Netizen Report: Censorship and Social Media Sneakiness Abound in Southeast Asia

Coup protest, Thailand, May 2014. Photo by Prachatai via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Coup protest, Thailand, May 2014. Photo by Prachatai via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Hae-in Lim, Mong Palatino, Bojan PerkovEllery Roberts Biddle, and Sarah Myers West 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 Southeast Asia, where writers and activists across the region are feeling the chill of government restrictions on digital expression.

The Thai military junta has escalated its media war, now banning media organizations from publishing anything that “could create resistance against the junta” — the order specifically prohibited interviews with academics and civil servants who might distort the junta’s image. News organizations that defy the order could face immediate suspension. After a meeting with military officials, Thai media executives expressed guarded optimism that the edict would be toned down.

Adding to the growing trend of censorship of Facebook in Southeast Asia, the accounts of at least 30 leading political activists in Vietnam have been suspended — not by a widespread ban, but due to the alleged exploitation of Facebook’s “report abuse” function by Vietnamese government “opinion shapers”. The government appears to have abandoned its failed attempts at a total ban in favor of a more targeted approach. 

And a new Brunei-based chat application Chrends (a hybrid of “chat” and “trends”) claims to provide an anonymized platform for discussion of topics that may be considered taboo for citizens in the country, which recently implemented Sharia law. 

Free Expression: Comment is not free in Colombia

A Colombian man was sentenced to 18 months in prison for posting a comment on mocking an administrative bureau of the federal government. In a post on Fundacion Karisma’s blog, free expression advocate and lawyer Carolina Botero expressed concern that if courts continue to process cases like this under the penal code, they will overshadow the tensions between fundamental rights in play.

Thuggery: Zone 9 bloggers charged with terrorism in unfair trial

Ethiopia’s Lideta High Court charged nine bloggers and journalists, including four members of Global Voices, with terrorism and related activities. The bloggers, who were arrested on April 25 and 26, had no legal representation present when the charges were issued and their attorneys and families were given no prior notice about the hearing. The anti-terrorism law under which they have been charged was also used to jail journalists Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu, who have been in prison since 2011. In the lead-up to their trial, set for August 4, the Zone9ers’ Trial Tracker blog will post updates and provide a platform for those who wish to give support.

In response to last week’s sentencing of eight young people to a combined term of 127 years in prison for their activities on Facebook, Global Voices’ Mahsa Alimardani and Fred Petrossian appealed to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to “respect Iranian citizens, and condemn the unjust arrests and punishments of its netizens.”

Omani activists Noah Saad and Muawiyah Al-Rawahi were arrested for blogging about human rights violations in their country. Saad, who was arrested in 2011 for similar “offenses,” was arbitrarily detained by Oman’s national security intelligence agency and is reportedly being held incommunicado. Observers believe Al-Rawahi was targeted over a recent blog post in which he criticized the repressive practices of Omani authorities in response to a teacher strike in late 2013. 

Former Panamanian president Manuel Noriega sued Activision Blizzard, the developer of the game Call of Duty: Black Ops II, for using his image in the game without his permission. 

Internet Governance: African NGOs lead regional Internet Rights declaration

A group of civil society organizations across Africa are sourcing contributions to a proposed African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms. The process is now in a public consultation phase, which will run until August 4.

Surveillance: In Snowden’s wake, new laws reassert state security powers

The UK House of Commons, the lower chamber of Parliament, approved the emergency Data Retention Investigative Powers bill that will allow Britain’s security agencies to access citizens’ phone and electronic communication records, despite the European Court of Justice’s ruling against data retention last April. The bill was strongly opposed by civil liberties organizations, Internet law academic experts and the Global Network Initiative. Several members of the House of Lords criticized the decision to rush this kind of legislation through the Parliament.   

Australia’s attorney general proposed a new bill that would increase the powers of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation. The law extends criminal penalties for leaks of sensitive state information to private contractors. A leading criminal lawyer and spokesperson for the Australian Lawyers Alliance worried openly about what he called the “Snowden/Assange/Guardian/New York Times clause,” which could make journalists reporting on intelligence leaks liable for criminal prosecution and up to ten years in prison. Even worse, the bill effectively condones illegal conduct by intelligence officers by granting them legal immunity for any actions taken during so-called “special intelligence operations.” The bill will be debated in the Australian Parliament in September.

Public records reveal links between the daughters of Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev and the country’s largest mobile phone business, Azercell, raising serious concerns about surveillance, free expression and communications security within the country. The Aliyev family now appears to control nearly three-quarters of all mobile communication providers in the country, and thus has widespread capacity to monitor phone calls and Internet traffic. 

Privacy: Europe Wrestles with Right-to-Be-Forgotten Fallout and Food Blogger Blues 

Microsoft joined Google in removing links upon request from its Bing search engine, which holds 2.5 percent of the search market in Europe, under the new “right to be forgotten” ruling, which allows individuals to request that search engines remove certain kinds of results that are outdated or portray them in a negative light. 

A new website called “Hidden from Googleis archiving links removed from Google due to the ruling.

A French court ordered food blogger Caroline Doudet to change the title of a negative restaurant review she had written, with the goal of diminishing its prominence in search results. Ms. Doudet said the decision established a “new crime of being too highly ranked [on a search engine].” Bloggers in France believe the judge presiding over the case unfairly favored the plaintiff in the case. 

Industry: Apple and China — hypocrites without borders?

China’s CCTV labeled the iPhone a threat to national security for its invasive location-tracking features. Apple responded with a statement detailing the iPhone’s privacy attributes.

Apple launched improved encryption measures in its iCloud e-mail services this week. Though it has yet to make a formal announcement, the changes can be seen via Google’s transparency website. German-language publication Heise claims the company is using the minimally secure RC4 encryption, which is believed to have already been cracked by state security services. 

Cool Things

Photographer Deni Bechard provides a close look at Kabul’s multi-million dollar surveillance system, which includes 108 high resolution camera feeds that are monitored 24 hours a day — a modern version of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon.  

Publications and Studies


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