ICANN’s New Domains Mean New Internet Freedom Concerns

Proposals within ICANN on how to manage new generic top-level domains are drawing concerns on privacy and free expression. Image credit Charles Mok via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

When supporters of a group of right wing Colombian militants didn’t like a website that criticized their activities in 2001, they sent a threat to the home address of activist Anriette Esterhuysen, using the public Whois database that compiles the name, address, email and phone number of everyone with registered to manage a domain name for a website. This particular website was hosted by a member of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) advocacy group, and had a domain name ending with APC.org.

“Because my home address was listed on the home address for http://www.APC.org, I got a letter saying ‘I know where you live, I know where your house is, and I’m going to come and kill you and your family,’” said Esterhuysen, executive director of the APC. “Prior to that it never really occurred to me about the risks surrounding Whois.”

One organization decides what information goes into that global Whois database: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a San Diego-based non-profit that coordinates the global system of web addresses known as the domain name system, or as techies call it, “the DNS.” As the divide between our physical lives and our online activity shrinks everyday, and as the world’s dependence on the Internet grows, ICANN is expanding the global DNS and revising some of its underlying rules governing who is allowed to own what domain names under what conditions, and what is known about website owners by whom.

At such a critical time in the Internet’s development it is vitally important that Internet users’ privacy and free expression rights not be overshadowed by other considerations that serve corporate and government interests.

The DNS is the digital directory that tells your computer where to go when you type in address such as “slate.com” – and makes sure that computers all over the world end up in the same place when they type in the same address. The Whois database was created by ICANN to publicly keep track of what website names are registered to whom worldwide. That Whois information can make free speech on a website very dangerous for domain name holders such as Esterhuysen, members of minorities, political activists, religious communities and for anybody seeking to protect their right to political anonymity or keep their email off a spammer’s target list.

Formed in 1998 with the blessing of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which controls the root servers for the DNS, ICANN’s rules and policies are developed by a multi-layered system of committees and councils who debate rules governing not only who gets to own a domain name, but also the technical use of domains, and what names are trademarked and off limits for new applicants.

ICANN’s policy-making model is described as “multi-stakeholder”: committees and councils represent diverse sectors, including governments, corporations, technologists and noncommercial representatives such as civil society groups interested in human rights. However this system is far from perfect because Western governments and corporate lawyers have a large stake in the organization’s foundation and still exert the most influence. Intellectual property interests assign full-time staff to ICANN committees, while non-profit civil society groups representing non-commercial interests generally rely on volunteers to travel the world for agency meetings, although few can afford the travel costs.

While ICANN’s system needs a lot of work to make sure that all “stakeholders” have an equal voice, the alternatives are much worse. Imagine if the Internet were regulated only by governments, in a system where they did not share information about meetings or give a vote to business and human rights communities. That is the possible alternative to ICANN that could emerge out of the December World Conference on Telecommunications [WCIT], when 193 Member States of the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) will gather in Dubai to discuss whether, and how, to regulate the Internet.

The ITU currently regulates telephones and satellite orbits, and gives every Member State one vote. As it prepares for the WCIT the United Nations group has been criticized by non-governmental organizations, human rights groups, companies, and many Western governments for sharing little of its plans. However leaked memos on a site called WCITLeaks.org revealed some proposals by nations such as Russia and China that press for the group to assume regulatory powers over the Internet. If such recommendations were approved then repressive nations could use the ITU to expand their control over networks to advance their surveillance and censorship agendas.

While the ICANN system is more inclusive and transparent than a UN-controlled Internet governance system would be, governments can still exert influence that could endanger privacy rights. Trademark interests such as the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and law enforcement agencies backed by government representatives within ICANN are pushing to tighten accuracy checks of the Whois database by amending a document called the Registrar Accreditation Agreement (RAA), which a company must sign if it wants to become a domain name “registrar:” an organization like GoDaddy or BlueHost that sells domain names. The requested amendments, available here, call for domain registrars to retain user data for two years, and to cancel the domain names if the registered user does not promptly verify their account information every year by phone and email.

However public interest advocates argue that if ICANN decides to make Whois verification more “accurate,” it would not only put a user’s privacy at risk but could also be very costly to implement and enforce, said Milton Mueller, currently a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies.

“The new costs would fall on registrars and end users, not the trademark owners and law enforcement agencies who want it,” said Mueller, whose writings about ICANN’s governance structure include the books “Ruling the Root” and “Networks and States.”

Other criticism of the potential misuse of the Whois database came from the Article 29 Working Party of the European Union, which wrote to ICANN calling proposals for stricter identification of domain name registration on Whois “excessive and therefore unlawful.”

Decisions on the Whois changes championed by governments and law enforcement agencies could be ready in time for ICANN’s next meeting in Toronto in October, when Lebanese-born Fadi Chehade will join the organization as its new chief executive officer, with interim CEO Akram Atallah serving as chief operating officer. While recognizing concerns from non-commercial groups that they have less decision-making influence, Atallah said he was confident civil liberties advocates have the same chance to voice concerns in ICANN as law enforcement and trademark lawyers.

“It’s important for you realize that the fact that you’re hearing about these things means the ICANN multi-stakeholder model is working,” Atallah said. “If you say [Internet governance] is only about government then you are forgetting about a lot of other interests. If you say it’s only civil society then you are forgetting about business interests.”

If users want to apply for a domain name privately they can pay a domain registrar to enter that company’s information on the Whois registry instead of a user’s personal data. But that information could still be made accessible to groups such as government entities depending on that company’s terms of service.

“The Whois is a big issue that we are looking at from all sides, and we are trying to work with some of the entities that can represent civil liberties,” Atallah said. “At the end of the day the process involves everybody, and it’s not limited to the law enforcement.”

New demands for increased identification come in part because of the expansion of generic top-level domains (gTLDs). Approximately 1,930 applicants are seeking rights to new domains, and up to 1,000 gTLDs could be approved early as March 2013, Atallah said.  It would be up to individual gTLD operators to determine how quickly new domains would be available on the market.

Web searches will be redefined forever soon as .com websites will be joined by proposed gTLDs such as “.book” and “.click.” Small businesses could launch with new domains such as “buynewwriters.book” and artists could compete with larger websites such as YouTube with domains such as “awesomevideos.click.”

The creation of all that digital real estate puts pressure on ICANN to respect free expression by giving the owners of new domains a chance to defend their claim against a trademark infringement challenge that could take away their website address. Trademark interests fought against expanding gTLDs for years because it could dilute the uniqueness of their catchy trademarked domain names with new websites that sound similar- or better.

Companies often file intellectual property complaints, using challenges including claims that a newer website is “confusingly similar” to theirs. For instance, Google used that case in a failed challenge to remove an existing user’s claim to www.oogle.com. Seeking to avoid other similar-sounding domain names and lay claim to other domains, Google applied for the rights to 101 new gTLDs , including “.google,” “.soy” and “.lol.”

This unprecedented growth of the domain name system poses risks for privacy and free expression in separate but related ways. Along with the privacy concerns related to expanding Whois that could give governments another resource to gather data about cybercrime and on “persons of interest,” more rigorous identification of domain name holders on Whois could speed up trademark infringement disputes and make defending against challenges more difficult.

Some of the more creative new gTLDs proposed such as .gripe and .gay could grow into a new social network for lifestyles and opinions, but could also upend trademark enforcement as we know it and put ICANN’s free expression commitment to the test, Mueller said.

“For example, a proposed ‘.sucks’ domain would be interesting, it touches on one of the longstanding sore points of the trademark owners,” Mueller said. “It would allow legitimately registered domains to be used for criticism or ‘.gripe sites’– and this domain has been targeted by trademark owners even though the law makes it clear that domain names are a form of expression and that a legitimate noncommercial gripe site has the right to use the name of the company it is griping about in the domain.”

While WIPO and law enforcement agencies push for stricter identification on WhoIs to speed up trademark disputes, negotiations on Whois requirements include how much information is needed for user verification. Chief issues concerned with privacy on Whois include specifying what kind of data is retained in Whois records and whether home addresses or phone numbers are needed when emails might suffice, said Kathy Kleiman, an Internet lawyer at the communications law firm of Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth. Negotiating a verification response time long enough for users to assert their domain ownership would also protect free expression rights.

“Your email could get lost, you might not speak English and you might need a translator or a lawyer to respond effectively,” said Kleiman, who was a member of the group of people that founded ICANN in 1998.

Serving as the vice chair of ICANN’s Whois Policy Review Team, Kleiman helped issue a final report in May with recommendations on how Whois data should be shared and when requests for personal data should be relayed to a user.

“Overall, our goal on the Whois Review Team was contactibility – that the domain name registrant should be contactable by email or telephone, their choice,” Kleiman said. “There is no reason you have to reveal my home address when someone wants to buy a domain name. Feel free to relay all that information to me.”

