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April 21, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: If protecting your privacy is ‘part of a conspiracy,’ then we’re all in big trouble

“Hacker” by the Preiser Project via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from April 04 – April 19, 2019.

On April 11, two arrests were made in cases that could set game-changing legal precedents threatening online privacy and free speech protections.

The first case made headlines worldwide: Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange was arrested by British police at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had lived since 2012.

Legal and ethical debates about the impact of material released on WikiLeaks — troves of classified documents that have affected the rise, fall and floundering of multiple governments around the world —  alongside sexual assault allegations against Assange, have resurfaced in public debate since his arrest. But these are not new.

What is newly public is the US Justice Department’s indictment of Assange, which was filed in March 2018 but kept under seal until now. The indictment seeks charges against Assange under the 1984 US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, accusing him of conspiring to “knowingly access a computer, without authorization” (e.g. crack a password) to facilitate Chelsea Manning’s “acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States…”

But the indictment also details the means by which Assange communicated with Chelsea Manning, describing secure, open source technologies such as the chat service Jabber and the open source computer software Linux as “part of the conspiracy.”

Technical experts in the human rights field who handle sensitive information online know that using tools like these is considered only a best practice. These tools were built with privacy as their primary objective, and they are vital to the protection of journalists’ sources, not to mention the transmission of sensitive information about human rights abuses by lawyers, researchers and activists worldwide.

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm warned of the legal precedent that the case could set in the US, pending Assange’s extradition. He highlighted the fact that using digital privacy tools like Jabber has become a “common journalistic practice”:

Once there is law on the books that says “this aspect of journalism is illegal”, it becomes much easier for the justice department to bring other cases against more mainstream government critics down the road, and much harder for judges to immediately dismiss them.


…it’s clear that they are using the conspiracy charge as a pretext to target Assange and potentially criminalize important and common journalistic practices in newsgathering at the same time.

The legal precedent that Timm foresees may be set even sooner in Ecuador, where another “computer-related crime” case is taking shape.

The other case, which has garnered much less media attention, is that of Ola Bini, the Swedish free software developer who was detained at the Mariscal Sucre Airport in Quito, Ecuador, where he has lived since 2013. Bini is part of the broader global digital rights community to which Global Voices is strongly tied.

On April 13, Ecuador’s federal prosecutor announced that the government had filed charges against Bini for “alleged participation in the crime of assault on the integrity of computer systems” and attempts to destabilize the country. Interior Minister María Paula Romo also has said that Bini “supported” Wikileaks.

Bini will be detained for 90 days while prosecutors pursue their investigation. Police have searched his home and confiscated numerous electronic devices and hard drives. The public prosecutor’s office posted photos of the devices on its website, as if to associate common electronic storage devices with serious crimes. Ecuadorian authorities have yet to offer evidence to support their accusations.

In a statement to his supporters, Bini asserted that the case against him is based “based on the books I've read and the technology I have.” He wrote:

I believe strongly in the right to privacy. Without privacy, we can't have agency, and without agency we are slaves. That's why I have dedicated my life to this struggle. Surveillance is a threat to us all, we must stop it….If Ecuador can do this, so can others. We have to stop this idea now, before it's too late.

David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur for the protection of free expression, and Edison Lanza, who serves a similar role in the Inter-American Free Commission on Human Rights, have expressed concern about Bini's arrest.

Free speech advocacy group ARTICLE 19 has called for Bini’s release:

ARTICLE 19 is concerned that the arrest and illegal detention of Ola Bini is part of a crackdown against the community of developers who build digital security technology tools which enable Internet freedoms and secure communication online.

Indian authorities tackle Tiktok, on child safety grounds

This week, both Apple and Google removed the mega-popular short video streaming app Tiktok from their app stores in India in compliance with an order from the country’s information and technology ministry.

Owned by Chinese tech giant Douyin, Tiktok was released globally in 2018 and the company says it has more than 120 million users in India. The removal order came after the Madras high court ruled that the app could expose children to sexual predators, pornographic content and cyberbullying and put a ban on downloading the app. The court also extended the ruling to media outlets, banning them from using Tiktok footage in their reporting.

The New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre has pointed out that the Madras court ruling disregards constitutional protections for free speech, as well as India’s IT Act, which protects online platforms from liability for illegal content posted on their platforms by third parties.

Tiktok has been banned in Bangladesh and was briefly blocked in Indonesia, and is facing legal challenges in the US, also on child privacy grounds.

Facial recognition works — even while you’re sleeping

A restaurant worker in Ningbo, China was robbed by two co-workers as he lay sleeping in a shared dormitory for food workers. The two men did not steal money from his pockets, however. Instead, they took the man’s phone and pointed it at his sleeping face, prompting its facial recognition system to unlock the device. They then transferred 10,000 yuan (about US $1500) from his WeChat account to their own accounts. In China, WeChat payment has all but replaced cash and even credit cards in many aspects of daily life, both when paying for goods and services, and sending money to family or friends.

Egypt blocks thousands of domains in effort to silence opposition campaign

On April 15, internet service providers in Egypt blocked over 34,000 web domains in what appears to be an effort to stifle voices and initiatives opposing draft constitutional amendments that would allow president al-Sisi to extend his term in office until 2030. Many of the websites affected by the block are associated with a campaign to oppose the amendments, which would also limit judiciary independence and allow the military to wield greater influence over political decision making. The campaign organizers estimate that 250,000 people have signed their petition opposing the amendments.

Jailed UAE activist on hunger strike

Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor has endured an open-ended hunger strike since approximately mid-March 2019. His supporters say his health is rapidly deteriorating. In May 2018, he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison under the 2012 Cybercrime Law of “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE” and “publishing false reports and information on social media to damage the UAE's relationship with its neighbouring countries.”

Prior to his 2017 arrest, he campaigned online on behalf of jailed activists in the UAE and elsewhere in the region. He is the 2015 laureate of the Martin Ennals Foundation, which supports human rights defenders who are at risk.

New research


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by Netizen Report Team at April 21, 2019 03:17 PM

April 15, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Jailed UAE activist Ahmed Mansoor continues hunger strike

Mansoor has been in prison for his online activism since 2017.

Human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor is currently serving a ten-year jail sentence in the UAE. Photo Credit: Martin Ennals Foundation, via Citizen Lab.

Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor has endured an open-ended hunger strike since approximately mid-March 2019. His supporters say his health is rapidly deteriorating.

Security officials arrested Mansoor from his home on March 20, 2017 over comments he posted online. In May 2018, he was convicted under the 2012 Cybercrime Law of “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE” and “publishing false reports and information on social media to damage the UAE's relationship with its neighbouring countries.” A court sentenced him to ten years in jail and fined him 1,000,000 Emirati Dirhams (US $270,000).

Mansoor has been advocating for democratic reform and protection of human rights in his country and the region for more than a decade. He is the 2015 laureate of the Martin Ennals Foundation, which supports human rights defenders who are at risk. He is a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee.

This is not Mansoor's first time behind bars. In 2011, he and four other political activists were jailed in relation to their connections to, an online discussion forum run by Mansoor. He also used the forum to publish a petition calling for democratic reforms in the UAE. State officials used this as a basis for charging Mansoor with insulting UAE leaders. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, but was released on presidential pardon after serving only seven months.

Prior to his 2017 arrest, he campaigned online on behalf of jailed activists in the UAE and elsewhere in the region. The day before his arrest, he tweeted his concern about the continuous and arbitrary detention of Emirati activist Osama al-Najjar, who remained in prison despite having completed his three-year jail sentence. According to Human Rights Watch, he also signed a joint letter with other activists in the region calling on leaders at the Arab League summit in Jordan in March 2017 to release political prisoners in their countries.

In December 2018, the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court, whose verdicts are final, confirmed his ten-year sentence.

According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), Mansoor began the strike to ”protest poor prison conditions and his unfair trial”:

Mansoor is believed to be currently held in Al-Sadr prison in Abu Dhabi, where he is kept in isolation. A source told GCHR that he is being held in “terrible conditions” in a cell with no bed, no water and no access to a shower. His health has deteriorated greatly and he is in bad shape.

Human rights groups expressed concerns about the activist's health, calling on the UAE authorities to set him free.

“Ahmed Mansoor is risking his health to call attention to his deeply unjust imprisonment simply because he advocated for the kind of tolerant, progressive society the UAE claims to be,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “UAE authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Mansoor so that he can continue to serve as a voice for justice in a region desperately in need of it,” she added.

The International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE called on the authorities to treat Mansoor in accordance with international human rights standards and to allow international rights groups to visit him in prison:

We reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release of Ahmed Mansoor. Pending this, we urge the Emirati authorities to treat him in line with the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which guarantees the provision of medical care and sanitary prison conditions. To ensure this, it is imperative that international NGOs be allowed access to al-Sadr prison to visit Mansoor.


