websites have been blocked, and there have been attempts to block the Tor Network and VPNs.
The Turkish government stated that the new messenger service was safer than WhatsApp, and that user data was not retrievable. However, this is widely questioned by critics of the new service.
Weibo Reopens, But May Never be the Same Again
Weibo is open for business again after major parts of the microblog site were closed last month by the Chinese authorities.
In response Webio promised to fulfil ‘higher standards and responsibility’, including increasing cooperation with state owned media. So far, this has included an overhaul of its ‘trending hashtags’, ‘searches from friends’ and ‘most searched topics’.
A new section called ‘new era’ has also been added to Weibo. Its sole purpose is to direct users to discussions and topics praising Chinese state achievements and offering news from state owned media.
The Extent of Censorship in Russia
The true extent of censorship in Russia was exposed by the international human rights group Agora this month.
Agora reported over 115,000 recorded cases of censorship within Russia during 2017. This includes 110,000 cases of blocked websites; an average of 244 pages blocked every day.
Courts are imposing an average of one prison sentence every eight days, in regards to censorship. And one person every six days is subjected to physical attacks or the threat of violence in relation to internet content.
The report was published before new anti-terror legislation came into force, so we can only expect the picture to look worse over the coming year.
Macau Looks to Frame Cybersecurity Law
The government of Macau has taken the first steps to introducing a legislation aimed at securing its network communications.
If agreed, the legislation would set up a cybersecurity standing committee and center, which would be responsible for monitoring online information flows. The center would coordinate with the government to protect 11 crucial sectors from potential cyber-attacks.
Telecommunications operators and ISPs within the country would be obligated to implement registration systems that require the user’s real name. Users would be identifiable online during all activities, and ISPs would need to keep activity logs for a minimum of one year.
Critics are concerned that the law provides a legal framework for mass surveillance and that it has little to do with network security.
Turkey Working with Draft Censorship Law
Turkish authorities are expanding the powers of the television and radio watchdog to include oversight of online content providers. The draft law has been heavily criticized that it will develop into digital censorship.
If passed, the law would allow the watchdog to stop online streaming, social media, and even films from providers such as Netflix if deemed to be a threat to the country’s moral values or national security.
The law would also allow the watchdog to reject broadcasting licenses without needing to provide a reason.
Who is at the Top of the Censorship Tree?
The 2017 Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House has been released, and it does not paint a great picture of the state of freedom on the internet.
The report concludes that 2017 was the seventh consecutive year of decline in internet freedoms across the globe.
The report ranks Bahrain as the most censored country with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia taking places two and three respectively. Surprisingly, China only just makes it into the top ten.
In terms of the ten least censored countries there are less surprises. The US, UK, Canada, and Australia were all included along with Estonia, Iceland, Germany, Japan, Georgia, and Italy.
Microblogs are the Latest Victims of China’s Censorship
Microblog operators are under increased pressure from the Chinese authorities to remove prohibited material from their sites.
The Cyberspace Administration of China issued new guidelines that require operators to keep a copy of any post for six months. Operators must also set up mechanisms to monitor users accounts and delete ‘false’ information.
Iran Slipping Further Down the Censorship Slope
Good news! Iranian authorities removed the blocks on WhatsApp. In return, WhatsApp removed content deemed related to terrorism and suspended channels that encouraged violence during the protests.
The bad news is that statements made by Iran’s leaders lean towards more and greater blocks in the future.
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami believes the free internet to be a risk to the Islamic State. In a press conference he called it a ‘mad dog’ that ‘if left alone, it will bite again.’
China Sets the Date for VPNs
Chinese authorities start blocking overseas VPN providers at the end of March.
To continue operating legally with China, operators need to be licensed by the government.
Given the ‘China first’ policy, we can only assume that it is going to be much easier for Chinese companies to gain licenses that for foreign providers.
The Growth of Government Approved Internet Shutdowns
More people, in countries around the world, are being denied access to the internet in an attempt to silence protests.
Last year, access was cut more than 80 times across numerous countries; a 30% increase from the year before.
The Cameroonian government is just one of the world powers taking this approach. Access was cut in the Anglophone region of the country for the first four months of last year. This was followed by blocking access to social media and messaging apps such as WhatsApp for over four months.
Other governments using this approach include those of Syria, Iran, Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Myanmar; India uses the same approach to censor Kashmir.
Canada to Take First Steps on the Censorship Slope
FairPlay Canada, a coalition of organizations, has taken the first steps to sending Canada down the slippery slope of internet censorship.
The coalition requested the CRTC tackle piracy by launching a website-blocking system. The proposal would create the first official internet censorship committee within the Canadian federal government.
The proposal, which has been raised twice before, is heavily criticized by rights activists because of its potential for negative effects on people’s freedoms.
Social Media Platforms Rally Behind Censorship Calls
The European Commission called to purge the internet of ‘illegal hate speech,’ and it was answered by numerous social media platforms.
Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube, and Twitter are among those that have committed to censoring such speech through the European Commission’s Code of Conduct. The Commission established the Code to complement existing legislation aimed at fighting xenophobia and racism – both of which are commendable. But is attacking freedom of speech the way to achieve it?
One of the problems with the Code and how it is implemented, is its lack of transparency.
Users are not provided with sufficient feedback as to why their posts have been removed. It is just as likely that posts condemning racism and xenophobia are removed as well, simply because of the terms they contain, or because they are reported by those who don’t want their ideals challenged.
Censorship as Part of the China First Campaign
Over the past year we have regularly reported on increased censorship in China, including its crackdown on VPNs. However, it seems as if money rather than socialist ideals may be fueling the more recent censorship attempts.
Not all VPNs are illegal in China. Those that are tend to be foreign based rather than owned and operated from within China.
This has both good and bad repercussions. The good part is this gives failing Chinese companies – and the services that rely on them – a much-needed financial boost. The bad part is the authorities can tightly control what is accessed, even with a VPN.
However, both these results aid the authorities in safeguarding the long-standing China first policy and reduces the influence of multinationals within the country.
Weibo in Trouble Again
Several of the most popular sections of Weibo were shut down by the Chinese internet regulators after being accused of failing to censor inappropriate content.
Weibo allegedly allowed pornographic and vulgar content that is not in line with appropriate social values. It was also accused of failing to censor content that discriminates against ethnic minorities.
Among the sections affected are its hot topics, most searched, and celebrity searches; particularly in relation to celebrity relationships.
The move came as part of a larger campaign by the regulators to clean up the internet and remove anything deemed harmful or not in line with China’s socialist ideals.
Facebook Blocks Anticensorship Information
This month, Facebook – yet again – contradicted the company’s claims to support free expression.
The social media platform blocked a video promoting ‘Organizing resistance to internet censorship,’ an online meeting featuring Davide North, from World Socialist Web Site, and Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. The video featured a statement from Julian Assange warning of new corporate and governmental efforts to curtail freedom of information.
Viewers received error messages when trying to share the post, which implied a technical fault. Further investigation brought forward a notice stating that the content had been blocked to keep Facebook ‘safe’.
The block was short-lived, however, as a repost of the video was shareable a few days later.
Simultaneously, Facebook also blocked the World Socialist Web Site from buying advertising space to promote a column on Facebook censorship. The reason given for the block was that the advert used the image of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Southeast Asia Faces Rapid Rise in Censorship
An increasing number of sites have been blocked across Southeast Asia in a marked rise in censorship efforts across the region.
The Freedom on the Net report, released by Freedom House at the end of 2017, lowered the scores of seven of the eight Southeast Asian nations included in the survey. One of the worst offenders was Myanmar with a rise in fake news and increases in journalist arrests.
Only Malaysia saw an improvement in its score, but this must be placed in a context of increased censorship, and harsher penalties for those breaking the censorship rules within the country.
Role of Multinational Corporations in Iranian Censorship
Iranian citizens are increasingly becoming more adept at finding ways around the online censorship they face. Big companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google play a major role in either supporting or opposing this movement.
Many Iranians use a technique known as ‘domain fronting’ to mask their traffic. This requires users to piggyback off services such as Amazon’s AWS or GitHub, so that it is harder for authorities to block specific apps.
It would be possible for users to do the same with Google, however, Google App Engine (GAE) blocks all traffic coming from the country. This is not done by the Iranian government, but by the company themselves.
Google’s response is that it complies with sanctions.
Brazil Joins the Fight Against Fake News
In a Tweet, the Federal Police in Brazil outlined its intent to regulate what is seen on the Internet.
New powers mean the police can censor political content, if it is deemed to be false, and punish those who disseminate such information.
Sources within the country state that one of the many problems with this move is that there is no existing law that allows the police to wield such power.
While proponents suggest that a new law will be sought, it seems that the actions will go ahead regardless. This was clarified by a top police official, who stated that the ‘Law of National Security’ could easily be used if no new law is forthcoming.
Update on China’s Censorship Numbers
The true extent of censorship in China is becoming clearer as we gather information spanning the whole of 2017.
As many as 128,000 websites were shut down for containing obscene material, or other information considered harmful.
30.9 million publications deemed illegal by the state were confiscated over the course of the year.
1,900 individuals were subject to criminal penalties, in relation to censorship.
Weibo, Tencent, and Baidu all received fines and reprimands for failing to censor content properly. Much of this was in relation to the death of human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo.
Overseas journalists did not escape the tightened censorship either. Overseas journals were forced to remove any papers that referenced subjects such as Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, or Tibet.
And of course, China continued its crackdown on the selling and use of VPNs. All state-owned ISPs must block access to VPNs by February 2018. This is despite a report by GlobalWebindex stating that the crackdown disrupts students, scientists, and entrepreneurs.
Iranians Respond to Recent Internet Blocks
At the end of last year, we reported that the Iranian authorities blocked mobile web access and censored specific messaging apps to disrupt communications regarding protests in the country.
However, it has come to light that the blocks did more to disrupt the lives of average citizens than it did to disrupt the protests. And the blocks had more of an affect on individuals’ lives than the protesters themselves.
Despite the disruption, Iranian citizens continue to find ways around the blocks. However, more are reporting that this is becoming increasingly difficult, especially with US sanctions, and tech companies who choose to comply with them.
Iranian authorities apologized to the growing number of small businesses within the country that rely heavily on the blocked mobile apps, and stated that the blocks will be lifted when ‘peace returns’.
Not convinced, these businesses continue to lose customers and income and are left to find new ways to circumvent the blocks.
Psiphon, the App to Overcome Censorship
One of the many ways that Iranians have found to dodge increased censorship and internet blocks is the app Psiphon.
Psiphon is a firewall circumventing app that has been around for just over a decade. Not only is it effective, but it is also easy to use.
