Since the middle of January, the battle between Chinese netizens and China’s Great Firewall (GFW) has intensified: on January 18, the US-based code-sharing website GitHub, which Google China founding president Lee Kaifu called “the preferable tool for Chinese programmers to learn and connect with the world,” was partially and then fully blocked by the GFW. The site was then unblocked on January 23. While netizens continued to speculate on possible events that may have triggered the blocking, GitHub underwent another attack wherein those using the site in China were greeted with a warning message [zh] regarding the website’s security certificate — an indication that their connection to the site might not be secure.
GitHub is an HTTPS-only site, meaning that users can only access its content through an encrypted connection. By initiating what is commonly known as a “man-in-the-middle attack,” the attackers (who some surmise were GFW technicans or government actors) led users to believe that they were accessing GitHub through an encrypted connection, when in fact a third party (the “man in the middle”) was manipulating and likely eavesdropping on their traffic. Chinese Internet censorship monitoring website Greatfire.org reported that the attack lasted for about an hour, noting that “this signifies HTTPS might no longer be safe in China.”
The blocking and the attack have infuriated the Chinese software developer community, but also has ignited debates over how the site should be used. While it is meant to host resources and discussions about technology, GitHub has also been used to share politically sensitive content, such as a recently posted list of Chinese academics involved with building and providing technical expertise in service of the GFW. Coincidentally, one of the developers of the GFW publicly defended his work at an online forum, arguing [zh] that those who make blacklists to block information should take the blame for GFW censorship, rather than the technicians who built the firewall.
Interestingly, the day before the attack, someone submitted a petition to the White House calling on the Obama administration to deny entry to the United States for the builders of GFW and those who provide technical support for online censorship in China. The petition includes a link to the controversial GitHub page mentioned above.
Radio Ozodi, Radio Free Europe’s service in Tajikistan, came back online after an Internet blackout which was allegedly coordinated by Tajik authorities. Although Facebook and other sites that were banned have been restored, the Russian version of the radio’s website is still inaccessible.
A new censorship system to ban “un-Islamic, pornographic and blasphemous material” for web and mobile communications may be incorporated into Pakistan’s Internet filtration system in the coming months with the aid of Chinese telcos ZTE and Huawei.
The Guardian reports that pro-government activists in Iran have launched a campaign against Iranian journalists living in exile by creating a fake mirror site for BBC Persian that hosts articles smearing journalists with false accusations concerning their professional and personal lives. The campaign may be a response to the broadcast of a documentary about forced confessions in Iran’s prisons.
Mansoureh Behkish, a founding member of Iran’s Mourning Mothers movement devoted to prison reform and government accountability, was sentenced to a 6-month jail term for “activities threatening national security.” Reporters Without Borders indicated that Behkish may have been jailed for posting information about political prisoners online.
Raif Badawi, co-founder of Liberal Saudi Network, was arrested and accused of apostasy after he “liked” a Facebook page for Arab Christians. His wife, currently living in Lebanon, received death threats that may be connected to her husband's “like”. However, the judge originally assigned to Badawi's case has ordered it transferred to a lower court, indicating that his charges may be reduced.
In Azerbaijan, prominent blogger Emin Milli and two other activists who were involved in protests in Azerbaijan's capital city of Baku on January 26 were jailed for 15 days and 13 days respectively while 18 other protesters, including journalists, were fined from US$382 to US$3,185. A Facebook page has been created to show support for the jailed activists.
Australia's Attorney General is reportedly seeking to endow the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) with the capability to monitor Internet communications. The ASIO is recruiting surveillance experts to serve as “Telecommunications Interception Specialists”, who can eavesdrop on digital communications, and “Programming Experts” who can manipulate large data sets. This controversial expansion of surveillance powers likely will not be implemented without further debate.
Cuban government officials acknowledged this week that they have been running tests on the high-speed fiber optic Internet cable linking Cuba, Venezuela, and Jamaica. The cable, which was built primarily to increase Internet speed in Cuba, was laid in early 2011 but was inactive until August of 2012. A short article in the government newspaper Granma (es) noted that while the testing phase is complete, Cubans should not expect an increase in Internet access opportunities any time soon.