Learn about the physiological effects of a hunger strike with the infographic below, created by our partners at Visualizing Impact.

by Afef Abrougui at April 15, 2019 05:15 PM

Joi Ito
I Embraced Screen Time With My Daughter--and I Love It

Like most parents of young children, I've found that determining how best to guide my almost 2-year-old daughter's relationship with technology--especially YouTube and mobile devices--is a challenge. And I'm not alone: One 2018 survey of parents found that overuse of digital devices has become the number one parenting concern in the United States.

Empirically grounded, rigorously researched advice is hard to come by. So perhaps it's not surprising that I've noticed a puzzling trend in my friends who provide me with unsolicited parenting advice. In general, my most liberal and tech-savvy friends exercise the most control and are weirdly technophobic when it comes to their children's screen time. What's most striking to me is how many of their opinions about children and technology are not representative of the broader consensus of research, but seem to be based on fearmongering books, media articles, and TED talks that amplify and focus on only the especially troubling outcomes of too much screen time.

I often turn to my sister, Mimi Ito, for advice on these issues. She has raised two well-adjusted kids and directs the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, where researchers conduct extensive research on children and technology. Her opinion is that "most tech-privileged parents should be less concerned with controlling their kids' tech use and more about being connected to their digital lives." Mimi is glad that the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) dropped its famous 2x2 rule--no screens for the first two years, and no more than two hours a day until a child hits 18. She argues that this rule fed into stigma and parent-shaming around screen time at the expense of what she calls "connected parenting"--guiding and engaging in kids' digital interests.

One example of my attempt at connected parenting is watching YouTube together with Kio, singing along with Elmo as Kio shows off the new dance moves she's learned. Everyday, Kio has more new videos and favorite characters that she is excited to share when I come home, and the songs and activities follow us into our ritual of goofing off in bed as a family before she goes to sleep. Her grandmother in Japan is usually part of this ritual in a surreal situation where she is participating via FaceTime on my wife's iPhone, watching Kio watching videos and singing along and cheering her on. I can't imagine depriving us of these ways of connecting with her.

The (Unfounded) War on Screens

The anti-screen narrative can sometimes read like the War on Drugs. Perhaps the best example is Glow Kids, in which Nicholas Kardaras tells us that screens deliver a dopamine rush rather like sex. He calls screens "digital heroin" and uses the term "addiction" when referring to children unable to self-regulate their time online.

More sober (and less breathlessly alarmist) assessments by child psychologists and data analysts offer a more balanced view of the impact of technology on our kids. Psychologist and baby observer Alison Gopnik, for instance, notes: "There are plenty of mindless things that you could be doing on a screen. But there are also interactive, exploratory things that you could be doing." Gopnik highlights how feeling good about digital connections is a normal part of psychology and child development. "If your friends give you a like, well, it would be bad if you didn't produce dopamine," she says.

Other research has found that the impact of screens on kids is relatively small, and even the conservative AAP says that cases of children who have trouble regulating their screen time are not the norm, representing just 4 percent to 8.5 percent of US children. This year, Andrew Przybylski and Amy Orben conducted a rigorous analysis of data on more than 350,000 adolescents and found a nearly negligible effect on psychological well-being at the aggregate level.

In their research on digital parenting, Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross found widespread concern among parents about screen time. They posit, however, that "screen time" is an unhelpful catchall term and recommend that parents focus instead on quality and joint engagement rather than just quantity. The Connected Learning Lab's Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological sciences, reviewed the research on adolescents and devices and found as many positive as negative effects. She points to the consequences of unbalanced attention on the negative ones. "The real threat isn't smartphones. It's this campaign of misinformation and the generation of fear among parents and educators."

We need to immediately begin rigorous, longitudinal studies on the effects of devices and the underlying algorithms that guide their interfaces and their interactions with and recommendations for children. Then we can make evidence-based decisions about how these systems should be designed, optimized for, and deployed among children, and not put all the burden on parents to do the monitoring and regulation.

My guess is that for most kids, this issue of screen time is statistically insignificant in the context of all the other issues we face as parents--education, health, day care--and for those outside my elite tech circles even more so. Parents like me, and other tech leaders profiled in a recent New York Times series about tech elites keeping their kids off devices, can afford to hire nannies to keep their kids off screens. Our kids are the least likely to suffer the harms of excessive screen time. We are also the ones least qualified to be judgmental about other families who may need to rely on screens in different ways. We should be creating technology that makes screen entertainment healthier and fun for all families, especially those who don't have nannies.

I'm not ignoring the kids and families for whom digital devices are a real problem, but I believe that even in those cases, focusing on relationships may be more important than focusing on controlling access to screens.

Keep It Positive

One metaphor for screen time that my sister uses is sugar. We know sugar is generally bad for you and has many side effects and can be addictive to kids. However, the occasional bonding ritual over milk and cookies might have more benefit to a family than an outright ban on sugar. Bans can also backfire, fueling binges and shame as well as mistrust and secrecy between parents and kids.

When parents allow kids to use computers, they often use spying tools, and many teens feel parental surveillance is invasive to their privacy. One study showed that using screen time to punish or reward behavior actually increased net screen time use by kids. Another study by Common Sense Media shows what seems intuitively obvious: Parents use screens as much as kids. Kids model their parents--and have a laserlike focus on parental hypocrisy.

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle describes the fracturing of family cohesion because of the attention that devices get and how this has disintegrated family interaction. While I agree that there are situations where devices are a distraction--I often declare "laptops closed" in class, and I feel that texting during dinner is generally rude--I do not feel that iPhones necessarily draw families apart.

In the days before the proliferation of screens, I ran away from kindergarten every day until they kicked me out. I missed more classes than any other student in my high school and barely managed to graduate. I also started more extracurricular clubs in high school than any other student. My mother actively supported my inability to follow rules and my obsessive tendency to pursue my interests and hobbies over those things I was supposed to do. In the process, she fostered a highly supportive trust relationship that allowed me to learn through failure and sometimes get lost without feeling abandoned or ashamed.

It turns out my mother intuitively knew that it's more important to stay grounded in the fundamentals of positive parenting. "Research consistently finds that children benefit from parents who are sensitive, responsive, affectionate, consistent, and communicative" says education professor Stephanie Reich, another member of the Connected Learning Lab who specializes in parenting, media, and early childhood. One study shows measurable cognitive benefits from warm and less restrictive parenting.

When I watch my little girl learning dance moves from every earworm video that YouTube serves up, I imagine my mother looking at me while I spent every waking hour playing games online, which was my pathway to developing my global network of colleagues and exploring the internet and its potential early on. I wonder what wonderful as well as awful things will have happened by the time my daughter is my age, and I hope a good relationship with screens and the world beyond them can prepare her for this future.

by Boris Anthony at April 15, 2019 01:17 PM

April 12, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Free by day, jailed by night: Egyptian activists speak out against conditional release

They are out of prison, but not really free.

Shawkan enjoying a day out, before he is locked again for the night. Photo taken by Wael Abbas and posted on the photojournalist's Twitter account.

Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, spent five years in prison for simply doing his job as a journalist.

He was detained on August 14, 2013 as he was photographing the deadly dispersal of the Rabaa El Adaweya sit-in, in which supporters of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi gathered to protest a military coup that ended his presidency on July 3 that same year. Egyptian security forces killed at least 817 people and injured many more, according to Human Rights Watch, when they dispersed the sit-in.

Shawkan, who was working for Demotix at the time of his arrest, spent almost four years in pre-trial detention before his trial, along with 739 other defendants in what came to be known as the “Rabaa Dispersal Case,” began. In September 2018, a Cairo Criminal Court convicted him on spurious charges of murder and affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and a few months later he was released from jail.

Shawkan’s supporters were thrilled to see him reunited with his loved ones when he was released on March 4. But the journalist is actually only partially free. Every evening at 6pm, he has to report to his local police station where he has to spend the night, before he is free again at 6am the following morning. Shawkan needs to do this every day for five years after his release.

“I want to be free so I can return to normal life,” Shawkan told Deutsche Welle after his release in reference to his probation period.

On Twitter and Instagram, the journalist has been reflecting and posting about his life under these restrictive conditions and his daily hours of freedom, from 6am to 6pm.

On March 31, he posted about his visit to the pyramids in Giza.

The pyramids are at the back.
A trip nearby the place of supervision [police station where he has to spend the night] because of the [lack of] time.

On April 6, using the hashtag نص_حرية# (“half freedom” in English) he posted a photo on Instagram, taken from his seat on a motorcycle. He explained that in order to arrive to the police station on time each night, he travels by motorcycle so he can avoid traffic.

Shawkan’s story is not unique in Egypt. Prominent Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, who was released from jail on March 28, is also under a similar probation period. Alaa spent five years in jail for defying a protest ban, and like Shawkan, he has to spend the night at a police station for the next five years.

”Freedom for Alaa”. Since his ”release”, Alaa has been speaking out against the conditions of his probation. Photo by the Freedom for Alaa campaign.

Alaa has also been reflecting on life under probation.

“I am happy to see your joy over my release, but I am unfortunately not free,” Alaa wrote on Facebook days after his release. “Every day I surrender myself to a humiliation called [police] monitoring.”

