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Netizen Report: Which Way Ahead?


Image courtesy of broodcast, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/nielssienaert/4253272271/.

Most of this report was researched and written by Weiping Li and Mera Szendro Bok, and edited by Sarah Myers.

In the past few weeks, we have witnessed how Internet companies -  the sovereigns of cyberspace – struggle with the conflict between market demands for global expansion and the demands of their users for freedom of expression online. A mark of its rise in global prominence, Twitter announced a decision to block tweets in certain countries to comply with local laws, and Google’s Blogger said that the service is going to restrict content in some countries by redirecting readers to country-specific domains.

Although both companies defended their decisions by pointing out that the transparency of the new policies actually promote free speech and all for continued flow of information in countries where the Internet is controlled, they have triggered fury among netizens who organized protests online. Among the protesters is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who said he would stop tweeting if Twitter begins censoringAn article in techdirt lamented the possible end of global Internet if other Internet companies follow Blogger and Twitter’s steps to censor content country-by-country.

However, Twitter’s move did receive praise not only from the countries which restrict content, but also from activists who defend free speech. Unsurprisingly, Thailand and China welcomed the decision. Standing on the other side of the spectrum of free speech, Jillian York and Mike Masnick also acknowledged the companies’ efforts to be transparent and to provide users in restrictive online environments ways to skirt the blocks.

Twitter and Blogger are not the first and will not be the last Internet companies practicing geolocational content blockades. As netizens concerned about the fate of Internet freedom, we will keep watching the trend closely and make sure they still stick to the baseline, just as Eva Galperin has suggested.

Below are other trends and stories for the fortnight that you may want to dig into:

Censorship

As mentioned previously, there has been an increased trend in Internet companies complying with the demands and laws of governments in certain countries. The latest example is Facebook's and Google's removal of content deemed “offensive” to comply with an Indian court’s order. At a recent Media Access Project event, Google's Bob Boorstin pointed to India, Korea and Brazil as critical countries in the battle over internet freedom.

In an Index on Censorship interview, Moez Chakchouk, the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) chief, discussed how the agency’s role has been transformed from a censorship instrument to a unit which maintains “network neutrality”. The chief also talked about how they are handling censorship machinery passed on from the past regime, and their relationships with the foreign companies whose equipment facilitated the former regime’s censorship.

Faced with criticism for censoring the word “Palestine” in a late-night music show, BBC maintains that it was the right decision, and has insisted that it was improper to express a one-sided political viewpoint during a music show.

Over the past two weeks, several Tibetan blogs have been shut down during fierce protests by the Tibetan people against Chinese rule. Meanwhile, according to a Guardian report, the Chinese government has cut off Internet and phone connections in areas of unrest in Sichuan province.

Also in China, the microblog real-name registration system has resulted in protests over the freedom of speech: several famous Chinese intellectuals who are renowned for their outspoken criticism of the Chinese government closed their Sina microblog accounts because of the tightened controls.

A piece from On the Media reveals the redactions made to Wikileaks documents by the US government in a comparison between the published versions and those recently obtained by the ACLU in a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.

Surveillance

U.S. congressman Edward Markey proposed a bill to tackle the issue of mobile phone surveillance. According to the draft of the bill, mobile companies should inform consumers that the devices they provide are installed with software like CarrierIQ, which tracks users’ activities on smartphones, and should obtain consumers’ consent before they start monitoring.

A piece by Malicia Rogue on the Global Voices Advocacy blog traces out FBI indicators for terrorism online. According to FBI documents, “attempts to shield the screen from view of others”, or “use of anonymizers, portals, or other means to shield IP address”, show evidence of terrorist activity that should arouse suspicion among FBI officials.

Hawaii’s House of Representatives introduced a bill to require Internet service providers to keep record of customers’ information and Internet destination history information, such as IP addresses and domain names for two years. Not surprisingly, the bill has attracted plenty of criticism and some lawmakers have already decided to back away from the legislation.

Thuggery

Park Jeonggeun, a South Korean activist, was charged with “helping the enemy” and violating South Korea’s National Security Law. The charges were issues for re-tweeting the message “long live Kim Jong-il” from North Korea’s official Twitter account, with the intent to ridicule North Korean leaders.

What are the plights that the journalists face in Iran? Who are the journalists detained in jail? A new Iranian website is dedicated to covering these issues. Though most of the articles are written in Farsi, some of them have been translated into English and are a good insight into issues from the Iranian perspective.

Netizen activism

The online community Reddit played an important role in the anti-SOPA/PIPA protest. Now the community is exploring the possibility of creating a bill together to fight against any future interference with Internet freedom.

