Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week we examine the “death” of Google Reader and its impact for countries with pervasive online censorship practices, regulatory challenges in France for Skype, and the arrests of citizens in Venezuela and Bahrain for criticizing government leaders on Twitter.
Sovereigns of Cyberspace
Google will discontinue its Google Reader RSS service this July. Users and Internet rights advocates are pushing back on this decision as Google Reader has served for years as an effective platform for circumventing censorship in several countries including Iran.
Google has agreed to settle a case with 38 US state governments that took the Internet giant to court for unlawfully collecting users’ email account data on unsecured wireless networks by way of its “Street View” vehicles. Google has promised to secure and destroy the information it has collected and will pay US$7 million to the states.
The French government is investigating whether Voice Over IP (VOIP) provider Skype should fit into the category of a “telecommunications company,” a shift that would require Skype to comply with government telecommunications regulations that affect licensing, taxation and other areas. The investigation has raised concerns that other countries will follow suit, making it easier and more common for governments around the world to force Skype to cooperate with law enforcement and other investigations.
Internet users around the world voted to elect Vietnamese blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh “Netizen of the Year.” Chenh’s blog focuses on democracy, human rights, and territorial disputes between Vietnam and China. Despite being blocked by the Vietnamese government, the site attracts an average of 15,000 visitors per day.
Iranian authorities have blocked access to the virtual private networks (VPN) many of its citizens use to get around the government’s robust Internet filtering system. The government draws a distinction between “legal” and “illegal” VPN access. “Legal” VPNs must be registered with the government and are often used for secure communications such as financial services. Many suspect VPNs have been blocked in anticipation of the country’s upcoming presidential election in June, recollecting the “Green Movement” in which citizens used social media to communicate during their protests of the 2009 elections.
A group of US-based computer scientists published a study that reveals just how quickly China’s microblogging site Sina Weibo is able to censor posts by its users. “The Velocity of Censorship: High-Fidelity Detection of Microblog Post Deletions” found that 90% of all deletions occur within 24 hours; nearly a third of these occur within 30 minutes of the post's publication. The study described a “sensitive” (dissident) user group as well as a list of frequently used keywords that are likely to attract the attention of censors. These included “Support Syrian rebels,” “Beijing rainstorms,” “human rights news,” and “group sex”.
Anti-censorship activists from around the world sent an open letter to Iceland's interior ministry, calling for the government to abort plans to ban pornography in both print and online media. Coordinated by Iceland’s International Modern Media Institute, the letter warns that the ban amounts to a breach of freedom of expression. Officials maintain that the legislation is necessary to combat sexual violence, especially against children.
Jaime González Domínguez, editor of news website Ojinaga Noticias, was killed [es] in northern Mexico's Ciudad Juarez. The Ojinaga Noticias website has since been shut down. González's death has stoked persistent fears of drug-related violence in Mexican border states, a trend that has caused newspapers in the region to censor their own coverage of organized crime to protect their journalists.
March 15 marked the one-year anniversary of the arrest of Bassel Khartabil, a Syrian web developer and open technology advocate who has remained in prison ever since. Internet rights and open technology advocates around the world continue to campaign for his release.
Trinidad and Tobago may see its first online defamation case this year. Facebook users report that Public Prosecutor Roger Gaspard cleared former Prime Minister Patrick Manning's name of “criminal misconduct” charges in the construction of a multi-million dollar church. Gaspard has said that he has not seen the comments, but claims online defamation is “actionable”.
Bahraini authorities arrested six Twitter users on the World Day Against Cyber Censorship, charging them with defaming King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa. The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights has demanded the release of the users and an end to all government restrictions on social media use in Bahrain.
State police in Venezuela detained Twitter user Lourdes Ortega for sending tweets that were deemed “destabilizing to the country” in the wake of the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
A university researcher has discovered a functionality in TOM-Skype, the voice chat service available to users in China, that surveils users that mention certain “offending” phrases including “campus upheaval,” “Reporters Without Borders,” and “Anti-Japan” in text chat.
A bill that would require government agents to obtain a judicial warrant in order to request user data from email and mobile telecommunications service providers was introduced in the US Congress. The Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act would reform the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which has been outpaced by technology and is difficult for courts, law enforcement and companies to interpret.
In the US state of California, a federal judge ruled against the use of gag orders on requests for information issued by federal law enforcement authorities. She wrote that by forcing recipients of these requests (known as National Security Letters) to remain silent when asked for sensitive information, the government “significantly infringe[s] on speech regarding controversial government powers.” Filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet rights group, the case in question involved a telecommunications company that received a National security Letter seeking information about one or multiple customers. The company challenged the underlying authority of the letter and the gag order that came with it.
Internet rights advocates continue to worry that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement may affect intellectual property online. As TPP negotiations have been carried out in secret, it is difficult to be certain of this. The Office of the US Trade Representative plans to complete TPP negotiations by fall 2014.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected Pirate Bay defendants Fredrik Neij and Peter Sunde Kolmisoppi's appeal of a Swedish court ruling against their operation of the Pirate Bay file-sharing site in Sweden. While the ECHR upheld the site's right to host copyrighted material, citing the right to free expression as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, it found that the Swedish courts had balanced the interests of freed expression and copyright protections in its ruling.
Deutsche Telekom announced the launch of its new online portal, which maps the origins of cyber attacks as they happen in real time. Drawing on data from 97 sensors known as “honeypots” to tempt attackers, the website has reported up to 450,000 attacks per day on its system alone, with Russia ranking as the top source of attacks over the past month. The project was developed in partnership with Germany's Alliance for Cybersecurity [de].
The Graduate School of University of Tsukuba in Japan is conducting a research project called VPN Gate, which aims to develop a network of Virtual Private Network servers that will offer stronger protections for users than a typical, stand along VPN. In addition obscuring a user's IP address from easy monitoring online, VPN Gate offers strong resistance to firewalls.
Associated Press Korea Bureau Chief Jean Lee gave SXSW attendees a glimpse of North Korea’s version of Facebook, which is used largely to post birthday messages.
Publications and Studies
Internet Use and Political Engagement: The Role of E-Campaigning as a Pathway to Online Political Participation – Center for the Study of Democracy
Challenged in China – Committee to Protect Journalists
You Only Click Twice: FinFisher’s Global Proliferation – University of Toronto
Access and Openness: Myanmar 2012 – Open Technology Fund
Iranian Internet Infrastructure and Policy Report – Small Media
Special Report on Internet Surveillance – Reporters Without Borders
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