In another post, he wrote: “I do not know how to describe the beautiful feeling of seeing [his son] Khaled’s swimming lesson for the first time. I also don’t know how to describe the cruelty of leaving him in mid-lesson to be on time for the monitoring.”

Alaa’s sister, Mona Seif, who is also a human rights activist, likened the conditions of her brother’s imprisonment every night to “solitary confinement”.

Alaa has to turn himself in to Dokki police station every day at 6 pm and they let him go at 6 am.

When he turns himself in, they keep him isolated from all others in a small wooden kiosk within the police station. They lock him in for 12 hrs.

These are worst conditions than the ones he had to endure in prison for five years. Alaa is practically now spending half his day in solitary confinement in the police station, and he is looking at five years more of this nightmare

Alaa has also learned that speaking out against these conditions can pose a risk of additional jail time. On the night of April 9, security officers threatened to throw him back in jail if he keeps exposing the conditions of his probation.

Ahmed Maher, a political activist with the April 6 Youth Movement, spent three years behind bars for illegal demonstration. He was released in January 2017 and placed under police monitoring a period equal to the amount of time he spent in jail. On Twitter, he described the conditions of this period:

Under police monitoring, where we sleep is much dirtier than in prison and there is more arbitrariness, even though according to law, they do not have the right to imprison us in a police station or to deprive us of our children, our work, our studies and our normal lives. According to law, monitoring should be more gentle and more humane, but it is clear that the motivation is nothing but a desire to abuse and humiliate.

This practice of locking former prisoners overnight is an abuse of power. According to legal analysts and human rights NGOs, those placed under monitoring are supposed to be able to spend the night in their homes. Only those who are without a place to live in the area of their local police station, are required to spend the night in official custody.

Yasmin Omar and Mai El-Sadaby of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy wrote:

After an individual is sentenced to a probation period decided by the judge at sentencing, the law empowers the sentenced individual to designate a residence at which to serve his or her probation period. However, the law additionally authorizes authorities to select a location for probation if no residence is provided, as well as to determine whether or not a location selected by the defendant is appropriate for police surveillance. This discretion has been used to systematically erode the right of individuals to complete their probation periods at their stated residence—a right guaranteed to them under law—and instead force individuals who have residences where police surveillance can clearly occur to spend them at police stations.

Yet at the end of each day, many Egyptians are forced to retreat to a small cell in a police station, away from their loved ones and the rest of the world: they are out of prison, but not really free. Many are activists, protesters and journalists, whose only crimes were to exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and protest.

by Afef Abrougui at April 12, 2019 01:12 PM

April 10, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Censored on WeChat: How a fatal bus accident in Chongqing symbolized China's ‘left turn’

Censors targeted disinformation– and political opinions — in bus accident aftermath.

Two drivers from the Chongqing bus accident. Image from Weibo.

This post was written by the team of WeChatscope, a research initiative led by Dr. King-wa Fu at The University of Hong Kong.

With more than 1.0825 billion individual users, along with more than 20 million registered public accounts, WeChat has the largest number of domestic users and the most extensive coverage of any social media service in China. As such, it has become a chief component of China's rigorous censorship regime.

In 2017, our team at the University of Hong Kong built a technical web “scraping” system for studying censorship on WeChat's publicly accessible pages. Throughout 2018, we tracked more than 4,000 public accounts covering daily news and preserved censored posts in a publicly accessible database, WeChatscope. This article is the third in a partnership series with Global Voices.

The Chinese government has long justified its censorship practices as necessary for keeping fake news and online rumors out of circulation, both in traditional and online media. But a 2018 bus accident in Chongqing marked one of few news events where government censors found themselves censoring news coverage by state-affiliated media outlets.

The bus accident took place in the Wanzhou District of Chongqing on 28 October 2018. On a two-way bridge, the vehicle swerved into oncoming traffic, collided with another car and then flew off the bridge, plunging into the Yangtze river. All told, 15 people were killed as a result of the accident.

State-affiliated newspaper Beijing News was the first media outlet to report the news on Weibo, with a story suggesting that the accident was caused by an oncoming car. The report emphasized the fact that the driver of the car was female, and alleged that she had been driving on the wrong side of the road.

Later, Xinhua news agency quoted the Beijing News story and the news was published on major news sites and media outlets. For example, Global Times's headline was “The cause of bus plunge accident: a female driver drove in the wrong direction”.

Netizens blamed a female driver for the bus accident, attributing it to her wearing high heels. (viral screen capture image from Weibo)

The news went viral online, with a majority of netizens praying for the accident victims. A few made comments reflecting gender stereotypes, criticizing the female driver. Then on Weibo, a user posted an original photo from the scene of the accident, showing the driver, who incurred only minor injuries, had been wearing high heels. The photo went viral immediately, eliciting comments including “she deserves to die” and “murderer”.

A few hours later, Wanzhou District police reported that it was the bus driver, not the woman in the car, who had veered into oncoming traffic. The female driver had done nothing wrong.

The police clarification also went viral and public opinion reversed. Some criticized the original reports for misleading the public. But the media outlets involved simply removed their stories in silence, without making any public apology. Notably, Beijing News ran another report “Attacking the female driver was straying from the point”, as if it had played no role in misleading the public.

Five days later, surveillance footage taken from the bus again went viral online. It revealed that five minutes before the crash, a passenger had had a quarrel with the driver. The quarrel then escalated into a physical fight and the driver lost control of the vehicle.

As predicted, the footage caused another uproar online and attracted a huge number of comments. Many people saw the escalation of tension as an allegory of China's political turn in recent years.

Media outlets take down factually inaccurate headlines

The Wechatscope database revealed that some official outlets removed the misleading news stories on WeChat soon after Wanzhou District police released the details of the bus accident. For example, Legal Daily published a post with the headline: “Chongqing bus plunged into the river to avoid crashing with the female driver who had taken the wrong lane. The bus has sunk 65 meters and is now at the bottom of the river. Two bodies have been found” (重庆公交车为躲避逆行女司机撞破护栏坠江 沉入65米深江底 已打捞出两具遗体). The post was published on 28 October 28 and then deleted just two days later, on 30 October.

With this and other stories, the removals were not enforced by an outside authority. Instead, media outlets themselves were self-censoring (or self-regulating) their own misinformed news content. The content removal notices issued by WeChat indicated that these posts were taken down by their own publishers.

At the time of this story's writing, similar headlines about women driving in the wrong lane had been removed from all official news outlets and could not be found in search results.

Critical commentaries labelled as illegal

At a later stage, after the surveillance footage had been released, censorship authorities stepped in and labelled reflective and critical commentaries as “illegal”. The WeChatscope data set offers a glimpse at what authorities deemed to be “illegal” content — this proves that authorities’ interventions were not intended to stop the circulation of fake news or misinformation, but rather of opinions and views.

Below are three posts that circulated widely on the WeChat public domain, but were then deleted quickly.

This post was published and deleted on November 4. It was labelled as illegal content according to WeChat's take down notice. The writer quoted social media discussions and used these to build an allegory, comparing the bus accident with China's trajectory in recent years. One line of the piece read:


Don’t attack the person who is in charge, or else he makes a sudden left turn, everyone in the vehicle will be doomed.

The post was published on November 3 and deleted on November 6. It was also labelled as illegal content. The writer criticized onlookers who have witnessed wrongdoings but chosen to remain silent, warning that when people tolerate barbaric behavior, all of society suffers.

Published on November 5 and deleted on November 7, this story also was labelled as illegal content. The post interprets the incident as a typical tragedy of an era in which good people cannot speak up and act out, lest they be buried alive with evil people.

In each of the above examples, we see that the censorship authorities were forced to step in and label related content as “illegal” only when interpretations of the news story had the potential to challenge the political status quo.

This case study shows that the spread of factually inaccurate information in mainland China could be dramatically reduced if state-run media conducted more self-regulation and employed higher reporting standards. And the second set of examples shows that in censorship authorities’ crackdown on rumors, the real target is independent political views.

by Wechatscope at April 10, 2019 10:42 PM

Rumors of Russia's first ‘fake news’ case against a media outlet might just be fake news

The false story claimed authorities had banned yoga in prisons.

By Bruce Mars via

Russia’s “fake news” law, which came into effect in late March, could see its first test case soon — but its definitions are vague and even Russia’s top lawmakers are still uncertain about the mechanics of its enforcement.

The seemingly fake news story in question broke in early April 2019, when Russian news media reported that yoga classes in Russian prisons might be banned:

The story was originally reported by Moskovsky Komsomolets, a popular tabloid. The story’s author, Eva Merkacheva, wrote that Russia’s penitentiary system had suspended yoga classes for inmates after the attorney general’s office received a letter of concern from conservative senator Yelena Mizulina.

Mizulina, the article claimed, cited previous communication the senator had received from Russian Orthodox theologian and Alexander Dvorkin, an anti-cult activist. His appeal to Mizulina, according to Komsomolets, spoke of the dangers of indoctrinating inmates into an “infamous pseudo-Hinduist cult” and “uncontrollable sexual arousal” triggered by yoga.

