Netizen Report: In Quest to Tame Internet, Kremlin Targets Privacy Tools

 

Image remixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Image remixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Ellery Roberts Biddle, Mohamed ElGohary, Weiping Li, Hae-in Lim, Tetyana Lokot, Kevin Rothrock 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.

A Russian court recently ruled to block certain sections of a website belonging to RosKomSvoboda, an Internet and human rights organization, on grounds that the page is an “anonymizer” and that “by using this website citizens can get unlimited access to the prohibited content, including extremist content, through anonymous access and substituted user IPs.” Tools that allow users to browse the web anonymously are not currently prohibited in Russia.

The ruling is troubling within Russia’s increasingly strict regulatory environment, where new rules on content and online data use seem to emerge on a monthly and sometimes weekly basis.

A recent study by Global Voices’ RuNet Echo project indicated a strong correlation between increases in online censorship and interest in tools like Tor among Russian Internet users. Not surprisingly, more Russian citizens are using such tools to express themselves, preserve their access to information, and retain personal privacy in the face of the Kremlin’s censorship efforts. The study measured publicly available Tor statistics on user connections in Russia against search engine requests matching the terms “tor browser download” from both Google and Yandex. Patterns of continuous growth in Tor use emerged between 2013 and 2015, with spikes in the summer of 2014, and a high concentration of activity in the first half of 2015.

Throughout this period, the Kremlin has steadily tightened its grip on the Internet. Surges in Tor use also coincided with police crackdowns on opposition media websites and Internet activists in the spring of 2014.

Pyrawebs data retention bill returns to Paraguay

Paraguay’s Congress will vote today on a proposed data law that would require Internet service providers to collect and preserve user data for twelve months after its generation. Local open Internet advocates opposed to the bill have nicknamed it “Pyrawebs” in a not-so-subtle reference to the late 20th century dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, during which police surveillance was routine. The term “pyra” comes from “pyragüés” means “informant” in local indigenous language of Guaraní.

Iranian court sentences cartoonist to 12.5 years in prison

A Revolutionary Court in Tehran found artist and civil rights activist Atena Faraghdani guilty of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “insulting the Supreme Leader” among others. The charges concerned her drawings and content critical of the government that the young activist posted on her Facebook page. Faraghdani has been in prison since August 2014, where she began a hunger strike this past February. Her lawyer has appealed her case in an effort to get her sentence reduced.

US Congress finally does something

After months of intense debate and deliberation, the US National Security Agency’s bulk metadata collection operations shut down last Sunday evening when the Senate failed to extend legal provisions authorizing this type of surveillance. Two days later, senators passed the USA Freedom Act, a law that will limit the degree to which the government can engage in the mass collection of telephone data, instead leaving telecommunications companies responsible for collecting and preserving phone data. Government authorities will need to provide an order issued by the FISA court, which many civil liberties advocates view as a rubber stamping operation. While the new law puts an important curb on US surveillance powers, this legislative battle centers on only a narrow section of the law that enables surveillance. Several other tools in national security investigators’ toolbox remain, as the EFF’s Cindy Cohn and Andrew Crocker note.

New rules in surveillance tech exports

The US published proposed rules that would restrict the export of certain types of surveillance technologies, raising concerns among some IT security experts that the rules may be overly broad and could negatively impact security research. The Wassenaar Arrangement is a multi-national agreement that seeks to control the export of technologies such as weapons and weapons components, and in December 2013 was amended to include certain types of surveillance technologies that have been linked to human rights abuses in Bahrain, the UAE, and Turkmenistan, among other countries. For more information on the highly technical amendments, see this overview from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The UN says +1 to encryption

A new report from the United Nations asserts that encryption and anonymity online are critical for human rights. In the report, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye argues that “states should not restrict encryption and anonymity” and calls on states not to implement measures such as backdoors or weak encryption standards to weaken online security.

Hollywood lobby bullies Canadian torrent site into submission

Popular Canadian torrent website BT-Chat.com shut down after receiving a hand-delivered letter from the Canadian subsidiary of the Motion Picture Association of America. The letter, which cites only US law, states, “It makes no difference that your website might not have infringing content on it, or only links to infringing content.”

Memories of ‘Zola,’ before he was arrested

Nearly all members of the Ethiopian civic blogging collective known as Zone9 have been in jail since April 2014. In a recent post, Endalk Chala, one of the few who remains free, recalled his first memories of meeting Zelalem Kiberet, a lawyer and scholar who helped start the collective. “Today, after over a year in prison, he is facing trumped-up terrorism charges for being a true intellectual, and one who uses humor to communicate his critiques.”

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