Netizen Report: Surveillance Edition

This report was researched, written, and edited by Corey Abramson, Weiping Li, Renata Avila, Chan Myae Khine, Ellery Biddle and Sarah Myers.

After receiving heavy criticism from a bipartisan committee, as well as censorship and freedom of information watchdog groups, the recently proposed British Communications Data Bill has been sent back for redrafting. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has vowed to block the current version of the bill, as the proposed legislation would potentially give government agencies unprecedented access to email, web and phone traffic. The bill has been described by the Joint Committee on the Communications Data Bill as “too sweeping,” and goes “further than it need or should.”

Image via Flickr user xpgomes2

One particular clause the Joint Committee expressed concern over would, by a measure of “future proofing,” grant the Home Secretary the ability to strengthen the already powerful bill without the consent of parliament. The Joint Committee likened the clause to “surveillance tactics carried out by authoritarian states such as Belarus and Kazakhstan.”

Index On Censorship issued a report urging that Parliament not advance the legislation because it would set precedent for future bills. “In current international debates about Internet governance, we also see authoritarian states at the forefront of demands for top-down regulation of the Internet [and] that their motivations are driven by control and censorship,” the report read. Decisions made by the UK Parliament on this bill will, they say, have a great impact on human rights in and out of the UK, particularly for users in authoritarian states.


Internet Governance
The two-week World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) came to an end on December 14. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency holding the conference, has issued a statement claiming that the WCIT “forge[d] [a] solid new framework for tomorrow’s hyper-connected world.”

However, only 89 out of 151 countries present signed the revised treaty, with a camp of countries including the United States, Britain, Poland, Kenya and Japan refusing to sign the agreement. Internet-related provisions about “security and robustness of networks” and “unsolicited bulk electronic communications” (spam), left many countries worried that some governments would might use the treaty as a justification for impeding information flows and user privacy. Another contentious point was a resolution to “foster an enabling environment for the continued growth of the Internet,” which was incorporated into the conference through a controversial non-vote process that many delegates say was illegitimate. Global Voices Advocacy has round-up coverage of the conference and what it may mean for the global Internet here.

Civil society has expressed discontent about the opaque process throughout the whole conference and has called for a more open process for international society to make policies regarding Internet governance. Responding to the conference, UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Opinion Frank La Rue  urged that civil society be granted legitimate opportunities to participate independently in Internet governance debates moving forward.

For more reports and analysis on WCIT 2012, please see articles from the Center for Technology and Democracy, Access’ analysis of the new ITR, CPJ Internet Channel, and Global Voices Advocacy director Hisham Almiraat’s interview with Beatriz Busaniche, member of Fundacion Vía Libre and the founding member of Wikimedia Argentina on the impact of WCIT.

On December 14, the British government rejected a proposed mandate that would require Internet service providers to block all pornographic content. The proposal left advocates concerned that such technical censorship approaches could inadvertently (or intentionally) be used to filter legal, non-pornographic content as well.

A new technology deployed by the Chinese government has the capability to “learn, discover, and block” Virtual Private Network (VPN) services which enable Chinese netizens to access online information blocked by China's so-called “Great Firewall,” according to a news article from The Guardian. VPN providers in China have reported several blockings of protocols used for their networks.

Meanwhile, filtering on China's popular Sina Weibo microblogging platform appears to have been relaxed in response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s endorsement economic reform and strengthening of the rule of law. Chinese netizens are now able to conduct keyword searches of Chinese leaders’ names, which previously had been blocked. Danwei reports that use of Sina Weibo by government officials increased dramatically in 2012.


Egyptian computer science graduate student Alber Saber was sentenced to three years in prison after being accused of uploading sections of the film “Innocence of Muslims” online. The film has been associated with protests by Muslims around the world.


Chinese Internet censorship monitoring website warned that a version of Skype for the Chinese market may enable the government to  “listen in” on users’ communications. The website reported that Skype is working in partnership with Chinese Internet company Tom Online in China and has been forced to abide by the Chinese regulations to filter certain text messages as well as provide users’ information if necessary.

Lebanon's Telecommunications Minister has angered the country's Internal Security Forces after refusing to comply with a request to hand over data from text messages sent by 3.7 million users. Security officials requested the data in order to aid their investigation of the murder of the country's Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan who died in a car bombing in October. Minister Senhaoui reasoned that such a massive review of data would constitute a violation of user privacy.