Psiphon has seen a five-fold increase in the amount of data moving through its servers. The app differs from traditional VPNs in that it does not mask the users’ traffic, rather it hides the user completely, meaning they can use the internet without anyone knowing they are there at all.
Iranian Protestors on the Dark Web
The number of Iranian’s using the dark web has doubled since protests started in the country in December.
With social media and messaging platforms blocked by the government, protestors are using the anonymous Tor web browser to access the dark web to organize protests, and share information from the outside world.
There are now an estimated 10,000 Iranian Tor users according to the company’s own statistics.
ACLU Lobbies for Clearer Internet Filtering Policies
Thanks to lobbying from the ACLU, there should soon be much clearer policies on internet filtering in US schools.
A law passed by the State Legislature at the end of last year requires all school districts to adopt and implement clearly written and publicly available internet filtering policies.
Policies must clearly specify the website categories that are block. It must also explain why, and provide procedures for teachers to request sites are unblocked.
It is a small, but crucial, step in promoting freedom of thought and expression in US classrooms.
Trump Weighs in on Iranian Censorship
Donald Trump lent his own very special support to the protestors in Iran, stating he was watching very closely for any human rights violations.
Trump’s comments were a response to the Iranian government blocking messaging apps and social media sites.
However, Newsweek was quick to jump on the irony of the President’s words when he is so quick to block others on Twitter when he doesn’t like what he reads.
The White House also made a more measured and considered statement of support for the Iranian protestors.
Internet Shutdown Continues in Iran
Continuing protests in the country are being met with increased blocking of the internet.
Services such as Instagram and Telegram have been unavailable since the end of December. While initially only affecting mobile connections, home connections are now also being affected with access to foreign web content being blocked.
Iranians are using VPNs and building new apps to circumvent growing censorship. Using VPNs for this purpose is being championed by the United States. The US government has called for Iran to stop its blocks on social media, and other ‘legitimate avenues for communication.’
Another tactic being used by Iranian citizens is removing their network passwords to aid others who are affected by the mobile blocks to sit access the internet.
Issues with Germany’s New Hate Speech Laws
The new hate speech laws in Germany came into full effect this month, and as we foresaw, they are causing problems.
Twitter’s attempts to fall in line with the new laws have seen the removal of content that meant to mock hate speech, and enlighten those that use it.
Content deemed to run contrary to the new law must be removed within a given time frame, usually 24 hours, this means that little attention is paid to context, only to the words that a Tweet includes.
As more countries follow Germany’s lead there is growing concern that social media platforms will further restrict free speech, rather than risk the huge fines they face if the wrong content is left unchecked.
A Tough Year Ahead for Freedom of Speech
We previously reported on how the big corporations are frequently bowing to pressure from governments to censor content and limit freedom of speech.
A report by Bloomberg indicates that we have only seen the beginning.
In a recently published blog Bloomberg lists five censorship developments that have occurred in less than a week. These include movements in Germany, France, the US, and Iran. And this is in addition to the abolition of the net neutrality laws.
2018, could be a very busy year.
Iran Censors Protests with Internet Block
The Iranian government responded to growing protests by cutting mobile internet access, restricting travel, and blocking most media.
The move led to concerns that Telegram, a social media service currently allowed within Iran, may be shut down. The concerns were raised after the Communications Minister accused Amadnews of encouraging an armed uprising.
Government sources within the country blame external influences for the protests and are using the internet blocks in an attempt to reduce this influence.
Top News Apps Suspended Over Vulgar Content
Toutiao and Phoenix News have been ordered to temporarily suspend parts of their platforms by the internet watchdog in China.
The move was made after both were accused of failing to implement censorship measures and broadcasting vulgar content.
The Full Scale of Website Shutdowns in China
13,000 websites have been shut down or had their licenses revoked in China since 2015.
Additionally, nearly 10 million internet accounts have been closed across different platforms for violating service protocols.
A report by Freedom House in 2015 ranked China below Syria and Iran in terms of its restrictive policies for online use.
Vietnam Cracks Down on Freedom of Speech
Vietnam introduced more than 10,000 internet censors to tackle what the authorities consider wrongful views and anti-state propaganda.
Vietnam already has a reputation for restricting freedom of speech, and several bloggers have been jailed over recent years for being critical of the State.
A law banning the public discussion of current affairs online was passed in 2013. Blogs and social media were deemed only to be used for the sharing of personal information.
As a result, the number of bloggers imprisoned for publishing content that criticizes authorities has increased.
Armenia Rejects Internet Censorship
In a recent speech the Armenian President rejected the need for internet censorship within the country.
While recognizing that the country faces terrorism and criminal use of the internet, he stated that censorship and restricting freedoms were not the way forward.
He went on to state his belief that Armenian society was mature enough to solve micro issues through self-regulation and that the country’s current laws were suitable to take care of the larger scale issues.
China’s War on VPNs Continues
Over the course of this year China has made moves to illegalize VPNs that have not be approved by the government.
This month, China reinforced its VPN crackdown by fining and imprisoning an individual found to be selling a VPN. Wu Xiangyang was found guilty of not holding a proper license for his VPN business.
The action left him with a prison term of over five years and a fine that is equivalent to $76,000, an amount that was considered equal to his business profits since 2013 when he first started selling the VPN.
This is a sure sign that China is taking the VPN ban very seriously.
Indonesia to Implement Crawling Technology to Block All Pornography
As of January, no pornography will be accessible in Indonesia. This is the aim of the new crawling technology that will be implemented within the country.
The technology automatically analyses content and removes any deemed inappropriate under the set parameters. The government specifically stated that it is intended to block content and not to surveil activity.
Unfortunately, other institutions might not see it the same way. Since the parameters of the crawling technology can be changed, it be used to block other content, such as narcotics or unregistered food and drugs.
Ethiopian Social Media Accounts Blocked
Following anti-government protests in Ethiopia the week before Christmas, Ethiopians were unable to access any of their social media accounts. This governmental tactic has been used previously to stop information from circulating about anti-government movements and dissent.
Ethiopia is one of 30 administrations that, according to an UNESCO report, are taking this approach to political control.
Steam Community Blocked in China
Steam users within China are unable to access any part of the Steam community on the company’s website. The popular digital marketplace for PC gaming still allows users to buy and play games, but users cannot access profile pages, forums and inventories.
China to Welcome Google and Facebook?
News broke this month that Google and Facebook will be able to operate within China as long as they adhere to certain conditions.
At a conference in Geneva, Chinese regulators stated that both companies were welcome to operate in the country as long as they accept the country’s tough internet laws and censorship conditions.
It is hard to picture what both of these online platforms will look like under such conditions, and if these companies will even consider complying with China’s harsh laws.
US Schools Filter Internet
The internet has long been the ‘go to’ place for students looking for quick answers and study help. However, in Rhode Island, USA, many of those answers are no longer accessible to students in its school.
The RI school district introduced internet filtering programs to block specific categories of websites and sites that mention certain words. Among the filtered terms are; news, dictionary, hobbies, and political.
The filtering is more severe than intended by Federal law. More worryingly, a recent report found that many schools provide no public information on which sites are blocked and have no formal process to request to unblock a site.
The Fight for Net Neutrality is far from Over
On December 14, the FCC repealed net neutrality. Despite the loss, the fight to maintain net neutrality continues and has a new leading voice.
Along with other attorney generals, Eric T. Schneiderman, the Attorney General for the State of New York, pledged to prevent the rollback of net neutrality rules. He stated that American society had a lot to lose without the free and open internet provided by net neutrality.
The attorney generals plan to sue the FCC believing that the ruling went against the Administrative Procedure Act. They are arguing that the FCC failed to take into account the comments of individual Americans, and that those comments that were considered were fake.
This story is likely to roll on into the new year.
Could Blockchain be the Answer to Freedom on the Net?
It wasn’t that long ago that there were only a few individuals willing to take cryptocurrencies seriously. How times have changed. Now there are dozens of such currencies, and they have their own futures market as well. An ICO (Initial Coin Offering) is a fundraising tool that trades future cryptocoins for cryptocurrencies of immediate liquid value.
Now there are numerous debates going on as to the safety and regulation of this new form of trading, and what it might mean for currency as we understand it at present. But, that is not what we are interested in here, rather we are interested in how these cryptocurrencies are connected to internet freedom.
The answer is Substratum, a decentralized blockchain. Substratum is an open source network that works by allowing individuals to allocate spare computing resource to others. It is the company’s belief that this approach encourages a free and fair internet.
Those that allocate space are paid in cryptocurrency – SUB tokens, which have been growing in value over the past few months.
This is going to be something we need to keep a close eye on in the coming year.
A Sad Day for Net Neutrality
So, it happened, despite calls for a rethink on the vote, the FCC voted to repeal the net neutrality rules. The way is now open for a few big contenders to rule the web and gain greater control over what we view and when.
Under net neutrality laws companies could not throttle data flows of their competitors, giving users the greatest possible choice of where they wanted to search, the programs they wanted to access, and the sites they wanted to share. But, now this is gone, and companies competing for your information can quite legally use their size, and networks to tamper with data flows without accountability or public oversight.
The Battle of the Biggest Censors
Russia and China are two of the biggest censors in the world, and not content with censoring their own citizens, they are both looking to export their own censorship styles and technology.
Currently it is believed that China’s model is in first place in this race; its system filters more information, and uses better technology and services to maintain its system. It is not difficult to see why experts have come to this conclusion given that China’s system uses armies of censors working to maintain the high levels of censorship in real time. This is coupled with the fact that the government is more than happy to ban entire platforms who fail to conform.
Russia currently relies on a culture of self-repression, reinforced by the efforts of intelligence agents. The Russian government also employs armies of online bloggers, whose sole job is to write and upload pro-Kremlin posts.
Regardless of the approach that is seen as the best by those looking to ape this level of censorship, it remains a real threat to the open and accessible internet that most of us currently enjoy.
Questions Over Freedom of Information on India’s University Campuses
Student activist Shehla Rashid has been called to appear before a protoral inquiry, regarding claims she made on Twitter about internet censorship on campus.
Rashid Tweeted that certain sites were blocked on campus, and that certain keyword searches were censored. She does not question the veracity of the Tweet, rather the right of the University to have jurisdiction over her and her Tweets.
Other student leaders at the University have stated that the action was unprecedented. It is a worrying move that could have consequences for the rights and freedoms of students across India’s universities.
Sudanese Journalists Find New Freedom Online
Journalists in Sudan are bypassing increasingly stringent media censorship in the country by publishing their work online.