As ICANN plans an unprecedented expansion of the Web, Atallah said the group is aiming to be more inclusive of its stakeholders by reaching out to areas of the developing world such as Africa. October’s meeting in Toronto will announce a new campaign for outreach in Africa, a continent that only filed 17 requests for gTLDs out of the 1,930 applicants, Atallah said.

“I think within the ICANN system it’s not how much you are represented as much as how vocal are you. If you do the work and you present your case and you participate in the forums and everything, you will be heard.” Atallah said. “Our hope is that ICANN will be an international organization that will serve the needs of all the countries equally, and more importantly will serve every stakeholder equally.”

For that hope to succeed ICANN will have to expand the advantage it has over the ITU by restructuring to involve more non-commercial groups and human rights advocates, said Alex Gakuru, who represents Africa on the Non-Commercial Users Constituency group of ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization. Developing nations with less business representation than Western countries at the nonprofit also need a greater voice, or Gakuru said politicians in Africa might favor the ITU, which would give one vote each to small nations and tech superpowers such as the United States.

“Increasingly, civil society is not being treated as an equal partner in ICANN, not being given an equal seat at the decision-making table because of the heavy commercialization of the multi-stakeholder model’s policy making,” Gakuru said. “Both models have their shortcomings, but ITU is worse. We need a new, third model with open access where people meet as equal partners.”

With most of the Internet’s growth now taking place in the developing world, finding a way to make sure that the rights and interests of all stakeholders are taken into account will not be easy. The United Nations is not the place to govern the Internet. Yet it is unclear whether ICANN can evolve in a way that is acceptable to all stakeholders, or whether a new organization will ultimately be necessary.

Google Will Censor Film After Russia Threatened YouTube Ban


Russia’s new blacklist law threatens widespread censorship. Image credit ~si via Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Google said it would obey a pending court order to censor access in Russia to a controversial anti-Islamic film clip posted on YouTube, after Russian politicians threatened to completely block access to the website using a new media blacklist law (ru).

Internet service providers in Chechnya, where there is a large Muslim population, blocked access to YouTube in response to the controversial film clip of “Innocence of Muslims.” A court reviewing the legality of the block ruled the film was extremist, which under Russian law could potentially extend the ban nationwide. For updates, check Google’s Russian Office blog.

The ban was upheld because the film could cause destabilization of the political situation in the region with a significant Muslim population, stated Murat Tagiyev, Chechnya’s Minister of National Policy, Press and Information.

“The film tells the story of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions in a distorted and insulting manner,” said Tagiyev. “Therefore, we turned to the Leninsky district court to recognize this movie as extremist with the potential for inflaming sectarian and ethnic hatred on religious grounds.”

Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov had threatened to shut down YouTube if the anti-Islam film were not censored in Russia. Nikiforv advocated using the law passed in July with its stated intent to protect against child pornography and censor content deemed inappropriate for children.

This proposal to block YouTube was the most dramatic test of the nation’s new law, which takes effect on Nov. 1. Senator Ruslan Gattarov of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party also called for censorship of the film, according to Voice of America.

“Content that is insulting to the people, of low quality, that is simply gaudy and which may be considered similar to pedophilia, should not be present on the Web, let alone on such big portals as YouTube,” he said.

Free speech advocates are concerned that use of the new law might become an extension of President Vladimir Putin’s recent crackdown against government critics using means that include restrictions on Internet freedom.

A ban on YouTube would severely damage free expression in Russia, where media is very influenced by the government. Another video website, Ustream has been an incredibly useful tool for Russian activists to spread information about protests, for instance. Websites hosting content criticizing the government are already hit with distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks that slow access to keep people from using them.

The law could be a tool to block websites of activists or independent media that are interpreted to be linked with content such as child pornography, drugs, instructions about suicide or other information affecting health and development of children.

Targets of the censorship under the law intended to protect children include children’s cartoons such as Soviet-era “Tom and Jerry” analogue “Nu, Pogodi,” or even “The Simpsons,” because they were deemed too violent.

In the Freedom on the Net 2012 report released last week by free speech advocacy group Freedom House, Russia was listed as among the nations considered “particularly vulnerable to deterioration in the coming months.”

For background on nations where Google censored the video or where governments blocked YouTube, see the Netizen Report: You Tube Edition

Access to YouTube was limited on Sept. 27 in the North Caucuses region, after protests against the film were reported in the region and in Ukraine’s Crimea republic.

Russian telecom Rostelecom also blocked YouTube access temporarily to the Omsk region, which includes Siberia, which the company claimed was because illegal content had been posted on YouTube. The prosecutor’s office for the Omsk region urged Rostelecom to block the anti-Islam film, in a statement which was published on the telecom’s website signed by the acting Omsk region prosecutor stating “free access to (YouTube) may result in the dissemination of extremist ideas in the region, as well as extremist crimes.”

Netizen Report: Halal-net Edition

Originally published on Sept. 28, 2012, on Global Voices Advocacy

Image via Flickr user ix4svs (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Most of this report was researched, written, and edited by Tom Risen,Weiping Li, Renata Avila, Rayna St, Sarah Myers and Rebecca MacKinnon.

After years of planning Iran appears to have laid the foundations for anational Internet network, separate from the global Internet, according to the U.S.-based researcher Collin Anderson who is preparing to release a report on his findings in the near future. Anderson has previously unearthed evidence of Iranian government plans to build what some officials have previously described as a “halal” or “clean” Internet. Based on news reportsabout Anderson’s research, groups such as the U.S.-based Human Rights First warned last week that Iran may have taken “one more step towards fragmented access to information.” According to Anderson, the national service relies on components sold by China-based telecommunications company Huawei.

Some are speculating about the nature of the network: whether it will be completely disconnected from the global Internet, or whether it will instead emulate China’s Great Firewall which blocks access to many outside websites while enabling Chinese Internet users to communicate with the rest of the world. Your Middle East quoted Mohammad Soleimani, former Minister of Communication and Information Technology and now head of a parliamentary communication committee, who said the new network “will not cut access to the Internet…because it would amount to imposing sanctions on ourselves, which would not be logical. However, filtering will remain in place.”

Reporters Without Borders reports that government offices and civil service departments throughout the country were supposed to be connected to the new national network on September 22. The actual launch of the network is still pending. Meanwhile, Iran has banned Gmail and to a lesser degree Google search, which officials said was to protest the anti-Islam filmInnocence of Muslims. Earlier this month Iran launched a national email service, Iran.ir, which requires extensive information about the user’s identity to join.


The controversial film, Innocence of Muslims, continues to be used as an excuse by governments to block access to YouTube. Among the countries that have blocked YouTube pages are BangladeshKyrgyzstan, andAfghanistan. Some Chechen Internet service providers have also blocked access to YouTube, but a court will now determine whether the move was legal. The case is testing the implementation of a new law in Russia to censor websites the government finds disagreeable or indecent. Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov has threatened to shut down YouTube nationwide using the law.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Superior Court Judge Luis Lanvin denied a request to remove the controversial video from YouTube. The request was made by Cindy Lee Garcia, who acted in the film and claimed she was misinformed and misled about its actual content. YouTube itself blocked access to the film in Egypt, Libya, India and elsewhere.

As Myanmar loosens censorship, government officials and journalists have started talking about the way forward. One journalist from International Herald Tribune had the chance to meet his former censor and speak about the censorship process in Myanmar.

Jordan’s King Abdullah endorsed a new media law which requires “electronic publications” to be licensed by the government. Critics say it could restrict freedom of expression.

The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) blocked some websites within its offices, including those of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy and Technology, and American Civil Liberties Union because the locations were dubbed “political” or “activist,” but then stopped filtering after the news spread and provoked criticism.


Syrian citizen journalist Abdel Karim al-Oqda, who used the pseudonym Abu Hassan to report from Hama, Syria, was burned to death after regime forces targeted his home.

Famous United Arab Emirates (UAE) blogger and political activist Ahmed Mansoor was beaten by an unidentified man at the university where he studies law.

Three founding members of Vietnam’s Free Journalists’ Club, a group of citizen journalists who advocate free speech and independent journalism, have been sentenced to jail for distributing “anti-state propaganda.”

In China, the famous Internet writer and former journalism professor Jiao Guobiao has been detained by Beijing’s public security bureau for “inciting subversion of state power” after he published articles on the Diaoyu Islands (known as “Senkaku” in Japan) territory dispute between China, Taiwan and Japan.


After recent violence in Assam, the Indian government is planning to set up a dedicated surveillance agency to monitor the Internet for false rumors and malicious content and warn national security agencies beforehand so that preventive measures can be adopted.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke publicly against the sale of spying technology to repressive regimes. Several European political figures such as French Secretary of State for the Digital Economy, members of the Dutch Green Party and the EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda have also expressed their concern over European technology corporations selling spyware to authoritarian countries.

In New Zealand, the Prime Minister John Key has asked the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security to investigate a case in which New Zealand’s intelligence agency helped the US government to illegally spy on Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom and other people involved in this case.


