Global Voices Advocacy’s Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.
French human rights defenders are navigating new depths of hypocrisy in national policymaking in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Since January, hundreds of Internet users have been punished over comments on political controversies surrounding the attack. And just last week, the French Interior Ministry ordered Internet service providers to block five websites that it says condoned terrorism. According to AFP, the blocked sites included al-Hayat Media Center, which has been identified as a media producer associated with ISIS. Also blocked was Islamic-news.info, which now appears to have been taken down from the Web altogether. None of these blocking orders were reviewed by a judge. An unnamed Interior Ministry official said that it expected to issue such bans on “dozens” of additional websites, exercising new counterterrorism rules proposed in November and passed in February.
Nils Muižnieks, the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe, criticized France for the measures, saying that “limiting human rights to fight against terrorism is a serious mistake and an inefficient measure that can even help the terrorists’ cause.”
Meanwhile, anti-terror legislation before the French Parliament would grant the country’s intelligence services expansive powers of surveillance for both phone and Internet communications. The bill would enable authorities to access the private data of terror suspects and would require communications firms to allow intelligence services to record metadata.
The bill does provide for the creation of an independent body overseeing surveillance activities and includes an appeals process for individuals to contest monitoring. It also grants France’s top administrative court the power to order an end to surveillance, a right it does not currently have. But it still lacks basic tenets of due process. Paris digital rights group La Quadrature du Net lamented that the measures are unfortunately skewed toward post-facto recourse—instead of asking a judge for prior permission to spy on citizens, authorities will surveil citizens en masse and handle the consequences if and when they are challenged.
Turkey uses French example to justify censorship
The Turkish Parliament approved a new article to an omnibus bill that would allow the Telecommunications Directorate, or TIB, to remove or block online content within four hours of a decision made by any minister—without receiving court authorization. The TIB would then be required to submit the decision to a judge for approval, and if it is not authorized within 48 hours, the block would automatically be removed. The article targets content that authorities believe to “endanger an individual’s right to life and property, be deemed a threat to national security or public order, incite criminal activity or present a risk to public health.” The rules also enable TIB to demand that Internet service providers submit users’ information to help law enforcement locate suspects. Responding to criticisms that the measures would violate human rights, Turkey’s EU minister said the bill is compatible with EU standards and cited recent website censorship in France to justify his claim.
Macedonian journalist speaks out on surveillance
In the aftermath of revelations that the Macedonian government conducted mobile phone surveillance on thousands of citizens, many of them human rights advocates and media workers, investigative journalist Meri Jordanovska decided to speak publicly about her experience. Several journalists, including Jordanovska, received the contents of these recorded conversations through data leaks passed to political opposition leaders. After reviewing her own leaked file, which contained records of multiple private conversations with sources and personal contacts, Jordanovska wrote:
This folder was more than enough for me to clearly see what is happening in my country. I can clearly see that someone knew in advance what story I was working on. Enough for me to conclude that my sources of information were endangered. Enough for the centers of power to be able to react preventively before the story was published.
Indian Supreme Court says no to censorship
India’s Supreme Court ruled Section 66A of the country’s Information Technology Act is unconstitutional, deeming it “vague in its entirety” and an infringement on the “public’s right to know.” The law authorized police to arrest Internet users who posted or sent online content they deemed “grossly offensive” and was widely criticized by human rights advocates who saw it as a tool for targeting political opposition voices. In a blog post for the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, Pranesh Prakash provides a detailed history of the law and why it was deemed unconstitutional.
China anti-censorship site GreatFire.org under attack
Chinese censorship monitoring site GreatFire.org was hit with a distributed denial of service attack, receiving 2.6 billion requests an hour for its mirrored websites on Thursday, March 19. The attack took place shortly after the site was featured in a Wall Street Journal article. GreatFire wrote on its blog: “We are under attack and we need help. … This kind of attack is aggressive and is an exhibition of censorship by brute force.” As is typical in attacks of this nature, it is unclear who was responsible for the attack. GreatFire.org provides users in mainland China with access to major websites including the New York Times, BBC News, Google.com, and Deutsche Welle.
Human Rights Watch website blocked briefly in Egypt
The website for Human Rights Watch was blocked for Wi-Fi users at the Egypt Economic Development Conference, also known as Egypt the Future. The block was noticed by Egyptian journalist Salma Elmardany and appears to have been lifted after she tweeted about it to her 80,000 followers.
Twitter’s verified users test new anti-harassment feature
Twitter has begun testing a new “quality filter” that would screen for tweets that contain threatening and abusive language from their timeline. The new feature, which is currently available for verified users only, is the latest attempt by Twitter to curtail harassment on the platform.
Digital rights advocates launch principles for online platforms
Several civil society groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fundacion Karisma Colombia and Heliopolis Institute of Egypt joined together to launch the Manila Principles on Intermediary Liability at RightsCon. The Principles propose a framework of best practices for online intermediaries such as Internet service providers, social networks and search engines, and include principles such as the requirement that content not be restricted without a court order, that requests for restrictions of content be clear and unambiguous, and a mandate that laws and content restriction policies respect due process.