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 Egypt, where blogger and human rights activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was released from prison after spending over three months behind bars without trial, alongside fellow activist Ahmed Abdel Rahman. In a hearing at the Tora Prison, where both activists were being held, defense lawyers for the two men argued that there was no sufficient reason to keep them behind bars prior to their trial.
Abd El Fattah was violently beaten and arrested from his Cairo home on November 28, 2013, after allegedly breaking an anti-protest law enacted just days prior. Abd El Fattah has been accused of organizing a protest with the secular “No to Military Trial for Civilians” group, but failing to obtain prior permission. Fifty other demonstrators were arrested when police violently dispersed the protest, nearly half of whom were detained for 15 days following the incident. Only Abd El Fattah and Abdel Rahman were imprisoned long-term. The two activists, both of whom were released from prison on bail, will stand trial on April 6.
While human rights advocates in Egypt celebrated the decision, they urged supporters to continue pressuring authorities to release the many peaceful demonstrators and journalists who remain behind bars in the country.
Internet Governance: Marco Civil Passes Lower House
Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet — often described as a “Bill of Rights for the Internet” — was approved by Brazil's lower house of Congress on March 25. The bill, which had support from a wide range of advocates including World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, will not include a previous provision that required foreign Internet companies to store their data within the country’s territory. Instead, the bill will leave companies such as Google or Facebook subject to Brazilian law in cases regarding the data of Brazilians, even if that data is stored abroad.
The US Department of Commerce announced plans to relinquish its authority over key functions of the global Internet last week, to the surprise of many. Writing for Politico, digital rights advocate Katherine Maher explains how this move may actually help to stave off an aggressive push by non-democratic nations to gain greater control of the network. “Commerce is betting that going a little global now means preventing a bad deal later,” she writes.
Free Expression: Gambia’s Internet Blackout
Gambia was without Internet access for roughly 48 hours last week, according to multiple sources. Economist Sidi Sanneh, who served as the country’s foreign minister in the mid-2000s, said the blackout resulted from government efforts to block chat and call apps including Viber. He attributed this to the “paranoid reaction of the dictatorship resulting from an increasing public awareness of a repressive and corrupt government.” Gambia’s Ministry of Information Technology denied blocking access to Viber, blaming the problem instead on poor network connectivity.
Internet monitoring firm Renesys reported outages that lasted for more than seven hours on 95 percent of routed networks in Syria on March 20. While it remains unclear who was responsible for the blackout, a group calling itself the “European Cyber Army” claimed responsibility for the attacks, asserting retaliation for hacks by the Syrian Electronic Army. The Syrian government later claimed that the blockages were caused by damage to central network cables. Renesys analysts and sources inside the country seemed to agree with this explanation, noting that aerial attacks in Damascus were likely responsible for the damage.
Turkish authorities blocked Twitter last week via DNS, ordering ISPs to redirect users away from the site. In a sweet if brief moment of defiance, tweets about the ban came pouring out of Turkey almost instantly. Twitter kept its service active via text-to-Tweet services with two local telecommunications providers, Avea and Vodafone. Unfortunately the Turkish government has since strengthened the ban by ordering ISPs to block Twitter’s IP addresses, a much more surefire way to keep the site inaccessible for users inside the country. The move comes after Prime Minister Erdogan declared war on social media after documents and recordings evidencing government corruption circulated online. President Abdullah Gul spoke out against the move, tweeting “such a wholesale ban on social media cannot be accepted.”
In Jordan, the controversial “Innocence of Muslims” [ar] video that sparked outrage and frustration in countries throughout the Muslim world is no longer accessible on YouTube or any other site affiliated with the movie. Last week, the “Freedoms Committee” of the Jordan Bar Association has finally won its case against Google, the owner of YouTube, for not blocking “Innocence of Muslims,” charging the company with blasphemy and insulting prophets.
Thuggery: Another raid on ARTICLE 19 Mexico
The home of Dario Ramirez, director of ARTICLE 19’s Mexico and Central America branch, was raided in the fifth security incident to impact the group this year. The raid occurred two days before the group released its annual report [sp] on harassment against journalists and human rights defenders, according to ARTICLE 19. Computers, personal items, and sensitive documents were taken from Ramirez’s residence.
Vietnamese blogger Pham Viet Dao was sentenced to 15 months in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe the interests of the state.” A court ruled that Dao’s blog posts focusing on territorial disputes with China violated the Vietnamese Penal Code.
Surveillance: Private communications are a distant dream for Ethiopians
Human Rights Watch released “They Know Everything We Do”: Telecom and Internet Surveillance in Ethiopia, a 137-page report detailing government acquisition of surveillance tools from foreign companies, cooperation with mobile service providers, and ample testimony from journalists, activists, and others who have been targeted by these practices.
Germany’s federal prosecutor may begin a formal criminal investigation into the German government’s involvement in the US National Security Agency data collection program, according to PCWorld.
Privacy: Korean students fear school-imposed mobile phone freeze
South Korean students may effectively lose control of their cellphones upon entering school grounds, if the country’s officials have their way. The government announced plans to install remote management software iSmartKeeper [ko] on students’ phones, enabling school administrators and teachers to disable functions and block apps that detract from learning. The program, which has been piloted in 11 schools, has drawn criticism for infringing on students’ right to privacy, but many parents and teachers agree that students are too distracted by technology in the classroom.
Microsoft admitted to reading a journalist’s Hotmail account in an internal investigation of a former employee who had leaked its proprietary software code, leading to concerns over the privacy of e-mail accounts. Following its admission Microsoft published a blog post explaining the privacy-protection measures that had been taken, and pledged to add another layer of scrutiny in the form of “an outside attorney who is a former federal judge.” This will be instituted as a new category in Microsoft’s biannual transparency reports.
The Guardian pointed out that Microsoft is not alone in asserting the right to read users’ emails — Apple, Yahoo, and Google reserve similar rights in their terms of service.
Publications and Studies
Uncontrolled Global Surveillance: Updating Export Controls to the Digital Age – Tim Maurer, New America Foundation; Edin Omanovic, Privacy International; Ben Wagner, European University Institute
Emerging and Developing Nations Want Freedom on the Internet – Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project
The Link between Pirated Software and Cybersecurity Breaches: How Malware in Pirated Software Is Costing the World Billions – National University of Singapore and IDC (sponsored by Microsoft)
Governments and Cloud Computing: Roles, Approaches, and Policy Considerations – Urs Gasser and David O'Brien, Berkman Center for Internet and Society