Media censorship has been increasing within the country since 2011, with the National Intelligence and Security Service confiscating entire print runs of newspapers. Any print media carrying articles that criticize the current regime are subject to confiscation.
However, so far, the censorship has not encompassed the online world, and journalists have been quick to capitalize on this.
The Net Neutrality Debate – Let the Mud Slinging Commence
It is no secret that the FCC is planning to roll back the Net Neutrality rules that ensure the internet remains open and that we have fair access to it. However, things seem to have got personal, with a very public mudslinging debate between FCC chairman Ajit Pai and technology giant Apple.
In a piece written for The Washington Times, Pai suggested that Apple was discussing censoring content, with China, through coded messages. Now, the problem is, that Apple has left itself open to such statements with its history of acquiescing to requests from the government in China to remove specific content, apps and even VPNs from its App Store.
Pai believes that removing Net Neutrality will lead to an end of the government micro-managing the internet, and restore the ‘light touch’ regulatory framework that existed prior to the Neutrality rules. And it isn’t just Apple that Pai is gunning for, he also reinforced his theory that other edge providers such as Amazon and Google are at fault as well – stating that the current rules actually help them to cement their dominance over the internet.
While Pai talks about creating an open and more transparent internet through removing these rules, others are looking at ways of restricting access to content. The whole debate is made more complex by individuals, including Pai, only using examples of ‘poor practice’ that best suit their agenda.
In his piece he only talks about how these and other platforms refused to run content from Christian and Conservative commentators. His article, along with the work of the newly created Internet Freedom Watch has caused a huge stir.
Internet Freedom Watch aims to document cases of internet censorship of Christian and conservative speech. Proponents of the move believe they are being discriminated against, and that terms such as ‘hate speech’ are being used disingenuously against them.
It is an interesting twist in events that will fuel the Net Neutrality debate; the vote will take place on December 14th.
Discussion Starts on the Real Dangers of FOSTA and SESTA
Over the last few months we have endeavored to keep you updated about the moment of these two Bills through the US Senate. This month starts with some positive news; actual discussion on the harm that these Bills could do to investigations of online sex trafficking.
A Subcommittee Hearing heard from Russ Winkler, a special agent from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, who clearly laid out how law enforcement uses the internet to catch those responsible for sex trafficking.
He was clear that any Bill that forced websites to be more restrictive in the content that they allowed would severely affect investigators abilities to find, build cases against and prosecute such individuals and groups.
Winkler also raised concerns that the victims of such crimes may be pushed off the internet altogether and lose a significantly important lifeline. What all investigators would be left with to prosecute would be the web hosting companies themselves, who are often unwilling and unintentional intermediaries.
Winkler is not alone in his attempt to get Congress to see the bigger picture. Experts who deal with such trafficking have also pointed out the visibility of these platforms is crucial to the safety of the victims and in building cases against offenders.
Iran Continues Moves to Open the Web to Some Citizens
Earlier in the year we announced news that Iran was looking to open access to the internet, at least for some of its citizens. Now it has been announced that the government in Iran is looking to customize its internet filters based on the individual user’s age and occupation, as well as several other factors.
Conditional agreement to the plan has been given by the attorney general’s office, but no further details were given when the announcement was made. Now we wait and see if final approval is given to the plan, and exactly what factors are used to create the filters.
Apple’s CEO Makes Potentially Controversial Keynote Speech
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has delivered a keynote speech at China’s World Internet Conference. The speech focused on the value of privacy, security and humanity – taking a very different tone to the rest of the conference, which called for greater information gathering to combat online criminal activities and terrorism.
The speech may have come as a surprise to many, given that Apple seemingly readily agrees to remove content as requested by the Chinese Government. However, Cook stated that the theme of the conference was developing openness and shared benefits in a digital economy and that was a vision that his company shared.
Apple s not the only big tech company to attend the conference. CEO of Google Sundar Pichai was also in attendance, along with diplomats, experts and other business leaders. During the conference all attendees had unrestricted access to the internet, something that is rare, if not impossible, as a general rule in China. Pichai has previously mentioned wanting to re-enter the market in China after censorship concerns caused Google to withdraw from the country in 2010.
Russia Bans Anonymity Online
Russia has once again followed China’s example; using mobile messengers anonymously will be banned from the beginning of next year.
Users will need to be identified via their phone number and accept a binding agreement before they are able to access instant messaging services within Russia.
Additionally, some VPNs risk being banned under the new laws as the government seeks to crack down on access to forbidden websites. This is likely to be a developing story over the coming months.
Sky Attempt Censorship in the Name of Anti-Piracy
Sky has called for broadband providers to block access to a number of websites in New Zealand. The company believe that New Zealand is falling behind other countries in its attempt to provide legal protection for legitimate businesses and content creators.
Sky states that it is not trying to make censorship calls itself, rather it is using legal processes and the courts to ensure copyright is upheld. However, the move has been widely criticized as breaching net neutrality and being an act of gross censorship.
Those opposed to the move also believe that such censorship would do nothing to stop piracy; rather it would send it further underground, making it harder to stop.
US Congress Push to Police the Web
Recently we reported on a Bill going through Congress called SETA, S. 1693; the aim of this Bill is to fight sex trafficking. However, those opposed to the Bill believe that it will do nothing of the sort, and may even cause greater harm.
But, not content with one such Bill, a second one is now making its way through Congress. FOSTA, H. R. 1865 (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) is just as problematic as its forerunner.
The Bill, if passed, risks eroding current laws which determine when platforms should be held responsible for the speech of their users. Section 230 is crucial in allowing freedom of expression online, without the risk of the host company being destroyed by a single lawsuit. That does not mean that under Section 230 host sites have no responsibility, or are not held to account. If they are involved in, or contribute to someone breaking federal law, then they are open to prosecution.
If FOSTA is enacted host sites would be accountable, even if they were unaware that their site had been used for such purposes. Platforms are likely to become more restrictive in their policies, especially when moderating content. This could lead to many marginalized groups being silenced.
One of the other problems with FOSTA is that its application would depend on the definitions of sex trafficking used by individual States. Its application would therefore be far from consistent, and affect individuals and groups outside of its intended remit.
So, in short just like SESTA, this new Bill could affect a range of platforms, and those who use them legitimately, and is unlikely to actually do what it is intended to. And because the definitions within the Bill itself are even broader than within SESTA, the chances of platforms being caught in its net are greatly increased.
Silicon Valley is Supporting Censorship
Censorship is increasing across the globe. More and more countries are restricting what their citizens can see and say online. You only need to read through our live updates to see the growing scale of the problem.
However, while governments fight to restrict the right to free expression, we expect the companies behind the web and the technologies that support it, to support users. But, increasingly that is not the case.
We have already reported on moves by Google and Twitter to increase censorship and surveillance, but now companies are working directly with authoritarian governments. Apple often takes down apps at the request of the government in China, and Snapchat and Medium are complying with the Saudi government’s censorship requests.
It is a worrying turn of events that is only likely to get worse as more tech giants side with such regimes.
China is Censoring the Censors
China holds the number one stop as the world’s worst contravener of internet freedoms, but its latest move requires a new title to be created.
Earlier this month news broke that former internet Tsar Lu Wei faced charges of corruption. Now the government has enacted a directive that allows them to close any accounts or websites that contain any mention of this action.
The latest censorship move affects not only forums and chat rooms, but also news sites and their comment feeds.
South Africa Debates Internet Censorship Bill
Earlier this month we reported that South Africa was joining the censorship fray. Well, now the Bill is heading to parliament for approval.
The Bill is being developed with the aim of protecting children from harmful and illegal content online. It is designed to address the perceived short comings of the 1996, Films and Publications Act. Now, protecting children is always a noble act, but opponents of the Bill are voicing numerous concerns that the Bill could be an infringement on the freedom of speech.
The main problem with the Bill, as with so many such Bills, is the vague and broad terminology it includes. One issue is that it overlaps with the jurisdiction of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa. It also potentially infringes on the rights to privacy and freedom of expression of the citizens of South Africa.
The Bill would require ISPs to block any website that hosts content that has been refused classification. As well as sexually explicit material, child pornography and terrorism; things no one wants to see, it would also include crime, violence and drug abuse, and of course fake news. It is in these latter categories where documentary, investigative reporting and educational material could also be affected.
Skype Becomes China’s Latest Target
Internet phone services, including Skype are the latest apps to be hit by China’s tightening online censorship. At the same time as Skype and other services disappeared, former internet tsar Lu Wei was detained on suspicion of “serious violations of party discipline”. This is a phrase known to really indicate a charge of corruption.
The Skype app disappeared from app stores in China, along with a number of other internet phone apps. Apple stated that it had removed the apps after being informed that they violated local laws. There has, to this point in time, been no response from officials in China, who it would seem have other issues to deal with.
Lu Wei was the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China, until he was removed, rather abruptly, over a year ago. Since his removal, a special disciplinary inspection has announced that it found a series of problems within the administration, back in April.
There is likely to be little sympathy at his detention, given that, during his time in office he was responsible for increasing censorship across various online platforms. Additionally, Lu Wei launched the World Internet Conference, a platform that was used to promote the governance of the internet to the elite of the information technology world.
The question that is being asked in relation to Lu Wei, however, is are there really any charges to be brought against him? Or is President Xi using the charges to remove those seen as a threat? Several sources have suggested that latter. And, while the fate of a former internet Tsar may not concern the populous of China, the wider implications of such crackdowns certainly do.
THE FCC Sets Its Sights on Net Neutrality
Net neutrality is once again under attack; this time from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). The Republican Led FCC announced plans to roll back the rules, established for the internet under the Obama administration.
Removing current rules could allow providers to hinder or favor certain services, by blocking or slowing data. However, the FCC believe that rolling back the regulations will encourage a more free-market approach to the internet. While the FCC champion the move as restoring internet freedom, others are not so sure.
Those in favor of net neutrality state that the move would give a green light to the largest broadband providers to increase blocking, slow traffic and prioritize paid services and applications.
Twitter and Google in Censorship Arms Race?
We are used to seeing countries and governments racing to increase censorship before their closest allies or enemies, but now it seems Internet giants Google and Twitter have been feeling left out of the race.
The latest phase of censorship started with Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announcing that it would be artificially suppressing links from certain news outlets in future search engine results. Its initial targets are Russia Today and Sputnik News.
The executive chairman claims not to be very strongly in favor of censorship, and continued by stating that the new algorithms are only to be used to block “repetitive, exploitative, false and weaponized information”.
Two key problems here: as we know algorithms don’t apply context, meaning they could sweep up numerous sites that are not even on the company’s radar, and secondly, who decides what constitutes exploitative or false news?
