Netizen Report: Community Edition

Participants at LikeMinds Helsinki. Image by Flickr user fellowcreative (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Participants at LikeMinds Helsinki. Image by Flickr user fellowcreative (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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

Following the dramatic defeat of the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA in the United States, the question now becomes how to maintain the momentum achieved by the Internet activism community. In this week’s Netizen Report we are excited to spotlight the ways in which the netizen community is turning the Internet into a platform of participatory politics and preserving digital culture.

The Reddit community has worked out a first draft of its “Free Internet Act”, which aims to prevent interference in Internet freedom in the United States. The thread began with a post by an Austrian user, who was interviewed by the Huffington Post about the collaboration and how they plan to further advance the legislation.

Another project to mobilize netizens in the U.S. to get politically involved with Internet issues was recently initiated by digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge (PK). PK set up a website The Blue Print where netizens can vote for the digital rights bills they like, or submit proposals to solicit more advocates online. The proposals could be turned into draft legislation if they gain enough support.

A similar approach was also adopted by the U.S. Senator Ron Wyden and Congressman Darrel Issa, who asked the Internet community to offer opinions and edit the bill Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) through an online platform named Madison.

In addition, technology website Techdirt has worked with advocacy group Engine Advocacy to build its Step 2 discussion platform, on which netizens can vote for topics they approve, or suggest subjects deserving to  be underscored. They expect that through this kind of  “crowd-sourcing”, the Internet community’s voice could shape the political agenda.

Similar projects are developing in Europe. According to Finnish media, a group of people in Helsinki are working on a website on which Finnish citizens can propose legislation ideas. If there are enough people to support the initiative, other volunteers will help to turn it into legislation.

Will the initiatives mentioned above change the political landscape and create a netizen-empowered democracy? Observers are hesitant to predict. There are still some flaws in many of these developing systems. Nevertheless, they are significant steps forward for the community.

Internet rights as human rights

Another riveting development for the fortnight was that, in a groundbreaking human rights and Internet rights event, the 19th Session of the Human Rights Council hosted a UN Panel on Freedom of Expression on the Internet. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated in her opening remarks that “states can no longer exercise control based on the notion of monopoly over information.” She stressed “the importance of undertaking a human rights impact assessment whenever Internet policies are being deliberated”.

A full video of the panel is available here. Panelist Anriette Esterhuysen, executive director of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) commented afterwards: “It was extremely encouraging that states agree that the same rights that apply in the offline world also apply online.”

In addition participants at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting have announced that Internet freedom and human rights are priorities on their agenda.

Censorship

March 12, 2012, will be the World Day Against Cyber-Censorship, a special date marked by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to raise global netizens’ awareness on Internet freedom. The RSF has nominated bloggers, activists, and journalists around the world who are fighting for free speech on the Internet. We honor the nominees, whose bravery has inspired us to keep striving for online freedom, especially when facing the mounting pressure from governments.

Among those countries putting the squeeze on their citizens’ online freedom, the Pakistani government published a request last week for proposals to create an automatic national URL filtering and blocking system to replace its current manually operated one. The Pakistani digital human rights organization Bytes for All is leading global protests against this move, warning that with the approach of the 2013 general elections, the government will be more likely to be monitoring and censoring online speech. They are working to persuade Western information and technology companies to value freedom of speech and refrain from responding to government requests.

The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multi-stakeholder organization focused on promoting respect for human rights by technology companies, also issued a statement urging companies to make sure that their products or services will be used in ways aligning with international human rights standards.

Twitter is reported to have censored accounts which parodied or criticized the French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his presidential campaign.

In Egypt, teenagers have been vocal about their political views through the Internet as well as other media. However the Egyptian education secretary, seeking to restrain young persons from engaging in political activities, has asked educational institutions to prohibit students from engaging in political debates. Young bloggers have also received malicious messages and threats.

Still in Egypt, members of parliament both from Salafi and liberal parties have proposed the blocking of pornographic websites. The previous regime did not systematically filter the Internet.

Thuggery

Jordanian blogger Enas Musallam was hospitalized after being threatened and stabbed. People close to him believe that a recent article of his which criticizes Jordanian Prince Hassan led to the attack.

Chinese political dissident Qin Yongmin received warnings from state security police, asking him to abandon his plan to set up a website promoting peaceful change in the country.

Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari is now under detention in Saudi Arabia for his tweets about the Prophet Muhammad. He is represented by a top human rights lawyer, who is trying to argue the case before a committee in the Information Ministry. However, the journalist is still receiving death threats from Saudi militants.

Surveillance

Canada’s controversial C-30 bill, the Protecting Children from Online Predators Act, has received an extreme backlash. Law Professor Michael Geist writes that the bill’s Section 14 “gives the government a stunning array of powers to order an ISP or telecom provider to install surveillance capabilities ‘in a manner and within a time’ specified by the government.”

Reporters Without Borders has responded to the bill saying, “The fight against online child pornography is a legitimate aim, but it should not be waged at the expense of protecting rights and freedoms on the Internet”.

EFF reports that the bill has been put on “pause” in response to the backlash and has encouraged netizens to keep the pressure on the government to not pass this overreaching bill into law.

The Australian government has proposed that blogs with annual readerships of over 15,000 or more should be monitored.

