As China's new generation of leaders were officially presented to the world this week at the Chinese Communist Party's 18th National Congress, Chinese netizens experienced severe Internet interruptions. As the longtime Beijing-based blogger and businessman Bill Bishop described it, “these have been the most draconian few days of Internet restrictions I have experienced.”
Several weeks before the Congress, netizens began to report frequent disruptions when accessing Google services, foreign websites and virtual private networks (VPNs) – important tools for Internet users to circumvent the “Great Firewall.” Interruptions to Internet access then cranked into high gear on November 9, one day after the start of the Congress, when Google services were reported to be fully blocked in China, and their domain name systems were deliberately redirected to unknown IP addresses in Korea. Please see Greatfire.org for more detailed reports and analysis.
Inside the Great Firewall, censors have been busy deleting online political discussions. According to Reporters without Borders, the word “the 18th Party Congress” (pronounced in Chinese “Shi-Ba-Da”) and similar sounding phrases used by netizens to avoid censorship are filtered; dissidents like Hu Jia have had their microblog accounts suspended; activist Guo Feixiong was detained on November 9th, and blogger Chen Zuoliang was also detained for interrogation on the same day.
Meanwhile, Chinese websites have seen increased levels of self-censorship during the meeting. Some Internet forums have been temporarily suspended. For example, when visiting one of the forums, visitors see nothing but two lines [zh] reading: “To welcome the 18th Party Congress, this forum has closed temporarily. We happily welcome the Congress! Wish the Congress all the success!”
In early November, the popular Chinese microblog service Sina Weibo also changed the way it displays search results which are blocked from keyword censorship: instead of telling users that the keywords searched are forbidden by laws and regulations, the webpage only stated that “no results are found for the keywords” without explaining that the keywords are actually banned. Then on November 9th Sina weibo re-instated its censorship notice, as documented by the blog Fei Chang Dao.
Elsewhere in the world: on November 7, the Egyptian Public Prosecutor issued official letters to the Minister of Communications and Information Technology, the head of the NTRA (National Telecom Regulatory Authority) and the Minister of the Interior, asking them to enforce a court decision made in 2009 which ordered a ban on porn sites in Egypt. Global Voices Advocacy’s Rayna St and the MENA Netizen Report detail the history of the porn site ban in Egypt and related controversies.
The Australian government has given up its mandatory Internet filtering legislation which required Internet Services Providers (ISPs) to block objectionable materials that fit into the “Refused Classification”. Instead, the ISPs will be asked to filter specific child abuse websites that are on the Interpol’s “Worst of”-list.
A team under the European Commission has been working on the project “European Capability for Situational Awareness” which will monitor and map out global online censorship, surveillance and other issues related to Internet freedom in near to real time.
Iranian blogger Sattar Beheshti who had criticized the Iranian government on his website was taken from his home by men reported to be the Iranian cyber police in late October. On November 6, his family was told to collect his body from a detention facility. His family and friends suspect that Beheshti was tortured to death. Now the Iranian parliament has promised to investigate the blogger’s death, and a parliament member has called for officials to go after corrupt officials rather than bloggers and the media.
The questionable Indian law –Section 66A of India's Information Technology [IT] Act, which has sweeping power to put people in prison for sending messages causing “annoyance or inconvenience”, has once again led to the arrest of an Indian anti-corruption campaign volunteer who tweeted about a politician’s wealth.
Skype handed over the personal information of a 16-year-old to an IT firm without any court order over suspicions the individual was involved in an attack on online payment service providers including Paypal by hacker group Anonymous, known as “Operation Payback”. The company mentioned they are in the midst of reviewing how the personal information came into the hands of a private firm.
Microsoft filed a new patent known as “Content Distribution by Viewing User,” which would turn on Microsoft’s Kinect technology remotely to monitor how many users are accessing licensed content via Microsoft’s system, cutting the content if the number of users exceeds the terms of the license.
According to the latest Transparency Report released by Google, requests by governments all over the world for user information have been steadily increasing since Google launched the report in early 2010.
