Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Freedom on the Net Amounts to “Privatizing Censorship, Eroding Privacy”

Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report highlights the fact that a lack of digital liberty is a problem unique to no particular corner of the earth. For the fifth year in a row, internet freedom as defined by obstacles to access, limits on content and violations of user rights has declined. The report includes 65 countries, representing 88% of the world’s online population; nearly half of these users reside in China, India or the United States.

Iceland, Estonia and Canada were found to be most free while China, Syria and Iran claimed the titles of least free. Libya, Ukraine and France took the biggest tumbles downward in 12 months, due to internal conflict, conflict with Russia and the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo, respectively.

Freedom House, Freedom on the Net 2015, censorship, internet censorship, international censorship

"Undermining online encryption and anonymity weakens the internet for everyone, but especially for human rights activists and independent journalists," reports Freedom on the Net Project Director, Sanja Kelly. Featured below are just a few of the many examples of what can go wrong when freedom goes without guarantee, according to the study's Summary of Findings.
  • In Morocco, police detained 17-year old rapper Othman Atiq for three months after he criticized them in online videos.
  • In Indonesia, a young woman was sentenced to two months in prison after her social media complaint calling the city of Yogyakarta “uncivilized” went viral in March 2015.
  • In 2014, the Saudi #Women2Drive campaign encouraged women to share videos and images of themselves behind the wheel to challenge a de facto ban on women drivers, but authorities blocked the campaign website.
  • In July 2015, a Turkish court banned five websites for promoting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization. However, since the sites were hosted on—an international blog-hosting service that employs HTTPS—Turkish ISPs had to block all of WordPress, affecting more than 70 million websites.
  • In Saudi Arabia, sentences for posting controversial content online often include requirements to close social media accounts and bans on further posts. When the human rights lawyer Walid Abulkhair refused, his prison sentence was increased from 10 to 15 years.
  • In July 2015, a leak of documents from the information technology company Hacking Team named the governments of Azerbaijan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam—all of which have jailed activists and bloggers—as Hacking Team clients, despite the company’s claim that it does not sell to countries where there are credible human rights concerns.
  • In Cuba, encryption services must be preapproved by the government, ensuring that none are impervious to state surveillance.
  • In India, ISPs are banned from encrypting customer data in bulk, allowing state security agencies to scan all traffic for keywords.
  • In August 2015, three staff members working for Vice News were arrested in southeastern Turkey and charged with supporting terrorists after authorities found encryption software on one of their computers. 
  • A decree in Vietnam bans the use of pseudonyms on blogs, following the lead of increasingly strict real-name registration for social media activity in China, and all IP addresses in Iran must be registered with the authorities. 
  • Eight men were jailed in Egypt in December 2014 for appearing in a video documenting a gay couple’s wedding ceremony. A court sentenced them to three years’ imprisonment for “inciting debauchery,” later reduced to one year. 
  • Assailants in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas murdered Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio for administering a Twitter and Facebook network that reported criminal violence, then broadcast photos of her body using her mobile phone and Twitter account. 
  • Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of insulting state officials and spreading propaganda for posting this image on Facebook depicting members of parliament as animals, casting votes on proposed legislation to limit reproductive rights. 
Iran, Atena Farghadani, censorship
Iranian Atena Farghadani received a 12 year sentence for her critique of parliament.

Despite the report's countless examples of privacy violations, the year is not without forward momentum. Governments worldwide have made more of an effort to force companies and individuals to remove unwanted content, but largely in response to the ability of VPNs and encryption technology to otherwise prevent blocking and filtering of content. "Governments are increasingly pressuring individuals and the private sector to take down or delete offending content, as opposed to relying on blocking and filtering. They know that average users have become more technologically savvy and are often able to circumvent state-imposed blocks," says Kelly.

Furthermore, legislative change and judicial decisions have been primary sources of positive change, “indicating that countries with meaningful political debates and independent judiciaries have a distinct advantage in safeguarding internet freedom over their more authoritarian counterparts.”

* Updated November 12, 2015 to include comments from Sanja Kelly of Freedom House.

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