Hae-in Lim, Lisa Ferguson, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Mohamed ElGohary, Bojan Perkov and Sarah Myers contributed to this report.
Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in Saudi Arabia where government officials say they will soon require Internet users to obtain a state-issued permit in order to post videos on YouTube. Videos would be evaluated based on their consistency with Saudi “culture, values and tradition.” The policy could have troublesome implications for activists, whose strategic use of YouTube for actions like the Women2Drive campaign has brought international attention to the issue. Saudi citizens reportedly boast the highest YouTube usage rate per capita in the world.
A Saudi judge recommended that blogger Raif Badawi face charges of apostasy, or denouncing Islam, before the country’s high court. Individuals convicted of apostasy in Saudi Arabia typically receive the death penalty. Last summer, Badawi was convicted of insulting Islam on his blog, Free Saudi Liberals, and sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. The current recommendation came after Badawi’s lawyers appealed the decision.
In slightly better news from the Gulf kingdom, AFP reports that the makers of the smartphone application Viber, which lets users send free text messages and photos, appear to have outsmarted the Saudi Communications and Information Technology Commission. Saudi residents claim they have been able to download Viber in recent days, despite the Commission’s decision to block the app six months ago. Commission spokesman Sultan Al Malek told AFP that there may be some illegal way to get around the ban, something the Commission plans to address. In March, the Commission warned that it would ban Viber, Whatsapp and Skype, unless the programs could create a way for authorities to censor some content. Viber failed to comply with the requirement and was subsequently banned in both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Free Expression: End of the road for Instagram in Iran?
Photo-sharing platform Instagram was blocked in Iran for roughly twelve hours on December 28-29. Although Iranian officials said the blocking resulted from a technical glitch, experts who follow Iran’s politics and filtering practices suspect this was a “test run” of a long-term block on the site. Technical researcher and GV friend Collin Anderson told Mashable that he was surprised Instagram has been accessible from Iran since its inception: “Instagram was probably the largest unfiltered social media platform [in Iran]. But the security state has really ramped up its propaganda about social networks.”
In what appears to be a shift away from its relatively liberal approach to Internet regulation, the Moroccan government is considering a new blanket law that would punish online statements deemed threatening to “public order, national security, necessities of public service, or public policy.” Known as the Code Numérique, the law would allow authorities to block offending websites. In concert with the country’s Press Law, which prohibits statements that offend the King, Islam, and Morocco’s “territorial integrity,” this could amount to a robust new censorship regime. Open Internet advocates in Morocco responded to the news by developing a crowdsourced document offering alternatives to the most troubling articles in the new law.
Two journalists in Thailand stand accused of libel and of violating Thailand’s Computer Crime Act over articles published on Phuketwan, a small news website based on the island of Phuket. Charges were filed after the two journalists — one a Thai national, the other from Australia — produced a series of reports alleging that Thai immigration officials engaged in a smuggling ring of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. If convicted, the journalists could face up to five years in prison.
British Telecom, the largest Internet service provider in the UK, announced that all new customers will benefit from automatic porn filters, which will be turned on by default (customers may opt to turn them off during setup). Citing stakeholder involvement from the likes of parent interest groups such as Mumsnet, BT assures its customers that the filtering software has been “tested in trials with a variety of different customers.” Although all six ISPs in the UK have agreed to implement the porn censors, BT is the first to turn words into action.
A public screening of “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” a documentary about the embattled political punk group, was banned in Moscow last week. Officials threatened to fire the managers of the host theater, which is state-owned.
Thuggery: Comedian faces 8-month prison term for YouTube video
After eight months of detention in a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi, US citizen Shezanne “Shez” Cassim was finally sentenced on December 23 to a year in jail after a court pronounced his YouTube video—which made fun of teenagers practicing martial arts using the headdress and slippers worn by Emiratis—a threat to national security under the UAE’s cybercrime law. An amateur stand-up comedian, Cassim had been employed as a consultant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Dubai at the time of his arrest in April 2013.
Surveillance: Spy regimes ramp up in Southeast Asia
Singapore and Indonesia are among various Asian countries ramping up their surveillance capabilities in the wake of the Snowden leaks. While the Indonesian government plans to build out the cyber security capabilities of its military, Singapore claims it will spend US$100 million to develop new “cyber defense” agencies. This is especially troubling for Singaporean activists and journalists who already face strict licensing and content laws that have amounted to censorship for some and prosecution for others.
Privacy: UK Court says citizens can sue Google over privacy threats
London’s High Court ruled that UK residents who believe Google has threatened their online privacy have standing to sue the company for damages within the UK. The US-based company has asked the court to throw out the ruling, claiming that it is “not governed by the British justice system.”
Copyright: Italians say ciao to due process
In an act hailed by the entertainment industry, Italy passed a bill that facilitates efforts by AgCom, the country’s communications regulator, to enforce copyright—without judicial review. AgCom can either require the host of the website to remove infringing content or force ISPs to block access to the website. Especially troubling is a 12-day “fast-track” option that gives users a mere three days to file counter-notifications and ISPs just two days to remove the offending material, with those unable to meet the deadline facing fines of €250,000 or $340,000 per day. The President of an Italian ISP association protested this as an undue regulatory burden, likening it to “going to work for Elton John for free.”
Industry: See ya, Google
Bloomberg reports that certain email service providers in Europe have seen a steady increase in users since NSA mass surveillance programs became public knowledge last June. Posteo, an email provider that prides itself on its security practices and charges users a small fee (one Euro per month), has increased its user base three-fold over the last six months.
Internet Governance: Brazil to vote on Internet “bill of rights”?
Officials in Brazil [pt] say the much-heralded Marco Civil da Internet will be brought to a vote when Congress resumes session next week. President Dilma Rousseff was quoted saying that it would take first priority over all other matters on the congressional agenda. Often described as a “bill of rights” for the Internet user, the bill has undergone a series of changes since its inception, some of which have left civil liberties advocates concerned about its implications for privacy and the right to free expression as it relates to copyright. Although it has been scheduled for a vote on numerous occasions over the last eighteen months, it has been stymied by legislative deliberations and lack of quorum. It regained momentum this fall when the President pointed to the legislation as a path forward in the face of broad, unwarranted surveillance by the US government.
Cool Things: New tool “translates” terms of service
“‘I have read and agree to the Terms’ is the biggest lie on the Web. We aim to fix that.” So says Terms of Service; Didn’t Read, a new free and open source browser extension that gives users easy-to-digest information about online companies’ terms of service. ToSDR rates companies on personal data collection and storage practices, copyright assertion, and other issues that affect user rights.
Publications and Studies
“Quantum of Surveillance: Familiar Actors and Possible False Flags in Syrian Malware Campaigns” – A joint Citizen Lab-EFF Report
“The Leaky Leviathan: Why the Government Condemns and Condones Unlawful Disclosures of Information” – David E. Pozen, Harvard Law Review (December 2013)
And finally: Happy 2014 from the Netizen Report team! Feel free to share our reports or contact us about contributing via Twitter at @Advox.