Telecommunications companies hold tremendous sway over their customers’ digital rights, and Swedish-Finnish telecom TeliaSonera has a checkered past for its collaboration with authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Since its formation in 2002, it has expanded its markets beyond Northern Europe to include developing IT nations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Yet TeliaSonera has faced criticism for allegedly aiding authoritarian governments in former Soviet states to spy on their own citizens.
The Netizen Report covered one such instance in May 2012, when TeliaSonera enabled the government of Azerbaijan to surveil its citizens in the lead up to the Eurovision Song Contest hosted in Baku. The telecom is considering business in Myanmar now that the former military junta has lowered censorship restrictions.
The most recent censorship allegations come from activists in Tajikistan, who blame the telecom for cutting off mobile service for a month in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. The region was the site of fighting between the Tajik government and rebels in July, during which the government also blocked access to websites such as YouTube and the BBC. In response, activists there organized a boycott on September 2, turning off their mobile phones for half an hour in protest.
TeliaSonera’s CEO Lars Nyberg stated in August that his company would focus more on human rights with the help of civil society and international groups such as the United Nations. Nyberg stated the telecom would also join other telecommunications companies to discuss how their industry can better observe Article 19 of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, which focuses on the right to freedom of expression.
The Guardian reports that the UK government plans to restrict the export of software company Gamma’s spyware, such as Finfisher, to repressive regimes. Finfisher, which can remotely control computers, copy files and record keystrokes, has been used to track political activists in Bahrain.
Also in the UK, Jimmy Wales, the founder of online encyclopedia Wikipedia, gave testimony before the British Members of Parliament on the controversial draft of Communication Data Bill, and threatened to encrypt Wikipedia if the members pass the so-called “Snoopers’ Charter.” Meanwhile, UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) also said the bill would endanger national security if the system which stores surveillance data is hacked. The draft of the bill requires UK ISPs and phone companies to record users’ communication data such as email access and website visits for one year.
The government of Kenya has allocated IP addresses to each mobile device to facilitate monitoring of online activities.
The US Department of Defense stated its efforts to root out national security leaks will not include spying on journalists in response to a request by the Pentagon Press Association for assurance [pdf] in a letter that there would be no surveillance of reporters as part of a Pentagon-led effort to seek out leaks on national security issues.
The Syrian Electronic Army hacked Al Jazeera‘s mobile SMS news service to spread fake news posts. This is the latest in a number of efforts by the hacker group to fight against Al Jazeera because the news agency’s critical stance against embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
According to the ICT Association of Jordan int@j, a number of IT companies have discussed closing their offices in Jordan on the heels of the August 29 #BlackoutJO protests against government attempts to censor the Internet.
Reporters Without Borders announced that it is going to start providing technical assistance to news websites that are often targeted by cyber attacks and government blocking by creating mirror sites that will be regularly and automatically updated. RSF will start with Chechen magazine Dosh and the Sri Lankan online newspaper Lanka e-News, which will be accessible at http://dosh.rsf.org and http://lankaenews.rsf.org, respectively.
The Domain Name authority in Argentina (NIC) has refused to register domain names containing the name or surname of President Cristina de Kirchner, or any domain name mentioning La Campora, a political youth organization supporting the official party. The measure has raised concerns over whether it is political censorship, as it suggests those wishing to start a website criticizing the government might find an unlawful obstacle for their campaigns, and a threat to Internet freedom.
As Brazil prepares for its upcoming municipal elections, it appears that censorship of journalists and bloggers is becoming increasingly prevalent. Numerous reports have emerged about courts and politicians blocking news sites and blogs from publishing content, filing lawsuits, and in some cases attempting to have sites taken down entirely.
Sovereigns of cyberspace
Twitter has announced that it no longer supports RSS and Atom, formats used for web feeds. Twitter said the goal of the change is to provide users a more “consistent Twitter experience.”
Although there is speculation that Facebook has strong interests in the Chinese social media market, an executive at Facebook has reiterated that the company doesn’t have plans to enter China any time soon.
Germany’s former first lady Bettina Wulff has filed a lawsuit against Google to stop the company’s autocomplete search function from showing words such as “escort”, “prostitute” as search suggestions whenever users type her name in Google’s search box.
On September 1, a group of 9,000 Taiwanese students and journalists staged a large-scale protest against media monopolies. The protest was triggered by a smear campaign against scholars who opposed the acquisition of a cable network by the Want Want China Times group, one of the biggest media groups in Taiwan. The criticism of the acquisition and the news about the protest was mostly blocked by mainstream media, but spread widely over the Internet.
Media advocacy group Hong Kong In-Media issued questionnaires to candidates of the 2012-2016 Legislative Council election on their positions on issues of freedom of speech. Only 52 of the 127 candidates responded, and most pro-Beijing candidates refused to answer. Among the candidates who did provide responses, most support free speech and information freedom.
