But in the long run, [China’s] leaders must understand it's not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off – and they can't live with the consequences of that.
- Ai Wei Wei, in an article published in The Guardian.
On April 12, 2012, the Chinese Internet was cut off from the global Internet for about two hours, for reasons that remain unknown. One rumor is that it was related to an earthquake that happened days before, but a more persuasive argument was that it resulted from human error.
The China Realtime Report, a Wall Street Journal blog, quoted findings of the Internet company CloudFare that the outage may have been due to some kind of settings error in the nationwide Internet filtering system. Global Voices’ Oiwan Lam reported that the failure was a test of a national “kill switch,” to ensure that censors can cut China off from the rest of the Internet quickly in the event of a national emergency.
Although the latter explanation has not, and may never be confirmed, it seems to coincide with recent Chinese political tensions in the leadup to a leadership transition in the Fall. There has been a crackdown on Internet users and cyber attacks on Chinese dissident websites that have been reporting on political scandals. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Culture have all issued an “urgent notice” ordering all Internet companies to strictly execute the real-name registration policy from April to August.
The websites and services that will be specifically targeted for crackdown include those “involving unregistered domain names; content related to pornography, gambling or drugs; pornographic information; illegal discussion forums; and counter-political activities.”
The Chinese government may not cut the whole Chinese Internet off from the World Wide Web, but more intense censorship of the Internet in the coming months is widely expected. Meanwhile, netizens around the world have been busy fighting threats to their freedom of all kinds.
Iran’s Minister of Communication and Information Technology has denied a report that the Iranian government, too, is going to isolate the whole country from the World Wide Web.
Nevertheless, a Washington-based researcher Collin Anderson revealed a document from the Iranian government calling on Iranian companies to provide information on how to build a more monitored and filtered Internet. The government has also detained an Internet expert and pressured him to help build a “National Internet”. An analyst told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) that Iran may plan a dual system which consists of a fast domestic network and a filtered connection to the global Internet – which is not unlike China's current system.
While the Pakistani government has not confirmed whether it will withdraw its request for proposals for an online filtering system, activists have filed a petition to the court, arguing the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has illegally blocked and censored websites. The High Court of Sindh at Karachi has ruled that the PTA’s blocking is unconstitutional and that it should stop the censorship. Danny O’Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that as a result of the decision, the PTA should first inform the website operators of the blocking decision and allow the operators to respond.
In Southeast Asia, the Thai government has tightened its censorship of the Internet as the number of blocked websites have been increasing; Vietnam’s Ministry of Information has released draft legislation which requires international social networking companies to pledge to follow Vietnam’s censorship laws.
The European Parliament voted in favor of a resolution to ask the European Commission to enact new laws to monitor the export of technology, which can be used to censor the Internet and surveil mobile communication. However in the United Kingdom (UK), another censorship law has been proposed to require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block “inappropriate” content from children.
Jacob Appelbaum of the Tor Project published a report on the research of the Ultrasurf, software used for Internet censorship circumvention. This report revealed that the software program has serious security problems, which may endanger users’ privacy.
Indian Professor Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested for forwarding a cartoon ridiculing West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on the Internet. The professor was then charged with several counts, including humiliating and insulting the modesty of a woman, defamation and sending offensive messages through a computer.
Guinea-Bissau journalist Aly Silva, also a famous blogger, was arrested by the military while he was reporting new developments after a coup. Although he was released, he was physically harmed and his computer was stolen.
Three Vietnamese bloggers were charged with “propaganda against the state” for their posts on their blogs. They may face sentences of 20 years in jail once convicted.
Nicholas Merrill, who previously ran a New York-based ISP and who challenged FBI demands for user data, is raising funds to run a national non-profit telecommunications provider company in the United States, which will use technological and legal tools to shield its customers from surveillance.
Sovereigns of cyberspace
Facebook has threatened to sue a TechCrunch blogger after the blogger created a Chrome web browser extension that allows users to post to Facebook and blogs anonymously. The company also deleted a term in its “Statement of Rights and Responsibilities“, because users were concerned that this term could be used as an excuse for censorship.
Google's Co-Founder Sergey Brin voiced his concern that Hollywood, China, Facebook, and Apple are threatening Internet freedom and that the “walled garden” approach taken by competitors is hurting Internet openness and innovation.
FBI agents recently seized a server belonging to Riseup Networks and May First / People Link as part of their investigation into the series of anonymous bomb threats issued against the University of Pittsburgh. The server, operated by the European Counter Network, an Italian political activist Internet service, includes a node for the Mixmaster anonymous remailer service.
Anonymous remailers, like the one hosted by Rise Up and May First / People Link, allow their users to send and receive messages anonymously and are used by countless human rights groups, journalists and activists. The ECN server in particular was host to a number of websites, e-mail accounts and cyber rights mailing lists, and its ill-conceived seizure has disrupted the activities of activists and human rights defenders around the world.