Katitza Rodriguez of EFF reports on GVA that Mexico has “adopted a surveillance legislation that will grant the police warrantless access to real time user location data.”

It was been revealed that the NYPD has spied on Muslim student websites throughout the East Coast.

Numerous media outlets including the Telegraph, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and the Associated Press reported that acclaimed journalists Rémi Ochlik and Marie Colvin were killed by the Syrian Army and that they may have been surveilled through their satellite phones.

Netizen activism

A new website created by Oxford University provides a platform for netizens around the world to debate on Internet freedom issues.

Chinese netizens took advantage of temporary cracks in the country's Great Firewall, and occupied Obama’s Google+ page – some even left messages asking jokingly about U.S. campaign bumper stickers and green cards.

National policy

More and more governments have adopted the controversial measure of interrupting mobile communication during protests. After having drawn heavy criticism, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the U.S. is soliciting comments from the public on whether local governments should be able to block cell phone service.

Myanmar, a country which has recently showed signs of political reform, is moving toward a more open Internet policy by opening access to social media and international news websites. According to the Economist, a BarCamp, a get-together for tech geeks, was recently held in Yangon with Aung San Suu Kyi as its keynote speaker.

The Indian government has asked Internet content providers to route all email services accessed in India through servers in India, as they have not been able to access emails opened in India from users registered outside of the country.

The U.S. Federal Communication Commissioner Robert McDonald wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal, expressing his concern about some countries’ proposal to grant the control of the Internet to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) under the United Nations. McDonald stressed that this measure will end the current multi-stakeholder Internet structure and threaten the freedom of Internet.

Privacy

The U.S. government has revealed a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” which outlines principles for business to handle customers’ private information. Major Internet companies also signed a “Do Not Track” agreement by which the companies promised to incorporate “Do Not Track” feature sinto their browsers. Meanwhile, Google, Apple, Amazon, HP, Microsoft, and Research In Motion also signed an agreement with the California government to inform mobile users of their information policies before users download applications.

While the tech giants are taking steps to improve their reputations after a series of privacy breaches, an Android app was reported to upload users’ photos without permission of the photo owners.

Google is still facing global backlash over its privacy policy change: European agencies warned Google that its new privacy policy may be unlawful and requested a delay in the launch. Additionally, a UK activist sued Google to pay for the cost of buying a new phone, because the activist refused to consent to the change of privacy policy and can’t use his old Android phone anymore. In spite of all the doubts as well as criticisms, Google still decided to go ahead with the new policy. Several online articles on Time’s Techland and ars technica among others advise users on how to minimize the privacy risks aroused by Google’s privacy approach.

As netizens are becoming annoyed by tech and ad companies’ online tracking practices, the Atlantic’s senior editor Alexis Madrigal describes the ways in which Internet users’ online footprints are tracked. If you’re curious about how you are followed, and which companies follow you, check the app Collusion.

Copyright

Shepard Fairey has entered a guilty plea in his criminal case against the Associated Press. The AP accused Fairey of improperly using an AP photo of Obama in his “Hope” poster. Fairey claimed that he was covered by fair-use laws.

A widely circulated post by Techdirt writer Mike Masnik, which detailed why SOPA and PIPA were bad ideas, has been blocked from Google search engine because of a DMCA takedown notice.

The European Commission has referred the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Act (ACTA) to the European Court of Justice; for more information, an FAQ on the referral is available through the European Digital Rights initiative (EDRI).

NOW.in, a popular Taiwanese Internet broadcasting platform which provides individuals an easy way to set up online radios and broadcast to the world, was raided by Taiwanese police for “infringement of copyright”. The company had just received a government award for its “innovative service” and is in the process of negotiating copyright authorization with the copyright holder group.

A few days before the Now.in raid, the Taiwanese government also rejected an application from a group of scholars to found a party named “the Pirate Party,” which follows the example of Sweden’s Pirate Party for the cause of copyright reform. The reason for the rejection: the government believes the name will be related to the real pirates and may raise concerns around gang violence.

A controversial Irish bill which was tagged as an “Irish SOPA” has been officially enacted. According to to the statute, copyright holders can seek court injunctions against Internet service providers who are believed to host materials infringing copyright.

Cybersecurity

For the past two weeks, cybersecurity has been a hot topic on the US Capitol Hill. Republican senators have introduced competing cybersecurity bills: the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 and Enhancing Cybersecurity by Using Research, Education, Information, and Technology (SECURE IT) Act, respectively. These bills are designed to protect against cyberattacks.

However, the former bill, advocated by Senate Homeland Security Chairman Joe Lieberman, has also raised concerns that the enhancement of the government’s oversight will be at the expense of citizens’ privacy and Internet freedom. A group of Republican senators thus proposed another bill which emphasizes a partnership relationship between the government and private companies over cybersecurity issues.

This second bill has gained support from some telecommunication companies. An article written by Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology argues that  a “public-private partnership” without the involvement of military will best fit the nature of Internet and preserve democracy.

In these debates around the severity of the cyber threat, hacker groups have been often named as a major concern by the National Security Agency. In a Wall Street Journal article, the director of the NSA cited concerns that hackers have the capability to bring about a limited power outage through a cyber attack. In response from the hacker group  Anonymous said, “Why would Anons shut off a power grid? There are ppl on life support / other vital services that rely on it. Try again NSA. #FearMongering”

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