The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has proposed changes to theChildren’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) which could raise legal risks to plugin program developers and website operators. According to the proposals, plugin developers could face legal liability for collecting childrens’ information if they receive IP addresses from plugins installed on childrens’ websites; another proposal seeks to expand the definition of sites “directed to children.”

The latest Facebook audit review by the Irish Data Protection Commissionershows that Facebook has decided to turn off its controversial facial recognition feature and related data in Europe on October 15. The decision applies to the “tag suggestion” feature which automatically tag names on faces in the pictures when users upload photos to Facebook.

The browser feature “Do Not Track”, which prevents advertisers from tracking users’ online activities, has been added to several browsers such as Firefox, Internet Explorer, Apple Safari, Opera. Google has also promised to add this function by the end of this year. Here is a guide on how to enable “Do Not track” in various browsers.

The “cryptoparty” concept has spread from Australian cities such asMelbourne to international locations such as London, as people aware of privacy issues are getting together to learn about anonymity techniques and how to protect their right to privacy.


According to a recently unsealed court document in a computer fraud case that Microsoft has filed against Chinese Web domain 3322.org, some new computers had malware installed and were ready to attack websites from the moment they’re turned on. The malware may come from counterfeit software which some Chinese computer manufacturers had used to save costs.

To cope with the security breach dubbed “CRIME” (Compression Ratio Info-leak Made Easy), which targets HTTP sessions, researchers have suggestedthat website operators should turn off a bandwidth-saving compression feature.

Security researcher Chris Soghoian recently discovered that a company calledPacket Forensics is developing equipment that could intercept secure communications by using forged website security certificates without breaking encryption, and then marketing the equipment to law enforcement agencies. The boxes would have to be connected to an Internet service provider by a law enforcement agency and then persuade a Certificate Authority such as Verisign to collaborate.

National Policy

The Director of Public Prosecutions in the UK plans to issue guidelines to help prosecutors decide whether to press charges in cases involving social media. The agency has announced they will start public consultation procedures.

A leaked document of the European Commission-funded “Clean IT” project, which aims to combat online terrorist content by encouraging cooperation between governments and Internet companies, has revealed that EU officials have proposed extreme measures such as authorizing the police to “patrol” the Internet and strengthening regulations to prevent anonymous use of online services.


According to the 2012 International Piracy Watch List released by the US Congressional International Anti-Piracy Caucus (IAPC), Switzerland and Italyare now on the list of countries of concern along with countries such as Russia, China, and Ukraine. IAPC said Switzerland’s inadequate copyright law has made it “a home for rogue sites,” and that Italy needs substantial copyright reforms to combat illegal downloading.

Sovereigns of Cyberspace

A trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation UK and a high-level editor at Wikipedia have been discovered to have edited Wikipedia’s “Did You Know” feature and other projects to benefit their private clients for more exposure on Wikipedia pages. The trustee has resigned after the revelation of the pay-to-play relationship.

Recently Google was granted a US patent for a technology that allows users to create multiple pseudonyms online and decide when to reveal true identities to others. However experts have held different positions toward this development: some have worried Google could gather more sensitive personal information, while others have thought it is positive to have different levels of online identities for online activities.

Google has shut down its free online music download service in China in order to put more resources on “high impact products.” Google’s music service is one of the few remaining services on its China-based landing page after the company moved its search engine servers to Hong Kong in 2010.

Internet companies including Google, Facebook, AOL, Yahoo! and LinkedIn have formed an organization named “The Internet Association” to coordinate their efforts in lobbying for Internet freedom and economic issues in Washington D.C.

Internet Governance

Freedom House has published the report “Freedom on the Net 2012: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media.” The report argues that governments around the world have grown more sophisticated in controlling the flow of online information. At the same time, civil societies have fought back and won several important victories. The report says that people in Estonia enjoy the greatest degree of Internet freedom, while people in Iran, Cuba and China have the lowest among the countries examined.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency of the United Nations, released the “State of Broadband 2012” report on international Internet usage data. It showed that currently one-third of world’s population has access to the Internet. The nation with the highest Internet usage rate is Iceland.

Cool Things

Ecuador will become a “free software” [es] territory, President Rafael Correarecently announced.

Riot police had to be called to the town of Haren in The Netherlands after a teenager’s Facebook event reportedly attracted 30,000 people to the tiny town of 18,000 inhabitants.

Publications and Studies

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For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.

Twitter and Warrantless Data Disclosure

Image credit glennshootspeople via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

A year after the Occupy Wall Street movement began the disorderly conduct case of one of its protesters could dilute privacy rights online, as Twitter was forced to release a protester’s tweets to a court without a search warrant on Sept. 14.

Occupy Wall Street protester Malcom Harris faces a maximum $500 fine or 15 days in jail for his arrest as part of a march at the Brooklyn Bridge on October 2011, where approximately 700 other people were arrested. His “not guilty plea” made the case much more significant when the New York Criminal Court subpoenaed his tweets from September 15 to December 31, 2011.

An order from New York City Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr., available here, ruled that Twitter posts were public. It is unclear whether this could be interpreted differently for social media information contained behind privacy settings, such as on Facebook.

“What you give to the public belongs to the public. What you keep to yourself belongs only to you,” Sciarrino wrote.

While Twitter appealed in July against the January subpoena to release Harris’ tweets without a search warrant, the company released the tweets on Sept. 14, after Sciarrino denied the appeal. Twitter owns user-generated content and was ordered to hand over the tweets or be held in contempt of court and face a potentially heavy fine.

Twitter may have conceded to prevent the disclosure to the court of its financial records from the past two quarters, which Sciarrino stated he needed to decide on a fine. The trial for Harris is slated for December.

Using those tweets prosecutors could read what Harris said and determine his location at various points, but they could also get information on his network of Twitter followers, such as their photos and interactions.

Along with inspiring caution about what people post online, this development could open the door for judges to grant third party subpoena requests for social media information without need for a search warrant from law enforcement.

Police involved with Harris’ arrest in 2011 said demonstrators ignored warnings to stay on a pedestrian path. Prosecutors claimed the tweets would indicate whether Harris was aware of police orders not to protest on the Brooklyn Bridge roadway.

Other groups came to Harris’ defense, including the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Public Citizen filed an amicus brief on behalf of Twitter, arguing that the request by law enforcement without a warrant violated Harris’ constitutional right to free speech as well as his right to a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Legal experts at EFF cited examples of other judges’ analyses of disclosing online data. In A January 2012 United States v. Jones case ruling that GPS surveillance is a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, Justice Sonya Sotomayor of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote she “would not assume that all information voluntarily disclosed to some member of the public for a limited purpose is, for that reason alone, disentitled to Fourth Amendment protection.”

Warrantless surveillance of electronic communications by federal agencies has already dramatically increased the past few years, according to U.S. Department of Justice obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request. To preserve expectations of privacy Web companies should continue to fight for their users’ rights and “not to falter in the face of this setback,” stated EFF Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury.

Congress Presses Chinese Telecoms On Spying Accusations

Chinese telecom ZTE has been linked with surveillance in repressive nations. Photo credit Blogee.net via Flickr.

China-based telecommunications companies Huawei Technologies and ZTE Technologies both seek to expand their business in the United States, but Congress has concerns about the cyber-security implications as well as doubts about their commitment to digital rights.

During a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee on Sept. 13, the companies gave little detail beyond general denials when questioned about surveillance on behalf of the Chinese government or connections with repressive regimes such as Iran.

The committee was concerned that the companies’ networking equipment could potentially help the Chinese military or other Chinese government intelligence agencies poach research and other sensitive data from computer systems and mobile networks.

When questioned by committee members the representatives of both telecoms repeated assertions they had not broken any laws in­ the nations where they conduct business, presenting themselves as servants of their shareholders, and maintaining they would never spy on behalf of the Chinese government.

Committee members displayed visible signs of frustration and pressed unsuccessfully for more detailed answers about both companies’ strategies and connections with the Communist Party of China, even though Ranking Member C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) and other committee members went to China in July seeking similar information.

“I’m a little disappointed in the hearing that they weren’t more forthright in their answers,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). “There was a lot of repetitiveness, a lot of denial, a lot of ‘this would never happen here.’”

The committee has investigated ZTE and Huawei since November 2011, and Rogers said reports will be completed soon with recommendations on the extent to which the firms should operate in the U.S. Depending on those recommendations Rogers did not rule out legislation to block Huawei and ZTE for certain types of technology sales in the U.S. A precedent was set by Congress in 2008, when it voted to halt a proposed $2.2 billion partnership between Bain Capital and Huawei to buy networking equipment manufacturer 3Com Corp, because of fears that Huawei’s partial control over an American technology company could compromise national security.

“Congress can do a lot of things and it will be up to us to try to determine what best protects our telecommunications infrastructure if we believe there is a threat to both personal business and government information that flows over those networks,” Rogers said.

China is a major technology market for countries unable to buy from the companies in the United States or other Western nations, due to embargoes or reputations for human rights violations. As huge marketers of surveillance technology such as deep-packet inspection technology (DPI), which reads and classifies data as it passes through a network, ZTE was accused of aiding repressive regimes to track, alter or block data using DPI.