Perhaps in reaction to last week’s less-than-effective governance vote, Facebook is slated to gradually roll out privacy policy changes by the new year which will likely affect the way privacy controls and user visibility on Facebook function. The policy update also explains the new Activity Log, which gives users the ability to easily de-tag themselves from multiple timeline posts, photographs, and the like. As with other recent changes proposed to Facebookers at large, these new alterations to users’ visibility will likely elicit criticism from privacy advocates, savvy Facebook users and uninformed netizens alike.

A German privacy regulator has ordered Facebook to stop enforcing its real name policy on the grounds that it violates the German Telemedia Act which protects users’ rights to use pseudonyms online.

In an op-ed on Ars Technica, Julian Sanchez urged Google to implement a stronger encryption policy for its email, especially as the FBI may soon begin promoting wiretapping for online communication services. End-to-end encryption could affect Google's ability to target ads that are displayed for Gmail users, a large driver of the company's profits, but Sanchez notes that Google could use other user data in order to target ads to users based on their online activities.



This week, the popular photo-filtering and sharing application Instagram began claiming the right to sell user photos without payment or notification. Owned by Facebook, the company retracted this statement in response to user outrage that took on various forms, including the hashtag #BoycottInstagram. It appears that Facebook will maintain rights to collect certain kinds of user data through the Instagram application.


National Policy
As part of a broader plan to eliminate “non-Islamic” content from the Internet, Iran’s government has launched a new video sharing site called “Mehr” in an effort to replace YouTube. YouTube has been blocked in the country since 2009.

A Wall Street Journal article overviews how candidates running for election in Japan engage in self-censorship when using social media during the official campaign period. The article posits that they do this in accordance with a 1950 law limiting electioneering.

Many Internet cafes in Cambodia will be forced to shut down in order to comply with a  new decree that prohibits running an Internet cafe within 500 meters of a school or letting users access web content deemed to threaten national security or “traditions.”

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US may end its two-year antitrust investigation of Google if the web giant makes certain key changes to its approach to displaying search results. The European Commission may also initiate an antitrust investigation against Google in the near future.

A new rule issued by the FTC will require websites to obtain parental consent before collecting certain kinds of user data for children under 13. Critics warn that the rule may discourage websites from creating content specifically targeted at this age group, as it will create additional regulatory hurdles for them to comply with and may leave them liable if they apply the rule incorrectly.


Voltage Pictures LLC, the studio responsible for the film The Hurt Locker, asked TekSavvy, a local ISP in Canada for information from users who appeared to have downloaded copyrighted versions of their films after monitoring the BitTorrent traffic of their movies. The ISP sent out the notices to respective users but did not transfer any information to Voltage.

Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge posted this week on Torrent Freak about the development of the copyright monopoly and its role in capitalist economies.

Belgian newspapers who sued Google for including their headlines in Google News search results have agreed to a settlement after Google promised to instruct them on how to monetize their content.

The Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) has allegedly forced file-sharing and video streaming websites to sign over their website domain names without a court order, and now redirects the pages to the official movie industry site.


Sovereigns of Cyberspace reported that Facebook, Twitter and Google+ have been implementing their own photo applications based on different standards to influence social network users.

Google modified its image search settings to make searching adult content harder to find by showing such content only to the users who are “specifically searching for [it].” Users now need to ensure that the SafeSearch option is turned off and may need to use more explicit keywords to find adult content.

After Google closed its music search service in China in September, the company announced that it will be shutting down its Chinese shopping search service because it “was not providing businesses with the level of impact we had hoped.”  Google has faced fierce competition from Chinese Internet service companies like Baidu, which dominated 78.6% market share in China in the second quarter, compared to Google’s 15.7% share.


Luigi Auriemma, a researcher from security firm ReVuln, mentioned that a vulnerability found in most of the models of Samsung’s Smart TV allows malicious hackers to locate users’ IP addresses. With this information, bad actors can remotely control user devices.


Netizen Activism
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange plans to register a WikiLeaks party with the Australian Electoral Commission in order to run as a Senate candidate in 2013 to promote “openness in government and politics.”

A group of journalists and activists have launched a project called the “Freedom of the Press Foundation” to facilitate donations to organizations dedicated to promoting government transparency and accountability. The project will be funneling donations to four organizations including WikiLeaks through January 31.


Cool Things
Students from Sinenjongo High School in Cape Town, South Africa are requesting local mobile operators enable Wikipedia access with zero data charge as there are limited numbers of libraries for research. One of the operators, 8ta, has already launched a “Free Zone” where the first page of Google results and Wikipedia can be viewed at no data cost.

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