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.

October

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. However, 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.

September

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. But, 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 dissents, 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. However, 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.

August

 

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.

July

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.

 

June

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.

 

May 2017

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.

April 2017

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.

December 2016

Rule 41

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.

November 2016

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.

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