After having won several election victories, the Pirate Party in Germany, which has distinguished itself as a copyright reformer in digital age and supported direct political participation, is gradually losing popularity. An article from Spiegel Online discussed five problems faced by the party which have prevented it from being recognized as a serious political actor.
Zhila Bani-Yaghoub, an Iranian women’s rights activist and the editor of the website Focus on Iranian Women, has been convicted of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “insulting the president.” She was given a one year jail sentence. In 2011, Bani-Yaghoub was also charged with “having a personal blog without any authorization from government authorities.”
A recent Omani court ruling has sentenced six people to prison for posting comments online against the government; their jail terms range from one year to 18 months.
An Indian local advocate has filed a lawsuit charging Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi with mocking national symbols and posting objectionable content on his website. Trivedi turned himself in to the police and was then arrested while he shouted slogans and complained of the Indian government’s intolerance of criticism.
Gottfrid Svartholm, the co-founder of the file-sharing website The Pirate Bay, was arrested in Cambodia in late August and will be deported. There have been several speculations on the reasons for his arrest. TorrentFreak, a website dedicated to news about filesharing and BitTorrent, reported the arrest was related to a hack targeted at a Swedish tech company and resulted in the leak of tax data.
Security researchers have discovered massive monitoring of BitTorrent clients by government copyright-enforcement authorities and government research labs. A team from the University of Birmingham, UK, revealed that they set up a fake pirate server online – simulating popular sites like Pirate Bay – and quickly found monitoring systems that log the IP addresses of users downloading from the servers within as little as three hours.
Shortly after First Lady Michelle Obama finished speaking at the Democratic National Convention last week, the video of her speech – which viewers were able to stream live on YouTube and BarackObama.com – was flagged for copyright violations. YouTube officials said that the blocking was an error, but it was likely a result of YouTube’s preemptive copyright filters, which rely on algorithms to automatically block content that appears to match copyrighted works owned by large media companies.
South Africa’s Copyright Review Commission released a new report on digital content that recommends the adoption of a “three strike” penalty system for recurring offenders. The report also asserts that only 14 percent of mobile service providers pay royalties for the music they use, recommending lawsuits against mobile operators who don’t have licenses and calling for a ban on ISPs that don’t pay royalties.
A law which would allow publishers in France to charge search engines for republishing the headlines and first paragraphs of articles is being discussed once again. The issue has resurfaced after the German cabinet recently backed a similar proposal.
The first Web Index, a report spearheaded by Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee that compares 61 countries on a number of different issues, ranked Sweden number one in the world at using the Internet to improve people’s lives. The United States came in second place, just ahead of the UK, while Yemen, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe rounded out the bottom of the list.
The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which created a backlash in the European Union, quietly passed through the Japanese legislature on September 6.
Kenya hosted the second Freedom Online Conference in Nairobi from September 6-7. The conference brought together 400 attendees from 17 different countries to discuss how to garner support for Internet freedom and incorporate it into governance and development plans.
The Center for Democracy and Technology (US) released a letter co-signed by several dozen international NGOs urging member states of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to reject proposals to expand the ITU’s authority to regulation of the Internet. The letter also calls for greater transparency about government proposals leading up to the December World Conference on International Telecommunications and for the inclusion of civil society in the negotiation process.
European Parliament member Marietje Schaake (Netherlands) called upon the EU to take a leading role in ensuring Internet freedom, arguing that it should push back against the “game of virtual land grabbing” and oppose ITU proposals that would threaten net neutrality and stifle innovation.
President Obama issued a draft executive order that would institute voluntary guidelines on cybersecurity for critical infrastructure, such as electrical grids and health care. The order is closely modeled after the latest version of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 , which recently failed to gather the 60 votes needed to secure passage in the US Senate.
Ecuador approved a new regulation describing the procedure to request ISPs to provide IP information on citizens engaged in suspicious activities, without a warrant from judicial authorities. According to the regulation, the authorities cannot access the content of the electronic communications, as confidentiality of communications is protected by the Ecuadorian Constitution. However, they are authorized to request technical and administrative information from the IPs under investigation.
The Singapore government has set up a Media Literacy Council to promote education on media literacy and proper cyber norms. Singapore netizens have cast doubts on the function of the Council and worried it will become a government tool to curb Internet freedom.
According to the data released by telecommunication consulting firm TeleGeography, global Internet capacity has doubled for the past two years, though the rate of growth has dropped to the lowest level in five years.
Reporting global human rights issues has often been a tough task for traditional media, but with the help of the Internet, mainstream media has gained help from netizens to provide more accurate and diversified content. This article from Witness.org documents the trend.
Juice Rap News, an Internet musical programme which turns current issues into comedic rap songs, sang out the debates between Internet freedom and online surveillance conducted by nations in the name of national security.
Publications and studies
- World Wide Web Foundation: Web Index 2012.
- Center for Democracy and Technology: The Importance of Voluntary Technical Standards for The Internet And Its Users.
- Global Network Initiative: Comments on UK Draft Communications Bill
- Open Net Initiative: Update on threats to freedom of expression online in Vietnam
For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.