#imweekly: July 29, 2013

United Kingdom
News reports and online discussions on freedom of expression have been dominated this week by Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposals to require ISP-level anti-pornography filters. Cameron’s motivations for the proposal have been questioned, especially after ISPs disclosed that the filter settings include blocks for many other kinds of online content such as social networking, gambling, file sharing, or sites concerned with drugs, alcohol and tobacco. The UK government’s reliance on the Chinese telecom firm Huawei to maintain the list of blocked  sites and the decision to turn the filter on by default, requiring users to opt-out of filtered access, has prompted strong responses from freedom of expression and privacy advocates. Adding to the controversy, hackers posted pornographic images on the website of Claire Perry, one of the architects of the ISP-level filters. Perry’s response generated more controversy when she accused the blogger who reported the hack as being responsible for the content; critics argue her responses demonstrate a poor understanding of digital technologies.

It’s been a controversial week for the Russian Internet. The country’s recent waves of violence against members of the LGBTQ community have been facilitated by social networks, which vigilantes use to identify and physically locate victims, and by the ability to share bullying videos online. The U.S. has also identified several young Russians behind top U.S. cyber thefts in the last seven years, leading to arrests and extraditions. Finally, the head of the Russian State Duma’s Committee for Family, Women, and Children has proposed modifications to Russia’s existing content rules to block bad language from social networks, websites, and forums. Earlier this year, Russia banned swearing from its media outlets and prohibited countries from making products featuring swear words. Also, today Ilya Segalovich, the co-founder of Russia’s largest search engine Yandex, has died.

Shortly after the UK announced it would be requiring ISPs to filter adult content, the Australian Christian Lobby announced it would be renewing its campaigns to block porn in Australia. In 2008 Australia attempted to pass similar porn-blocking legislation, but lack of popular support killed the proposed plan when the Coalition government refused to vote on the matter. At the same time, Australia’s Parliamentary Inquiry into the higher prices charged by IT companies selling hardware, software, and digital downloads in Australia recommended that the Australian government educate consumers in circumventing the geolocation tools used by IT companies to determine where buyers are located. The Inquiry also required testimony from representatives of Apple, Adobe, and Microsoft as to the reasons for the higher prices, but found these companies could not satisfactorily explain the reason for increasing product prices when sold to people in Australia.

United States
This week, an anonymous web developer claimed that the U.S. government is requiring companies to turn over encryption keys. The U.S. government has so far denied the claims and some companies, like Microsoft and Google, have declined to say whether the government has made any such requests, but indicate they will not comply if asked for server-to-server email encryption keys. Also, an Internet monitoring company released a study which found that Google is responsible for 25% of all Internet traffic in North America, which is more than Facebook, Netflix, and Instagram combined. This is up from 6% of Internet traffic in 2010. Finally, a Texas man was charged this week for creating an operating a Bitcoin Ponzi scheme worth approximately $65 million at today’s exchange rate. The scam involved using money from new investors to make “interest” payments to earlier ones and to cover withdrawals.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#imweekly: July 22, 2013

Southeast Asia
Tougher Internet filtering policies are being applied throughout Southeast Asia. Singapore’s government initiated new rules requiring online news websites to apply for individual licenses and put up a $50,000 bond. The move met with strong response from 150 websites that blacked out their homepages to protest in May, and from 2,000 demonstrators who took to streets in protest. Vietnam has been putting activists and dissidents in jail on specious charges. The country has detained forty-six bloggers and democracy activists so far this year – more than during the whole of 2012—amid erupting strikes and social unrest stirred by inflation, land-rights abuses, and corruption. Thailand has also clamped down on the Internet, strengthening Internet censorship: 20,978 URLs were blocked last year, compared to just 5,078 in 2011.

