The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from August 9 – 21, 2019.
The Indian region of Kashmir has been in a communications blackout since August 5, when the Indian government revoked the region’s special autonomous status.
Protests in response have led to violent confrontations between demonstrators and Indian military and police authorities, who are actively patrolling the streets. Hundreds of protesters and others caught in the fray have been detained since August 5.
The internet censorship research group Netblocks reported on August 4 that severe network disruptions were already underway:
Urgent: Severe internet disruption registered in #Srinagar, #Kashmir with backbone access largely severed by India from 18:00 UTC; information blackout poses immediate risk to safety and rights of individuals; incident ongoing #KeepItOn
📰 https://t.co/ENx1iLc4nQ pic.twitter.com/jv0KMbp3CM
— NetBlocks.org (@netblocks) August 4, 2019
Internet outages are nothing new for Kashmiris — the region boasts the dubious title of having weathered more short to medium-term internet shutdowns in 2018 and 2019 than any other in the world.
But the communications blackout extended far beyond internet access. For 12 consecutive days, mobile and even fixed-line telephone services were shut down, leaving Kashmiris all but cut off from neighboring areas and the rest of the world. A report from AFP described how Kashmiris in the region’s largest city, Srinagar, were queuing for hours at government offices where they can use an outside phone line — for just two minutes per person.
While internet access remains off-limits in Kashmir, many Pakistanis have taken to Twitter to denounce the change in Kashmir. But they too have been subject to censorship — journalists, activists, and now even Pakistani government authorities are reporting that multiple accounts have been suspended after tweeting in support of Kashmiri’s rights or criticizing Indian government actions in the region.
On August 12, the Indian home ministry asked Twitter to ”suspend” eight accounts for spreading ”misinformation and rumours to disturb peace and calm” in Kashmir. On August 20, Pakistan’s Telecommunication Authority filed a complaint with Twitter, asserting that 200 accounts had been suspended wrongfully, and apparently (according to Pakistani authorities) after tweeting messages about or showing solidarity with Kashmir.
Algeria blocks social media, Google services
Connections to YouTube and other services offered by Google went dark for several hours in Algeria on August 18. The outage appears to have been in response to a viral video showing former Defense Minister Khaled Nezzar calling on the army to “realize the demands of the people,” a message that appeared to express support for the public ouster of military general Ahmed Gaid Salah. Protests that began in March in Algeria led to the resignation of long-time ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Nigerian activist arrested after calling for protest on social media
Omoyele Sowore, a prominent human rights activist and the publisher of investigative news site Sahara Reporters, was arrested on August 3 by Nigerian security services after calling for a nationwide demonstration against bad governance. Using the hashtag #RevolutionNow, Sowore pointed to the multiple armed conflicts happening in the country and their deadly consequences for civilians. “Nigeria has failed as a state and until we take that necessary big step [of a coordinated protest movement]….Nigeria will not attain its potentials.”
He was detained under the 2011 Terrorism Act which allows the Department of State Services (DSS), a unit of Nigeria’s State Security Service, to detain anyone planning to “commit an act of violence.” If charged and convicted, Sowore could face life in prison, a fine or both. Despite his arrest, protests still took place across the country in four states and in the capital Abuja.
Mauritanian blogger once sentenced to death has been released
Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitir, who was sentenced to death for apostasy in 2014 over an opinion article published on the website of the newspaper Aqlame, was released from prison on July 30. Although his sentence was reduced on appeal in 2017, he had remained in prison since his original arrest. He has since been escorted to another country for safety reasons.
In his article, Ould Mkhaitir criticized the use of religion to justify Mauritania's discriminatory caste system, while citing examples from the lifetime of prophet Muhammad. His release came just two days before the inauguration of Mauritania’s now-current president, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani.
Chinese authorities are searching Hongkongers’ phones at mainland borders
Since early July 2019, Hong Kong residents have been reporting on social media that their mobile phones are being checked when they travel to mainland China. The border police officers appear to be scanning devices for anti-extradition photos, videos and group chats. Travelers who show evidence of having joined protests have been subject to further interrogation. Some have been pressured to write letters of reassurance that they won't join the protests in the future. In at least one case, the police asked a person who they had identified as an active protester for a DNA sample.
New rules could eliminate Cuba’s largest local area network
Two new resolutions from Cuba’s Ministry of Communications have put local area networks — community-built IP-based networks that do not connect to the global internet, also known as LANs — on the defensive. Resolutions 98 and 99 place hard restrictions on this type of technology and require that anyone seeking to build with it obtain a state-issued permit first.
The rules could force the closure of dozens of locally-run networks across the country, including the SNET, Cuba’s largest independently-run LAN, which has been operational for 15 years and serves an estimated 40,000 people in Havana. Originally built by gamers and young computer science students, the network now includes home-grown social media sites, blogs, spaces for buying and selling goods, and a static version of Wikipedia.
The SNET has long been readily accessible for anyone with a computer who can access one of the network’s above-ground cables, which are visible from street level, connecting one apartment building to the next. But with the new rules, this unique community-led solution to Cuba’s lack of internet access may not last.
Russia pressures Google to stop spread of ‘illegal’ protest videos
Russia’s media regulator is pressuring Google to discontinue push notifications and other features promoting videos and livestreams of protests that they say are illegal. On August 10, demonstrations took place across Moscow, with citizens demanding free and fair elections, after several opposition candidates were disqualified from an upcoming vote.
Google opens its doors in Egypt, despite information control concerns
Google is re-opening its Egypt office years after moving its offices to Dubai in 2014, following the coup d’état that left president and former military general Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in power. The office will re-open on the premise that the country has regained political stability, despite concerns from activists that the company’s practices and employees will become vulnerable to government pressure, as was the case for the company during its tenure in China.
How Turkish authorities are exploiting Twitter’s ‘Country Withheld Content’ policy
An Ankara court ordered Twitter to suspend four user accounts on grounds of protecting national security and public order. The accounts belong to an opposition party politician, a music band, and two entities connected with the Gezi Park protest movement.
Twitter has not yet complied, but if it doesn’t, it could risk being blocked in Turkey. In 2014, the Turkish government blocked Twitter after users disseminated audio recordings that seemingly implicated people close to then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a corruption investigation. At the time, the government said Twitter had not responded to court rulings to remove some links that they said violated local laws.
Twitter cuts off China-based accounts for trying to ‘sow discord’ in Hong Kong
On August 19, Twitter suspended 936 accounts originating from mainland China that were “attempting to sow political discord” in Hong Kong in relationship to the anti-extradition movement on the ground. After investigating account activities, Twitter concluded that the information operation was state-backed and had violated multiple platform policies. The company offered full documentation of the accounts and their message histories as part of its announcement.
Although Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009, some of the above accounts had accessed Twitter from specific unblocked IP addresses originating in mainland China, the company explained. Moreover, the 936 accounts were only the most active ones within a larger network of approximately 200,000 accounts created as part of this operation.
Twitter will block *some* state media from buying ads
Not long after it suspended hundreds of pro-Beijing accounts for their Hong Kong-related activities, Twitter announced plans to curb certain kinds of state-sponsored media outlets from buying advertising on its platform. The company says that the new policy will not prevent such media from tweeting — it will only bar them from buying ads.
Which kinds of media outlets will be affected by the rule? An official statement asserted that the policy “will not apply to taxpayer-funded entities, including independent public broadcasters,” but that it would apply to “news media entities that are either financially or editorially controlled by the state.” This may leave some outlets in a legal grey area, and will likely raise more questions about the role of private internet companies in adjudicating speech by publicly-funded entities.