Not to be outdone, Twitter has announced that as of next month, they will suspend the accounts of individuals affiliated with organizations deemed to promote violence or terrorism or share ‘hate speech’.
The Anti-Censorship Fightback Grows Stronger
Good news in the fight against internet censorship can seem a long time in coming, but here it is. Orchid Labs has just launched a private alpha version of its blockchain-based Orchid network. The network is heralded as a way to allow users to access a censorship, surveillance and restriction free internet.
The San Francisco based company has taken a novel approach to the problem of censorship. Its protocol uses an overlay network. This is built upon the internet as it exists, and offers incentives for people with unused bandwidth to share it with other. Those sharing exchange bandwidth for payment in Orchid’s ERC20-compatible token.
The company believe the approach is more viable that VPNs and Tor, which are becoming increasingly difficult to access in several countries including China. Orchid believes that authorities will be unable to monitor any traffic or payments over the network.
Orchid make the claims based on its network being fully decentralized. Traffic is routed randomly through a network of nodes as new contributors sign up and share. Those wishing to use the network to access a censorship free internet pay the contributors in Orchid tokens through a peer-to-peer exchange.
The public Beta Protocol from Orchid is expected to be released in early 2018.
Where China Leads, the World Follows
It comes as no surprise that the governments of China and Russia manipulate social media to suppress dissent online. What may be a little more shocking to some, is the number of other countries that are copying their approach.
A study carried out by the human rights watchdog Freedom House found that nearly half of those governments studied deployed some form of online manipulation to distort the information viewed by their citizens online. This is being achieved through numerous approaches including automated accounts (bots), online trolls, paid commentators, propaganda outlets and false news sites.
China remains the worse abuser of internet freedoms according to the report, the third time running they have received this rather dubious honor. Its crack down on online anonymity, imprisonment of online dissidents and increased censorship have cemented its place at the top of the list.
However, in Russia any blogger who attracts 3,000 or more visitors on a regular basis must now register their details with the government. Additionally, search engines in Russia are now banned from including any stories that do not come from registered outlets.
Restrictions are also growing across the world on the provision and use of VPNs in a bid to make it more difficult for citizens to bypass increasingly strict censorship across the globe.
North Korea Goes Online
The North Korean government has allowed some of its citizens access to the online world. But, before you get too excited, it’s worth mentioning that this is far from wide spread access, and even those who can gain access are limited to a tightly controlled intranet.
Online banking, e-shopping, and smart phones are available to those that are among the privileged in the country. Doctors can consult via live video conferencing, but few people have personal computers. Lectures from the country’s top university are being streamed to agricultural communes and factories across the country. But, this only disseminates the information that has already been approached by the North Korean leadership.
Those that do own computers and can access the Intranet still have very little privacy as we would understand it. All computers within North Korea must run an operating system that is approved by the government, such as Red Star. While very useful, its core functions cannot be changed, and any files downloaded from USBs are watermarked so they can be identified and traced back to their origin.
Of course, those at the very top of North Korean society, do have access to the world wide web, and this has fueled concerns that this access could be used to undertake cyber-attacks on the West.
South Africa Joins the Censorship Fray
The South African government has confirmed that it is working on a document that would regulate online streaming. The Minister of Home Affairs stated that the move was simply a response to the new challenges faced by the government as more people begin to access streaming services.
The Paper aims to create a fairer environment for traditional broadcasters, promote South African content, and promote diversity; all of which seem reasonable, as is the desire to protect vulnerable individuals and children. However, with any regulation comes the risk of greater censorship and reduced privacy. The risk as always is contained in broad statements that allow the government to restrict access to anything they deem to be inappropriate. For example, the show Andi Mack (Disney Channel South Africa) has been pulled after being banned in Kenya over a storyline that includes a gay character.
Sri Lanka Blocks Criticism of its Government
Despite being elected on a promise of ending draconian internet restrictions President Maithripala Sirisena has blocked an often-critical dissident website. It is the President’s first act of censorship since his election in 2015, and is raising concerns across the country.
The affected site, Lanka E News has been a respected news source for many years, and is known for its investigations into government corruption. The union representing journalists in Sri Lanka have demanded that access to the site is restored. Watch this space for updates.
Indonesia Increases Censorship in an Obscenity Purge
Censorship is already a daily reality within Indonesia. However, the government’s latest move indicates an increase in conservatism within the country. The Indonesian government aims to summon executives of top search engines and messaging services to demand that they remove content, which it deems to be obscene. However, the government has dropped its threat to block WhatsApp after it removed ‘GIF’ images from its service.
The censorship moves come as Minister of Communication and Information vowed to continue to clamp down on content that promotes drugs, pornography, terrorism and radicalism.
The Twitter Debate Reopens with Trump in China
As Donald Trump continues his tour of Asia, the state of censorship in China has again hit the headlines. News broke that Donald Trump continued his regular Tweets, even while in China, where the platform is one of the many Western social media sites that is banned. The move, possible by using either a VPN or data roaming services, has raised questions about how China is going to continue to open its economy to the rest of the world, while still maintaining is tight grip on what can and cannot be viewed by its citizens and visitors to the country.
There are also questions being raised about how much longer data roaming services will be available to foreign visitors to China.
Italy Changes its Data Retention Laws, And Not for the Good
The Italian Senate has just passed new data retention laws that affect how long data is stored for and how the web is monitored for copyright compliance. Under the new law ISPs and telecommunication companies must store communication data logs for at least 6 years. Of course, while this information is being stored it is open to abuse and misuse, either by hackers or officials.
The law also allows for the blocking or taking down of sites without judicial oversight, and for the use of deep packet inspection of all internet traffic. The law opens Italian web users to unprecedented levels of censorship and invasions of privacy. The move has gone ahead despite the Court of Justice of the European Union stating that the move on data retention is unconstitutional.
Internet Companies Endorse Compromise Version of SESTA Bill
The Internet Association, a trade group that represents Internet business giants, including Microsoft and Facebook has endorsed what is being described as a ‘compromise’ version of SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act).
Within a few hours of the amended bill being published online the Internet Association rushed to praise its sponsors, primarily for what it termed their “careful work and bipartisan collaboration”. However, the vital flaws that were present in the original bill remain, and the amended version still does little to stop sex trafficking. What it will still do, however, is further limit freedom of speech online. The move will come as no surprise to many, who understand that the Association does not represent the average user, only those companies who profit the most from it.
The bill in its current form makes it harder for start-ups and small businesses to compete on the Internet. These companies do not have the capacity of the larger established companies to absorb the legal risks that they are opened to under SESTA. The bill has gone forward despite experts in the field of sex trafficking stating categorically that it is the wrong approach, and actually runs the risk of increasing the danger faced by those forced into the sex trade, and existing sex workers.
Score One for Google in Fight Against Canadian Censorship
Google has been awarded a preliminary injunction which prevents Canada’s Supreme Court from ordering the removal of certain links from its search results. The move is the latest in the ongoing case between Google and Equustek Solutions. Equustek wanted an order which prohibited Google from including search results of their rivals, where the goods of those rivals were found to have infringed Equustek’s copyrights.
Google became embroiled in the ongoing argument between Equustek and its rival Datalink after the latter was accused of copyright infringement and stealing trade secrets. Datalink fled Canada and continued to sell their products using foreign domains. When requested to cease publishing Datalink links, Google agreed to the request, but only within the Canadian version of its search engine.
When the Canadian courts decided that this did not go far enough, Google stated that to remove global results for Datalink would establish a dangerous precedent and violate laws on internet censorship. So far, the appeal to the Supreme Court has upheld this argument, but it is unlikely that this is the end of the saga.
Embracing Digital Privacy in India
The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that privacy is a fundamental, constitutional right for all its citizens. The landmark ruling should have major consequences for many, including major internet companies such as Google, Twitter and Facebook. It is not yet clear however, how the decision will be implemented.
If applied to all aspects of the internet and its usage, the first consequence should be a change in how companies, including social media, collects and uses data. But, if fully implemented the decision should also affect freedom of speech, business, national politics and society in general. It should improve consumer confidence and encourage transparency in government, as well as shift the focus from collective identity to the individual.
While the bigger picture remains unclear, the ruling has already had a positive impact on some individuals, including in cases where individuals have been punished for homosexuality; something that is still illegal in India. The new ruling is being used to challenge such cases, stating that a person’s sexual preferences are a private matter, and therefore the ban is unconstitutional.
The Million Mask March
The global fightback against continued internet censorship and mass surveillance continues with the Million Mask March taking place on November 5 – Guy Fawkes night in the UK.
Guy Fawkes is the most well-known name from the group of Catholic conspirators who sort to topple King James and his government by blowing up the houses of parliament, after continued persecution of the Catholic minority. While the plot failed, Guy Fawkes is often referred to as ‘the only person to enter the houses of parliament with honest intentions.’ With recent well publicized scandals, it is easy to see why this idea persists.
Anonymous, the group behind the march, are known for standing up against the destruction of civil liberties and injustice in general. The UK march is just one of many taking place across the globe as internet surveillance and censorship increases exponentially.
Afghanistan Moves on Censorship
Afghanistan can now be added to the growing list of countries that are blocking messaging services such as Telegram and WhatsApp. At present it is believed that the move is a temporary one, and there seems to be some confusion as to whether the ban is being implemented by either private service providers, or the state-owned Salaam. This is one that needs to be watched closely over the coming months as messaging app users in Afghanistan are not accepting the move quietly.
Academic Sites Complying with China’s Censorship Model
Springer Natural, a well-known academic publisher, has announced that it is blocking access to some of its articles within China. The move comes amidst further tightening of controls on information coming from outside China. The publisher stated that it has made the move to comply with local distribution laws.
Those within China can no longer access material on a range of subjects including the status of Tibet, the Cultural Revolution, Taiwan and Tiananmen Square; all subjects considered sensitive by China’s ruling party. However, not all academic publishers are ready to comply with such requests and Cambridge University Press recently restored around 300 articles, considered politically sensitive, which had been originally removed at the request of the authorities.
Russia Joins China’s Anti-VPN Crusade
The Russian government has agreed a law that bans the provision and use of VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). The government states that the law is required to prevent the growth of online extremism. While this may be true, the ban affects all law-abiding citizens as well, who will no longer be able to use the protected networks to access banned sites such as Wikipedia and news outlets. And it is not stopping there.
A further law was passed, which comes into effect in January, which requires the users of messaging services to verify their identities before they can use the service. It is the same approach that has been used in China, and is being used in much the same way – to ensure that content can be traced back to the user, and that user can be removed, blocked, or worse, if the content is considered anti-government or inappropriate.
