Netizen Report: China Continues to Crack Down on Virtual Private Networks

"Tweeting from behind the Great Firewall" by Flickr user Karl Baron. Taken on January 13, 2010. CC-BY.2.0.

“Tweeting from behind the Great Firewall” by Flickr user Karl Baron. Taken on January 13, 2010. CC-BY.2.0.

Renata Avila, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Marianne Diaz Hernandez, Lisa Ferguson, Hae-in Lim, 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 China, where the government continues its crackdown on the use of virtual private networks by blocking Avast.com, a free anti-virus and anti-spyware protection software for Windows, Android, and Mac users. According to technology blogger William Long, the block is linked to the site’s SecureLine VPN service.

In addition, Chinese companies including Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu and Sina Weibo deleted more than 60,000 accounts for reasons as wide as “being misleading, rumor mongering, links to terrorism, or involving violence, pornography and other violations”.

Quartz reports that for unclear reasons, when Chinese users attempt to navigate to sites banned by the Great Firewall, they are sometimes being directed to seemingly random sites, a hacking technique known as DNS poisoning.Normally, such requests are routed to non-existent IP addresses.

Ecuador’s President says “anonymity is for cowards”

During President Rafael Correa’s weekly address, he named and shamed people who wrote rude or abusive comments about him on Twitter and Facebook and said, “anonymity is for cowards,” calling on the public to help him identify users who lacked detectable information.

While Correa was lampooned during comedian John Oliver’s talk show recently, the severity of his actions have been outlined by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Special Rapporteur urged the State of Ecuador to consider the consequences of these statements and to act urgently to ensure the safety of one user in particular, who runs a satirical Facebook page “Crudo Ecuador” or “Raw Ecuador.”  The user posted a photo to the page of flowers and an anonymous note containing a death threat, and ultimately decided to shut down the site out of safety concerns. Under Ecuadorian law, limits are placed on anonymous expression online and expressions that discredit or dishonor others are punishable by imprisonment of up 15 to 30 days.

A new trial for a Saudi blogger?

Saudi Arabia’s criminal court may attempt re-trying blogger Raif Badawi for apostasy charges, which carry the death sentence. Badawi has already been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his criticism of Saudi clerics, although his lashes have been postponed since they were first administered, and were reportedly to be reviewed by the king’s office. A judge previously threw out the apostasy charge in 2013, after Badawi clarified for the court that he is Muslim.

Bangladeshi-American blogger killed

Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American blogger who denounced religious extremism and wrote about atheism was murdered by two men wielding machetes, possibly associated with the Islamist Ansar Bangla Seven. Roy lived in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, where 90% of its population of 140 million people are Muslim.

Eyes on Africa

In what has been dubbed South Africa’s WikiLeaks, Al Jazeera and the Guardian published “The Spy Cables,” a horde of documents painting Africa as the “El Dorado of espionage” and South Africa as a major hub for communications in the region. The documents, which date from 2006–2014, generally involve spying by or on Israel and Iran, with the CIA, the UK’s MI6, and others as supporting characters. Revelations include security weaknesses of the South African government and a partnership for satellite surveillance with Russia. Some have expressed concern about the consequences of the publication of the cables, which include the name of a potential North Korean asset who may now face torture or possibly death. Furthermore, Right2Know, a campaign launched in 2010 to oppose the proposed Protection of State Information Bill, worried that the humiliation stemming from the Spy Cables’ publication could provide the momentum to finally pass the “Secrecy Bill,” which could threaten whistleblowers and journalists with up to 25 years in prison for publishing “state secrets.”

Runa Sandvik recounts recounts how she was able to petition for photographs and personal information collected by US customs every time she entered the country under a Freedom of Information request.

“Right to be forgotten” could head to the Southern Hemisphere

The Buenos Aires legislature is considering a law similar to the European “right to be forgotten” ruling. The law would provide for the protection of personal data released by websites and search engines, with an exception for public persons for whom there is a “special interest” from citizens. The law would require users to submit requests for harmful content to be removed, and companies would need to comply with such requests within five days.

Move to reform Mexico’s copyright law

PRI federal deputy Denisse Ugalde and legal deputy coordinator Hector Gutierrez de la Garza presented an initiative to reform Mexico’s Law on Industrial Property and the Federal Copyright Act, known informally as the #LeyBeltrones. Digital activists have criticized the initiative as an effort to censor free speech in the guise of protecting copyright, and say it risks invading people's privacy online.

Google reverses position on content ban

Google revised its content policy for Blogger to ban sexually explicit images. Previously, it had only banned commercial pornography. After vigorous user feedback about the free expression implication this move could have, Google reversed its position, stating that it would be sticking with the status quo, and increasing its enforcement of the commercial porn ban instead.

Google Tehran HQ coming soon?

Google and other Internet companies may soon be able to set up offices in Iran, provided they respect the country’s “cultural” rules, according to the Fars news agency. Sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have been blocked intermittently in Iran since a series of protests surrounding the 2009 presidential election. Iran’s Deputy Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Nasrollah Jahangard said that American businesses may face problems operating in the country due to U.S. sanctions, but he claimed companies outside the United States have begun negotiations to enter the market.

ISIS threats Twitter with war

An account attributed to the militant group ISIS—which controls large swathes of land in Iraq and Syria—posted a threat against Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey on the image-sharing site JustPaste.it, in response to Twitter’s “campaign to delete accounts.” The post said that Twitter’s “virtual war on us will cause a real war on you,” referring to Twitter’s shutdown of accounts violating its terms of service, including those that issue “direct, specific threats of violence.” The Guardian reported that during a July 2014 Lords’ committee hearing on social media and criminal offenses, Sinéad McSweeney, Twitter’s Director of Public Policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, stated that the company had “in excess of 100 people” examining reports made to Twitter across a range of issues.

Pakistan's accidental un-ban

YouTube has been blocked in Pakistan since September 2012, but thanks to a technical glitch, it was available for a few days via some Internet service providers. Anusha Rehman, Pakistan’s Minister for Information Technology, stated that the forthcoming cybercrime bill would address the issue of intermediary liability.

Landmark net neutrality decision

The US Federal Communications Commission approved net neutrality in a landmark decision, requiring Internet service providers to treat Internet traffic in a neutral way rather than allowing them to charge higher rates to handle traffic at different speeds.

Netizens take on anti-privacy bills

A group of Canadian legal experts signed a collective open letter opposing Bill C-51, or the Anti-terrorism Act, asserting the legislation is overbroad and lacks any “enhanced protections for privacy and from abuse”.

Civil society and human rights activists in Paraguay signed a letter opposing draft Law S-146 438, which would establish the conservation of all traffic data belonging to Paraguayans— including the number of incoming and outcoming phone calls, IP addresses, and location data—for a period of 12 months.

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