A German federal court ruled that the Internet is so important to daily life that a customer who lost his Internet connection due to a telecommunications company’s mistake deserved financial compensation for the incident.
Finnish Internet activist group Common Sense in Copyright began to collect signatures last week in support of a draft law that would alter national copyright policy in favor of user interests. As it stands, the country promises to vote “on any citizen-proposed bill” with 50,000 or more supporters. Accessible through Finland's “Open Ministry” open government site, the initial draft has received an overwhelmingly positive response online. Looking to reduce criminal penalties for copyright infringement, broaden the definition of fair use and increase citizens’ ability to copy their own material, Common Sense says the bill “is not a pro-piracy law proposal.” Rather, it aims to allow for “the fair use of copyright-protected material for parody and satire,” as well as in educational settings.
The Colombian Constitutional Court has struck down a proposed copyright law, popularly known as “Lleras Law 2.0”, on the basis that the law “violated the fundamental rights of expression and communication.” The court also ruled that articles that would ban the retransmission of TV signals and mandate an anti-circumvention law regarding digital rights management (DRM) technologies are unconstitutional. The law was drafted in an effort to comply with copyright stipulations in Colombia's Free Trade Agreement with the US.
On January 26 the US copyright office removed the phone-unlocking exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)’s anti-circumvention provision, making it illegal for the US customers to unlock their cell phones in order to make them to work on other networks.
Privacy groups and Internet activists have written an open letter addressed to top managers of Microsoft and the company’s Skype division urging them to release a “regularly updated Transparency Report” explaining VoIP service Skype’s security and privacy practices. Since Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype in 2011, activists have worried that Skype may be vulnerable to surveillance by government entities.
According to Google’s Transparency Report, a total of 21,389 requests for user information were received from government officers and courts during the last 6 months of 2012, marking a 17% increase from 2011. Google complied with 88% of requests from the US, while all requests from Turkey and Hungary were rejected. In a post on Google’s blog, the company commemorated Data Privacy Day by explaining the company’s approach to government requests as well as three initiatives Google has launched to protect user privacy.
Google is facing significant legal action in the UK for sidestepping Apple security settings on the iPhone to monitor users’ web habits. An estimated 10 million Britons could be eligible to file a privacy claim on the matter.
Also in honor of Data Privacy Day, Twitter launched the Transparency Report section of its website. The new page allows curious Twitter users to “effectively share [six months with of] data detailing government requests for user information, requests to withhold posted content as well as complaints related to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act] with an aim to make it more meaningful and accessible to the community at large.” Currently visiting the page, users can view the number information requests, removal requests and copyright notices by country as well as by how many were fulfilled.
A French court ruled on January 24 that Twitter should help identify the authors of anti-Semitic messages posted under the hashtag #unbonjuif (#agoodjew) and hand over data to the authorities. Last year, France's Union of Jewish Students (UEJF) asked Twitter to remove the messages, a request with which the company complied.
Sovereigns of Cyberspace
Yahoo! reported that law enforcement authorities must provide a court-issued warrant to the company, based on probable cause, if they wish to access user email content. Like Google, Yahoo!'s policy exceeds the requirements of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the US law that sets terms for government access to electronic communications.
Facebook reportedly has blocked the Russian search engine giant Yandex from using Facebook’s data for a voice-activated social search application called Wonder, which tells users information about their friends’ activities such as the restaurants they’ve visited and the news they read. Facebook has a platform policy which doesn't allow third parties to “ include data obtained from us in any search engine or directory without our written permission.”
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Radio Free Europe/Free Liberty, both journalism organizations covering the story of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s corruption, have encountered email spam suspected to be initiated from Aliyev’s supporters.
The film “TPB-AFK” documenting the Swedish file-sharing website The Pirate Bay and its founder will be released free online and also be simultaneously premiered at Berlin Film Festival on February 8.
Publications and Studies
- The State of the Internet Q3 2012, Akamai
For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.