This summer the FBI launched an investigation in response to media reports that surveillance equipment sales from ZTE to the Telecommunication Company of Iran included not only its own equipment but also U.S.-made networking equipment, in violation of U.S. sanctions.

Other clients of ZTE have included the surveillance state of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. ZTE is also building a $45 million information technology park in Ethiopia, where the government has a record of censoring websites containing information critical of the government.

Senior vice president of ZTE Corporation Zhu Jinyun said his company would not obey any order from the Chinese government t0 compromise U.S. cybersecurity and steal confidential information from U.S. business or government networks. Zhu also denied that his company destroyed documents that were related to an investigation that ZTE resold U.S.-made equipment to Iran despite U.S. trade sanctions against that nation,

“ZTE would never engage in any of the harmful behaviors that you listed,” Zhu said. “As a global and multinational company we abide by all the local laws and regulations of the jurisdictions in which we operate. Like you we condemn those activities.”

Huawei seeks a larger role in the US, as indicated by their presence at tech conventions. Photo credit Interop Events via Flickr.

Although Huawei is not facing allegations of violating U.S. trade sanctions such as those leveled at ZTE, Huawei does have a history of selling to Iran. Despite announcements they would scale back sales to the Islamic Republic, recent reports from U.S. security researchers indicate Huawei surveillance technology is a major component of Iran’s plans for a self-contained national Internet.

Another point of suspicion leveled at Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei is his time serving in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This is one reason the committee requested a list of current and former staff members in both ZTE and Huawei who had served in the PLA.

Denying accusations that Huawei software installs malicious surveillance code , Charles Ding, corporate senior vice president of Huawei, said there were no such secret backdoors that could allow Chinese government to poach intellectual property. Responding to questions about the presence of the Communist Party of China in his company, Ding said having a communist party committee on the company board is also a legal requirement of China.

“In Huawei, however, I have not seen the party committees participating in any business management or decision making,” Ding said.

While importing tech equipment from a China-based company arouses suspicion from some governments, barring Huawei from bidding on commercial contracts has been criticized as an unprofitable move that is also ineffective for security. Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, stated in The Economist that the approach creates a false sense of security because nearly every telecommunications company buys tech gear from that nation. Linking Huawei with Chinese intelligence has also been cited as a double standard because of the relationships other telecoms have with their governments. For instance, the National Security Agency (NSA) sits on the board of U.S.-based Motorola Solutions.

More audits, reviews and inspections should be expected of every technology vendor, according to a written statement from Ding.

“Since cybersecurity is a global issue that the whole industry has to face, governments and the whole industry should work together to improve cybersecurity,” Ding stated.

Huawei also published a recent report on its operations in an attempt to counter claims that it enables the Chinese government to steal information from networks. These efforts have not convinced Congress, and Rogers said questions directed at Huawei during the investigation received poor responses, and sometimes no responses at all.

“If software is provided by companies we cannot trust we must constantly wonder whether they are being used for us or against us,” Rogers said.

Australia recently blocked Huawei from seeking certain contracts in their country because of the company’s alleged backdoors. Huawei was also accused of illegally copying source code used in switches and routers in a failed 2003 patent lawsuit by Cisco Systems. Another lawsuit by Motorola in 2008 accused Huawei of stealing trade secrets.

If the companies wish to do business in the US, Ruppersberger said the two companies must be clear about any financial or legal liabilities they have with the Chinese government.

“What happens if you are ordered by their government to give information using their equipment?”  Ruppersberger asked.

Netizen Report: YouTube Edition

Originally posted on Sept. 21, 2012, on Global Voices Advocacy

Censored on YouTube. Image by PSantaRosa on Flickr (CC-by-NC-SA 2.0).

Most of this report was researched, written, and edited by Tom Risen,Weiping LiRenata AvilaRayna StDanielle Kehl and Rebecca MacKinnon.

People involved with protests and violence across numerous countries this past week directed at the United States (US), claimed that they were reacting to a controversial YouTube video of an anti-Islamic movie trailer, raising questions about the censoring of offensive material on the global digital commons. See Global Voices coverage of social media reactions to the events across the Arab World and in the global Twittersphere, as well as in Libya,Pakistan (also here), IranSudanIndonesiaRussia, and Australia.

For discussion of YouTube’s handling of the situation see Jillian York’s analysis here on Global Voices Advocacy and this post by Access Now. As York argues, YouTube’s censorship without government request in Egypt and Libya breaks a precedent for Google as it censored the video in those countries without a legal order, even though the video did not violate the website’s Terms of Service (ToS).

The moral dilemma of whether to censor social media content to prevent hate speech-inspired violence is one the Netizen Report has previously addressed in the Assam Edition about India and the Transition Edition about Myanmar. The debate continues about who can decide to remove inflammatory web content, and how it should be done. Columbia University Law Professor Tim Wu has suggested that while YouTube should adopt a Wikipedia-style community approach to handling such content. Pakistan-based Bytes for All is calling on government to “encourage thoughtful, informed responses to hate speech” as an alternative to censorship.


Officials in Bahrain restricted web access to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) after the UN commission included Bahrain in a list of 16 governments that frequently intimidate and threaten activists. One such critic of the government who received threats for attending the UNHRC meeting was Mohamed Al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.

Inspired by a speech from a politician who claimed he was cyberbullied, the Philippines’ Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile suggested a new law to regulate online bullying, which could be used to regulate blogs. Libel is one of the offenses punishable under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012which was recently passed in the Phillipines, but the law has not been tested in court.

Activists in Kyrgyzstan are petitioning against government plans to monitor the Internet for hate speech, comparing it to a law passed in Russia in July. As in the Russian example, the law proposed is intended to screen for offensive and illegal material such as child pornography but could be leveraged for broader online censorship.

A series of anti-Japan protests across China that appear to be coordinated over social media, have raised speculation about how the protesters could have managed to catch riot police and the Chinese censorship regime off guard. Speculation includes the idea that some of the destructive protestswere coordinated with help from the government to inspire support for the status quo by creating fear, while others state private QQ chats helped protesters communicate.

Netizen activism

An article from The Atlantic described how some Internet memes, a form of popular Internet culture that use expressions such as humorous remixed photos to ridicule social issues, manage to slip through the net of Chinese Internet censorship and promote wider citizen participation.


The Vietnamese government has started a crackdown on bloggers critical of the government, calling them “terrorists.” In an official message, three pro-democracy activists were accused of “publishing distorted and fabricated articles.” The netizens have pledged to continue their mission of exposing the truth.

Reporters Without Borders reports that Mexican anti-corruption blogger and activist Ruy Salgado went missing on September 8. His whereabouts are unknown as is the reason for his disappearance.

Global Voices author Endalk writes about reactions following the sentencing of Ethiopian journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega. The latter and 23 other prominent opposition activists were imprisoned for 18 years for “terrorism.”


Security researchers have passively intercepted data from mobile phones and computers connecting to Wi-Fi networks. These devices keep a record of the stations their users have previously connected to. The survey showed that mobile phones leak much more information than even tech-savvy people could imagine.

ACLU reports that the US House of Representatives passed a reauthorization of the 2008 FISA Amendments Act, “an unconstitutional domestic spying law that gives vast, unchecked surveillance authority to the government.”

Bill Binney, a former US National Security Agency (NSA) official, said from his experiences as a technical director in NSA that the US government has been illegally surveilling electronic communications and web information, from the emails to the social media updates of American citizens.

‘Naked Security’ reports that a Texas school embeds a chip in all mandatory student ID cards to keep track of all their whereabouts.


Developers of the Apache web server application have upgraded the software to ignore Microsoft’s Internet Explorer privacy settings based on the “Do Not Track” web standard which gives end users the possibility to register their request that browsers and ads don’t track their browsing habits. Meanwhile, Google-developed web browser Chrome finally supports “Do Not Track”.

The US Congress has introduced a new bill called the Mobile Device Privacy Act. If passed, it will require that mobile phone creators and operators, network providers and app developers disclose to customers the existence of any monitoring software on their device.


Numerous sites hosted by GoDaddy, one of the world’s biggest webhosting providers, were rendered inaccessible last week. Initially, a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack was suspected as the cause, but the company’s engineers finally identified the outage as provoked by a router issue.

An article in The Atlantic discusses what it calls the “password fallacy,” or what other possibilities exist for securing access to online accounts.

Researchers have identified a breach in encrypted web browsing. CRIME (Compression Ratio Info-leak Made Easy) is reported to be a novel attack targeting HTTPS sessions. The weakness allows interception of the data contained within encrypted authentication “cookies.”

The ‘Journalist Security Blog’ of the Committee to Protect Journalists published a comprehensive account on Cryptocat, a user-friendly secure chat. The tool is aimed at bridging the gap between tech-savvy activists who have been highly critical of journalists’ failure to protect sources’ security online, and media people complaining about their technical difficulties when attempting to use encryption tools.