It is worth noting that Eva Merkacheva, the Komsomolets reporter, is not an impartial observer in this case: she herself campaigned for instituting yoga classes in Russia’s pretrial detention facilities and wrote a book on yoga for inmates which conveniently was published just as the story broke. This led to rumors that the whole story could be a PR stunt to promote her book.

Later, the deputy head of Russia’s penitentiary system said there were, in fact, no plans to ban yoga classes in Russia’s prisons and actually praised the experimental program for significantly improving the inmates’ overall health and general well-being in the selected detention facilities where yoga classes were introduced in 2018.

On April 8, Senator Mizulina struck back with a claim that the story about her attempts to ban yoga was fake.

Govorit Moskva, a Moscow-based radio station, tweeted:

Mizulina calls the story about her appeal to ban yoga in pretrial detention facilities fake. The senator plans to petition Roskomnadzor [Russia’s state media watchdog] soon.

Govorit Moskva attached to their tweet a copy of Mizulina’s letter to Russia’s attorney general Yuri Chaika. It does not, in fact, contain any demands to ban yoga — only a request to investigate the claim that inmates were involved in “kundalini-yoga” studies (quote marks are Mizulina’s) and to determine whether this was lawful. Kundalini is a legitimate school of yoga known for its physical intensity and heavy focus on the nervous system.

Mizulina’s press office then supplied the senator's comment to Russian news agency TASS:

Это типичный пример распространения фейковых новостей. В моем письме в адрес генерального прокурора не содержалось никаких требований “запретить проведение занятий йогой в СИЗО и уж тем более “запретить йогу.”

This is a typical example of dissemination of fake news. My letter to the attorney general’s office contained no demands to ‘ban yoga in detention’, let alone ‘ban yoga altogether.’

Mizulina’s press office also noted that the senator is planning to report this case of fake news to Roskomnadzor.

The media jumped on the possibility that this might be the inaugural case for Russia's recently passed “fake news” law, which has been the subject of much derision and public criticism. However, it quickly became clear that even the senator herself is in the dark about what the new law’s provisions are.

Under this law, individuals, officials or organizations accused of spreading fake news “disguised as genuine public announcements” which are found to promote public disorder or other serious disturbances could be fined for up to a million rubles (slightly above USD $15,000), unless they remove the violating content in a day’s time. The law also provides measures through which Roskomnadzor, Russia's media watchdog, will order ISPs to block websites hosting the offending content.

But Mizulina has not filed a petition to Roskomnadzor, and even if she had, the agency’s press officer told Kommersant, it wouldn’t be Roskomnadzor’s job to deal with it. The law says that it is the responsibility of the attorney general office’s to flag fake news “disguised as genuine public announcements.” Only when the attorney general deems a message as potentially harmful to public order, they can command Roskomnadzor to block and censure the offending website — unless it agrees to remove the article in question. And it remains to be seen whether Merkacheva was  “knowingly and maliciously disseminating false information of public importance,” as the law defines it.

So it is unlikely that Mizulina’s grievances against Moskovsky Komsomolets and other media which have re-reported her claims will gain any traction. The first case of Russia applying its “fake news” law against a media outlet could itself be a case of fake news.

by Alexey Kovalev at April 10, 2019 10:41 PM

Censored on WeChat: Revelations of toxic ingredients in Hongmao medicinal liquor

when citizens fight against disinformation, they can face legal threats

Hongmao liquor for sale at a shop in Suzhou, China. Photo by Shwangtianyuan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This post was written by the team of WeChatscope, a research initiative led by Dr. King-wa Fu at The University of Hong Kong.

With more than 1.0825 billion individual users, along with more than 20 million registered public accounts, WeChat has the largest number of domestic users and the most extensive coverage of any social media service in China. As such, it has become a chief component of China's rigorous censorship regime.

In 2017, our team at the University of Hong Kong built a technical web “scraping” system for studying censorship on WeChat's publicly accessible pages. Throughout 2018, we tracked more than 4,000 public accounts covering daily news and preserved censored posts in a publicly accessible database, WeChatscope. This article is the seventh in a partnership series with Global Voices.

Chinese authorities regularly cite disinformation and rumors as justification for online censorship. But when independent citizens attempt to fight against the spread of disinformation, they can face legal threats.

At the start of 2018, a medical doctor in Guangdong province was arrested and jailed after he uncovered the presence of toxic ingredients in a medicinal liquor made by Hongmao Pharmaceuticals, a company based in the northern city of Liangcheng.

Advertisements claimed the medicinal liquor could cure the common cold, relieve pain and keep people in good health, leveraging the power of traditional Chinese herbs. But anesthesiologist Tan Qindong pointed out that a number of herbs in the product are toxic when consumed over a period of time. Moreover, it could generate adverse effects to old people with certain physical condition, such as high-blood pressure. He wrote his medical view and criticized that the company had exaggerated its efficacy on a mobile publishing platform.

Less than a month later, Tan was arrested in Guangzhou City, where he resides. But he was arrested by police from Liangcheng, a major city in the autonomous region of China called Inner Mongolia.

The inner Mongolia liquor company claimed that Tan’s article was defamatory in nature and had caused the company RMB 800,000 (US $ 119,000) in damages. The Liangcheng police then tracked Tan's location through the online publishing platform, crossed out of their jurisdiction and went to Guangzhou, where they arrested Tan. Their journey was not trivial — Google maps estimates that it takes 26 hours by car to drive from Guangzhou to Liangcheng. Tan’s lawyer later revealed that the Liangcheng police trip was sponsored by the liquor company.

Police took Tan back to Liangcheng county where he was detained for three months before the case was presented to the Inner Mongolia court on April 15.

On April 16, a Chinese medical doctors’ association issued a statement pledging to provide legal aid to Tan, urging pharmaceutical corporations to abide by regulations on medical advertisement, and calling on law enforcement to respect academic views and avoid the criminalization of civil disputes.

On the same day, the National Medical Product Administration also issued an official response criticizing Hongmao for misinforming consumers.

The next day, the court rejected the prosecutor’s case against Tan due to lack of evidence. Tan was released on bail on the same day.

During his detention, Tan was viewed as a hero fighting against an immoral company and corrupt police. Many celebrities spoke out against the liquor’s misleading indications and advertisements. Tens of thousands netizens flooded the Liangcheng police department’s official Weibo criticizing them for making an illegal arrest across provincial jurisdiction.

Prior to the court ruling, many posts on WeChat that criticized the company were taken down. For example, an April 16 post, “Liangcheng police cross jurisdiction arrest was similar to what happened to hero Lin Chong in Water Margin” (凉城警方跨省抓发帖人和董超薛霸押解林冲没啥不同), was deleted on the same day. The post pointed to the fact that Hongmao had partnered with China Central Television in “national brand” sponsorship.

But when state media began to report similar messages, the narrative became permissible. On April 17, state media outlet Xinhua published a commentary criticizing Liangcheng police for acting outside their jurisdiction and Hongmao liquor for misleading consumers and violating medical product regulations. This post was well received online.

Upon his release, Tan told Beijing News what he endured during his three-month detention. He emphasized that he was unrepentant, saying that “it was right to tell the truth”. This video interview soon went viral and western media, including The New York Times, picked up the report.

Public attention on the case triggered more commentary on social media. But those who did not adhere to the official line had their posts deleted on WeChat. For example this post, “Details filtered by media reports concerning Tan Qidong.” (关于谭秦东:那些被媒体过滤的细节) was published on April 21 and deleted on April 23. The writer credited netizens’ support and the Chinese medical doctors’ association for helping to get Tan out of jail.

Another post, “Insider on Hongmao: original plan was to convict Dr Tan and arrest Dr Spring rain” (知情者谈鸿茅药酒:本想判完谭秦东后 再抓春雨医生) presented photos taken from Hongmao’s meeting with its traders on April 16 and 17. The story was published on April 21 and censored on the next day.

There were no further reports about Tan until May 15 when Tan’s wife told an online news reporter that Tan was admitted to a mental hospital after being questioned by Guangdong police for 12 hours on May 11. According to his wife, upon returning home from the police station, Tan locked himself in a room crying, slapping himself on the face and banging his head against the wall. Hospital officials said Tan was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Reports of this ordeal went viral overnight and on May 17, propaganda authorities issued an instruction demanding deletion of related content, as reported by China Digital Times:

Delete the article “Doctor Detained in Hongmao Liquor Interprovincial Case Suddenly Develops Mental Illness.” Websites must not further hype this incident.

Even reports from state-affiliated People’s Daily were removed from their website. Similar reports on Tan’s status were removed from WeChat. On May 17, Tan issued an apology to Hongmao for using the term “poison” in his post.

Tan’s name has become a sensitive term on social media. In June, he opened a WeChat account by reversing his name and writing it as Dong Qintan. Though he had thousands of followers, could not mention anything related to Hongmao.

After the incident, Hongmao’s production line was suspended for four months. But it is now back to business as usual. The company remained among CCTV’s top five advertising business partners for 2018 — and still managed to become was one of the top ten censored topics on WeChat for the same year.

by Wechatscope at April 10, 2019 02:51 PM

April 08, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Morocco’s Hirak movement has gone quiet, but the crackdown on independent media continues

Journalists remain behind bars for covering the protests.

