Myanmar’s resolve for an open Internet is being tested this week as the government declared a state of emergency on June 10, to contain deadly clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in the nation’s western Rakhine state. The country’s military junta was dissolved in 2011, so the government's response to website comments inciting hate and murder could set a new tone for freedom of expression as the state goes through a seminal transitional moment.
Despite moves toward democracy, Myanmar was still listed as one of the ‘Enemies of the Internet‘ this year by free speech advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. The government began political reforms last year and has increased access to the Internet by lowering firewalls that had blocked social media such as Facebook and the use of VoIP software.
The conflict between Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya minority has galvanized Internet activity in this developing nation, but hate speech, ruthless pictures of dead bodies and street protests have spread quickly online. The independent Burmese website Democratic Voice of Burma also had its server overwhelmed in a Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDoS) by hacker group Blink, which used computers with IP addresses based in Singapore or Russia. The Blink website posted numerous anti-Islamist messages including “Get Out From Our Land .. Rohingya .. We Love RaKhine .. We Love Myanmar”, directing comments at the Muslim minority, which traces its origins to neighboring Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s government remains silent on these social media messages, but military officials have warned news media not to inflame the conflict through their reporting and demanded all articles be submitted for government review before publication. As in many countries under transition, it remains to be seen whether Internet freedom can survive this political and humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the struggle for online freedom continues around the world:
Last week, the independent news agency Asia Plus was inaccessible for several days in Tajikistan. While officials cited “maintenance reasons”, critics argued that this was a deliberate act of censorship, as readers of the site had posted comments critical of the regime. In March Facebook was inaccessible in the country along with three Russian-language news websites due to “technical reasons”.
To increase transparency in examples of “soft censorship,” when authorities obscure details on what content is blocked, Google developers have proposed a new HTTP status code. Under the proposal a browser would return the status code “451: Unavailable for Legal Reasons” when someone attempts to access a restricted site. The error message would include details about the relevant laws, the legal authority behind the restrictions and the class of content targeted.
Google's latest transparency report reveals an increasing trend of governments seeking removal of political content between July and December 2011. Such content removal requests came from law enforcement and governments in “Western democracies not typically associated with censorship”. Notable mentions include a request granted to British police for the removal of 640 videos allegedly supporting terrorism; in India content removal requests increased 49 percent since the last six month reporting period.
Iran’s online monitoring task force announced plans to crack down on virtual private networks (VPNs), which an estimated 20-30 percent of Iranians use to circumvent restrictions on content within Iran.
The top-level domain name registry “.co.jp”, which is used mainly by Japanese companies, was blocked for 30 hours on June 15 by China’s national firewall for unknown reasons. This marks the first time China’s Internet censors have filtered an entire top-level domain. The sites were made accessible again on June 16.
Police in Azerbaijan released 23-year-old video blogger and pro-democracy activist Mehman Huseynov on bail last night, after his arrest for allegedly assaulting police while covering the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest protests to highlight human rights abuse in that country. Huseynov may be jailed for up to five years if convicted.
After being arrested on May 29 while leaving an Internet cafe, Moroccan blogger Mohamed Sokrate was sentenced to two years in prison for “drug trafficking and possession,” in a trial fellow activists claim was unfair and hasty because of Sokrate’s criticism of the monarchy. An activist group is rallying for a retrial, and Sokrate’s lawyer said Moroccan authorities ignored evidence, such as the arrest of his father and brother in a possible effort to pressure Sokrate into acknowledging his “guilt”.
Since the end of May the Omani government has arrested at least 33 bloggers and activists who have urged government reform, following up on a June 4 statement warning that it will take legal action against those who publish content deemed offensive or that incites action “under the the pretext of freedom of expression”. Activists told Human Rights Watch that they believe authorities have increased surveillance and hacking activities in recent weeks.
British Justice Secretary Ken Clarke proposed amending a defamation law to require international websites such as Twitter and Facebook to reveal the identities of users who post harassing anonymous comments upon request.
