Netizen Report: Deconstructing Facebook’s Version of the Internet

"Planet Facebook or Planet Earth?" 2010 map of Facebook's social graph, by Paul Butler.

“Planet Facebook or Planet Earth?” A 2010 map of Facebook's social graph, by Paul Butler.

Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world.

Facebook’s Internet.org project seeks to “give the unconnected majority of the world the power to connect.” In cooperation with mobile carriers and telcos, the program provides mobile phone users with access to a select package of lightweight websites and apps (including its own) without incurring data charges. According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the logic is that “it is always better to have some access than none at all.” At present, the platform is only available in certain countries, among them Bangladesh, Colombia, Indonesia, and Zambia.

The program positions Facebook as a powerful gatekeeper of information for people who cannot afford to pay for “full” access to the global Internet. Although Facebook now allows individuals to submit their services to be included in the Internet.org package, it is unclear precisely how administrators decide which sites make the cut. And it is easy to imagine governments pressuring the company to exclude certain types of content from the Internet.org package.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation highlighted another key concern, which is that Internet.org has very limited support for websites that use secure protocols such as HTTPS. EFF’s Jeremy Malcolm explained that the for feature phones “…traffic must pass through Internet.org's proxy unencrypted, which means that any information users send or receive from Internet.org's services could be read by local police or national intelligence agencies and expose its users to harm.”

Internet.org is getting pushback from voices around the globe. Several hundred Panamanians signed a petition asking President Juan Carlos Varela to review Internet.org, and over one million Indians signed a petition asking India’s telecommunications authority to ban the app. The Indian government is also considering banning plans that allow discriminatory access to certain platforms but not to others. Chile is the first country to expressly ban these practices (known as “zero rating”), deeming them illegal in 2014 under the country’s net neutrality law. It remains to be seen how Facebook will respond, but this suggests that the commercialized web will be an important battlefield for free expression in the years to come.

Global Voices Calls for Safety of Bangladesh Bloggers

The Global Voices community issued a statement this week calling for international attention to the alarming situation of bloggers in Bangladesh. “We condemn the murders of bloggers Ananta Bijoy Das, Ahmed Rajib Haider, Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy and call on authorities to ensure that those responsible for these killings are brought to justice. And we ask our allies in the international human rights community to join us in our call, and in helping to ensure safety for those in peril.”

Young political cartoonist on trial in Iran

Iranian activist and artist Atena Farghadani is facing charges of spreading propaganda against the system and insulting members of parliament and the supreme leader for a cartoon she drew and published online depicting Iran’s members of parliament as animals voting on a law that would restrict women’s access to contraception. Atena has been held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods since her arrest in August 2014, and went on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions three weeks after her second confinement. Amnesty International is leading a call to action in support of Atena, and netizens can tweet using the hashtag #freeAtena to support her.

Bahraini activist back to prison over tweets

A Bahraini court upheld a six-month sentence for Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Human Rights Centre, for comments he made on Twitter, criticizing police defectors who joined ISIS. He may face a longer jail term pending an investigation for other tweets.

PayPal blocks donations for Russian opposition papers

Electronic payment service PayPal has blocked an account that sought to collect donations to print a report written by late opposition politician Boris Nemtsov presenting evidence of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. According to PayPal’s support team, PayPal does not allow “any political parties or political causes in Russia to receive donations due to the complexity of complying with local rules which require validating the identity of users.” It is unclear how they define “political causes” or whether these rules apply to accounts registered in other countries.

Hacking is illegal in Britain (unless you’re the government)

The British government may have changed its anti-hacking laws to ensure that government intelligence and law enforcement agencies are exempt from criminal prosecution. According to London-based advocacy group Privacy International, changes were made to the Computer Misuse Act shortly after Privacy International and seven Internet service providers began a legal challenge to the government’s use of computer hacking to gather intelligence, claiming it was unlawful under the Act. In response, the UK Home Office said there have been no changes made to the act that “increase or expand” authorities’ investigatory powers.

Belgium slams Facebook over unauthorized tracking

Belgium’s Privacy Protection Commission lambasted Facebook for disregarding European privacy laws by tracking users without prior consent and for dodging inquiries from regulators. According to Reuters, it urged Internet users to install privacy software to protect themselves from Facebook’s tracking systems whether they have a Facebook account or not (which is good advice all around.)

Innocence of Muslims decision overturned

A US federal appeals court overturned the order requiring YouTube to remove the anti-Muslim “Innocence of Muslims” film trailer from its website. The video was linked with violent protests throughout the Middle East and North Africa when it was released in 2012, and a number of countries including Egypt and Pakistan blocked YouTube for hosting the content. At the time, a court required YouTube to remove the video after actress Cindy Lee Garcia, whose image was spliced into the film trailer without adequate consent, sued Google on copyright grounds. In this week’s ruling, the court acknowledged the actress may have a contract claim, but threw out the attempt to “impose speech restrictions under copyright laws meant to foster rather than repress free expression.” According to the opinion by Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown, “the appeal teaches a simple lesson – a weak copyright claim cannot justify censorship in the guise of authorship.”

Ethiopian Blogger Profile: Atnaf Berahane

Zone 9 blogging collective co-founder Atnaf Berahane was arrested over a year ago for his work to promote civic engagement in Ethiopia. As Global Voices author Kofi Yeboah notes, “Atnaf, together with other incarcerated Zone 9 bloggers, deserves praise and not a jail sentence. It is not only the future of Atnaf that is on trial but that of every aspiring young man/woman who dares take a repressive government to task on free speech.”

New Research

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Ellery Roberts Biddle, Mohamed ElGohary, Hae-in Lim and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.

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