Cyber-censorship in 2012 overview
Key events in Internet censorship and surveillance in 2012 and first two months of 2013
Internet governance and net neutrality
UN Recognition of the right to freedom of expression on the Internet
The United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed the right to freedom of expression on the Internet for the first time in a resolution on 5 July 2012, taking the position that "the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online (...) regardless of frontiers and through any media." The resolution called on all countries "to promote and facilitate access to the Internet and international cooperation aimed at the development of media and information and communications facilities in all countries."
World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT)
Different visions of Internet governance and, indirectly, the future of online news and information competed and clashed at the World Conference on International Telecommunications, which the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) staged in Dubai in December 2012. At the end of the conference, fewer than half of the ITU’s member countries (89 out of 193) signed a new treaty revising the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR).
A coalition of 55 countries, including the United States and European Union countries, refused to sign it on the grounds that some of its provisions on spam management and Internet security, and a separate text that was adopted in a chaotic manner, Internet Resolution PLEN/3, would be used by countries that traditionally control the Internet to justify their censorship, filtering and blocking. The lack of civil society participation and procedural transparency was strongly criticized by many NGOs, with support from UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and Opinion Frank La Rue.
The Dubai summit should have been used to defend the Internet as a place of freedom, as a place for the free exchange of views and information. But instead it highlighted the fight between different countries for influence over the Internet. More information: Centre for Technology and Democracy and an analysis of the new ITR by Access.
EU rejects Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement
On 4 July 2012, the European Parliament rejected the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which threatened fundamental online freedoms including access, freedom of information, Net Neutrality, innovation, and the sharing of free technology. Its rejection was a victory for citizen campaigning, which was mobilized by advocacy groups such as La Quadrature du Net and Panoptikon.
Netherlands and Slovenia back Net Neutrality, Brazil drags its feet
In December 2012, Slovenia followed Netherlands and Chile in adopting a law that enshrines Net Neutrality and prohibits Internet Service Providers from discriminating against any kind of online traffic.
But adoption of a proposed Internet “Civil Framework” law continues to be postponed in Brazil because of pressure from the film and music industries. Widely supported by Brazilian civil society, which regards it as a model law, the so-called “Marco Civil” would define the rights and responsibilities of the state, Internet Service Providers (and other technical intermediaries) and Internet users as regards Internet usage, copyright and personal data protection, while safeguarding Net Neutrality, privacy and the free flow of information online.
Filtering violates fundamental rights
In a decision against Turkey on 18 December 2012, the European Court of Human Rights ruled for the first time that blocking a website violated article 10 (on freedom of expression) of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Strasbourg-based court said: “The Internet has now become one of the main means for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of expression and information; it offers essential tools for participating in activities and debates on political matters and issues of public interest.” The Court of Justice of the European Union already ruled on 24 November 2011 that generalized content filtering violates fundamental rights.
Internet companies stress transparency
The latest issue of Google’s “Transparency Report,” released in November 2012, points to a big increase in government surveillance. Google said government requests for user data had risen steadily since the publication of its first Transparency Report. In June 2012, Google voiced concern about an increase in requests for the removal of pages with political content. The country by country evolution of user data requests can be seen here and removal requests can be seen here.
Google’s transparency initiative has been adopted by others. Twitter launched its own transparency report in July 2012. It focuses on user data requests by governments (the United States made the most requests) and on content removal requests by governments or copyright holders. Twitter has also undertaken to leave a “Tweet withheld” message whenever a Tweet is removed in response to a complaint from a copyright holder and to send a copy of each takedown notice to the Chilling Effects website.
More surveillance to ensure cyber-security?
Repressive legislative initiatives by authoritarian regimes have been compounded by parallel initiatives in countries that claim to be democratic and to respect individual freedoms. The latter are all the more disturbing as they provide authoritarian regimes with justification for their own initiatives.
The British Communications Data Bill will have to be revised after Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced in December 2012 that he would block it. The version of the bill that was published in the spring of 2012 would give the police and intelligence services extensive access to phone records, emails and Internet browsing history on the grounds of the need to combat terrorism and other serious crimes.
Opponents of the proposed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011 (CISPA) say it will allow privacy to be violated in order to protect cyber-security. Although it seemed to have broad support in the US Congress, it caused such an outcry that substantial revisions were made to increase protection for privacy, the White House threatened a veto and a sizeable number of representatives ended up voting against it. A new version of CISPA was resubmitted in January 2013 and could come before Congress as early as April 2013.