Equipped with the power of social media, Africa’s oldest community radio station not only connects more closely with its audience, but also gains the wide support to show the financial backers the reasons to keep the station running.

Once again social media has brought together people around the world to protest against the massacres in Syria. Activists are spreading news through Twitter and Facebook, asking people to protest outside of the Syrian embassies. Many Syrian people answered the call and expressed their anger outside the embassies in Kuwait, London, Berlin and Washington D.C.

National Policy

According to the Akamai State of the Internet report for the third quarter of 2011, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan are ahead of other countries in broadband adoption, while China and India lag behind.

UK media reported that North Korea has prohibited its people from using mobile phones during the 100-day mourning period for Kim Jong-il for fear of spurring discontent toward the government.

Sovereigns of Cyberspace

Facebook’s filing for an IPO hit the headlines on February 1st. The IPO is not only a big event for the global market, but also has important implications for human rights and privacy issues on the global social network. Elisa Massimino, the CEO of Human Rights First, explains the importance of Facebook's mega-IPO from the human rights viewpoint . An article in Ars Technica also pointed out that Facebook going public means that cases of inquiry and investigations of Facebook led by the FTC and attorney general, which in the past would be kept private, will now be public.

Google’s new privacy policy consolidating users’ personal information across its services goes live on March 1st, and has instigated serious concerns over customers’ privacy. For users, this means that Google may make predictions about your age and preferences, which they provide to ad companies.

For the past two weeks, Google has been busy clarifying “myths” about its new privacy policy. It also responded to Congress’ question in a 13 page letter and guaranteed “the new privacy policy will not change how Google archives or deletes user data”.

Meg Roggensack, Senior Advisor for Business and Human Rights at Human Rights First examined the responsibility of private telecom companies in an authoritarian regime.

Google has proposed a number of Internet standards changes to Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which is the transport layer protocol used by applications that require guaranteed delivery of data.

Copyright

After 22 European countries signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), anti-ACTA protests prevailed in Europe. In the last weekend of January, protestors in the Czech Republic, Belgium, Ireland, UK and France took to the streets to protest against the agreement. Hackers battled on the Internet to express their discontent – however a piece by Timothy B. Lee in ars technica overviews accurate and inaccurate claims made about the treaty on both sides.

The protests online have proven successful in Europe: the European Parliament's rapporteur for ACTA resigned and criticized the negotiation process, and the Polish parliamentarians wore Guy Fawkes masks to show their opposition. The Slovenian ambassador apologized publicly for signing the agreement and Prime Minister of Poland has also suspended the ratification on the agreement. Most recently, the Czech government suspended its ratification of the treaty.

A note from European Parliament member Marietje Schaake outlines actions that citizens can take in opposition to the treaty.

Rashmi Rangnath wrote a piece on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which would also have implications for free speech online, available at Public Knowledge.

According to news reports, the data saved at Megaupload may be deleted. The file-hosting service was charged with illegal file-sharing and  its assets have been seized by the U.S. government for investigation. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has sent a letter to the Eastern Virginia office and to lawyers for Megaupload, asking them to retain the data for innocent users. In Europe, the Pirate Party of Catalonia is also planning to sue the U.S. FBI in a Spanish court for legitimate users.

Being concerned about the personal security of the officials, prosecutors, and their family members, the U.S. government decided not to reveal the names who are investigating the Megaupload case in the press release and public statement. The government officials said that there is a great possibility that hackers will retaliate against the agencies involved in the case.

In a recent interview, Yochai Benkler also discussed the targeting of Megaupload by the U.S. Department of Justice, just days after netizens showed “effective political force” against SOPA. Benkler says seizing the assets and people working on Megaupload without a trial is a “fairly aggressive and expansive” move.

In UK, a judge’s rule on photo copyright infringement may further blur the idea/expression distinction in copyright law and restrain creativity.

Cybersecurity

A group of hackers who support Syrian president Bashar al-Assad attacked and posted pro-Assad messages on Al Jazeera English’s “Syria Live Blog”. The blog has been devoted to covering the unrest in Syria.

According to the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Risks for 2012 report, cyber-attacks against governments and the private sector is ranked as number 4 among global risks which may become real. The report also calls for “correcting information asymmetries’ over cyber risks to improve global Internet security.

Governments, terrorists, and crime organizations have been more and more sophisticated in using Internet skills to surveil their targets — and many of the targets are journalists. However, many journalists haven’t equipped themselves with cyber-security technical skills. An article from the Columbia Journalism Review blog examines cyber-security education in the U.S. journalism school.

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