To make matters worse, analysis of the server's data is unlikely to aid the investigation. The Mixmaster software operates in a similar manner to TOR – the server in question was merely one node in the network. Further, since Mixmaster is explicitly designed not to keep logs, it is very unlikely that it will yield any actionable information as to the source of the threats.
Since the seizure of the server last Wednesday, the University of Pittsburgh has continued to receive numerous bomb threats.
Kenyans are seeking to document cases of corruption through a new website, ipaidabribe.or.ke, which thus far has tracked nearly 600 cases of (mainly petty) bribery worth around 17 million Kenyan shillings.
Danah Boyd writes for the Guardian newspaper about the importance of users recognizing that the future of the Internet lies in our control and we must take action to protect the Internet’s openness.
Mexican netizens are using Twitter and blogging to mobilize action against a series of geo-location laws that many are concerned will establish service providers’ obligation to cooperate promptly and without reservations with authorities, not only to locate mobile equipment but also to give technical support for the installation and operation of devices that block cell phone signals, radio-communication or data transmission (Internet) inside jails.
French Twitter users shared early election results for the presidential elections by tallies over Twitter, before the national media was allowed to call the vote by law.
Over 11.5 million geo-located tweets from the last three months of 2011 have been analyzed to see how often Africans are tweeting. The use of Twitter is dominated by Africa's richest country: South Africa sent twice as many tweets (5,030,226) as the next most active, Kenya (2,476,800). Nigeria (1,646,212), Egypt (1,214,062) and Morocco (745,620) make up the remainder of the top five most active countries. According to Portland, 68% of those polled said that they use Twitter to monitor news.
Italy has introduced a law that would require websites and blogs to correct content within 48 hours or face fines if they receive a complaint that information on their site is incorrect. In addition to creating new liabilities for website operators, the law does not require factual accuracy for complaints.
Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, published a speech on the value of Internet openness and has invited comments.
The Federal Communications Commission in the United States (US) announced that they will drop their investigation against Google, citing lack of sufficient information and are fining Google USD 25,000 for impeding the investigation.
President Obama announced an Executive Order allowing US officials for the first time to impose sanctions against private and public entities as well as individuals who provide direct or indirect aid to the governments of Syria and Iran in using technologies to help carry out human rights abuses.
The Maryland General Assembly has become the first state to pass a bill outlawing employers from requesting current and prospective employees to provide their Facebook passwords.
Skynet, New Zealand's new anti-piracy law, may soon have its first victim. According to local ISP TelstraClear, one of its customers faces fines of up to USD 15,000 for allegedly pirating music, after receiving their “third strike” notice. “Three strikes” – otherwise known as graduated response – laws have become increasingly popular among governments worldwide as a means to combat media piracy. However, elsewhere institutions are pushing back against harsh and ill-conceived anti-piracy legislation.
In Australia, the High Court has ruled that ISPs are not obligated by law to respond to private takedown requests for copyrighted content. This ruling marks the third consecutive defeat for the movie studios behind the case.
Citing citizens’ privacy concerns, the European Parliament's rapporteur for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement has cautioned against signing the controversial treaty. Critics argue that ACTA, if passed, would fundamentally alter the Internet by forcing ISPs to police content across their networks.
Monday, April 22, marked the start of CyberSecurity Week in the US; one interest of lawmakers is CISPA, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, due to be brought to the floor of the House of Representatives this coming Friday. As we mentioned in the last Netizen Report, CISPA raises numerous concerns including being overbroad and a backdoor for online surveillance.
Although a House Committee attempted to narrow the scope of the bill, the bill is still raising concerns, including limited liability for a company sharing information. This past week the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reporters Without Borders and others launched an online campaign protesting the bill. The groups have launched their response in part because of Facebook’s support of CISPA. The Obama Administration has also come out against CISPA, stressing the need for privacy protections.
Several sites have created tools to help users coordinate their response to the bill. Fight for the Future launched Congress TMI (Too Much Information) to encourage netizens to illustrate the type of personal details CISPA will give law enforcement access to. EFF has also created an effective social media tool to help you tweet your representative directly and let him or her know how CISPA will affect you. For more information on the bill, Yale ISP Fellow Anjali Dalal has published a review of the legislation and some of the areas for concern.
In the UK, Parliament published a report on press coverage of plans to pass legislation that will log communications data including “records of who contacted whom, when, from where, in what technical circumstances and for how long” and justification for the law.
Publications and studies
- Electronic Frontier Foundation: Human Rights and Technology Sales.
- Locating the Mobile: An Ethnographic Investigation into Locative Media in Melbourne, Bangalore and Shanghai
- Yiannis Milanos: Piracy Culture in Greece: Local Realities and Civic Potentials
- Doctor Faustus in the 21st Century: A meditation on knowledge, power, and civic intelligence
- Global Network Initiative published its 2011 Annual Report.
For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.