The British government also presented a draft bill to require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to record all online and mobile activities and even track postal mail. All this data would be stored and made available to authorities for a year. A petition campaign by progressive non-profit 38 Degrees calls on British Prime Minister David Cameron to stop the bill.
In the recent Telecom Edition of the Netizen Report, we highlighted the use of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) by Ethio-Telecom to surveil netizens in Ethiopia. According to French newspaper La Croix, the French company France Telecom helped the Ethiopian government to implement its DPI activities, as part of a two-year agreement to take over the management of the Ethiopian telecoms network, Ethio-Telecom. The French government is one of France Telecom's main shareholders. (NOTE: A previous version of this item incorrectly characterized the relationship between France Telecom and Ethio-Telecom. It was corrected on 24/6/2012.)
Our coverage continues this week on leaked documents that were prepared for the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which is organized by the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU). A proposal by the Chinese government would allow member states to regulate communications infrastructure and information technology companies’ operations in their territory. The International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) slated for review would regulate telephones and satellite orbits, but in December the WCIT may adopt proposals that include Internet regulation.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a United States (US)-based non-profit responsible for domain name control, has released a list of more than 2,000 applications for new top-level domains. Each application for a new domain (.google, for example) costs US$185,000, and requires a 10-year maintenance agreement, which ICANN has estimated would cost applicants US$25,000 annually. Critics argue the proposal is a commercial landgrab by ICANN and that the explosion of domain names could make it harder to verify existing web brands, thus threatening security.
The majority of the nearly 2,000 applications came from rich companies such as Google and Amazon. Approximately 911 came from North America, with only 17 from Africa. There are numerous competing claims for domains such as .app, .home, and .inc.
Sovereigns of cyberspace
Major Internet companies are finding new ways to leverage user information for Internet advertisements. Facebook plans to launch Facebook Exchange, which will provide advertisers with information of Facebook users’ browsing history and let them bid on access to users’ attention.
Non-profit news organization ProPublica also revealed that Microsoft and Yahoo are selling users’ information entered during website registration to allow US political campaigns to target voters with online ads.
Meanwhile, Google, Facebook, Twitter, America Online and the Interactive Advertising Bureau are working with Internet safety non-profit StopBadware to launch an initiative called ‘Ads Integrity Alliance‘. The alliance will expand on StopBadware's mission to identify websites that engage in malicious behaviour which harms users by sharing information about online advertisements that compromise Internet users’ privacy and security, and developing policy recommendations for web safety.
Australian online electronic store Kogan is the first online retailer to collect a 6.8 percent Internet Explorer 7 Tax on its customers who are using the outdated browser to shop in its online store. The company says the tax is necessary “due to the amount of time required to make Web pages appear correctly in IE7”.
In an effort to counter unwanted spam messaging the news-sharing website Reddit temporarily banned users from submitting links to several major media websites, including Businessweek.com and TheAtlantic.com.
A Japanese man has sued Google for violation of privacy and demanded the company revise its autocomplete search function, which suggests keywords automatically on Google search. The man claimed this function inappropriately shows terms related to crimes and defamatory articles when his name is typed in the search box, and may have resulted in his rejection from several applications for jobs.
The websites for two South Korean newspapers were hacked last week, destroying the sites’ database and editing systems. The attack happened after North Korea threatened to target several South Korean media outlets that were critical of a children's event held in Pyongyang. South Korean police are still investigating whether North Korea was involved.
During the June 12 protests in Moscow against the Russian President Vladimir Putin, independent media outlets in Russia were once again the targets of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks, which overwhelm a website’s bandwidth. Putin reclaimed the Russian presidency for a third term in March, and independent media organizations in Russia have suffered repeated DDoS attacks to minimize coverage of protests against his re-election.
Publications and studies
- The Global Network Initiative: Report on Digital Freedoms in International Law
- Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society: White Paper on Net Neutrality and Quality of Service
- South African Civil Society Information Service: South Africa: The Turning Point for Internet Freedom
- Kevin Macnish at the University of Leeds: Unblinking eyes: the ethics of automating surveillance
For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.