China Determined to Plug Holes in the Great Fire Wall
As the National Party Congress draws to a close China’s leader has made it clearer than ever that censorship within the country is here to stay.
Not only that, but that it will continue to get tighter until every potential gap in China’s great fire wall is plugged. While no new specific measures have been announced, recent restrictions have seen it become harder not only for individuals, but also for foreign companies to do business within the country. Internet censorship is being reported to be restricting access to markets, thus favoring homegrown businesses, as well as severely restricting freedom of speech.
Germany Tightens its Grip
Not for the first time the German government is tightening its grip on what can and cannot be said over the internet. What makes its latest move so worrying however, is that the rules take no account of the truth.
A new law introduced at the beginning of the month requires social media platforms to censor users on behalf of the state. Any posts determined to contain libel, slander, defamation or incitement, among others, must be removed within 24 hours of the platform receiving a complaint. However, the crucial part of this new law is that it does not matter whether the contents of the post is true or not, it must still be removed if a complaint is received.
On the bright side, at least for the companies behind the platforms, they will be allowed up to 7 days in more complex cases. However, it is hard to see where there is any complexity is the truth is not being considered.
Greater Censorship head of China’s National Party Congress
The National Party Congress takes place in China every five years, and as with any party conference the world over, security in the run up to the event is tight. However, China’s authorities are taking things a step further, particularly in relation to online censorship and the approved messaging app WeChat.
Until the end of October all 800 million registered users of the app are being prevented from changing their profile photo, tagline or nickname in an attempt to prevent any spread of political ideas, which run against the government line, via the app.
WeChat is not the only platform cracking down on users, Weibo is also imposing further limitations on users, including banning all anonymous content and setting a deadline for verifying user identities.
The UK, Tax, Regulation and the Internet
The Conservative government in the UK made tighter regulation of the internet one of their key manifesto promises. The reasoning given for this was to make things more difficult for those planning terror attacks and to safeguard children from the darker side of the web – both very noble causes. But, as we often find, these were in part a smoke screen, being used to eradicate freedom of speech and undermine the privacy of the law-abiding majority.
Under new laws being considered by the UK government, social media companies would pay an additional tax that would be fed back into the internet to ‘improve’ it. This was announced alongside plans to further regulate the internet and place more restrictions on content.
The speech focused on restricting under age access to pornography, and reducing harm to vulnerable individuals – again noble and reasonable steps, as is their promise to work with groups including the tech industry, parents and online communities. But, we once again must question the truth behind these motives, especially when the proposals focus on not restricting growth and innovation, but do not mention safeguarding freedom of speech, freedom of information and access to information, or the privacy of the individual.
It should also be noted, that the plans that are going forward are a much watered down version of the original regulatory plans, which included a mandatory approach to network-level ISP internet censorship. These plans were not shelved because of fears over free access etc., rather they were shelved over fears that with the government’s lack of overall majority, they would not get through parliament.
Further Risks to Free Speech in the UK
The British Home Secretary chose the Conservative Party Conference as the platform to finally give more information on the proposed Commission on Countering Extremism. And, as you can probably imagine, it was not good news for free speech online.
Amber Rudd used sweeping statements to cover her understanding of extremism, which could easily be applied to any form of political or social criticism, or dissent.
Part of the new approach includes up to 15 years’ imprisonment for anyone deemed to have repeatedly viewed content deemed ‘terroristic’. Now there is space within the bill for those viewing such content for academic or journalistic reasons, however this is termed having a ‘reasonable excuse’ and the final decision on this would lay with the Home Office, and from this we can extrapolate that it would depend on whether the Home Office is likely to agree with the findings of any research or the content of the article being prepared.
The UK is heading a long way down the censorship slippery slope.
Indonesia’s Censorship Gets Automated
We have previously spoken about the dangers of automated censorship approaches, including the fact that they cannot determine the context in which words and phrases are being used
Despite that the Indonesian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology is pushing ahead with its plans to take censorship to the next level through automation. The argument of the Ministry is that the system is more efficient and because it uses a ‘crawling’ system, rather than DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) it is not a risk to the privacy of internet users, and cannot be used to spy on individuals.
The country’s government expects the system to be up and running in the new year, and we of course will keep you posted.
Brazilian President Stands Up for Free Speech
Moves to force social media to remove anonymously posted offensive of defamatory content related to political parties or candidates have hit a rather large stumbling block. Michel Temer, the Brazilian President has stated that he intends to veto the move, put forward as part of a new electoral bill. If the move is vetoed it is a positive step for freedom of speech.
More Mixed Messages from Iran
Despite continual promises to loosen its censorship grip on the web, news has emerged from Iran that suggests the complete opposite is still happening.
The Telecommunications Minister has once again targeted the messenger app Telegram vowing to block what he calls ‘anti-revolutionary channels’. The move has come after it was reported, via the app, that a state official’s daughter had been arrested for spying. In order for officials to block anything containing ‘immoral’ material or that criticizes the state they would technically need the cooperation of Telegram. However, the company have so far held back, and only compiled with the state when the content in question violates their own terms and conditions.
The saga continues.
The True Extent of Spanish Censorship
Last month we reported that the Spanish government had taken steps to censor certain sites ahead of the Catalonian independence referendum. However, the true extent of the censorship has only now come to light.
The focus of the censorship efforts was on the official referendum website domain referendum.cat. However, this was followed by an extension of the order to cover several other referendum sites and unofficial mirror sites. It is now also understood that more than 140 domains and services remain blocked, and that the order that allowed the censorship to take place can be used to block future sites that are in any way related to the referendum.
If that was not enough a separate order was obtained from the courts that required Google to remove the voting app from their app store, along with any other apps from the same developer. Those fighting against the censorship by setting up alternative domains, mirrors or reverse proxies now face criminal charges and having their online accounts seized. The question now being asked is will the Spanish government be held to account for these actions under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which guarantee the individual’s right to impart and receive information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.
Is Iran Reversing its Course on Censorship?
Over the past two months we have been able to report on possible improvements in the approach Iran takes to internet censorship. However, any celebrations may have been a little premature.
The appointment of Mohammad Javad-Azari Johromi to the role of Minister of Information and Communication Technology was heralded as the start of a fresh approach to the internet. At 36 he was considered young to take the role, but change and progression are seen as part of the Presidents moderate approach, so the appointment was seen as a good sign by many young people in Iran.
However, it has since come to light that he may not be as progressive as people had hoped. The fears have arisen after details of his previous roles, and his treatment of protesters came to light. This combined with the fact that while there has been much talk of loosening censorship rules, Telegram has seen tighter censorship of conversations across its app, and increases in efforts to moderate Twitter within the country, have people questioning the actions of the President.
US, UK and EU Officials All Singing from the Same Sheet
Calls for greater internet censorship under the guise of anti-terrorism are echoing loudly around the halls of power in the UK, the USA and throughout the EU.
European leaders are once again using the all-encompassing mantle of the fight against terrorism to push forward their agenda. In the US, the call for a crackdown not just on extremist content but also on ‘fake news’ is being led by Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN under Barak Obama. She has been quoted as stating the way news was censored in America during the Cold War, represented a ‘Golden Age’ and that this level of control is something to aim for now.
UK PM Calls for a 2 Hour Censorship Window
Following her recent calls for social media platforms and internet search engine companies to do more to stop extremism by blocking content, Theresa May has upped the stakes by calling for censorship of such material to happen within 2 hours of it being posted.
Currently platforms that do review content do so manually, within the first 24 hours of the content being posted. Those within the business state that the 2-hour window is impossible without automation.
Mrs May seems to think that automation is the way forward anyway, and has called on tech companies to develop technology that can spot extremist content and then remove it before it is ever seen. However, there are several problems with this approach, starting with who decides the parameters that are set on what is extremist content. The other problem, and one that has been highlighted by several platforms already is the high percentage of false positives that have shown up in tests of such systems.
This has meant that sites hosting political debate, coverage of wars and atrocities could see their content removed and even their channels delisted.
Unexpected Good News from Saudi Arabia
It would seem the season of good will has started early, this time with good news emanating from Saudi Arabia. It has been reported that the kingdom is lifting the ban on internet calling applications, making apps such as WhatsApp and Skype widely available within the kingdom.
Possibly not as surprising is the catalyst behind the move – money. A government statement released this month stated that Access to VoIP would “reduce operational costs and spur digital entrepreneurship”. However, the move, while welcome, shouldn’t be seen as the opening move to full internet freedom. Censorship still prevails within the kingdom, and that is not likely to change any time soon.
Spain Hits a Censorship Wall
Catalonia, a North Eastern region of Spain has announced an unofficial referendum on independence on October 1st, and unsurprisingly, the Spanish government is not particularly happy about it.
In an attempt to derail the proceedings, it is taken to internet censorship. Government moves include seizing the official domain names being used by those organizing and spreading the word about the referendum and manipulating the Domain Name System to make finding information difficult, if not impossible.
However, anti-censorship activist and Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde is at the forefront of a fight back against the censorship moves. He is offering anonymous hosting and domain names through his Njalla service to independence activists. The move has the backing of the president of the Catalan government Carles Puigdemont, who took to Twitter to suggest activists use proxies to circumvent the censorship attempts.
Only time will tell whether the fight back has been successful.
The US and UK: A Special Relationship on Censorship
The attack on Parsons Green tube station has become the most recent catalyst in calls from governments in both countries for tighter censorship, and even the shutting down of access to the internet.
While Theresa May used speeches to the UN and the EU to call for tighter controls, and for social media platforms to take a more effective role in censoring content, Donald Trump has been echoing the same line, but in what has been described as “increasingly hysterical terms”. Of course, all of this comes at a time when both leaders are under pressure from their own governments, and their own people, over numerous other subjects from austerity to healthcare, and of course rising racial tensions.
So, it is no wonder that once again curtailing internet freedoms, under the guise of keeping us safe from the terrorists is being seen as an easy win.
VPN Ban Raises Concerns Amongst Business Leaders and Academics in China
Authorities in China have always sought to balance their need to control what is seen and said online, with growing the country’s economy through international trade. However, it would seem that the government’s latest crackdown on VPNs, risks upsetting that balance.
Reports this month suggest that growing numbers of businesses are worried that their international trade might slow, or stall altogether, if they are unable to use VPNs to reach sites that are banned in China, including Facebook. Similar fears have been raised by academics in the country who rely on VPNs to be able to access sites as varied as Google Scholar and Dropbox, both of which are banned under China’s censorship laws. However, the government in China, possibly in a move to calm business and academic leaders, has said that government authorized VPNs will be allowed to be used.