ArsTechnica discusses the future of the “six strikes” program in the US. The “anti-piracy education effort,” is not a law, but rather a voluntary system that Internet Service Providers sign up to, which would warn users about intellectual property breaches in six phases. Implementation has been delayed until the end of 2012.

Meanwhile in France, a man was sentenced to a 150-euro fine (USD 194) following the “three strikes” law known as HADOPI. The man has been found guilty of not securing his Internet connection (presumably Wi-Fi) and for ignoring the three warnings sent by the Agency. His wife is actually the one who downloaded the two songs in question. This is the first such case since the controversial anti-piracy law was passed.

The Chilean non-governmental organization Derechos Digitales (Digital Rights) comprehensively illustrates through an infographic ten things that should not be prohibited due to copyright.

Sovereigns of cyberspace

A judge of the New York State Supreme Court ruled that Twitter must turn over private information connected to Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris’s Twitter posts or the company would face fines. Twitter has now released Harris’ Twitter messages to New York law enforcement, who argued that these messages can prove that he was aware of the police’s orders but then disregarded them. EFF reports that the records will remain sealed until September 21, which may give Twitter a chance to appeal the decision to a higher court.

According to TechCrunch, Russian company Yandex will replace Google in handling certain mapping functions on Apple products in Russia.

Internet governance

In an interview with Bloomberg BNA, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Secretary-General Hamadoun I. Touré said that the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12), which will be hosted by the ITU in December, is not about Internet governance. He has also refuted some of the criticisms and disagreed that the proposals for International Telecommunication Regulations will expand the treaty to Internet governance.

After Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC), the organization which distributes IP addresses in the Asia-Pacific region, announced in 2011 that it has run out of IPv4 addresses, the Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC), the Regional Internet registry for Europe, the Middle East and part of Central Asia also said last week that it has exhausted IPv4 addresses in these areas. Due to IPv4 exhaustion the world is undergoing a transition to IPv6, which allows for many more IP addresses to be assigned than under the old system.

Cool things

Research focusing on news websites in Chicago as example, found out that small news websites depend more on social media to attract traffic than large sites do.

Publications and studies

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For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.

Netizen Report: Corporate Responsibility Edition

Originally published on Sept. 12, 2012, on Global Voices Advocacy 

Image via Flickr user rekha6 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Most of this report was researched, written, and edited by Tom Risen,Weiping Li, Renata Avila, Rayna StDanielle Kehl, Sarah Myers, andRebecca MacKinnon.

Telecommunications companies hold tremendous sway over their customers’ digital rights, and Swedish-Finnish telecom TeliaSonera has a checkered past for its collaboration with authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Since its formation in 2002, it has expanded its markets beyond Northern Europe to include developing IT nations in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Yet TeliaSonera has faced criticism for allegedly aiding authoritarian governments in former Soviet states to spy on their own citizens.

The Netizen Report covered one such instance in May 2012, when TeliaSonera enabled the government of Azerbaijan to surveil its citizens in the lead up to the Eurovision Song Contest hosted in Baku. The telecom isconsidering business in Myanmar now that the former military junta has lowered censorship restrictions.

The most recent censorship allegations come from activists in Tajikistan, who blame the telecom for cutting off mobile service for a month in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. The region was the site of fighting between the Tajik government and rebels in July, during which the government alsoblocked access to websites such as YouTube and the BBC. In response, activists there organized a boycott on September 2, turning off their mobile phones for half an hour in protest.

TeliaSonera’s CEO Lars Nyberg stated in August that his company would focus more on human rights with the help of civil society and international groups such as the United Nations. Nyberg stated the telecom would also join other telecommunications companies to discuss how their industry can better observe Article 19 of the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, which focuses on the right to freedom of expression.


The Guardian reports that the UK government plans to restrict the export of software company Gamma’s spyware, such as Finfisher, to repressive regimes. Finfisher, which can remotely control computers, copy files and record keystrokes, has been used to track political activists in Bahrain.

Also in the UK, Jimmy Wales, the founder of online encyclopedia Wikipedia, gave testimony before the British Members of Parliament on the controversial draft of Communication Data Bill, and threatened to encrypt Wikipedia if the members pass the so-called “Snoopers’ Charter.” Meanwhile, UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) also said the bill would endanger national security if the system which stores surveillance data is hacked. The draft of the bill requires UK ISPs and phone companies to record users’ communication data such as email access and website visits for one year.

The government of Kenya has allocated IP addresses to each mobile device to facilitate monitoring of online activities.

The US Department of Defense stated its efforts to root out national security leaks will not include spying on journalists in response to a request by thePentagon Press Association for assurance [pdf] in a letter that there would be no surveillance of reporters as part of a Pentagon-led effort to seek out leaks on national security issues.


BusinessInsider has published a detailed report on how Facebook tracks user activity online. Using dedicated software, the authors found that just logging in to the social network is associated with 228 online activity trackers (cookies, Javascript, etc.).

The official webzine of the French Telecommunications School ParisTechdiscusses the “drone paradox.” The author highlights the “unlimited potential” of this gear through various examples and ends with a discussion on the new challenges to come in terms of use, data sharing and legal regulation.


The Syrian Electronic Army hacked Al Jazeera‘s mobile SMS news service to spread fake news posts. This is the latest in a number of efforts by thehacker group to fight against Al Jazeera because the news agency’s critical stance against embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


According to the ICT Association of Jordan int@j, a number of IT companies have discussed closing their offices in Jordan on the heels of the August 29#BlackoutJO protests against government attempts to censor the Internet.

Reporters Without Borders announced that it is going to start providing technical assistance to news websites that are often targeted by cyber attacks and government blocking by creating mirror sites that will be regularly and automatically updated. RSF will start with Chechen magazine Dosh and the Sri Lankan online newspaper Lanka e-News, which will be accessible athttp://dosh.rsf.org and http://lankaenews.rsf.org, respectively.

The Domain Name authority in Argentina (NIC) has refused to register domain names containing the name or surname of President Cristina de Kirchner, or any domain name mentioning La Campora, a political youth organization supporting the official party. The measure has raised concerns over whether it is political censorship, as it suggests those wishing to start a website criticizing the government might find an unlawful obstacle for their campaigns, and a threat to Internet freedom.

As Brazil prepares for its upcoming municipal elections, it appears thatcensorship of journalists and bloggers is becoming increasingly prevalent. Numerous reports have emerged about courts and politicians blocking news sites and blogs from publishing content, filing lawsuits, and in some cases attempting to have sites taken down entirely.

Sovereigns of cyberspace

Twitter has announced that it no longer supports RSS and Atom, formats used for web feeds. Twitter said the goal of the change is to provide users a more “consistent Twitter experience.”

Although there is speculation that Facebook has strong interests in the Chinese social media market, an executive at Facebook has reiterated that the company doesn’t have plans to enter China any time soon.

Germany’s former first lady Bettina Wulff has filed a lawsuit against Google to stop the company’s autocomplete search function from showing words such as “escort”, “prostitute” as search suggestions whenever users type her name in Google’s search box.

Netizen activism

On September 1, a group of 9,000 Taiwanese students and journalists stageda large-scale protest against media monopolies. The protest was triggered by a smear campaign against scholars who opposed  the acquisition of a cable network by the Want Want China Times group, one of the biggest media groups in Taiwan. The criticism of the acquisition and the news about the protest was mostly blocked by mainstream media, but spread widely over the Internet.

Media advocacy group Hong Kong In-Media issued questionnaires to candidates of the 2012-2016 Legislative Council election on their positions on issues of freedom of speech. Only 52 of the 127 candidates responded, and most pro-Beijing candidates refused to answer. Among the candidates who did provide responses, most support free speech and information freedom.

After having won several election victories, the Pirate Party in Germany, which has distinguished itself as a copyright reformer in digital age and supported direct political participation, is gradually losing popularity. An article fromSpiegel Online discussed five problems faced by the party which have prevented it from being recognized as a serious political actor.


Zhila Bani-Yaghoub, an Iranian women’s rights activist and the editor of the website Focus on Iranian Women, has been convicted of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “insulting the president.”  She was given a one year jail sentence. In 2011, Bani-Yaghoub was also charged with “having a personal blog without any authorization from government authorities.”

A recent Omani court ruling has sentenced six people to prison for posting comments online against the government; their jail terms range from one year to 18 months.

An Indian local advocate has filed a lawsuit charging Indian cartoonist Aseem Trivedi with mocking national symbols and posting objectionable content on his website. Trivedi turned himself in to the police and was then arrested while he shouted slogans and complained of the Indian government’s intolerance of criticism.

Gottfrid Svartholm, the co-founder of the file-sharing website The Pirate Bay, was arrested in Cambodia in late August and will be deported. There have been several speculations on the reasons for his arrest. TorrentFreak, a website dedicated to news about filesharing and BitTorrent, reported the arrest was related to a hack targeted at a Swedish tech company and resulted in the leak of tax data.