A protest in Al Hoceima in the Rif region in the summer of 2017. Photo by Mohamed Mouha via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

This story is the second in a two-part series on media repression and “fake news” in Morocco. It was written in collaboration with Access Now. You can read the first part here.

The Hirak protest movement in Morocco first took hold after the death of Mohsin Fekri, a fish vendor whose product was seized by authorities in the city of Al Hoceima on October 29, 2016. When Fekri tried to reclaim the fish, he was crushed to death by a garbage truck.

From then until well into 2017, Moroccans in the Rif region held weekly demonstrations protesting poor socio-economic conditions and corrupt government officials, long-neglected by the central government, and they persisted until authorities launched a violent crackdown in June 2017, arresting 400 activists and protesters.

The movement also triggered a backlash for independent journalists and people who wanted to document the protests and ensuing crackdown. At least seven independent journalists were arrested while covering the protests. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, three are currently behind bars over their coverage of the Hirak.

Hamid El Mahdaoui, who ran the news site prior to his arrest, is serving three years in jail after he was convicted by the court of appeals of Casablanca in June 2018 of “failure to report a crime threatening national security,’’ due to a phone conversation (an official recording of which was obtained via wiretap) between himself and a Moroccan anti-monarchy activist based in the Netherlands, in which the activist described a plan to bring weapons into the country.

El Mahdaoui speaking in a video about the crackdown on protesters in El Hoceima. Source: Screenshot from a video uploaded on the journalist's YouTube channel on June 28, 2017.

El Mahdaoui had already served a one-year jail sentence for “inciting” protest. He was arrested on July 20, 2017 in the city of Al-Hoceima where he traveled to cover the Hirak protests.

Citizen journalist Mohamed El Asrihi, the editor and director of, a local citizen media website that provided extensive coverage of the protests in Al Hoceima and other cities, is serving five years in prison. The same court found him guilty in June 2018 of “undermining Morocco's internal security by receiving donations and funds for activities and propaganda undermining the Kingdom of Morocco's unity and sovereignty, and the loyalty of its citizens,” as well as “participating in unauthorized demonstrations,” “inciting against the unity of the kingdom,” “insulting government officials,” and “claiming to be a journalist without having acquired the necessary accreditation.”

Journalists who do not obtain accreditation the “professional journalist’s card” issued by the National Council of the Press, which oversees the industry are not given the same protections as those considered “professional journalists.” To obtain accreditation, journalists need a university diploma. Journalism should be their primary profession and their main source of income, and they should not have been convicted of a crime in the past. The card must be renewed every year. These requirements exclude citizen journalists who may not be practicing journalism as a source of income, along with journalists who did not graduate or attend university.

But even for those journalists who are considered “professional,” legal protections are limited. While in 2016, the Moroccan parliament adopted a new press code that eliminated prison time as punishment, journalists and media can still be fined for “defaming” government ministers (article 81), foreign diplomats (article 82), and state institutions and public officials (article 84). In addition, journalists are still prosecuted and jailed under the penal code which includes provisions punishing by prison and/or fines those convicted of “causing harm” to Islam, the monarchy, or inciting activities that go against the country's territorial integrity.

All these conditions make it difficult for independent media to counter rampant disinformation campaigns, particularly those targeting people who are under threat for their activism and their work covering the Hirak and other events of importance to the public.

by Advox at April 08, 2019 08:04 AM

April 05, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: As water levels rise, Iran’s ban on messaging apps is slowing emergency relief for flood victims

When sharing information is vital, censorship can have deadly consequences.

Flooding in Iran's northwest region in 2017. Photo by Tasnim News Agency via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0 international)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from  March 28- April 5, 2019.

Since March 19, heavy rains in Iran have led to record levels of flooding in 23 of the country’s 31 provinces. At the time of writing, the state-affiliated FARS news agency reported that health officials had confirmed 62 deaths from the floods so far.

As aid workers mobilize to reach victims — and controversy brews over the effects of economic sanctions on relief efforts — some Iranians, including government officials, are imploring top authorities to lift technical blocks on key communication platforms like Telegram, which has been censored in Iran for roughly one year. Access to communications, as many have pointed out, can be vital for victims seeking help and for anyone organizing rescue operations.

“If filtering was not an obstacle, the rescue operations would have been more effective,” tweeted Alireza Moezi, the secretary of the government’s Information Council, on March 24.

BBC Persian reporter Kayvan Hosseini tweeted that in these circumstances, censorship could be a “deadly phenomenon.”

This tweet has two important aspects both of which are terrifying: One about the dangerous situation caused by landslides and falling mountain rocks and the other about his VPN not working. In situations where sharing information is vital, censorship can turn into a deadly phenomenon.

As if to add insult to injury, Iranian authorities also have warned citizens that they could be prosecuted for their online postings about the floods.

The state’s cyber police force issued a statement on March 27 indicating that police units had been “instructed to monitor social media and take swift action against those who publish images and spread rumors that disturb public opinion and disrupt the peace in society.”

Viral video shows Iranian security forces arresting Telegram group administrator on unknown charges

A video has surfaced in Iran showing the arrest of a Telegram channel administrator that took place in Omidieh, Khuzestan province in February 2019. The video shows plainclothes security forces at the home of the administrator, aggressively arresting him on unknown charges.

The Telegram channel (the name of which has not been made public) captured the attention of the government, as they criticized the use and sale of government lands, and pointed to evidence of corruption among the council and government officials, including the public prosecutor, operating in Omidieh.

Tehran’s public prosecutor told IRNA, the official news agency of the government, that all of the channel’s administrators were arrested, but no official charges are known. He also explained Iran’s cyber police force had been monitoring their activities for some time before these arrests.

Facebook removes dueling political parties’ accounts in India, but only mentions opposition

With India’s election cycle beginning on April 11, Facebook announced on April 1 that the company had taken down 687 pages and accounts promoting the agenda and interests of the Indian National Congress (INC), the country’s dominant opposition political party. The company also reported that it had removed 15 pages associated with the IT firm Silver Touch. But Facebook neglected to mention that Silver Touch is known to have worked on behalf of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and that the pages in question contained pro-BJP material. Some political commentators have taken the company to task on what they see as a glaring omission.

All told, the pages associated with Silver Touch (and by extension the BJP) had approximately 2.6 million followers, while those promoting the opposition INC had roughly 200,000.

Mauritanian bloggers face trial for spreading ‘false accusations’ against president

Mauritanian police arrested two bloggers who had reported on alleged financial misdeeds of the north African country’s president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. The public prosecutor concluded that their reports were untrue and the bloggers now stand accused of spreading “false accusations” against Ould Abdel Aziz under Article 348 of Mauritania’s Penal Code. They risk between six months to five years in jail each. They remain in jail pending trial.

Pakistani authorities investigate journalists who showed solidarity with Jamal Khashoggi

Five journalists in Pakistan are being investigated by authorities for showing solidarity with Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist who was murdered in his country’s embassy in Turkey in October 2018. The journalists replaced their own profile photos on Twitter with photos of the slain journalist when Saudi crown prince Mohamad Bin Salman made an official visit to the country in mid-February 2019. A copy of the Federal Investigation Agency order for the probe has made the rounds on social media, and indicates that the journalists “conveyed a very disrespectful message to the visiting dignitary/ guest.”

Murtaza Solangi, one of the journalists targeted in the probe, tweeted:

Russian regulator asks VPNs to block blacklisted websites

Russia’s media regulator is pushing 10 VPN providers to block users’ access to “blacklisted” websites in Russia. The agency has demanded that VPN providers plug into the “Federal-State Information System (FGIS)”, a technical system that will signal to their services which websites need to be blocked. This would defeat the purpose of a VPN, a technology used primarily to help people access websites that are blocked in the jurisdiction where they are located. Only one of the companies, the sole service provider based in Russia (Kaspersky Secure Connection), has signaled that it will comply.

Australia’s bid to prevent violent content online could take surveillance to a new level

Australia’s parliament hastily approved new legislation that obligates hosting and social media platforms to swiftly remove “abhorrent violent material” when they are aware of its existence on their networks. Platforms that fail to comply could face three years in prison (for local employees) and a fine of 10.5 million Australian dollars ($7.5 million), or 10 percent of the platform’s annual turnover, whichever is larger. The law only applies to content, mainly videos and photos, recorded by the perpetrator or an accomplice of an act of “terrorism murder, attempted murder, torture, rape, and kidnapping.” The law does not offer guidance on how platforms should distinguish between videos taken by perpetrators and those taken by witnesses.

The law also requires internet service providers to inform national police if they are aware of such content moving through their networks. Writing for the Nieman Lab blog, Andre Oboler argues that this will turn ISPs into a “national surveillance network”:

As ISPs provide access for consumers to everything on the internet, this seeks to turn ISPs into a national surveillance network. It has the potential to move us from an already problematic metadata retention scheme into an expectation for ISPs to apply deep packet inspection monitoring of everything that is said.