As yet, there is no indication as to whose services are considered authorized, or what form these VPNs will take.
Where China Leads, Apparently the EU want to Follow
When it comes to the European Union much of the focus globally has been on the split between the United Kingdom and the rest of the EU. However, while this has been making headlines, there has been some disturbing news that has almost gone unnoticed.
It focuses on a call from the current EU Presidency (Estonia) for a strengthening of indiscriminate internet surveillance throughout member states. Far from just an idea that is being thrown out there for discussion, the call comes backed by options for how this might be achieved. One way this might be pushed through is as an upload filter, controlled by the different platforms and companies that host content.
In basic terms, content would be scanned for specific terms, and if they are found, the content would not be published. As with many attempts at censorship, problems here include who decides what terms are filtered out, and are the terms going to be considered in context. After all, given some of the issues we tackle here, it is conceivable that even this news post won’t make it through if harsh filters were applied.
A Chilling Turn in China’s Fight Against VPNs
News has just emerged that show how serious China is about removing the use of VPNs from the country.
A nine-month prison sentence has just been handed down to an individual who has been convicted of selling VPN software. Deng Jiewi, the individual in question, has been selling VPN software since 2015, and while he was first questioned about this last year, court documents have only recently begun to circulate.
Of course, the biggest fear among residents in China, is that if those selling VPNs have become a target for the authorities, how much longer will it be until users are also targeted.
Cuba’s Censorship Approach: More Details Emerge
At the beginning of the month we reported how Cuba is increasing its censorship efforts, and how these efforts can be a bit hit and miss to say the least.
New information has emerged, which shows just how disjointed and disproportionate censorship is within Cuba. Information gathered by OONI (Open Observatory of Network Interference) suggested that Cuba’s ISP – ETECSA, mainly censors sites that directly or indirectly criticize the Cuban government. But, it also found that the methods of censorship were far from sophisticated, and a method known as ‘deep packet inspection’ is heavily relied upon.
This method involves data being filtered as it passes through an inspection point. However, more secure sites that use HTTPS encryption are able to bypass this filter and are therefore not blocked. In real terms, this means that while Cubans may have difficulty reaching local sites, larger international sites containing the information they require are still reachable. While this is great, it is only great for those who can afford internet access in the first place. With an hour’s browsing costing $1.50 and average monthly salaries only reaching $30, and currently no home WiFi services available, censorship in Cuba is still being widely achieved through economic means.
Thailand Steps Up the Speed of Internet Censorship
Freedom of expression has not really been something associated with Thailand since the Junta took over in the coup of 2014, however pressure on dissidents, and those who criticise the Junta has significantly increased in recent months.
The moves are being made using Article 116, which targets information ‘likely to cause disturbances in the country’. As with many other cases we have looked at in the live updates, the wording of this phrase is broad enough to encompass anything the Junta want it to. Companies affected by the crackdown include Facebook, who has borne the brunt of the regimes censorship efforts. In the first six months of this year alone, the regime has asked Facebook to block 300 posts, compared to just 80 between May 2014, and December 2016.
Further steps are being taken by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission to force Facebook to take the steps required to remove offending posts, with the threat of it being blocked completely. Simultaneously, the regulator has attempted to get Facebook to register as a broadcasting company in Thailand, with the threat of losing its advertising revenue if it refuses.
Iran Loosens its Grip on the Internet (for some individuals)
It’s not often that we are able to report at least potential good news here on the live updates page, but once again it is Iran, one of the purveyors of very strict censorship rules, that is seemingly making steps towards giving its citizens greater freedoms.
But, before you get too excited, it is not going to be a ‘free for all’ deal. The Information and Communications Technology Minister is discussing the possibility of classifying restrictions in accordance with each individual’s job and age. There is little more information on this at the present time, and it could all turn out to be a lot of red tape, and hoops that individuals have to jump through, which eventually needs nowhere, but we should know more in the coming months.
Amnesty International Locks Horns with Cuba Over Internet Censorship
Cuba often flies under the radar when it comes to discussions on censorship, possibly because much of the focus recently has been on its bigger neighbour and the shocking misuses of power that have been occurring there in terms of censoring US citizens.
But, none of this should take away from the abuses happening in Cuba, and that is a cause that Amnesty International have got behind this month. A recent report by Amnesty concluded that the level of state control over the internet threatens the freedom of speech of the majority of residents within Cuba. Of just as much concern to Amnesty are the ill-defined laws used to determined what, and who, should be censored at any time. Most of the sites that are blocked are deemed to have contained criticism of the regime, deal with human rights, or discuss methods of circumventing censorship. And it is not just public content online, but also text messages that contain certain terms that are being censored.
Of further concern to Amnesty, and others, is the fact that the Cuban regime is not being open about its censorship model. Those trying to access a blocked site, like Skype (yes, Skype is banned in Cuba) are meet with messages that make the user think there is an error with the program, or they find that their contact list has just suddenly disappeared, and so they put the problem down to a technical issue.
Tech Giants Jump on the Censorship Train
It would seem there is an even bigger threat to your internet freedoms than any one country, and it is the companies that design, create and own the technology we use to access the internet.
Reports out this month suggest that these companies, especially Google and Apple are monopolizing their control over what we see, hear and read online. This move is a far cry from the early days of the internet when they were heralded as champions of free speech.
Within weeks of President Donald Trump starting his term, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, started implementing technology that eliminated hate speech from the internet. The problem here, of course, is that they are the ones, along with the politicians they back, who get to decide what constitutes as hate speech.
A further problem arises from the fact that between them Google and Apple basically own the internet, and especially the mobile app side of things. So, if they work together to decide something isn’t going to make it to the audience, then it never gets seen. The minds behind Gab, a free and open app, found this out when both companies decided to remove the app from their stores.
Another problem is that Google and Apple are not alone.
Google has partnered with ProPublica to create what they are now referring to as the “Hate Speech News Index”. This will be the result of the new machine learning tool created by Google to rid its search engine of anything the company considers hateful. Perhaps even more worrying is some of the other names that are reportedly involved, namely: The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Latino USA, Univision News and New American Media.
And, if that wasn’t enough to make you concerned about the search results you receive from Google, then the fact that they are using their power to manipulate results to basically block sites they don’t want you to see, should get you a little concerned. One site that has fallen foul of this manipulation is the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). They found that the top 45 search terms that would have previously led readers to their website had been blocked by Google, making it almost impossible for new searchers to find the website.
WSWS and other oppositional websites are not going down without a fight, and supporters are campaigning against what is in effect a black list of sites opposing injustice, corruption, and censorship.
China Insists on Verification for Everyone
Anyone wanting to post on a forum or internet community in China will now have to prove who they are.
The step to remove all anonymity from the internet has previously been experimented with at regional level, but thanks to the issuing of the “Management Regulations on Internet Forum and Community” the regulations have gone nationwide. Internet companies and service providers are required to closely monitor, and strictly manage, all content posted by registered users, and to verify the identity of every individual registering with them, before they are allowed to post. If users refuse to provide their real identities, companies have been told not to let them post on that platform.
Further guidance has also been drawn up relating to what can and cannot be posted, published or disseminated online. The problem, as always, with the guidance is that the categories are so broad, basically anything that the censors take a dislike to, can be banned. Content that is banned includes that which opposes the basic principles of the Constitution, anything deemed harmful to national security, and anything deemed to incite hatred, ethnical discrimination, or which undermines national unity.
Iran Takes a Step Back from Censorship, Possibly
In an event that could not have been easily predicted, Iran’s communication minister has publicly announced that negotiations are underway to unblock Twitter.
The platform has been banned under Iran’s censorship rules for years, despite the fact that the country’s leaders often turn to it to broadcast their political messages. However, it is too soon to be celebrating yet. Even if the move is successful, it does not mean the average Iranian will be able to access the platform, or post freely.
This one is going to be a case of ‘watch this space’.
Vietnam to Increase Censorship as Part of its Crackdown on Dissent
Vietnam has recently stated its intent to crackdown on political dissent within the country.
As part of this it intends to develop a more robust regime of internet censorship. It has taken these moves as a response to what it sees as actions to undermine the prestige of the state and the party leaders. The move follows an upsurge of imprisonments, including of renown activist and blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who now faces ten years in prison. The country is currently considered one of the least secure, in terms of cybersecurity, in the world, while at the same time reports have uncovered evidence suggesting that there has been an increase in cyber hackers working on behalf of the state to find dissidents.
While there are no firm examples of how the crackdown will be implemented Vietnam is certainly a country to be watching over the coming months.
Vietnam Embraces Online Censorship
A project has been approved by the Ministry of Information and Communications in Vietnam that allows the government to identify and block sites that it believes are providing misleading information.
The software that enables this to happen has been designed as part of Vietnam’s long-term plan to prevent cybercrime. While fighting cybercrime is a noble endeavour, the question remains, who decides what information is real and what is misleading? Another aspect of the plan is to develop communication plans that spread the cybercrime prevention message and teach young people to filter out inappropriate information online.
India’s Copyright Infringement Fight goes a Step Too Far
Of course, everyone has a right to protect their own intellectual property, after all if you work hard at something, you don’t want someone else taking all the credit. However, it is hard to see how this right can translate into the closing down of 2,650 websites.
Yet, this is exactly what has happened in India. The ‘interim measure’ has been taken as a response to infringement of copyright on specific films. This may be linked to the sudden disappearance of the Internet Archive as it was apparently one of the sites named in the high court order. The order was passed in the high court without defendants, meaning no one was able to put forward the many logical reasons why this approach was just a little over the top.
Ex Parte orders such as this are only supposed to be used in ‘highly exigent’ circumstances and it is hard to see how video piracy is covered under this.
India Cut the Internet Archive
It is not unknown for whole regions to suddenly lose access to the internet in India.
Numerous reasons are often cited for these occurrences, from government censorship to simple power cuts. However, the latest service disappearances in India are a lot less ambiguous in their nature; the Internet Archive is inaccessible in India. While the link works fine, no information can be accessed and users are being met with a message that makes the reasons for it quite clear – “The page you have requested has been blocked, because the URL is banned as per the Government Rules”. The Archive is a repository for old media content and contains the Wayback Machine, which allows users to view older versions of webpages that are no longer available live on the web.
That is a lot of data that can no longer be accessed, and a cynical person might suggest that it is the first step in rewriting history.
China Closes the Loops in its Censorship Net
China is well known as a leading figure in internet censorship, but until recently there were holes in the censorship net that could be exploited with the use of a VPN. However, as we reported last month, VPNs are the next target on the great China censorship machine.