The Gambia House of Representatives has enacted a new law banning criticism and derogatory content towards government officials on the Internet. The Information and Communication Bill 2013 puts stringent punishments in place for those who violate the law: up to 15 years in prison, a fine of up to three million Dalasi (about 100,000 US dollars), or both. The law targets any person found to be spreading false news or derogatory statements against the government or any public officials. The bill seeks to provide deterrent punishment of people who are engaged in  campaigns against the government both in and out of the country, according to Nana Grey-Johnson, the Gambia’s Minister of Information, Communication and Information Infrastructure. Human rights groups say the new law takes the restriction of freedom of expression in the Gambia to “a shocking new level”.

Russia has been pushing new legislation that allows copyright holders to ask courts to block access to allegedly pirated content as well as hyperlinks to such content. The anti-piracy law has stirred much controversy, for it may cause Wikipedia to be blocked in the country, since Wikipedia has millions of hyperlinks to content that may or may not be authorized. If the legislation comes into force on August 1, Russian Internet users may be denied access to the whole service of Wikipedia. Wikipedia blacked out its Russian-language website in protest of the proposed law.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#imweekly: July 15, 2013

“Put only on back pages… close the comment box.” Released last month, the Directives from the Ministry of Truth series revealed a repository of more than 2,600 messages sent from government officials to website editors in China during the last decade. The collection offers a window into the mechanisms and idiosyncrasies behind China’s censorship and information filtering systems – including addressing the government’s increasingly nuanced mechanism for how, when, and where to present sensitive information, if at all. In pouring over the archive of messages, experts concluded that one of the most fundamental aims of internet censorship and filtering in China is to prevent gatherings of unauthorized groups.

Are Nigerian officials positioning themselves to heighten online surveillance in the country?  Nigeria’s Minister of the Interior recently stated the government’s intentions to monitor activity online in the name of national security. Earlier this year, The Premium Times of Nigeria reported that the government brokered a $40 million contract with an Israeli software security company to allow widespread monitoring of Nigerian’s online activities. The move was met with widespread criticism from Nigerian netizens, worried about the potential of widespread surveillance without the protection of data privacy laws legal provisions for interception. Nigeria’s lower house of parliament ordered an immediate halt to the deal.

The Kremlin is taking a step back to take a step forward – ordering nearly $15,000 worth of typewriters to skirt fears of foreign government surveillance, in light of the NSA leaks. Russian officials expressed outrage after the leaks documented surveillance of Russia’s leadership at the London G20 meetings. Officials said they were able to deal with the threat.

For protestors in Turkey – it started with police deploying tear gas and water cannons to disperse their encampments. Now, those threats are beginning to move from the physical world into the digital space, reports the EFF. Dozens of social media users have been detained since the protests began in the country, on charges ranging from false information to insulting officials. Users have also been detained for sharing images of police brutality. Meanwhile, officials are using legal controls already at their disposal to potentially tighten the flow of information in the country – one representative called on Twitter to open an office within the country, which would legally give Turkey the right to obtain user data. There is also a push to enact legislation allowing for the removal of any “fake” social media accounts.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#imweekly: May 29, 2013

The Cuban Internet has leveled up this year: in January, a long-dormant cable connection to Venezuela was activated, giving Cuba its first non-satellite connection to the global Internet. Last week, a second cable connection, this time to Jamaica, came online. The New York Times is reporting that the government is planning to open 118 new cybercafés, at which Cuban citizens will be able to go online for a fee. Until recently, Internet access in Cuba largely has been limited to access to the country’s domestic intranet or to services designed for foreigners. While the new cafés will increase availability of Internet access, the price—$4.50 per hour, in a country where salaries average around $20 per month—will likely prevent widespread use.

Google is working to build wireless networks in emerging markets in an effort to provide Internet access to a billion people who currently live entirely offline, reports the Wall Street Journal. The company has already begun a pilot project in Cape Town, South Africa, transmitting wireless broadband across “white spaces” (unused channels in the broadcast TV spectrum) via three base stations located at Stellenbosch University. Future projects in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia may use similar technology, or may involve the use of masts, satellites, or “high-altitude platforms”—blimps—to transmit signals.

