Most of this report was researched and written by Weiping Li, Mera Szendro Bok, and edited by Sarah Myers.
Netizens around the world took collective action with a mass Internet blackout on January 18 to protest the United States’ Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act, which, in its effort to enforce copyright online, would have compelled Internet service providers and platforms to monitor and censor their users or risk being blocked or penalized in the United States, and would have weakened the Internet's domain name system, among other things. Global Voices and Global Voices Advocacy participated in the protest along with over 7,000 websites, including Mozilla, Wikipedia, Reddit, Flickr, TwitPic, Boing Boing. Advocacy groups including Public Knowledge and Free Press blacked out their sites and posted information about how to get involved in the fight against these bills.
Many protest websites tracked the bill's Congressional Representatives’ supporters, ultimately pressuring many representatives to withdraw their support. In the end, Congressman Lamar Smith, SOPA's sponsor, pulled the bill and said it would not go to a vote until “issues are addressed”. Inspired by the American protests, netizens took action around the world on digital rights, including Chinese activists. An article in Ars Technica neatly summed up the impact of the legislation on the rest of the world.
After SOPA and PIPA’s Death
Now it seems that SOPA and PIPA are dead. But concerns about illegal file-sharing persist, and commentators warn that similar bills may be reincarnated. Ben Huh, The CEO of I Can Has Cheezburger?, states that we still have more work to do in order to defend Internet freedom and sustain the engine of netizen mobilization. His opinions echo an article by Alex Howard on O’Reilly Radar, which argues that citizens need to band together to work out alternatives to SOPA. Internet and Politics guru Micah Sifry discusses the broader political environment that produced the bills, and the need for Internet companies and netizens to work for political reform. Internet law Professor Yochai Benkler offers seven lessons and four proposals on where we go from here.
Major Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen have enforced a registration system that requires users to register their real name on Weibo, the prominent Chinese microblog. Although the new regulation has been widely criticized by Chinese netizens, including Pony Ma (Ma Hauteng), the founder of Chinese Internet service company Tencent, the Chinese authority still plans to implement the rule in other parts of the country.
In contrast, South Korea, which adopted online real-name registration in 2007, has taken steps to abandon the practice. Having faced criticisms of infringing freedom of expression and concerns over hacking, some Internet companies have decided to stop asking customers’ resident numbers, and the Korea Communications Commission is also planning to abandon the real-name registration requirement.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has jumped on the bandwagon of using social media for his presidential election campaign, but he has also been reported to have censored comments left on his website: only those comments which support his election are allowed to stay on the site.
An Indian journalist sued Google, Facebook and other companies for not taking down offensive content from their websites. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the journalist claimed that messages which contained objectionable content about Hinduism, Islam and Christianity could cause commotion across India. He said action was meant to remind Internet companies to act in socially responsible ways.
The Argentinean government is launching a program to build a national biometric service named “the Federal System of Biometric Identification (SIBIOS)“. This system combines Argentinean citizens’ biometric information with other databases and be used by law enforcement. According to Katitza Rodriguez’s report for Global Voices Advocacy, the information gathered through the SIBIOS system would include not only biometric identifiers but also “an individual's digital image, civil status, blood type, and key background information”. The program has raised serious concerns over the government’s unrestrained power to surveil its people.
Sprint has promised to remove CarrierIQ tracking software from the cell phones using its network, making good on its word to improve security for its users.
To fight against the government’s intrusion into netizens’ personal Internet information, EFF and ACLU filed an appeal to challenge the U.S. district court’s decision to refuse disclosure of all orders in the Twitter/Wikileaks case.
A hacked document revealing that RIM, Nokia, and Apple provided the Indian government backdoor access to users’ communications may be fake. The three companies and security company Symantec have argued this document was full of incorrect information, and is not from the Indian directorate general of military intelligence.
Iran’s government has relentlessly pursued the Internet activists Parastoo Dokouhaki, Marzieh Rasouli, and Sahamoddin Bourghani, who were recently arrested. They were accused of “propaganda against the system” or “acting against national security”. The Iranian Supreme Court also confirmed the death penalty of a web programmer whose web program was misused by others to upload pornography.
After being detained for 10 months, Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil, who was convicted of “insulting the military” by an Egyptian military court, was released.
Chinese activist Li Tie was sentenced to 10 years in prison for writing articles advocating democratic reform; poet Zhu Yufu was also charged with subversion for poems published online.
Several Ethiopian journalists and bloggers were convicted of terrorism and may face the death penalty.
The Myanmar government released several journalists and bloggers and at least 600 dissidents from prison under the government’s amnesty program.