Now we also learn that they have constructed a new and more sophisticated censorship system to block social media and many other sites. The new system enables the authorities to contact ISPs that provide connectivity for any site deemed unacceptable and a request is made for them to stop hosting the content. If this is not immediately forthcoming the connection is shut down within minutes.
Of course, this also comes on the back of service disruption experienced by WhatsApp users in the country as this became the latest target of the crackdown.
American is at it Again: Fear Over Free Expression
News broke earlier this month of a Bill in Congress that could severely affect individuals’ and companies’ rights to free expression on the internet.
The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA, S. 1693) is another Bill that on the face of it is a good idea. Its obvious aim is to cut the lines of communication used by sex traffickers, therefore removing any space that they may use to endanger the wellbeing of others. However, what the Bill is more likely to actually do is open platforms, businesses and individuals who host third party content to civil and criminal liability if they host the content of sex traffickers.
Now knowingly doing so is little short of stupid, but what if you don’t know, if you content is hacked, or if on the face of it the person hiring space on your site is legal and above board? Just how far can, or should, you go to check the intentions on those that use space on your site or platform? While larger organisations have the resources to do checks, remove material quickly and make any financial reparations, not to mention the ability to weather any storm that results from litigation, small start-ups and individuals don’t. So, what does this mean? In short those hosting space will most likely be much more draconian in their approach to what they host, ensuring that they do not risk opening themselves up to litigation or worse. In doing this they will be helping to stifle free speech and free expression.
Meanwhile those the Bill was designed to catch will just find another way to communicate.
China Closes in on VPN Censorship Gap
Authorities in China have taken the next step in making circumventing the censorships laws even harder by removing VPN Apps from the China App store.
ExpressVPN reported at that of July 29 their iOS app had been removed, along with many other apps from major VPN providers. The only way to access these VPN services within China now is to use a different territory’s App Store. To do this, users must indicate a billing address outside of China. One of the things that makes this move more disturbing is that it indicates Apple’s willingness to side with censorship, rather than freedom of information on the web.
Apps designed for other platforms are currently unaffected, but we can only guess how much longer that will remain the case.
Iran Creates Confusion Over Tightening Telegram Censorship
A very public disagreement has broken out in Iran, centring on the messaging app Telegram.
The hard line conservatives are continuing to push for further restrictions on the app which they state is used by IS and other terrorist groups to plan attacks, including the attack on the Iranian parliament in Tehran in June. The Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi is against the moves and has been threatened with a lawsuit by the deputy state prosecutor in charge of cyberspace if he does not comply with the orders to block content considered criminal. The disagreement, being played out very publicly, become even more confused when it was reported that Telegram had agreed to move its servers to Iran; a statement that is denied in very strong terms by the CEO of Telegram.
This sets the scene for an ongoing disagreement.
Russia Reels from the Hackers Fightback
Russia’s moves to restrict internet freedom through creating a blacklist of sites that ISPs must block has come unstuck due to actions of a group of hackers.
Thousands of sites have been banned since Vladimir Putin’s 2012, re-election – most for promoting ‘social ills’ or for supporting political dissention. The hackers fought back this month by purchasing banned sites and inserting information from legal websites into the domain names. The move caused nothing short of chaos as major news sites were blocked, Google became inaccessible and the state banks VTB and Sherbank found that their cash machines were no longer working.
Now that the blacklisting system has been shown to be vulnerable, concerns have been raised that the Russian government will retaliate by focusing on intimidation and introducing even harsher rules on what can be viewed on the web. It has already been reported that the blacklist has been replaced with a whitelist of sites that cannot be blocked. Only time will tell how this, and other moves made earlier this month to tighten internet freedoms, will play out.
Russian Restrictions Rise As Bills Are Passed
Earlier this month we reported that the Russian State Duma was rushing through two Bills that would severely restrict internet freedom within the country.
Well, this week the bills were passed. The result of this move is that all VPNs, and proxies are now banned and using them is illegal, although providing the software needed for them to work is currently not covered by the law.
There has been little information on how the ban will be implemented, and top VPN providers such as NordVPN have vowed to fight the move, and do everything they can to enable their users to continue to access the internet without restrictions. But, it is not just VPNs and proxies that have been hit.
Privacy has also been compromised by the Bills. Those who rely on messenger services for private communications, will no longer be able to communicate anonymously. The new law requires all service administrators to establish the identities of all its users via their phone numbers. If that was not chilling enough, the Russian government is working on a system that would allow them to restrict the communications of specific individuals – so not only can they see who is talking, but they can decide on what they can say.
And just to solidify their hold over the internet a little more, Russia has also implemented a carbon copy of the German ‘Hate Speech’ law that we also discussed earlier this month. And just as with the German law the definition of hate speech as been left open to be determined as the authorities see fit.
China Catches Up with WhatsApp
It has finally happened; WhatsApp’s free reign in China is over.
Up until this month the messaging app had managed to escape the attention of the Chinese officials that have been ramping up their campaign of internet censorship. There has been no official ban or block, but the servers are currently unavailable across much of the country. The lack of servers comes in the wake of the death of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights activist – Liu Xiaobo.
Israel Instigates Internet Crackdown
While not necessarily the most open of countries, Israel is not known for using the law to control the internet as a whole. However, that changed this month when the Knesset approved a law allowing the court-ordered removal or blocking of certain sites.
Any site promoting criminal activity or terror related activities is covered by the new law. Now, as in many other instances, where the country creates such bans it is the definition of criminal behavior or terrorism that is the problem. No one is going to argue that child pornography should be removed from any and everywhere. However, the selling or use of Cannabis is a much more open question, which would be covered by the same law.
UK to Start Censoring Sex
Here is another law, that, on the face of it, is for a good reason.
Sex may sell, and it may be great fun for consenting adults, but sex, and especially pornography, is not child friendly. So, a law requiring age verification to be established on all pornography sites seems like a good idea – right?
Wrong, what the law being instigated in the UK does in practice is allows the government to block pornography website en-masse and without a court order. Additionally, the law can be used to block any content that does not comply with UK content rules. So, who decides on what is pornography? Another concern for those who enjoy consensual pornography sites, is that the age verification software most likely to be used by the site owners will be credit card authorization.
That’s a lot of additional financial information floating in the ether, just waiting for hackers to find it.
Net Neutrality – A Battle Worth Fighting
July 12 was net neutrality day, and this year it certainly did not go unnoticed with both big and small internet companies staging an online protest to preserve net neutrality.
The online protest was just one part of a day of action aimed at convincing the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to keep the current net neutrality regulations in place. These regulations ensure that providers treat all content equally and do not give their own services preferential treatment. While a vast array of internet based businesses joined in on the action, some were a little more pro-active than others – and funny enough, the bigger the company, the more subdued the support – I guess some things never change.
To learn more about net neutrality and what it might mean for you try this infographic.
Russia Rushing to Remove More Internet Freedoms
The Russian government is not exactly known for its love of internet freedom, but its latest move would stifle what little freedom is left.
The two bills, which have already had their first reading, and look likely to be adopted on the second, would ban software used for bypassing blocked websites (in short no more VPNs), censor search engines and bring messaging apps under government control. The move would remove the last vestiges of freedom on the net in Russia, and mean that messaging services would be required to cooperate with Russian mobile phone operators in identifying users – nothing would be sacred or secure. This follows other internet censorship laws that were signed just a few days ago giving the communications ministry the right to block mirror sites without the need for the agreement of a judge.
And yes, as you have already guessed, this is all being done in the name of stopping terrorism.
China Creates Further Content Restrictions in Line with Core Values
It seems not a month goes by without China trying to further restrict its citizens’ internet access.
Although July only started a week ago, the officials in China have been very busy implementing new restrictions. Among the new rules this month we found that auditors will be checking all audio and visual content being uploaded to ensure that it is in keeping with China’s ‘core socialist values’. Any content from educational videos or cartoons that breaks these values will be edited or banned. Included under this ruling are the following:
- A halt to all content streaming – at least temporarily while the new rules are enforced
- A ban on all content showing, or seeming to promote homosexuality – it has been classified as an ‘abnormal sexual behavior.’
- A ban on all content that discusses drug addiction.Anything relating to nudity or sex, including sex-education videos.
- Anything showing smoking.
- Anything that shows luxury lifestyles.
- Anything that contains or shows criminal processes in detail.
- Anything containing ‘foul’ language.
On top of this, the department that oversees policing media will start scoring online literature publishing sites. These sites will be marked out of 100 on how well the literature on their site adheres to socialist values. Sites that fall below 60 points are to be criticized publicly and banned from winning awards.
And if that wasn’t enough, China’s most popular VPN has been ordered to cease its operations. GreenVPN has been a life line for citizens, universities, businesses and even state-run newspapers who want to get past the Great Firewall of China. Restricting VPNs was listed as one of the top priorities by China’s Minister of Industry and Information Technology at the beginning of the year, and it looks as if they have started to move through their to-do list.
Paying the Price for Free Speech in Germany
Under a new controversial law passed in Germany, social media companies that fail to remove hate speech can be fined up to $57 million (€50 million).
While it seems like a promising idea to prevent the spread of hate and violence, there are numerous problems with such laws. The main issue being who decides on what is hate speech, defamation, or incitement to violence and what is not. The law tries to address this by stating that companies have 24 hours to remove obvious examples, but have up to a week to come to decisions on less clear-cut examples. The problem then is who makes those decisions and on what basis. The move was made after it was decided by the Justice Minister Heiko Mass that social media platforms were not fulfilling their obligations. However, he then stated that a Europe-wide strategy was needed to tackle hate speech and fake news.
And here in lays the problem: one person’s fake news is another person’s uncomfortable truth, and the same can be said for freedom of expression and hate speech.
Canada – Land of the Not So Free
In a move that has come as a bit of a shock, Canada has joined the ranks of those using legal statutes to determine what information individuals should and should not have a right to access, not just within Canada, but world-wide.
The highest court in Canada, the Supreme Court, upheld a ruling that allowed a company to force Google to globally de-list specific websites and domains for its search index. The move effectively makes them invisible to anyone looking for them using this search engine. What is so concerning, is not that the court was used to intercede in a Canadian matter, nor that domains were removed from use within Canada, but that the company in question pushed for the world-wide removal of the domains, and this was backed by the court.
The implications of this ruling on free speech, should other countries decide to follow suit, and not just in cases of industrial disagreement, do not bear thinking about. For example, if a court in China was to use the same approach to something they said was against Chinese law, such as the existence of YouTube, then they could have that removed world-wide, rather than just in China.
Further Censorship Challenges in China
Earlier this month we reported on moves by the Chinese government to remove entertainment and sports gossip, discussion and updates from the Internet, deeming them against Chinese laws on individual privacy.