Security researchers have discovered massive monitoring of BitTorrent clients by government copyright-enforcement authorities and government research labs. A team from the University of Birmingham, UK, revealed that they set up a fake pirate server online – simulating popular sites like Pirate Bay – and quickly found monitoring systems that log the IP addresses of users downloading from the servers within as little as three hours.

Shortly after First Lady Michelle Obama finished speaking at the Democratic National Convention last week, the video of her speech – which viewers were able to stream live on YouTube and BarackObama.com – was flagged for copyright violations. YouTube officials said that the blocking was an error, but it was likely a result of YouTube’s preemptive copyright filters, which rely on algorithms to automatically block content that appears to match copyrighted works owned by large media companies.

South Africa’s Copyright Review Commission released a new report on digital content that recommends the adoption of a “three strike” penalty system for recurring offenders. The report also asserts that only 14 percent of mobile service providers pay royalties for the music they use, recommendinglawsuits against mobile operators who don’t have licenses and calling for a ban on ISPs that don’t pay royalties.

A law which would allow publishers in France to charge search engines for republishing the headlines and first paragraphs of articles is being discussed once again. The issue has resurfaced after the German cabinet recently backed a similar proposal.

Internet governance

The first Web Index, a report spearheaded by Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee that compares 61 countries on a number of different issues, rankedSweden number one in the world at using the Internet to improve people’s lives. The United States came in second place, just ahead of the UK, while Yemen, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe rounded out the bottom of the list.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which created a backlash in the European Union, quietly passed through the Japanese legislature on September 6.

Kenya hosted the second Freedom Online Conference in Nairobi from September 6-7. The conference brought together 400 attendees from 17 different countries to discuss how to garner support for Internet freedom and incorporate it into governance and development plans.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (US) released a letter co-signed by several dozen international NGOs urging member states of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to reject proposals to expand the ITU’s authority to regulation of the Internet. The letter also calls for greater transparency about government proposals leading up to the December World Conference on International Telecommunications and for the inclusion of civil society in the negotiation process.

The website WCITleaks.org, which is dedicated to bringing transparency to the ITU process, launched a new section of its site focused on policy analysis and advocacy resources.

European Parliament member Marietje Schaake (Netherlands) called upon the EU to take a leading role in ensuring Internet freedom, arguing that it should push back against the “game of virtual land grabbing” and oppose ITU proposals that would threaten net neutrality and stifle innovation.

National policy

President Obama issued a draft executive order that would institute voluntary guidelines on cybersecurity for critical infrastructure, such as electrical grids and health care. The order is closely modeled after the latest version of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 , which recently failed to gather the 60 votes needed to secure passage in the US Senate.

Ecuador approved a new regulation describing the procedure to request ISPs to provide IP information on citizens engaged in suspicious activities, without a warrant from judicial authorities. According to the regulation, the authorities cannot access the content of the electronic communications, as confidentiality of communications is protected by the Ecuadorian Constitution. However, they are authorized to request technical and administrative information from the IPs under investigation.

The Singapore government has set up a Media Literacy Council to promote education on media literacy and proper cyber norms. Singapore netizens have cast doubts on the function of the Council and worried it will become a government tool to curb Internet freedom.

Cool things

According to the data released by telecommunication consulting firmTeleGeography, global Internet capacity has doubled for the past two years, though the rate of growth has dropped to the lowest level in five years.

Reporting global human rights issues has often been a tough task for traditional media, but with the help of the Internet, mainstream media has gained help from netizens to provide more accurate and diversified content.This article from Witness.org documents the trend.

Juice Rap News, an Internet musical programme which turns current issues into comedic rap songs, sang out the debates between Internet freedom and online surveillance conducted by nations in the name of national security.

Publications and studies

Subscribe to the Netizen Report by email


Netizen Report: #BlackOutJO Edition

Originally published on Sept. 6, 2012, by Global Voices Advocacy 

Jordan web blackout. Image via Twitter user @moalQaq

Most of this report was researched, written, and edited by Tom Risen,Weiping Li, Renata Avila, Rayna St Sarah Myersand Rebecca MacKinnon.

Netizens in Jordan used the protest tactic of blacking out websites last week to oppose amendments to the government’s Press and Publications Act, which would require websites to obtain licenses and bear legal responsibility for users’ comments. Approximately 500 websites joined the protest on August 29, led by the Jordanian Organisation of Electronic Websites, using a tactic similar to January’s protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and recent protests in Malaysia.

The success of the tech industry in the Kingdom of Jordan has been attributed to its relatively progressive approach to Internet freedom. Yet along with the draft amendments considered in parliament, recent censorship moves by the government also include plans by Jordan’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology [ar] to work with an unnamed Australian company to develop systems for filtering pornographic websites.

Protesters tweeted about the blackout using hashtags #FreeNetJo and #BlackOutJO. Jordan’s Queen Noor also tweeted her support:

@QueenNoor: Hypocrisy, lies, intolerance, hate, violence — all unhealthy evils. Where  does it start and end. #censorship #BlackOutJO

The online blackout was matched by demonstrations outside of Jordan’s parliament building and statements against the draft legislation by groups such as Centre for Defending the Freedom of Journalists. When Ramtha’s MP Khaled Shaqran met with protesters on August 29, he was “hopeful” the Lower House National Guidance Committee considering the draft legislation would either reject the controversial draft or propose less restrictive amendments.


Ukranian journalists protested a speech made by President Viktor Yanukovich at the World Newspaper Congress, in which he claimed that nation was making progress on media freedom.

The Hamas government in Gaza has censored access to online content deemed “pornographic.” This repressive move is a further step in Hamas censorship of activities it considers as “un-Islamic,” such as attending movie theaters or going to swimming pools.

Myanmar’s government claims it will allow private news organizations to publish daily, rather than weekly, in the coming months, another bold move toward press freedom.

Members of India’s government are staging a multi-stakeholder meetingincluding Indian civil society and Internet companies such as Facebook and Twitter to negotiate legitimate restrictions on hate speech and incitement rumors that do not slide into illegitimate censorship. India’s government recently blocked hundreds of websites and placed restrictions on text messages in an effort to control hate speech that spurred violence in the Assam region.

Netizen activism

Tajikistan activists organized a boycott on September 2, during which they turned off their mobile phones for half an hour in protest of Swedish-Finnish telecommunications company TeliaSonera, which activists accused of censorship for cutting off mobile service for a month in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. The region was the site of fighting between the government and rebels in July, during which the government also blocked access to websites such as YouTube and the BBC. Swedish reporters at Sveriges Television [se] also accused TeliaSonera of aiding government surveillance in nations such as Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan.

Facebook users in the Philippines removed their profile pictures on August 30 to commemorate the International Day of the Disappeared, and also to decry martial law and secret police disappearances carried out during the rule of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Co-founder of live-streaming video website Ustream, Brad Hunstable, reflects in an article on TheVerge.com on his service’s use as an online venue for protests in Russia, such as demonstrations against the two-year prison sentencing of punk rock activist band Pussy Riot.

Technologists have started a series of casual “cryptoparty” sessions to teach people to use cryptography and anonymity tools such as the Tor Project,Cryptocat,and Pretty Good Privacy. The parties began in Australia after a Twitter discussion and the idea inspired others to hold parties in Europe, Asia and the United States.


RT.com reports on the massive crackdown on opposition activists in Belarus. According to various sources, Belarusian authorities “hacked” the VKontakte groups of the two biggest opposition movements in the country (VKontakte is Russia’s most popular social network). Marietje Schaake, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament, cited a report from a human rights organization describing the intrusive policies and called on the European Commission to take action and work for the liberation of at least four detainees.

Global Voices author and Sudanese activist Maha El-Sanosi reports on the release of online activist Usamah Mohamed Ali after two months in detention. Mohamed Ali was arrested in June after tweeting about and promoting protests in the capital of Khartoum against government austerity measures. Bloggers followed arrests of protesters on Twitter via #FreeUsamah or #SudanRevolts.


Through a well-documented report, Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher discussesthe devastating speed at which surveillance has developed. He highlights the implication of web mastodons such as Google technologies in the analysis of huge amounts of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) data.

Gamma’s spyware FinFisher continues to be uncovered in more and more devices: this time, security researchers have detected it in a broad range of smartphones. This surveillance tool is known to collect images, record Skype chats and log keystrokes, and was first discovered in Bahraini activists’ PCs. Since the publication of these outcomes, the researchers have been receiving a large amount of data to analyze.

Coz Toujours publishes an insightful post about how Cambodia is tightening its grip on the Internet. As in many other countries, the cyberspace is regulated for the sake of “national security, safety and social order.”

Singapore’s National Environment Agency will set up 100 CCTV camerasoutside housing complexes in the coming three months as a means to fight littering of public spaces. The equipment is able to pick up items as small as cigarettes thrown from windows, raising concerns over privacy.


Facebook’s facial recognition software has been deemed illegal by the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information in Germany, prompting analysis by CNET about other criticism of the Facebook technology. Examples include how the United States does not have the same provisions for users to protect what happens with their online data.