A recent study found that in Colombia, the Internet is changing the media landscape. The research pointed out that online journalism emphasizes local perspectives and incorporates more interaction with readers.
According to the Statistical Report on Internet Development published by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), the number of Chinese Internet users hit 513 million in 2011, which is almost equivalent to the number of Twitter users. Half of the the 513 million netizens are microblog users.
Is citizen journalism rising in China? Maybe. With the prevalence of digital cameras, videos, and social media, more and more Chinese citizens shoot newsworthy events and are uploading the clips to websites. Media scholars expect this trend may promote societal progress.
Want to know more about hacktivists who often hit the Internet activism headlines? This documentary may provide the audience with insight into hacktivist group Anomymous.
The European Union delineated more details on its ban on exports of surveillance technology to Syria. The banned items include equipment which can probe email content or intercepts text messages.
The Indian government plans to build an “m-Government” framework by which people can access public services more easily via their mobile phones.
The Canadian government has historically prohibited the revelation of election results to areas where the votes have not been closed. Last year, Twitter users breached the law in an election by tweeting the results. The Canadian government announced (via Twitter) on January 17 it plans to lift the ban.
Swedish government agencies let different Swedes demonstrate their ways of life in the nation’s official Twitter account, hoping to let more people around the world understand and be interested in Sweden.
Sovereigns of Cyberspace
Twitter has announced that it now has the capability to restrict content from appearing in certain countries. The company says this will allow it to comply with local laws in different countries without having to remove content globally. When content is restricted in this way, the action will be reported to users through the Chilling Effects website.
Twitter also acquired a start-up company which has developed a service to summarize social media content and solve the information-overload problem.
The anti-SOPA and PIPA action in the U.S. helped spark another round of protests in Europe. Now Polish netizens are fighting against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The provisions in the treaty require Internet companies to monitor their online users. What irritated the Polish netizens was not only the censorship-like regulation, but also the opaque negotiation process around the legislation.
On January 19, one day after the mass protest against SOPA, the FBI seized the file sharing Web site Megaupload and charged seven people connected with it with running an international enterprise based on Internet piracy. Seven Europeans now face legal indictments in the United States of “racketeering conspiracy, conspiring to commit copyright infringement, conspiring to commit money laundering and two substantive counts of criminal copyright infringement.” European officials and digital rights advocates are protesting the legal action because they believe it sets a bad precedent for international intellectual property law.
Research archive JSTOR will soon open more resources to the public for free access.
Pirate Bay has begun shifting from torrents to “magnets” as another way of sharing data that would help the site go further underground.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on January 19th to uphold a law which grants copyright protection to foreign works that had been freely availably in the public domain.
Cyberspace has become a new battleground for pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups. Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli hackers took down websites and waged distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDoS attack) on each other.
There could be easier ways to let the public understand obscure technologies on the horizon. New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative has explored methods such as visual language to explain their mesh wireless network projects to communities.
Internet Rights as Human Rights
Amnesty International has responded in a blog to Vint Cerf’s article on internet rights as human rights, saying “in places from Sub-Saharan Africa to the most impoverished communities here in the US, loss of access could mean an immediate threat to lives and livelihoods.”
In a letter by Joy Liddicoat of APC responding to Vint Cerf's article, APC encourages discussion and increased dialogue between technologists and human rights advocates.
Michael H. Posner, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor gave a keynote address at the State of the Internet conference statingthe U.S government’s view on “Internet freedom as a foundation for the 21st Century human rights agenda” and the role of media in the “Arab Awakening”.
Reporters Without Borders released its Press Freedom Index for 2011-2012. Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen got their worst-ever rankings.
Freedom House released its 2012 Freedom in the World report. A chilling overall result was that despite the gains won by the Arab Spring, “slightly more countries registered declines than exhibited gains over the course of 2011. This marks the sixth consecutive year in which countries with declines outnumbered those with improvements.”
“Mapping Digital Media,” a new Open Society Paper reports on the impact of digitization on democracy in 60 countries around the world.
China Internet expert Hu Yong reviews trends of China’s Internet in 2011.
The Center for the Study of Free Expression (CELE) at Argentina’s University of Palermo released Towards an Internet free of Censorship: Proposals for Latin America with contributions by leading policy experts from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S.
Vivek Kundra, who served as the White House's first Chief Information Officer until August 2011, writes on Innovation through Open Data and the Network Effect.
According to research conducted by Facebook, social networks can help spread diverse points and novel information. Slate’s technology columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote an article responding to the research.
EVENTS: For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age see the Global Voices events calendar.