The US government has announced sanctions against four Iranian individuals and five Iranian entities for their involvement in media and Internet censorship. According to AFP’s report, among those who are sanctioned, the Communications Minister Reza Taghipour has been accused of restricting Internet access; two software companies, AmnAfzar Gostar-e Sharif and PeykAsa, and their founder Rasool Jalili, have been blamed for monitoring and blocking Internet traffic.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is concerned that in Brazil, last minute changes to the Marco Civil, an Internet bill of rights, actually threaten Internet users’ freedom of expression because new wording leaves “users and Internet service providers in an ocean of legal uncertainty.”
Last minute changes to Brazil's Internet Bill of Rights (Marco Civil), legislation that is expected to defend Internet freedom, weaken protections for ISPs against being vulnerable for infringing content by third parties in cases of copyright and neighborhood rights. The vote on the legislation has been postponed from November 7 to November 13.
Kim Dotcom, the boss of the now closed file-sharing site MegaUpload, planned to relaunch the website by having its server hosted in Gabon. However, the Communication Minister of Gabon soon ordered suspending the website www.me.ga in order to “protect intellectual property rights” and “fight cyber crime effectively”. Afterward Kim Dotcom announced via Twitter that the MegaUpload website will find its new home in New Zealand at mega.co.nz.
Sovereigns of Cyberspace
An alternative to Google and Yahoo’s search engine named “DuckDuckGo” has been gaining popularity among Internet users. By branding itself as a ”pure search engine”, DuckDuckGo claims it brings truly relevant information within users’ first few search results and does not send user data to third parties.
The Uprising of Women in the Arab World, a group supporting women’s rights in the Middle East, has accused Facebook of censoring a photo on the group’s Facebook page, and threatening to deactivate administrators’ Facebook accounts. The image in question shows a woman named Dana Bakdounes holding a sign reading “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I wasn’t allowed to feel the wind in my hair and on my body.” Facebook responded saying that the photograph was initially removed in error, and was later reinstated; subsequently an item was removed for violating community standards.
In an opinion piece in Wired, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Secretary General Hamadoun Toure outlines some of the positive outcomes UN regulation of the Internet could bring, including increased connectivity, Internet security, and infrastructure for those with disabilities. Less positively, TechDirt describes the way cybersecurity has been used as a banner to legitimize censorship by the ITU.
ICANN's new CEO Fahdi Chehade has written an open letter to the ICANN community pledging to improve upon and deepen global support for his organization's multi-stakeholder model by doing a better job of engaging with stakeholders around the world. After beefing up engagement with Africa his organization which coordinate's the Internet's domain name system will soon be holding stakeholder consultations in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as India and Turkey.
Last week Twitter emailed users whose accounts were suspected of having been compromised, asking them to to reset their passwords. However after large numbers of users, including some prominent China-based Twitter users, jumped to conclusions about politically motivated attacks, Twitter admitted that they had “reset passwords of a large number of accounts, beyond those that they believed to have been compromised”.
Chevron acknowledged that its IT network was infected by the “Stuxnet” computer virus in July 2010, shortly after the virus escaped its target, Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities in Natanz. Chevron is the first US company to acknowledge infection by Stuxnet, though most security experts believe many more cases have gone unreported.
Hacker groups 0-Day and Pyknic allegedly compromised Pizza Hut’s Australian website and claimed to have obtained credit card information from 240,000 customers. Pizza Hut admitted that the website was compromised but denied credit card details were stolen.
European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes claims that computers belonging to her advisers were hacked for surveillance purposes by an unknown party during the Internet Governance Forum. Kroes criticized the Azerbaijan government for conducting surveillance of activists during the meeting, which was held last week in the country’s capital Baku.
According to a draft report produced by the U.S.- China Economic and Security Review Commission, there are growing signs of cyber-espionage from Chinese hackers who breach US military and defense contractors’ computer systems to collect information.
The Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, based in a former prison in Florence, Italy, will provide scholarships to bloggers and digital activists. The human rights campaigners will be trained to use practical tactics to maintain their anonymity during involvement in human rights campaigns.
Computer experts in Miami are working to expand the flow of uncensored information [es] to Cuba by sending USB drives, CDs and SIM cards containing a package of websites, blogs and online news portals consistently blocked on the island.
Publications and Studies
- Open Society Foundation: Mapping Digital Media: Peru
- Manisha Aryal: SpeakSafe: Media Workers’ Toolkit for Safer Online and Mobile Practices
- Twiplomacy.com: Country Promotion (which governments are using Twitter and how)
For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.