Claiming that anonymization tools such as Tor are hampering the work of tracking down cyber-criminals and pedophiles, the Dutch government has been pressuring legislators to pass a law that will reinforce police cyber-surveillance powers regardless of whether the target computer is located in the Netherlands or abroad. The proposed law would allow the police to remotely search computers, install spyware and delete illegal content without having to submit a legal assistance request to the country concerned if the target computer is located abroad. Read the Electronic Frontier Foundation analysis.
The supreme court of the Philippines voted unanimously on 9 October 2012 to stay implementation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act 2012 (Republic Act No, 10175) after receiving more than a dozen petitions asking it to rule on the law’s constitutionality. Reporters Without Borders calls for its repeal because its attempt to combat cyber-crime poses a major threat to freedom of information. Online defamation was added to the law’s list of “cyber-crimes” at the last minute, before adoption.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) has criticized a government attempt to regulate and control online publications in the form of a so-called E-Bill that would force online publication editors to publish their names, addresses and phone numbers and would create a cyber-police with the job of monitoring the Internet for illegal activity.
A proposed cyber-crime law is likely to restrict online freedom. On the initiative of the NGO Access, university academics and civil society representatives have written an open letter to parliament criticizing the bill.
In January 2012, the Iraqi parliament repealed a cyber-crime law that was criticized for its overly broad definition of the crimes it intended to punish (for example, “violating religious, moral and social principles”) and for draconian penalties that included life imprisonment for using a computer to besmirch the country’s reputation. Read the Access Now analysis.
Protecting minors, the perfect pretext
In the name of “protecting minors,” a federal government agency began on 1 November 2012 to compile a blacklist of “harmful” websites liable to be blocked without reference to a court and without any right of defence. The vague and broad definition of the targeted content (pornography, extremism, defending suicide, encouraging drug use and so on) and the supervisory body’s lack of independence open the way to overblocking. Age category labelling – “banned for minors under the age of” 6, 12, 16 or 18 – was also imposed on all news websites. A bill banning online censorship circumvention tools has also been submitted to a Duma committee.
Draft Federal Law C-30, also known as the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act, which the public safety ministry submitted to parliament on 14 February 2012, would place Internet users under close surveillance. It would allow the police to request phone records without first seeking a court warrant. Internet Service Providers and mobile phone operators could be forced to install surveillance devices and record subscribers’ communications. The police could also, without a court warrant, install a device that could capture the IP address of any device connected to the Internet.
Copyright v. online freedom of expression
The proposed "Stop Online Piracy Act" (SOPA) and "Protect IP Act" (PIPA) elicited a great deal of domestic and international criticism of the danger of unprecedented Internet censorship. Their opponents said they would prejudice countless Internet users who had never violated intellectual property by forcing websites to block access to other sites accused of vaguely defined copyright violations. The bills were finally shelved, but for how long?
In September 2012, parliament passed Law 510, which restricts freedom of expression and access to online information and creates a General Directorate for Copyright with the task of tracking down violators and imposing heavy fines on them without reference to a court. NGOs and civil society representatives wrote an open letter to President Ricardo Martinelli urging him not to sign what they called the “worst copyright protection law in history.” Read comments by netizens on Global Voices.
Other disturbing legislation
In Malaysia, an amendment to the 1950 Evidence Act makes Internet service operators automatically liable for any posted content or content transiting through their services that is deemed to be defamatory. Owners and managers of Internet cafés and blog platforms are among those affected by this presumption of guilt. The Centre for Independent Journalism organized an online protest against the amendment.
Censorship of the anti-Islamic video “Innocence of Muslims” inflicted major collateral damage on access to online information. The filtering and blocking measures ordered in many countries often resulted in suspension of access to YouTube and in some cases, all communications. Whether as a result of court or administrative decisions, the video has probably been blocked in more countries than almost any other piece of online content ever. The countries that blocked it include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India and Bahrain.
China : race against the clock
China’s censors had their hands full in recent months trying to block the online dissemination of sensitive stories, including:
- The New York Times story on Wen Jiaobo’s fortune
- Opposition to censorship of a New Year editorial in the newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo that called for constitutional reforms in China
- The many cases of self-immolation in Tibet
- Criticism of the government’s handling of flooding in the summer of 2012.
Censorship was intensified in the run-up to the Communist Party Congress that appointed a new generation of rulers and put Xi Jinping in charge.
Online censorship gaining ground in Central Asia
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have long been classified as “Enemies of the Internet” but cyber-censorship is now becoming more widespread in Central Asia.