Chinese dissident Wang Xiaoning has been freed after ten years in prison. He was jailed when Yahoo Inc. gave in to government requests for his private information. The company says it has since developed a stronger approach to protecting the privacy of its customers.

Apple was granted a patent for location-based tech which aims to allow the remotely disabling of cameras at, for example, government buildings or a protest.


Russian Senator Ruslan Gattarov is proposing a 15-year prison sentence be created for hackers that exploit government websites. This proposal comes on the heels of the hacking of the website of the Moscow court that sentenced three members of activist punk rock band Pussy Riot.

Supporters of the Syrian government hacked the Livewire blog of human rights group Amnesty International on Monday 3 September. The Twitteraccount and blog of Reuters were also hacked in August when supporters of Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad posted phony news tweets and fake White House statements taking Al-Qaeda off the terrorist agency list.

The Anonymous offshoot group AntiSec claims it possesses more than 12 million Apple iOS Unique Device IDs, and released 1,000,001 of those to the public to prove it.


The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement conceded defeat to Spain-based Rojadirecta sports websites in a wrongful domain seizure case filed by the company, after the domains were seized in December 2011 for alleged copyright infringement.

The New Zealand government allowed Kim Dotcom to take out a US$ 4.8 million loan so the founder of file-sharing website Megaupload.com could pay for the rent on his mansion and for legal bills from the company’s copyright infringement lawsuit.

The livestream of the Hugo Awards, science fiction’s most prestigious award ceremony, was interrupted due to claimed copyright infringement. One of the reasons for this is claimed to be that clips of “Doctor Who” were screened and DRM bots were rigidly blocking the broadcast.

Sovereigns of cyberspace

A new search engine rivalry has arisen in China between Baidu and another company best known for its anti-virus software, Qihoo. Qihoo’s new product, the Qihoo 360 browser, has been accused of being an aggregator, taking its results from Baidu, Google and others.

Apple has rejected Drones+, an application tracking US drone attacks, from its app store calling the content “objectionable and crude.” The New York Times notes that The Guardian newspaper has an Apple app containing similar drone strike information.

Twitter’s General Counsel Alexander Macgillivray reflects in a New York Times article on the legal challenges the microblog has faced trying to defend the privacy and free speech of its users.

Internet governance

The advocacy group AccessNow is summarizing the key dates ahead of the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), a controversial meeting planned for December by the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Civil society groups and some governments are concerned that the meeting will assert greater United Nations’ control over Internet governance, without civil society involvement.

The Center for Democracy & Technology has launched a resource center to help civil society prepare for the WCIT.

Net neutrality

In the US presidential campaign, the Democratic and Republican parties both claim Internet freedom is a part of their party platforms. Net neutrality is a divisive issue on the technology front as President Obama promises to “fight hard” for net neutrality, while the Republican party opposes net neutralitystating the government should not “micromanage telecom as if it were a railroad network.”

Meanwhile, an article in CNET states Internet freedom and net neutrality cannot be reconciled.

National policy

Ireland’s communication officials have called for a government standard for broadband to be set at “a minimum of 30Mbps for every remaining home and business in the country—no matter how rural or remote.”

Russia’s Parliament is considering adding amendments to law to track libelous online speech by anonymous users. This law will be only applicable to Internet users, not journalists, and will “allow police officers to ascertain the identity of anonymous slanderers and other criminals.”

Cool things

An opinion piece in The Guardian called for global standards to secure the Internet as a digital commons while leaving room for commercial interests.

Publications and studies

Subscribe to the Netizen Report by email

For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.


Netizen Report: Assam Edition

Originally published on Aug. 30, 2012, on Global Voices Advocacy

Candlelight vigil in protest of Assam violence: Flickr /Joe Athialy (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Most of this report was researched, written, and edited by Tom RisenWeiping LiJames LoseyRayna St, Sarah MyersEllery Biddle, and Rebecca MacKinnon.

Reports of renewed violent ethnic conflict in India’s northeastern state of Assam this past week illustrated the complexity of government regulations in online space, when India’s government decided to block hundreds of websites and social networks bearing rumors of violence between clashing ethnic groups. Social media and SMS fueled rumors that recent violence between the indigenous Bodo tribe and Muslim settlers would spread. The more people read the rumors, the truer they became. Examples included photos and videos of earthquake victims that were falsely identified as victims of ethnic conflict, several of which were allegedly uploaded from Pakistan and may be rooted in violence that is said to have been perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.

A protest planned in Mumbai on August 11 to denounce actual violence against Muslims in Assam and Myanmar turned violent, adding to a wave of fear that caused a mass exodus from northeastern cities in India. To stem misinformation and hate speech, India’s government blocked approximately 250 websites that allegedly were hosting inflammatory content and banned multiple SMS messaging so that messages could be sent to no more than five recipients at a time. After the government threatened to shut down Twitter, the microblog website agreed to block six hate content websites. The legality of India’s censorship actions has been questioned by critics who say the move marked a failure to comply with rules established in the country’s controversial new IT law, which requires 48 hours notice before blocking websites. Bangalore-based nonprofit Centre for Internet and Society has reviewed the list of blocked websites; in the corresponding article, Pranesh Prakash argues that the government should have coordinated with web companies rather than simply issuing blanket censorship orders. The United States (US) State Department urged India to respect Internet freedom while it takes steps to preserve security.


The Jordanian government has approved amendments to the Publications and Press law that will require websites to obtain licenses and bear legal responsibility for users’ comments. These amendments must be approved by Parliament before they can become formal law. In protest of the proposal, websites in Jordan blacked out their pages on August 29, using a tactic similar to January’s protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the recent blackout protest in Malaysia.

Netizen activism 

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of the Internet community website Reddit, announced a bus tour to advocate for “the Open Internet.” Advocates on the bus will travel to towns and cities across the US, talking to local businesses and people about Internet freedom. Some portion of the bus tour’s costs will be covered by Reddit, while other funds will be crowdfunded on the platform Indiegogo.

Global Voices writer Afef Abrougui interviewed anonymous Tunisian cartoonist ‘_Z_‘ about freedom of expression in Tunisia after the collapse ofBen Ali regime. Even though the dictatorship is gone, _Z_ remains worried about looming threats to free speech on the Tunisian Internet. _Z_ also shared advice on how to protect the anonymity of online dissidents.

While the Syrian government has found many ways to bypass economic sanctions imposed by the United States, these sanctions have left Syrian activists without access to tools that can protect activists from being traced online. Syrian activist Dlshad Othman has launched a petition on Change.orgthat calls on the US Commerce and Treasury Departments to ease current sanctions in order to help Syrian activists share information online more safely. The petition calls on officials to grant a new general export license that provides clearer and broader exemptions on personal communication and security technologies, and to create a more streamlined licensing process and clearer guidelines for technology companies that may seek to sell their goods to Syria.


Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab has been acquitted of charges for posting an “insulting” remark on Twitter. However, he has been sentenced to three years in jail for another charge related to “illegal gathering” (the gathering of five or more people with the intent to protest) and remains in prison despite his acquittal on the former charges.


The Russian newspaper Kommersant has reported that the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service has invested US$ 940,000 into a social networking program. According to the report, a large part of the money (about US$ 690,000) will be used for online propaganda for the government and monitoring of social media.

Several international companies operating in China have reportedly been required by Chinese police to install Internet security software to monitor their Internet activities. Police have threatened to cut the companies’ Internet connection if they fail to comply with the request.


Data mining has become part of a fundraising strategy to identify potential donors for the campaign of Republican party nominee for President Mitt Romney, according to the Associated Press. The fundraising staff for Romney, a former Republican governor of Massachusetts, began using web analytics from Buxton Co. as early as June 2012 to track people’s personal data online, such as consumer habits and church attendance.

After having been criticized for its privacy policies and even faced with litigation, Google is now building a “red team” to uncover and resolve privacy risks in its products. However, consumer rights advocates still want Google to take more seriously its responsibility to protect users’ privacy: a US consumer advocacy group, Consumer Watchdog, has filed a motion with the US District Court for the Northern District of California to oppose a proposed settlement between Google and the US Federal Trade Commission in which Google has agreed to pay US$ 22.5 million to settle the charge that Google misled users of Apple’s browser Safari about privacy settings. Consumer Watchdog argues that the settlement is against the “public interest” and the court should not approve it.

Among a series of state legislative efforts in the US to protect social media users’ privacy, the latest is a bill passed by the Californian Senate to prohibit colleges and universities from asking for access to students’ social media accounts.


Hector Xavier Monsegur, a former member of the hacker group LulzSec who is also known as Sabu, received a six-month reprieve from his prison sentencing for cooperating with federal agents in the arrests of members of LulzSec and Antisec. Both groups are offshoots of the hacktivist community Anonymous. Monsegur could face 124 years in prison for 12 counts of federal computer hacking violations that he committed while working as an organizer of LulzSec.

