Global Voices Advocacy's Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in Internet rights around the world. This week's report begins in China, where officials instituted a series of changes at the close of 2014 that could have consequences for the administration of the Chinese Internet.
Authorities appointed a new chairperson, Lu Wei, to head China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), China’s certificate authority. CCNIC operates the country’s domain name registry and was previously led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, an academic organization. The move places CNNIC under closer government control than ever. In addition to chairing the Cyberspace Administration of China, Lu Wei also serves as vice chair of the Central Propaganda Department.
The impact of the shift is difficult to guess at this point. Censorship-monitoring project Greatfire.org predicts that the move may make the implementation of censorship and information controls more efficient by instituting more direct lines of reporting to government authorities. A December 2014 profile of Lu Wei in the New York Times also suggests as much, noting that Lu in his current capacity has already made moves to tighten restrictions on free speech online.
At the same time, the announcement occurred alongside what appears to be a weakening of the block on access to Google services instituted in the lead-up to the June 2014 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests. On Dec. 31, Google reported a slight increase in traffic to its Gmail service in China, which had been fully inaccessible. Chinese users wanting to access Google services that actually function, however, still face significant technical challenges. It is hard to say precisely what consequences these changes will bring for the Chinese Internet in 2015.
India keeps block on 28 sites for “jihadi propaganda”
The Indian government lifted its block on Vimeo and three other websites shortly after the New Year, while continuing to block another 28, including Pastebin and the Internet Archive, for alleged “jihadi propaganda”. India’s Department of Telecommunications ordered the ban on the sites on December 17. Apart from concerns about the sites’ content, authorities reasoned that the sites also did not require authentication or vetting prior to postings by third parties. Sites that cooperated with the authorities have been removed from the list, according to tweets from Arvind Gupta, an IT official in the ruling Bharatiya Janata party.
Draft law on digital media could stifle social media in Chile
Prolific tweeters in Chile may soon face new challenges resulting from a new digital media law that would restrict free expression online. All individuals publishing news via digital or electronic means at least four times a week, including Facebook postings, blogs, tweets, and websites, fall under the bounds of the Ley Digital, which would require registration with the state and payment of fees by those that fall within these guidelines. The bill is currently being discussed in Chile’s House of Deputies, as well as by Twitter users under the hashtag #LeyDeMediosDigitales.
Mauritanian blogger faces death on dubious blasphemy conviction
Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed was sentenced to death by firing squad on Dec. 24, 2014, for an online article he published over a year ago. This is Mauritania's first death sentence for apostasy since independence in 1960. In the article titled “Religion, religiosity, and craftsmen,” Cheikh criticised his country’s discriminatory caste system, linking it to what he identified as similar practices from the lifetime of prophet Muhammad.
Russian activists leap to blogger Navalny’s defense
Russian authorities fought tooth and nail to prevent protests in the lead-up to the announcement of a verdict for opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who was given a suspended sentence in court on Dec. 30 for defrauding a French cosmetics company. The verdict was originally scheduled to be issued on Jan. 15, but was moved up, perhaps with the aim of thwarting planned protests. An initial protest page set up on Facebook was blocked by the company, apparently on the Russian government’s request, though alternative Facebook event pages were set up quickly by Navalny’s supporters following the takedown. Facebook and Twitter both subsequently decided not to block any further protest content or pages, reportedly with the understanding that the decision could lead to the sites being fully blocked in Russia, according to independent media outlet TV Rain.
Coolpad Androids make surveillance easy in China, Taiwan
According to reports from security firm Palo Alto Networks, Android smartphones sold by the Chinese manufacturer Coolpad may contain a backdoor enabling others to hijack SMS functions, install unwanted applications remotely, and track users’ device information, location, phone, and SMS history. The backdoor software, dubbed CoolReaper by the firm, is believed to impact over 10 million users of Coolpad smartphones in China and Taiwan. Despite these reports, Coolpad spokesperson Andrew Cau said the technology “didn't constitute” an illegal backdoor.
In Hong Kong, user data flows freely (to authorities)
The Hong Kong Transparency Report for 2013 revealed that service providers granted 70 percent of government requests for user data, despite not being required under law to comply with the requests, absent a court order. In all, five government agencies made 5,511 requests for online user data, the vast majority of which did not include a court order — particularly problematic in light of several arrests during the Occupy Central movement of several online forum users, who posted messages urging people to take to the streets.
Security experts scrutinize US claims of North Korea hack
While the White House and FBI continue to point to North Korea as the perpetrator of the massive hack of Sony Pictures in December, North Korea has denied its involvement and proposed a joint investigation into the matter with the US government. Several cybersecurity experts question the attribution, pointing to evidence that insiders at Sony or other non-state actors may have been responsible. North Korea has received some blowback from the attacks, including a series of Internet outages shortly after US President Barack Obama promised a “proportional response”, as well as several mostly symbolic sanctions by the US against the country’s defense apparatus and ten individuals.
Washington’s reluctance to share details about its evidence against North Korea is worrying, says cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier:
I worry that this case echoes the "we have evidence — trust us" story that the Bush administration told in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Identifying the origin of a cyberattack is very difficult, and when it is possible the process of attributing responsibility can take months. While I am confident that there will be no US military retribution because of this, I think the best response is to calm down and be skeptical of tidy explanations until more is known.
The year 2014 marked an incredible year of advocacy for free expression around the world, and GV’s Advox team covered more stories than ever before. Our 2014 round-up post encapsulates some of the highlights.
Juan Arellano, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Lisa Ferguson, Oiwan Lam, Weiping Li, Rebecca Mackinnon, Lokman Tsui, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.