In 2012, there were several waves of blocking of leading news websites such as Asia Plus, RIA-Novosti, Lenta.ru, Fergananews.com, Centrasia.ru, and the BBC, as well as YouTube and Facebook. The National Telecommunications Agency is now in the habit of issuing orders to Internet Service Providers to block access to any sensitive content such as news analyses questioning the government’s stability, reports of armed clashes or criticism of the president on social networks.
Sham legal proceedings were used in December 2012 to ban Kazakhstan’s leading opposition media on the grounds of alleged “extremism.” This resulted in the blocking of all websites carrying the online versions of the newspaper Vzglyad and the Respublika network of newspapers, as well as their social network accounts. The online TV station K+ and the news portal Stan.tv were also blocked.
In India, censorship to suppress rumours?
In an attempt to halt violent inter-ethnic unrest, the Indian authorities ordered Internet Service Providers to block access to more than 300 pieces of online content in August 2012. Some did encourage violence by relaying baseless rumours, but others, such as content on the websites of AFP, Al-Jazeera and the Australian TV station ABC, just consisted of straightforward news photos or news stories. See the list of blocked content published by the Centre for Internet and Society.
Pakistani electronic Great Wall – fact or fiction?
Plans for a national Internet filtering and blocking system intended to block access to millions of “undesirable” websites using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) were revealed in early 2012. The Daily Times reported that the National ICT Research and Development Fund, an offshoot of the information technology ministry, issued an invitation to submit bids for the creation of the system, expected to cost 10 million dollars, and that several international companies responded. A petition was launched urging companies not to respond. Statements by officials opposing the project were subsequently reported by the media. Pakistan civil society remains vigilant.
Restricted access ?
Two billion people worldwide now have Internet access but, for a third of them, access is limited by government censorship, filtering and surveillance. Infrastructural development problems and purely political considerations sometimes limit expansion of access.
National Internet in Iran
In September 2012, the government accelerated the creation of a national Internet with a high connection speed but entirely monitored and censored. The grounds cited for speeding up implementation was a wave of cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear installations. All Iranian websites are eventually supposed to be hosted on local servers. Applications and services such as email, search engines and social networks are to be developed under government control. So far only government offices are connected to this national Internet, but it is feared that eventually all Iranian citizens will have no choice but to follow suit. (See the Iran chapter of “State enemies”.)
Frequent Internet cuts in Syria
Internet and telephone are often deliberately cut in targeted locations, in addition to cuts due to power blackouts. Syria was completely disconnected from the Internet for about two days at the end of November 2012, at a time when the regime was accused of planning a nationwide massacre.
High-speed fibre-optic broadband finally in Cuba?
Completed in 2011, the submarine fibre-optic broadband cable from Venezuela to Cuba was finally put into service in August 2012, the network specialist company Renesys reports. ButGlobal Voices quoted the government daily Granma as saying that, although the test phase has been completed, Cubans should not expect a dramatic increase in the availability of Internet access in the short term. Until then, Cuba was using very limited satellite connections to access the international Internet (see the Cuban chapter of the 2012 Enemies of the Internet report).
At the behest of the government of India’s northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, telephone operators suspended service in the Kashmir Valley last August, on the anniversary of India’s independence, which is always a sensitive time.
In Pakistan, mobile phone networks were temporarily disconnected in the southwestern province of Balochistan on the anniversary of the country’s independence in August 2012.
A total of 47 netizens and citizen-journalists were killed in 2012, most of them in Syria. They act as reporters, photographers and video-cameramen, documenting their daily lives and the government’s violent crackdown. Without them, the Syrian government would be able to impose a complete news blackout in some regions and carry out massacres undetected.
In Iran, the blogger Sattar Beheshti died in unknown circumstances following his arrest on 31 October 2012. The available information suggests that he died from blows received during interrogation. No one has been arrested for his death.
In Bangladesh, the blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death near his home in the capital, Dhaka, on 15 February 2013.
In Pakistan, the 14-year-old blogger Malala Yousufzai only narrowly survived being shot in the head by Taliban gunmen on 9 October 2012.
About 180 netizens are currently detained in connection with their provision of news and information. The world’s five biggest prisons for netizens are China (with 69 detained), Oman (32), Vietnam (31), Iran (20) and Syria (18).
Mass arrests and raids on news outlets have taken place not only in Syria but also in the Sultanate of Oman and in Iran, on “Black Sunday”. In Sri Lanka, nine employees of the online newspaper Sri Lanka Mirror were arrested in a raid in July 2012.