Egyptian revolution blogger released after five years in prison

Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was released by authorities late on the night of March 28 after serving five years in prison for defying a protest ban. The news broke on Twitter when his sister, activist Mona Seif, tweeted simply: “Alaa is out.”

The 37-year-old activist was arrested and taken from his family’s home in November 2013. More than one year later, he was finally tried and sentenced to five years in prison for “organizing” a protest under a 2013 law that prohibits unauthorized demonstrations. Alaa has been jailed or investigated under every Egyptian head of state who has served during his lifetime. In 2006, he was arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest. In 2011, he spent two months in prison, missing the birth of his first child, Khaled. In 2013, he was arrested and detained for 115 days without trial.

Supporters around the world posted photos on Twitter with signs reading “Welcome Home Alaa!” Global Voices was among them:

Subscribe to the Netizen Report


by Netizen Report Team at April 05, 2019 04:03 PM

April 04, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Animated film explains how Myanmar's Telecommunications Law undermines free speech

Film screening at the Myanmar Digital Rights Forum. Photo from Engage Media.

A short animated film is helping to educate the public about Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law and the ways that it can suppress free speech.

Are You Ready is a collaboration between EngageMedia and several digital rights activists in Myanmar. It was first screened in December 2018 in Yangon at the Myanmar Digital Rights Forum. Myanmar ICT for Development Organization and Phandeeyar Innovation Lab were among those who helped organize the film screening.

Engage Media said the film “describes the impact on freedom of expression in Myanmar, and how people's digital rights are being violated.” It added:

The film showcases how authorities abuse the law to avoid and repress dissent.

The law is frequently used by the powerful to silence dissent, and with more than 100 cases filed, its chilling effect on free expression is widespread.

The film focuses on Article 66(d) of the law, which criminalizes everything from “extorting” to “disturbing” to “causing undue influence” toward another person. It has been controversial since 2013 because it has mainly been used by authorities to intimidate critics and journalists. Its vague wording and harsh penalties have been abused to silence ordinary citizens. Here’s the exact text of Article 66(d):

66. Whoever commits any of the following acts shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to a fine or to both. (d) Extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network.

It was slightly amended in 2017, but human rights groups say it failed to address many concerns about the draconian features of the law. Maung Saung Kha, from youth group Athan, acknowledged the value of the animated film in their campaign to abolish Article 66(d):

There have been no effective changes even though Telecommunications Law was amended in 2017. But there were more than 70 cases under the law. Are You Ready reflects the impact of Article 66(d) and it is very helpful to the Telecommunications Law amendment campaigns.

Watch the animated film:

by Mong Palatino at April 04, 2019 04:17 PM

Mauritanian bloggers face defamation charges for reporting on corruption

Prosecutors claim that evidence against the bloggers has been ‘lost’

Photo via Nasser Weddady on Twitter

Mauritanian authorities arrested two bloggers, Abderrahmane Weddady and Cheikh Ould Jiddou, for reporting on corruption.

Weddady and Jiddou were arrested on March 22, after they appeared before Mauritania’s Economic Crimes Unit to respond to a summons. Both had investigated and reported on allegations of corruption involving the country’s president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.

Prior to their arrests, they both wrote on Facebook about the alleged ties of Ould Abdel Aziz to a US $2 billion bank account in Dubai. According to media reports, Emirati authorities had frozen the account at the request of the US Department of the Treasury, in its fight against money laundering.

Weddady wrote on his Facebook page that police questioned him about his sources and asked why he did not wait for the state to investigate the matter. He answered that the news of the frozen assets was reported online and by foreign media, and that he has “no faith in a serious investigation into any crime involving the president and those around him”.

In early March, both bloggers were summoned and questioned by the unit about their writings on the alleged assets. Authorities confiscated their passports and national ID cards, and then released them that same day.

Then on March 22, police arrested the two men after the public prosecutor's office concluded that the reports were untrue and pledged to investigate and prosecute those who disseminated them to “harm the country, its institutions, its citizens and its judicial and financial systems.”

The two bloggers stand accused of spreading “false accusations” against Ould Abdel Aziz under Article 348 of Mauritania’s Penal Code. They risk between six months to five years in jail each. They remain in jail pending trial. 

In an interview with Global Voices via WhatsApp, Nasser Wedaddy, the brother of Abderrahmane Weddady and a Global Voices community member, said that prosecutors have failed to present actual evidence against Abderrahmane and Ould Jiddou. He also noted that their lawyers have found no actual evidence on file for the case. He said:

The prosecutor alleges that the evidence was ‘lost’. It's his euphemism for “we don't have any evidence to charge them, and we made it all up.”

Since 2016, Abderrahmane Weddady had also been reporting and writing about a real estate scam, in which a man with alleged ties to the president’s family, fraudulently acquired ownership of houses of thousands of Mauritania to resell them, his brother Nasser Weddady said. Jiddou also wrote about the scam on his Facebook page, his wife told Human Rights Watch.

Nasser Wedaddy also commented on this work:

My brother's 39-month investigation into the country's biggest ponzi scheme since its independence has been credited by many as a service to society. He managed to uncover a swindle that ended up costing over 700 families their homes and savings. He even uncovered how the current President is protecting and benefiting from the scam.

Freedom of expression is tightly restricted in Mauritania and the authorities often use criminal defamation laws to silence human rights activists, bloggers and journalists who speak out against the regime or expose government wrongdoing.

In a statement to Global Voices, the family of Abderrahmane Weddady demanded that both men be released and all charges against them dropped:

We demand the immediate and unconditional release of both Abderrahmane Weddady and Cheikh Ould Jiddou. And the formal dismissal of any legal procedures against them, and a formal apology from the Mauritanian government for this gross and arbitrary subversion of the legal system to persecute political opponents.

by Afef Abrougui at April 04, 2019 04:07 PM

How pro-government media in Morocco use “fake news” to target and silence Rif activists

Jailed activist Nasser Zefzafi was smeared by Moroccan media

Protesters at a sit-in in Imzouren, 14km from the city of Al-Hoceima in the Rif region. Photo by AlhoceimasOfficiel. Used with permission.

This story is the first in a two-part series on media repression and “fake news” in Morocco. It was written in collaboration with Access Now.

In September 2018, Nasser Zefzafi, imprisoned leader of Morocco’s Hirak protest movement in the Rif region, was nominated for the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize For Freedom of Thought. The annual award was established in 1988 to honor ‘’individuals who have made an exceptional contribution to the fight for human rights across the globe.’’

Zefazfi is currently serving a 20-year prison term for his role as a leader in the Hirak protests. The protest movement first took hold after the death of Mohsin Fekri, a fish vendor whose product was seized by authorities in the city of Al Hoceima on October 29, 2016. When Fekri tried to reclaim the fish, he was crushed to death by a garbage truck.

Zefzafi made it to the list of three finalists for the Sakharov Prize, but did not win. It was instead awarded to Ukrainian film director and writer Oleg Sentsov.

Following the announcement of the winner on 25 October, Moroccan news site Cawalisse published a fabricated story alleging that the European Parliament “withdrew Zefzafi’s name from the list of winners’’ because he is a “criminal who has no link to human rights.”

Screenshot of the fabricated Cawalisse story alleging that the European Parliament deemed Zefzafi  a ”criminal’.

The article (which does not list an author) states that “a group of lobbies from within the European Parliament, including those that support Polisario separatists and those hired by drug gangs, pressured the prize’s committee to award it to Zefzafi and give his crimes the label of protecting rights.”

The story is completely false. It is based on fabricated facts and conspiracy theories. The European Parliament never maintained that Zefzafi was a criminal, nor did they withdraw his name “from the list of winners.” He was simply not chosen to win the prize. In fact, there was no “list of winners” in the first place, but only one winner, Oleg Sentsov.

The Rif protests and the crackdown that followed

Weekly demonstrations protesting poor socioeconomic conditions and corrupt government officials in the Rif region, long-neglected by the central government, persisted until authorities launched a violent crackdown in June 2017, arresting 400 activists and protesters.

The government ignored protesters’ demands, which included an end to corruption and improved infrastructure. Protesters were instead labelled ‘’separatists’’ and were accused of being foreign agents who were attempting to destabilize Morocco. Documented attempts at censoring them included blocking internet connections during protests.

On June 26, 2018 the Casablanca Court of First Instance convicted 53 protesters, including leaders of the movement, of an array of charges including arson, rebellion, damaging public property, staging unauthorized protests, and harming the state’s internal security. They were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to 20 years.

In August 2018, King Mohammed VI pardoned 184 Hirak activists, including 11 of those arrested in the June 2017 crackdown. The rest remain behind bars.

This is not the only story that was published by pro-government media to smear Zefzafi, nor is he the only Hirak activist to be targeted in these campaigns. As the movement grew, government-aligned media and supporters launched online smear campaigns to discredit the movement, accusing its leaders of being “traitors,” “corrupt,” or  “terrorists” as a way to deter them from carrying out their protests. The disinformation campaigns continued as the activists were thrown in jail and brought to trial.