Approximately GBP 205 million were stolen from retailers through online fraud and other online crime in 2011, according to a report by the British Retailers Consortium on e-commerce.

The US electricity grid might be vulnerable to “fast-moving cybersecurity threats” because of insufficient standards for digital signatures to access servers, according to a statement from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The agency responded to questions asked by Senate Homeland Security Committee members Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who co-authored the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, which would grant government the authority to secure critical infrastructure such as electrical grids. That bill recently fell short of the 60 votes needed for its passage in the Senate.


Germany’s Ministry of Justice has released a draft proposal for new amendments to the country’s copyright law that would require search engines and news aggregators to pay licensing fees for any snippet of copyright-protected content appearing on German websites.

On the industry side, German law firm Urmann and Colleagues, which represents various prominent groups in the pornography industry, has threatened to publish a list of names of all those individuals who, according to the firm, have illegally downloaded pornographic movies. The goal of such an action would be to put pressure on these alleged pirates and make them pay for their downloads.

The US government has seized the domains of three websites alleged to be responsible for “illegal distribution of copies of copyrighted Android cell phone apps.”

When it comes to copyright law enforcement, RapidShare’s Chief Legal Officer Daniel Raimer suggested at a conference that governments should clamp down on websites which provide links to illegal materials stored at file-sharing websites, rather than merely targeting file-sharing sites like RapidShare.

Norway’s file sharers have been given a free pass by the Norwegian Data Inspectorate, after that nation’s Privacy Appeals Board denied a license to the Simonsen [no] law firm to monitor file-sharers and collect their IP addresses. No other law firm in the nation currently has that ability.

An article by Scientific American opines on how downloading streaming movies could be monetized and regulated by Hollywood, similar to the DVD rental program run by video rental store chain Blockbuster, which has been in a steady financial decline for several years.

Sovereigns of cyberspace 

Twitter has revoked the “friend-finding” feature on Tumblr which enables Tumblr users to search for friends on Twitter. Twitter has also blocked “friend-finding” access to the photo-sharing service Instagram which was acquired by Facebook, and announced restrictions on third-party developers weeks ago.

Twitter also filed its appeal against a New York Criminal Court order to turn over tweets made by Occupy Wall Street protester Malcom Harris from September 15 to December 31, 2011. In early July the court ruled that Harris, who was arrested in an October protest on the Brooklyn Bridge, had no ability to challenge the subpoena of his Twitter account.

The Federation of German Consumer Organizations [de], a German consumer group, said that Facebook’s App Center, a tool that helps users to find third-party mobile and web apps, shares users’ information with third parties without obtaining users’ consent. The group has threatened to bring a lawsuit against Facebook if the social networking website does not fix the problem by September 4.

Internet governance 

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement for international business and investment issues between the US, Canada and Pacific Rim nations would provide incentives for Internet service providers to monitor and police networks for copyright infringement, according to analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation of leaked documents regarding the intellectual property part of the negotiations.

Net neutrality 

US telecommunications giant AT&T plans to let US iPhone users enjoy Face Time, the popular video chat app, on its 3G and 4G network, but will limit the service to customers who subscribe to specific plans. The new proposal hasaroused wide criticism and ignited debates on whether AT&T’s move violates net neutrality rules set by the Federal Communication Commission.

National policy 

Technology news website Ars Technica reported that although US President Barack Obama has imposed sanctions against Syrian telecommunication companies since April, Syria’s largest ISP SAWA has still used a US data center based in Chicago to host a server belonging to its technology service company. Syria began routing the majority of its Internet traffic through the Hong Kong-based company PCCW Global after decreasing connectivity with other international telecom companies.

The Australian Senate passed the controversial Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Bill of 2011, which allows countries that are party to the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime to demand that Australian ISPs retain specific users’ data for 180 days. Critics said the bill goes beyond the Convention on Cybercrime, which does not condone ongoing data collection and retention.

The Korean Constitutional Court recently declared that a real-name verification law which requires users of high-traffic websites to provide their real names before entering such sites, is unconstitutional. The Court pointed out that this law would not only hamper the exercise of free speech on such sites, but would also leave users’ personal information vulnerable to data breaches and leaks. When the law was in force, it was found that illegal, anonymous messages online did not decrease, despite the fact that the law was formulated in order to curb such messages.

Cool things 

Free public wireless will be installed in eight malls across the United States by Google Offers and wireless service Boingo as part of a trial to encourage free public wireless subsidized by Web advertising sponsors, which in this case will be Google Offers. The two companies have also collaborated on recent public wireless experiments in New York City.

Web cartoonist The Oatmeal raised more than US $1 million to help the nonprofit Tesla Science Center raise funds for a museum in honor of Nikola Tesla, a scientist who pioneered electricity and wireless communication. The Oatmeal, also known as Matthew Inman, will continue raising funds through the end of September.

Ukrainians can measure their politicians’ integrity ahead of the October parliamentary elections using a website [ru] launched by Chesno, which means “honest.” The website ranks politicians based on criteria such as violations of rights and freedoms, change in political positions and involvement in corruption cases.

Publications and studies 

Subscribe to the Netizen Report by email

For upcoming events related to the future of citizen rights in the digital age, see the Global Voices Events Calendar.

Web Companies Denying “Guilt” Prompts FTC To Reconsider Policies

Denying guilt while settling Federal Trade Commission violations might not be an option much longer.  Image credit @jbtaylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is considering language for its privacy investigations that would forbid companies from settling on violations while still denying guilt. Recently Facebook agreed to a 20-year period of privacy audits and Google agreed to pay a record $22.5 million for violating its existing 20-year privacy audit, but both Internet giants denied any wrongdoing.

Reacting to this re-violation of the original violation, FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch was the lone dissenting vote in the settlements with Facebook, when FTC commissioners voted 3-1-1 (including one abstention), and with Google, when commissioners voted 4-1.

For violating an existing privacy settlement with the agency by placing behavioral tracking cookies in Apple’s Safari Web browser, Google will pay a $22.5 million settlement, which is the largest ever filed with the FTC. That is reportedly equal to the amount Google makes in five hours. In 2011 the FTC required Google to undergo privacy audits for 20 years after Google’s repurposed its users’ personal data to create the now-defunct Google Buzz chat network in 2010, which aroused privacy concerns in part because Google did not give users the option to opt-out, or decide what data could or could not be shared, ahead of time.

Facebook will now also be subject to privacy audits for 20 years, and all changes to the website’s privacy settings must now be opt-in. Facebook’s transitioning of privacy rules in December 2009 without telling users led to complaints from privacy groups and scrutiny from Congress. The FTC determined the company’s privacy policies were deceptive, resulting in a settlement with the social network announced last November.

After the FTC’s announcement of the settlement in November Facebook CEO Marc Zuckerberg blogged that the company “made a bunch of mistakes,” such as the 2009 privacy policy transition, but Facebook’s consent order (PDF) on the FTC settlement stated the company “expressly denies the allegations set forth in the complaint, except for the jurisdictional facts.” Rosch stated the FTC did not provide for such a denial and the commission should adopt clearer language in settlements to avoid such deniability. The statement is available in PDF here.

Commissioners are authorized to accept a consent agreement only if there is reason to believe that a respondent is engaging in an unfair or deceptive act or practice and that acceptance of the consent agreement is in the interest of the public. I respectfully suggest that the whole reason for requiring the Commission to conclude that there is “reason to believe” is to force the Commission to come to grips with the probability that the respondent did engage in conduct creating liability. I would further argue that in the real world, if the Commission allows the respondent to expressly deny that it did engage in that conduct (or to use language that is tantamount to an express denial), there is a questionable basis for us to conclude that that probability exists (or that the consent is in the public interest either).

A similar dissenting statement against the Google settlement released by Rosch complains about Google’s denial of wrongdoing despite it being “Google’s second bite of the apple,” as Rosch described their violation of the 2011 privacy audit.

Speaking with the New York Times, Rosch stated that to avoid a precedent of inviting denials of liability in settlements he would like the FTC to adopt language similar to that used by the Securities and Exchange Commission allowing case defendants to “neither confirm nor deny” guilt, but not to deny the agency’s findings if they settle to resolve said violations.

Similar to the way that the actions of Google and Facebook are causing greater scrutiny of the Web business, the SEC revised the “neither confirm nor deny” language in its settlements in cases where a company has admitted guilt on related offenses in a criminal case, according to reporting by the New York Times.

That clause has been successful in encouraging companies to settle, but language allowing companies to settle without admitting they have done anything wrong also led Jed S. Rakoff of US District Court in Manhattan to reject a settlement between the SEC and financial conglomerate Citigroup in November, according to reporting by the New York Times.

A list of million-dollar privacy audit settlements the FTC has made with Web companies in recent years can be found on Computerworld. The article also includes seven steps companies could take to avoid an FTC privacy investigation, such as honoring opt-outs for behavioral tracking, providing complete and accurate privacy policies, and not disclosing user data to consumers without consent.


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