Vietnam continues to arrest netizens and give them long prison sentences. The well-known blogger Dieu Cay got 12 years. In China, Tibetan monks are jailed for trying to inform the outside world about the many cases of self-immolation. Azerbaijan goes after bloggers who stray from the official line.
The conditions in which netizens are imprisoned are often appalling and mistreatment is frequent. Some detainees, especially in Iran, are denied the medical treatment they need and risk dying in detention.
Threats and violence
Nineteen bloggers were openly threatened on Islamist websites and at demonstrations in Bangladesh in February 2013 in connection with the trial of several former leaders of Islamist parties including Jaamat-e-Islami on war crimes charges.
The “Courage for Tamaulipas” Facebook page, which covers organized crime violence in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, angered drug traffickers, who are offering 600,000 pesos ($46,000) to anyone who could identify the page’s editor or the editor’s family.
Ruy Salgado, a Mexican blogger who ran El Santuario, a website famous for its coverage of corruption, gave up his online activities because of the threats he was getting.
The families of netizens, especially those who are detained, are often subject to harassment, pressure and threats. This is the case in Iran, especially for the families of Iranian journalists and bloggers who are based abroad, and in Vietnam.
Imprisoned Vietnamese blogger Ta Phong Tan, the creator of the “Justice and Truth” blog, suffered a additional blow last July when her mother took her own life by setting herself on fire outside the headquarters of the People’s Committee in Bac Lieu, Tan’s home province, in an act of despair about the way Tan was being treated. Tan is now serving a 10-year jail sentence.
Trial of WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning
US Army Private Bradley Manning confessed before a court martial on 28 February 2013 that he passed military and diplomatic files to WikiLeaks, including US embassy cables, the files of Guantanamo detainees and videos of air strikes in which civilians were killed, in particular the “Collateral Murder” video that showed a US helicopter crew killing Reuters journalists.
He said his motive was to enlighten the public about what goes on and to “spark a debate about foreign policy.” He explained that he initially tried to give the files to the New York Times andWashington Post but could not find anyone who seemed interested. He also claimed that he chose the material with care in order to ensure that it would not cause any harm.
Manning is facing up to 20 years in prison. Many NGOs have criticized the conditions in which he was being held as humiliating.
DataCell, a company that collected donations for WikiLeaks, meanwhile complained to the European Commission about Visa Europe, MasterCard Europe and American Express after they stopped processing donations for WikiLeaks in December 2010. In a preliminary decision in November 2012, the commission said a block on processing donations for his organisation by credit card companies was unlikely to have violated EU anti-trust rules.
Netizens fight back
In the face of offensives by governments and interests groups seeking to control the Internet, netizens and online news providers have sought to organize, campaign and resist with varying degrees of success.
The most noteworthy initiatives of recent months include:
- The phenomenon of Internet memes, content that passes rapidly from person to person online, going “viral” and often evolving in the process, in a form of spontaneous online popular culture. They typically use humour and Photoshop editing to make fun of social or political issues and, in countries such as China, to evade filtering by censors. Chinese examples include Grass Mud Horse, which uses wordplay in a popular song to mock censorship, and the artist Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds.
- The online resistance to censorship of the Chinese newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo’s New Year editorial calling for constitutional reforms.
- The role played by WCITLeaks in promoting transparency during the negotiations over a new International Telecommunication Union treaty at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in December 2012.
- The campaign by the French advocacy group La Quadrature du Net against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).
- The first Stop Cyber Spying campaign, a week of online protest in the United States against the proposed Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011 (CISPA), and the new Stop Cyber Spying campaign in response to the proposed Cybersecurity Act of 2012 (CSA).
- The Save Your Voice campaign by civil society and Internet users in India to demand repeal of the IT Rules, legislation that limits online freedom of expression. Two cyber-activists even went on hunger strike.
- The blackout of 500 websites in Jordan on 29 August 2012 to protest (#BlackoutJO and #FreeNetJO) against repressive amendments to the press and publications law.
- The Stop Online Spying campaign that the Canadian advocacy group Open Media launched last September with a petition against the C-30 bill.
- The campaign for Internet freedom in Azerbaijan waged by the ExpressionOnline coalition and other groups during the Internet Governance Forum in Baku in November 2012.
- The Rublacklist, created by the Russian Pirate Party in response to Internet filtering. The group keeps a close watch on blocking, offers online censorship circumvention tools and provides mirror sites and hosting solutions for sites that have been blocked unjustly.
Send us information about the campaigns to defend online freedom of expression and information that have impressed you most.