Nawal Benaissa, another leader of the Hirak movement, was prosecuted and sentenced to 10 months in jail over comments she posted on her Facebook account between June and August 2017, in which she called on residents of Al Hoceima to join protests. As soon as she joined the movement, fake stories started to appear on local media and social media claiming that she is “an agent who works for embassies” and that she was receiving funds from foreign countries to spread violence and destabilize the region.

A Moroccan journalist who chose to remain anonymous for safety reasons, told Access Now that Moroccan authorities’ use of defamation campaigns to pressure and discredit opponents and independent activists started in 2011 during the Arab uprisings.

“Facts and events may be created as part of a set-up, or in some cases, the facts may be real, but deeply altered and presented with the intent to discredit the target,” he said.

He further explained that the recurring themes in these false stories seeking to “defame organizations and individuals who are not loyal to the existing political system” include sex and morality, and receiving compensation to serve foreign interests. Several fake stories by pro-government media claimed that Zefzafi and his father were receiving funds to destabilize the Rif region and Morocco.

The targeted harassment of the Hirak activists is yet further evidence that while the internet can provide a platform for the marginalized, it can also facilitate their victimization. The potential cost of this rapid spread of disinformation is painfully demonstrated in the silencing of the Hirak activists and the decline of their movement which only fought for basic rights.

by Advox at April 04, 2019 08:21 AM

April 03, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Government official says the ban on messaging apps is slowing flood relief in Iran

As flood waters rise, censorship is becoming a “deadly phenomenon.”

Social media blocks prove detrimental to flood relief. Graphic by the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

State censorship of social media apps has reduced the efficiency of relief operations in regions of Iran hit with heavy flooding, according to an official at a state agency that promotes public service information.

“If filtering was not an obstacle, the rescue operations would have been more effective,” tweeted Alireza Moezi, the secretary of the government’s Information Council, on March 24. “Let’s learn from experiences.”

Moezi also stated that some people have been using the apps over virtual private networks (VPNs), and that these connections have helped to expedite relief efforts. VPNs allow users to bypass censorship infrastructure.

“Conventional media have fallen behind because they are not able to share information easier and quicker than social media,” he said.

“Messaging apps and social media have played an outstanding role as rescue information carriers, especially Telegram and Twitter,” he added. Both Twitter and Telegram are blocked in Iran.

On April 2, Morteza Khaledi, the spokesman for Iran’s Emergency Medical Services Organization, reported that 57 people had died as a result of flash flooding which began on March 19 and had affected 23 of the country’s 31 provinces. The actual number of casualties could be much higher.

The hardest-hit areas have been in southern and central Iran, including Fars, Isfahan and Yazd provinces. The governor-general of Khuzestan Province declared a state of emergency after flooding swallowed buildings and bridges in his region on March 31.

‘It’s not right to block people who are trying to save their lives’

Popular social media networks like Facebook and Twitter offer free, built-in tools that allow users to inform the public about natural disasters, request help, or mark themselves as “safe.” But both are blocked in Iran.

Unable to effectively censor specific posts or accounts on the apps, the Iranian government has blocked access to many social media services in the country. The widely used Telegram messaging app was the last to be censored. According to the company, it had 40 million monthly users in Iran before it was filtered in May 2018.

As news and images of the flooding began making waves on these social media apps, which are filtered in Iran, some people in Iran began asking why they are still not allowed to access them.

Iranian user Nazanin Matinnia tweeted at the Minister of Information and Communications Technology on April 1:

You know people need to share information so why aren’t you lifting the filter on Telegram?! You know most people use Telegram and the national media organization Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting has never been cooperative when you needed help and it’s incapable of doing anything. Are you saying that the people should suffer even under these circumstances? #floods @azarijahromi

Some officials meanwhile called for the bans to be lifted. Member of Parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi tweeted:

I wish that the honorable Prosecutor [General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri] would at least temporarily lift the filter on Telegram so that the people could use it as a means of communication

Journalists also struggled to get information to the public, in some cases asking colleagues to post information for them because various VPN tools, which are used to bypass state filters, had suddenly become unusable during the flooding.

On Twitter, one user said they had been sent photos by a reporter in one of the affected areas:

Vahid Basereh, one of the local reporters in [the city of] Ilam, sent me these photos via WhatsApp and wrote: ‘My VPN does not work. Please share this information: Because of relentless rains there are landslides and falling rocks from the mountains at the entrance to the city.

Commenting on that tweet, BBC Persian reporter Kayvan Hossein wrote:

This tweet has two important aspects both of which are terrifying: One about the dangerous situation caused by landslides and falling mountain rocks and the other about his VPN not working. In situations where sharing information is vital, censorship can turn into a deadly phenomenon.

As Iranians struggled to access information about the floods, Iranian officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani posted freely on Twitter and Telegram, which are blocked off to the Iranian public.

Many Iranian users directed their tweets at Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi.

Parvin Mohammadi, who describes herself as a child psychologist, tweeted:

The villages in Lorestan Province are grappling with floods and yet they have lost the only means they have to seek help. There’s no news from these villages. There’s no internet connection. Messaging apps work with VPNs but the connections are so weak that it’s almost impossible to share information. In the midst of this flood, what are you doing young minister@azarijahromi?

Jalal Rouhani, who identifies herself as an information technology expert, tweeted:

I wish Twitter was not filtered. Damn all three of them: those who imposed the filters, those who imposed the sanctions and extremists.

Journalist Parastoo Beiranvand tweeted:

In the current crisis conditions, when roads are being cut off and we can’t get information from the people, it’s necessary to allow communications without filters. Shouldn’t you think about this young minister @azarijahromi and at least temporarily remove the filters?

Entrepreneur Jalal Ofteadeh tweeted:

I wish at least they would open access to Twitter and Telegram to be able to share information about the crisis and when the water recedes they can filter it again. Of course, maybe they think sharing information is not good under any circumstances.

Reporter Hossein Dehbashi tweeted:

The Twitter accounts belonging to the supreme leader, the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, the judiciary chief and the head of the National Auditing Organization are issuing urgent and decisive orders concerning the handling of floods in Golestan Province. This is at a time when Twitter is filtered and you cannot access it without a VPN. This will be hard to explain for history's sake.

Activist Sina Qelich wrote:

Under these circumstances, the Crisis Management Organization can make a request to lift the filter on Telegram. Despite the filter, Telegram has been the main source of information. It’s not right to block people who are trying to save their lives.

Last week, Iranian authorities warned citizens that they could be prosecuted for posting images or videos online about the flooding under the charge of “disturbing public opinion.”

by Center for Human Rights in Iran at April 03, 2019 07:09 PM

Joi Ito
2019 Applied Ethical and Governance Challenges in AI - Notes from Part I

Jonathan Zittrain and I are co-teaching a class together for the third time. This year, the title of the course is Applied Ethical and Governance Challenges in Artificial Intelligence. It is a seminar, which means that we invite speakers for most of the classes and usually talk about their papers and their work. The speakers and the papers were mostly curated by our amazing teaching assistant team - Samantha Bates, John Bowers and Natalie Satiel.

One of the things that Sam does is help prepare for the class by summarizing the paper and the flow of the class and I realized that it was a waste for this work to just be crib notes for the instructors. I asked Sam for permission to publish the notes and the syllabus on my blog as a way for people to learn some of what we are learning and start potentially interesting conversations.

The course is structured as three sets of three classes on three focus areas. Previous classes were more general overviews of the space, but as the area of research matured, we realized that it would be more interesting to go deep in key areas than to go over what a lot of people probably already know.

We chose three main topics: fairness, interpretability, and adversarial examples. We then organized the classes to hit each topic three times, starting with diagnosis (identifying the technical root of the problem), then prognosis (exploring the social impact of those problems) then intervention (considering potential solutions to the problems we've identified while taking into account the costs and benefits of each proposed solution). See the diagram below for a visual of the structure.

The students in the class are half MIT and half Harvard students with diverse areas of expertise including software engineering, law, policy and other fields. The class has really been great and I feel that we're going deeper on many of the topics than I've ever gone before. The downside is that we are beginning to see how difficult the problems are. Personally, I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed by the scale of the work we have ahead of us to try to minimize the harm to society by the deployment of these algorithms.

We just finished the prognosis phase and are about to start intervention. I hope that we find something to be optimistic about as we enter that phase.

Please find below the summary and the syllabus for the introduction and the first phase - the diagnosis phase - by Samantha Bates along with links to the papers.

The tl;dr summary of the first phase is... we have no idea how to define fairness and it probably isn't reducible to a formula or a law, but it is dynamic. Interpretability sounds like a cool word, but as Zachary Lipton said in his talk to our class, it is a "wastebasket taxon" like the word "antelope" where we call anything that sort of looks like an antelope, an antelope, even if it has really no relationship with other antelopes. A bunch of students from MIT made it very clear to us that we are not prepared for adversarial attacks and that it was unclear whether we could build algorithms that were both robust against these attacks and still functionally effective.