Now one of the sites that provides such news, but managed to avoid closure, has been hit again. Weibo, better known as the Chinese Twitter was hit with an order from the government to shut down any politically sensitive video or audio content. The company agreed to comply with the order, and the belief among analysts is that the company’s content will barely be affected as its users know not to post such comments anyway.
But, how long will it be before the officials return for the rest of Weibo’s content?
India Increases its Hold on Internet Freedom
India is taking censorship to a whole new level.
It has shut down the internet. Over the course of the first five months of 2017, the internet has been shut down in various regions at least twenty times, with four such blackouts occurring in the first half of June. Each of these blackouts took place in an area that experienced recent violent protests. The government is seemingly unwilling to discuss the shutdowns, but in the past stated it was to stop social media from fuelling violence. While it’s not the first time the Indian government has taken such serious steps, shutdowns have significantly increased this year.
It comes as no surprise that social media websites, such as Facebook, rank India among the top countries with governments asking for content censorship.
Palestine Ponders the Problems of People Power
Palestinian authorities hit an unexpected wall when they ordered the blocking of numerous websites.
Deemed not to be in line with its political orientation, the 22 sites were blocked because they violated the ‘rules of publication’, although no one seems to know exactly what rules these refer to. This sudden block, however, seems to have motivated activists to speak out against it. As well as starting their own hashtag campaign, those opposing the block are calling for people to boycott the ISPs that are complicit in the violation of internet freedoms.
Iran Straddles the Censorship Line
Iran is not known for its tolerance of Internet freedom, especially since both Twitter and Facebook are banned in the country. However, a ray of hope emerged when – in his bid for re-election – President Hassan Rouhani spoke efforts to protect access to social media platforms in the country.
He touted a more moderate tone towards newer social media sites such as Instagram and Telegram than has been seen in the country before. Great, yes? Well, it would have been, except that just after his victory Rouhani’s administration introduced reforms that are probably going to restrict internet access even further. The new controls were brought in under the cover of improved cyber security and in defense of Iran’s national security. What may be more concerning, however, is that Telegram is reportedly working with the government, cooperating with the tighter control of what can and cannot be posted. In the interest of fairness, however, it should be noted that Telegram stated that they are only cooperating to remove content that includes pornography.
The government’s program of ‘intelligent refinement’, however, goes much further.
Egypt Widens its Censorship Targets
Egyptian authorities have started targeting VPN providers that were specifically used to bypass the latest wave of blocks on news sites.
The news broke not long after the tech community ended its proposal to punish African governments for withholding new IP addresses and effectively shutting down the Internet. The Egyptian government doesn’t see anything wrong with either withholding IP addresses or shutting down news sites, although they refuse to formally acknowledge that sites are being blocked. More worrying is that the system Egyptians use to coerce ISP providers into turning off internet access is being replicated in other countries, including Cameroon and Iraq.
Closing in on Celebrity News in China
China is well known for its no-nonsense approach to the internet, and the potential for freedom that it gives its citizens. However, news that authorities have instigated a new cyber-security law, which resulted in the closure of accounts and blogs covering celebrity news, still came as a shock.
More than 80 WeChat accounts were closed under the law that was issued by the highest internet regulator in the country – the Cyberspace Administration of China. The law states that neither organizations nor individuals can conduct any activity on the Internet that violates the reputation, privacy or intellectual property of another individual. This wouldn’t sound quite so bad if it had just been sites peddling falsehoods, vulgarities, and scandals, but among the shut-downs was a popular movie review site.
It would seem that entertainment, and even sports, no longer have the relative freedom they once had.
Turkey’s War on Wikipedia
The Turkish government has blocked – completely blocked – Wikipedia. Yes, you read that right.
The website simply does not exist anymore for web users in Turkey. Although only recently reported, the block happened in late April after Wikipedia refused to remove negative references to Turkey’s relationship with militants in Syria and state-sponsored terrorists. But Wikipedia is only the thin edge of the wedge; the Turkish government has blocked an estimated 127,000 sites and a further 95,000 social media accounts, blog posts, and articles. Many of the sites that are banned contain news and information that is considered embarrassing to the government.
Students in Turkey are leading the revolt against the ban on Wikipedia, particularly as exam time looms closer, and are using VPNs to aid them in reaching it and other banned sites. Also, it was revealed in June that multiple ‘mirror’ websites have sprung up on the web in Turkey, reproducing the content found on Wikipedia. One way that this has been made possible is by placing Turkish Wikipedia pages on a decentralized peer-to-peer hosting network that does not rely on a domain name system.
This makes it very hard for the Turkish government to completely censor it, giving those that want to find the content a way to do so.
A Bad Month for Al-Jazeer
As well as being banned in Egypt, Al-Jazeer television has been blocked in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The move comes after the Qatar ruler was said to have described Iran as an ‘Islamic power’ and then gone on to criticize the policy of the Trump administration towards Tehran. However, officials from Qatar hold firm to line that their news agency was hacked and that no such comments were ever made by the Emir. Either way, it’s a little more than coincidence that this has occurred within days of Trump’s visit to the region.
Egypt Tightens its Grip on Free Speech
In another wave of crack-downs Egypt has joined the ranks of those using terrorism to ban websites that its ruling powers don’t like.
The new ruling saw 21 websites being banned including Al-Jazeer television, which is based in Qatar, long believed by officials to support the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. Other sites named on the list produced by officials included local Egyptian broadcasters and newspapers. However, among those not officially named, but now inaccessible within Egypt the Arabic website of The Huffington Post and Mada, described as a progressive Egyptian news website with no links to Islamist groups or showing any sympathies to their cause.
As these sites were not officially named among the 21 now banned (of which only 5 have been officially named) it is possible that this is just a teething problem. However, it is also possible that terror is once again being used as a cover all to limit freedom of speech and access to progressive ideas.
State of Emergency in Venezuela Encompasses Internet Access
After two months of being held in a state of emergency, experiencing anti-government protests, civil unrest and the deaths of over 50 people, the Venezuelan president has sort to curb the violence by increasing web censorship and online surveillance.
The move comes as the president’s popularity continues to fall, and censorship of television stations and the harassment and arrest of journalists failed to end the unrest. Online TV stations have been accused, along with local phone companies, of backing and even assisting with the coordination of anti-government protests.
To fight back, and continue their right to freedom of expression the Venezuelan people have moved to social media, which is proving much harder for the government to censor. However, in a move to counter act this, the government is also heading to social media with its own message, while increasing surveillance on its citizens.
Blurring the Lines Between Hate Speech and Freedom of Speech
Most right-minded people do not want to see content that encourages, supports or otherwise creates a voice or platform for hate speech, or which goes out of its way to hurt others in anyway.
But, it is a sad truth that it exists, and should be reported and removed when found.
However, the latest EU directive if enacted could do more than just put an end to hate speech. This directive would lead to greater regulation of video content on social media, which companies like Facebook and Twitter would be forced to adopt. The regulation would provide an EU wide one-size-fits-all approach to the problem, but who decides on the size, and therefore on what constitutes hate speech, as opposed to freedom of speech and a credible threat instead of open debate.
The moderation system on these sites is far from perfect, but is this really the answer?
The UK Government Move to Tighten Regulation and Remove More Freedoms
We reported above on an EU directive that was set to regulate video content on social media, under the guise of reducing and removing hate speech.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the UK would be free from this worrying turn of events with Brexit looming ever closer. However, Theresa May has other plans and is planning on introducing extensive regulations that would allow the government to decide what is said online. The regulations would place huge restrictions on what could be shared, published and posted online. It would also give the government the power to break messaging apps so that the messages being sent and received could be read. As with so much of the regulation and restriction being imposed online at the moment, this is being achieved under the guise of anti-terrorism legislation.
But, what it is achieving isn’t stopping terrorism, but curbing the rights of average, law-abiding (mostly) citizens, which is what the terrorists want, isn’t it?
Where Russia Leads Ukraine Follows
Russia has long been known for its increasingly draconian approach to independent websites and online media. However, in a move that is being wrapped in the colours of increased sanctions against Russia, the Ukrainian president has announced a block on the most popular social media websites and search engines based in Russia.
The move is one of a number that also sees the assets of a number of Russian companies being frozen, and their operations being banned within Ukraine. While the president’s line is that this is in response to Russia’s ongoing annexation of the Crimea, censorship experts in the country are concerned that there is much more to the move, and that the rights and online freedoms of the country’s individuals are under attack.
Greater Turkish Censorship
It didn’t stop there either. The Turkish government decided to get in on the act and tighter censorship was introduced with more sites being blocked as threats to National Security. But, like the Australians, the Turkish people didn’t take the threat to their online freedom lightly and there was an 89% rise in the sale of VPNs soon after the announcement.
Net Neutrality Laws
Ajit Pai, US FCC chairman made moves to demolish net neutrality laws that have existed since 2015. These laws are intended to prevent telecommunication companies in the US prioritizing traffic by blocking, or at the very least, slowing down competitors’ content.
Australia 1 Net Privacy 0?
The same month also saw the Australian government enact a new set of laws, known as the Federal Government’s Metadata Retention Scheme. Guess what the Australian Government wanted access to? However, it hasn’t been an easy road for the Australian Government to get this scheme enacted and, never a country to take things laying down, privacy rights organisations declared April 13, National get a VPN Day.
ISPs Legally Allowed to Sell Your Data
Not long into the presidency of Donald Trump, we reported how a Bill had been signed in the US that allowed ISPs to sell the browsing histories and geolocation data of their customers. The theory behind the Bill was that it created a level playing field between the likes of Google and Facebook, who are renown for being fast and loose with customer information, and the ISPs whose hands had been legal tied until this point.
The ruling went into effect on December 1, 2016, despite last minute efforts to stop it.
This is in effect the US version of ‘the snoppers’ charter’ (legislation in the UK that allowed government agencies free reign in spying on the search habits of individuals) allowing multiple computers across the country to be searched under a single warrant. While the reasoning that is being trotted out to support the move gains support with the popular Imagination; after all who doesn’t want to protect their children, it in effect does little to protect. In fact, the surveillance powers and the changes that they will affect in search and seizure procedures are considered by those who oppose the bill, to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The Investigatory Powers Act, UK
This Act was passed in 2016, and as of May 2017, still not everyone knows, or accepts its existence.
Dubbed ‘the snoppers’ charter’ it means that Internet users throughout the UK are being tracked and watched by GCHQ, on mass without having committed any unlawful act. And if the government can track you, so can the criminals, and ‘big business’. Meaning that your information is for sale, and the Investigatory Powers Act makes it easier to find and use.