December 6, 2011 | By Eva Galperin and Maira Sutton

This Week in Internet Censorship: activists and bloggers under fire, "cyber security" proposals, and surveillance tech exports

Thailand

Clicking “like” on Facebook in Thailand can potentially land you in prison.  The Thai Minister of Information and Communication Technology declared last Tuesday that they will begin charging Facebook users for “liking” or sharing content that could be deemed offensive to the Thai throne, the sentence for which could run anywhere between three to 15 years in prison.  Thailand has strict lèse-majesté laws that imprison individuals for criticizing or speaking ill of the throne to any extent.  Since Thailand’s Computer Crime Act was enacted in 2007,1 Internet intermediaries have also come under fire for being responsible for hosting said offensive material.  The Act gives authorities the ability to block so-called “harmful” websites and charge owners of these intermediary spaces for simply hosting the content. Not only are the provisions of this law dangerously vague, it allows authorities to enact harsh penalties to anyone who engages in online political debate.

The Thai government is making extensive use of this Act, going after Thai netizens that they accuse of speaking ill of the King and the regime.  Human rights groups say nearly 300 people have been charged with lèse-majesté offenses since 2006.  Just last week, a 61-year old retired truck driver battling mouth cancer was sentenced to 20 years in jail for sending text messages with supposed offensive content. 

We reiterate that the charges against these individuals are not only gross violations of free speech and privacy rights, they are effectively impairing their society both economically and socially. The Thai state needs to recognize that they are playing with quicksand by enacting such strict, antiquated laws to enforce state nationalism.

Bahrain

This fall, 63 Bahraini students were expelled from school for “participating in unlicensed gatherings and marches,” the evidence of which was pulled from their Facebook accounts which they reportedly used to organize pro-democracy protests in February.  Bahrain Polytechnic is a government-owned tertiary school that was created by a Royal Decree 2008.  After the protests, the school required the students to sign a code of conduct asserting political activities needed to be kept off campus to ensure it remained a “neutral” and “safe” space. 

The Ministry of Education’s investigation lasted four weeks, during which state investigators showed students paper records of their online activities on Facebook.  The supposed offenses ranged from peacefully demonstrating at the protests at Pearl Roundabout to “liking” a page on Facebook.  One Australian tutor at the school who happened to live right next to the protests was fired for filming the protests and sharing them on Youtube.  They terminated the teacher’s contract for supposedly supporting pro-democracy protests.

Bahrain arrested several bloggers and social media users earlier this year, and even blocked access to individual Twitter accounts in early 2010.  EFF joins Human Rights Watch in condemning the Bahraini Ministry of Education for targeting students, faculty, and staff for expressing their personal political beliefs.  

Vietnam

Good news finally arrives from Vietnam this week, as a Vietnamese court reduced the jail sentence of blogger and human rights activist Professor Pham Minh Hoang from three years to 17 months.  He’ll be released from jail in January 2012, followed by the 3 years of house arrest he was originally sentenced with in August of this year.  As we reported last August, Hanoi authorities arrested Professor Huang and accused him of damaging their country’s image, and a judge ruled that Hoang had been involved in activities to overthrow the government.  Professor Hoang had written 33 articles on his blog under the pseudonym Phan Kien Quoc, writing about various social and political issues in his country, including advocating the need for his country to stop attacking the right to freedom of expression and uphold human rights in their country.

There has been a recent wave of excessive jail sentences given to those criticizing the Vietnamese Communist regime. His sentence was light compared to others however, both because he is dual citizen with France, and because he admitted that although he was a member to Viet Tan, he was not acting under the instruction of the banned pro-democracy group, which the state considers to be a terrorist organization.  Vietnam continues to violate its obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and even fails to follow its own constitutional articles guaranteeing freedom of expression and freedom of association.

In November, EFF joined human rights and digital freedom organizations in sending a joint letter to the Director General of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denouncing the Vietnamese government’s imprisonment of bloggers.  We urged them to recognize Pham Minh Hoang's human rights to freedom of expression and release him. We are heartened that this reduced sentence brings him several months closer to freedom.

United Kingdom

The British government published its new "cyber-security" strategy this week, which includes the use of bans on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter for those who have been accused of misusing the Internet for criminal means. 

Even more alarming, the strategy includes a plan to introduce surveillance technology that could be used to inform the authorities when banned users are breaking the bail or sentencing conditions that have been set on their Internet use: 

4.28 In addition, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office will consider and scope the development of a new way of enforcing these orders, using ‘cyber-tags’ which are triggered by the offender breaching the conditions that have been put on their Internet use, and which will automatically inform the police or probation service. If the approach shows promise we will look at expanding cyber-sanctions to a wider group of offenders.

Prime Minister David Cameron's position on Internet freedom has been staggeringly inconsistent. On one hand, he has publicly pledged his commitment to a free and open Internet, saying "Governments mustn't use cyber security as an excuse for censorship." On the other, he has called on his government to explore the possiblility of shutting off access to social media in case of civil unrest. The proposed ban on social media use sounds like just another method of trying to achieve the kind of Internet censorship Cameron called for in the wake of the London riots. 

Syria

More good news from Area SpA, an Italian company that had been helping to build an Internet surveillance system in Syria. The company has reportedly pulled out of the project. Area SpA's involvement first came to light as the result of a Bloomberg investigative report which found that the company had contracted with Syrian intelligence agents to develop an Internet surveillance system "with the power to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country." The Italian company has come under pressure from human rights groups to end their involvement in the project. We're glad to see that the pressure has worked. 

Syria's existing Internet surveillance systems, which include hardware from Silicon Valley-based Blue Coat, have aided President Bashar al-Assad's regime in his crackdown on protest. More than 100 Syrians have died in detention, and information gathered through Area SpA's Internet surveillance system would have been used against people being detained and tortured, according to Nadim Houry, senior Human Rights Watch researcher for the Middle East and North Africa. 

An official statement from Area SpA claims that the system they had been contracted to work on was never completed, had never been operational, and as a result, could not have contributed to any repressive actions. 

Myanmar

Last of all, more evidence has come to light indicating that Blue Coat's Internet surveillance tools are being used in Myanmar/Burma. Citizen Labs' original report, which described the use of Blue Coat devices in Syria and Myanmar, prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Commerce to determine if the company had prior knowledge that its equipment was being used by the Syrian government. The additional evidence gathered by Citizen Lab provides further confirmation that Blue Coat devices are currently being used in Myanamar. A message displayed by Burmese ISP Yatanarpon Teleport references Blue Coat in the URL and is consistent with the way that Blue Coat devices display notifications to users. Combined with the evidence presented in the report, these findings present a strong case that Blue Coat devices are actively being used in Myanmar. 

Myanmar, which is governed by a military junta, is on a list of countries with which the U.S. government carefully resticts trade, but it is unclear if the sale of Blue Coat devices to Myanmar breaches these restrictions. Internet access is Myanmar is heavily censored. During a violent crackdown on protest in 2007, Myanmar became the first country to shut off its Internet entirely. Strong evidence that Blue Coat devices are in use in Myanmar is the first step in holding the Silicon Valley-based company accountable for contributing to Internet surveillance and political repression.

  • 1. An unofficial English translation of the law can be found here: http://www.prachatai.com/english/node/117

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