Russia’s most popular social network, VKontakte, was temporarily blacklisted for several hours on May 24. Russian government officials claim the blockage was a mistake, made when an employee accidentally added the entire site, rather than a single offending page, to the country’s national blacklist. The Guardian reports that the site’s founder, Pavel Durov, has come under government scrutiny in the past for refusing to shut down groups on the site that were used to organize protests during the December 2011 parliamentary elections.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Sex, Drugs, and Political Speech in Russia

Earlier this month, Russia’s new Internet censorship bill (available in English here, translated by Google machine translation) – designed to block content “containing [child] pornography or extremist ideas, or promoting suicide or use of drugs” – went into effect. Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s media and communication monitoring ministry, will be responsible for enforcing the blacklist, which will be generated by submissions from individual users as well as three government agencies: the Interior Ministry, the Federal Antidrug Agency and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Consumer Rights and Public Welfare.

According to the new bill, after Roskomnadzor adds a website to its blacklist, the host provider of the offending site must remove the content immediately or Internet service providers (ISPs) will be instructed to block traffic to that site, or even the entire hosting provider. In protest, Russian Wikipedia blocked access to its own content for 24 hours in July, and major search engine Yandex, as well as sites like Mail.ru, Vkontakte and Livejournal, have all staged protest campaigns. Reporters Without Borders has also condemned the bill.

Online free speech scholars and activists have cited two frequent concerns about the bill. The first is that the bill’s definition of censorable content is vague, at best. What begins as the blocking of objectionable or “extremist” ideas may slowly expand, encroaching on valuable political speech. Content creators may become warier of what they post online, spurring self-censorship. And entire host providers could be blocked for one offensive piece of content – e.g., all of YouTube blocked to prevent access to the recent anti-Islam film that sparked riots this summer. (The technical solution to prevent this from occurring leads to the second concern, below.) As Russia’s Communications and Press Minister Nikolai Nikiforov wrote on Twitter in July: “The bill’s idea related to protecting children from objectionable information is right, but there are problems with the mechanisms for doing so.”

Second, the new system likely implements Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) – a form of packet filtering that that examines both the header and the actual data of the information being transmitted between the user and the Internet. Essentially, the government will be able to create a detailed log of what content any user accesses online. Rather than just block particularly offensive content, a nationwide implementation of DPI could give the government the power to monitor anyone’s online activity.

Russian netizens – among them the creators of Rublacklist.net, a site created to document each website blocked in accordance with the bill – are watching closely to see whether this new law will be applied narrowly or broadly, and how it will ultimately affect the freedom of Russia’s Internet.

Already, one suicide prevention site that has a page listing suicide methods has been blocked, as has the Russian domain (though not a parallel, internationally hosted site) for the Rylkov Foundation, which promotes drug policies based on “humanity, tolerance, protection of health, dignity and human rights” – the foundation apparently supports substitution therapy in the treatment of drug addicts.

These efforts represent a broad shift in Russia’s approach to Internet censorship. In the OpenNet Initiative’s 2010 book Access Controlled, Ron Diebert and Rafal Rohozinski described the “relative freedom” on the Russian web and noted that technical tests had found the Russian Internet “accessible and relatively free from filtering.” Compared to the technical filtering found in China, Russia’s “control strategies tend to be more subtle and sophisticated and designed to shape and affect when and how information is received by users, rather than denying access outright.”

Russia’s new law runs parallel to efforts in a number of countries around the world to require ISPs to invest in filtering technology, such as South Korea’s practices of arbitrarily requesting ISPs to block information the government wants to suppress. Even in the United States, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), if enacted, would have required ISPs to block access to sites after a court order.

Rublacklist.net has put together a collection of ways to circumvent the black list. As in China and elsewhere, it seems probable that an escalating cat-and-mouse game will develop. For now, important questions about who decides what is filtered and how transparent and accountable the system will be remain up in the air.