Part 1: Introduction and Diagnosis

By Samantha Bates

Syllabus Notes: Introduction and Diagnosis Stage

This first post summarizes the readings assigned for the first four classes, which encompasses the introduction and the diagnosis stage. In the diagnosis stage, the class identified the core problems in AI related to fairness, interpretability, and adversarial examples and considered how the underlying mechanisms of autonomous systems contributed to those problems. As a result, our class discussions involved defining terminology and studying how the technology works. Included below is the first part of the course syllabus along with notes summarizing the main takeaways from each of the assigned readings.

Class Session 1: Introduction

In our first class session, we presented the structure and motivations behind the course, and set the stage for later class discussions by assigning readings that critique the current state of the field.

Both readings challenge the way Artificial Intelligence (AI) research is currently conducted and talked about, but from different perspectives. Michael Jordan's piece is mainly concerned with the need for more collaboration across disciplines in AI research. He argues that we are experiencing the creation of a new branch of engineering that needs to incorporate non-technical as well as engineering challenges and perspectives. "Troubling Trends in Machine Learning Scholarship" focuses more on falling standards and non-rigorous research practices in the academic machine learning community. The authors rightly point out that academic scholarship must be held to the highest standards in order to preserve public and academic trust in the field.

We chose to start out with readings that critique the current state of the field because they encourage students to think critically about the papers they will read throughout the semester. Just as the readings show that the use of precise terminology and explanation of thought are particularly important to prevent confusion, we challenge students to carefully consider how they present their own work and opinions. The readings set the stage for our deep dives into specific topic areas (fairness, interpretability, adversarial AI) and also set some expectations about how students should approach the research we will discuss throughout the course.

Class Session 2: Diagnosing problems of fairness

For our first class in the diagnosis stage, the class was joined by Cathy O'Neil, a data scientist and activist who has become one of the leading voices on fairness in machine learning.

Cathy O'Neil's book, Weapons of Math Destruction, is a great introduction to predictive models, how they work, and how they can become biased. She refers to flawed models that are opaque, scalable, and have the potential to damage lives (frequently the lives of the poor and disadvantaged) as Weapons of Math Destruction (WMDs). She explains that despite good intentions, we are more likely to create WMDs when we don't have enough data to draw reliable conclusions, use proxies to stand in for data we don't have, and try to use simplistic models to understand and predict human behavior, which is much too complicated to accurately model with just a handful of variables. Even worse, most of these algorithms are opaque, so the people impacted by these models are unable to challenge their outputs.

O'Neil demonstrates that the use of these types of models can have serious unforeseen consequences. Because WMDs are a cheap alternative to human review and decision-making, WMDs are more likely to be deployed in poor areas, and thus tend to have a larger impact on the poor and disadvantaged in our society. Additionally, WMDs can actually lead to worse behavior. In O'Neil's example of the Washington D.C. School District's model that used student test scores to identify and root out ineffective teachers, some teachers changed their students' test scores in order to protect their jobs. Although the WMD in this scenario was deployed to improve teacher effectiveness, it actually had the opposite effect by creating an unintended incentive structure.

The optional reading, "The Scored Society: Due Process for Automated Predictions," discusses algorithmic fairness in the credit scoring context. Like Cathy O'Neil, the authors contend that credit scoring algorithms exacerbate existing social inequalities and argue that our legal system has a duty to change that. They propose opening the credit scoring and credit sharing process to public review while also requiring that credit scoring companies educate individuals about how different variables influence their scores. By attacking the opacity problem that Cathy O'Neil identified as one of three characteristics of WMDs, the authors believe the credit scoring system can become more fair without infringing on intellectual property rights or requiring that we abandon the scoring models altogether.

Class Session 3: Diagnosing problems of interpretability

Zachary Lipton, an Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University who is working intensively on defining and addressing problems of interpretability in machine learning, joined the class on Day 3 to discuss what it means for a model to be interpretable.

Class session three was our first day discussing interpretability, so both readings consider how best to define interpretability and why it is important. Lipton's paper asserts that interpretability reflects a number of different ideas and that its current definitions are often too simplistic. His paper primarily raises stage-setting questions: What is interpretability? In what contexts is interpretability most necessary? Does creating a model that is more transparent or can explain its outputs make it interpretable?

Through his examination of these questions, Lipton argues that the definition of interpretability depends on why we want a model to be interpretable. We might demand that a model be interpretable so that we can identify underlying biases and allow those affected by the algorithm to contest its outputs. We may also want an algorithm to be interpretable in order to provide more information to the humans involved in the decision, to give the algorithm more legitimacy, or to uncover possible causal relationships between variables that can then be tested further. By clarifying the different circumstances in which we demand interpretability, Lipton argues that we can get closer to a working definition of interpretability that better reflects its many facets.

Lipton also considers two types of proposals to improve interpretability: increasing transparency and providing post-hoc explanations. The increasing transparency approach can apply to the entire model (simulatability), meaning that a user should be able to reproduce the model's output if given the same input data and parameters. We can also improve transparency by making the different elements of the model (the input data, parameters, and calculations) individually interpretable, or by showing that during the training stage, the model will come to a unique solution regardless of the training dataset. However, as we will discuss further during the interventions stage of the course, providing more transparency at each level does not always make sense depending on the context and the type of model employed (for example a linear model vs. a neural network model). Additionally, improving the transparency of a model may decrease the model's accuracy and effectiveness. A second way to improve interpretability is to require post-hoc interpretability, meaning that the model must explain its decision-making process after generating an output. Post-hoc explanations can take the form of text, visuals, saliency maps, or analogies that show how a similar decision was reached in a similar context. Although post-hoc explanations can provide insight into how individuals affected by the model can challenge or change its outputs, Lipton cautions that these explanations can be unintentionally misleading, especially if they are influenced by our human biases.

Ultimately, Lipton's paper concludes that it is extremely challenging to define interpretability given how much it depends on external factors like context and the motivations for making a model interpretable. Without a working definition of the term it remains unclear how to determine whether a model is interpretable. While the Lipton paper focuses more on defining interpretability and considering why it is important, the optional reading, "Towards a rigorous Science of Interpretable Machine Learning," dives deeper into the various methods used to determine whether a model is interpretable. The authors define interpretability as the "ability to explain or present in understandable terms to a human" and are particularly concerned about the lack of standards for evaluating interpretability.

Class Session 4: Diagnosing vulnerabilities to adversarial examples

In our first session on adversarial examples, the class was joined by LabSix, a student-run AI research group at MIT that is doing cutting-edge work on adversarial techniques. LabSix gave a primer on adversarial examples and presented some of its own work.

The Gilmer et. al. paper is an accessible introduction to adversarial examples that defines them as "inputs to machine learning models that an attacker has intentionally designed to cause the model to make a mistake." The main thrust of the paper is an examination of the different scenarios in which an attacker may employ adversarial examples. The authors develop a taxonomy to categorize these different types of attacks: "indistinguishable perturbation, content-preserving perturbation, non-suspicious input, content-constrained input, and unconstrained input." For each category of attack, the authors explore the different motivations and constraints of the attacker. By gaining a better understanding of the different types of attacks and the tradeoffs of each type, the authors argue that the designers of machine learning systems will be better able to defend against them.

The paper also includes an overview of the perturbation defense literature, which the authors criticize for failing to consider adversarial example attacks in plausible, real-world situations. For example, a common hypothetical situation posed in the defense literature is an attacker perturbing the image of a stop sign in an attempt to confuse a self-driving car. The Gilmer et. al. paper; however, points out that the engineers of the car would have considered and prepared for naturally occurring misclassification errors caused by the system itself or real world events (for example, the stop sign could be blown over by the wind). The authors also argue that there are likely easier, non technical methods that the attackers could use to confuse the car, so the hypothetical is not the most realistic test case. The authors' other main critique of the defense literature is that it does not acknowledge how improving certain aspects of a system's defense structure can make other aspects of the system less robust and thus more vulnerable to attack.

The recommended reading by Christian Szegedy et. al. is much more technical and requires some machine learning background to understand all of the terminology. Although it is a challenging read, we included it in the syllabus because it introduced the term "adversarial examples" and laid some of the foundation for research on this topic.

by Joichi Ito at April 03, 2019 06:41 AM

Applied Ethical and Governance Challenges in Artificial Intelligence (AI) Part 2: Prognosis

This is the second of three parts of the syllabus and summaries prepared by Samantha Bates who TAs the Applied Ethical and Governance Challenges in Artificial Intelligence course which I co-teach with Jonathan Zittrain. John Bowers and Natalie Satiel are also TAs for the course. I posted Part I earlier in the month.

My takeaways:

In Part I, we defined the space and tried to frame and understand some of the problems. We left with concerns about the reductionist, poorly defined and oversimplified notions of fairness and explainability in much of the literature. We also left feeling quite challenged by how the technical community will face new risks such as adversarial attacks and approaches like it.

In Part II, we continue our journey into a sense of despair about AI ethics and governance. In Solon Barocas and Andrew D. Selbst's paper "Big Data's Disparate Impact," they walk us through the state of the law around discrimination and fairness using Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act as an example. The authors show us that while it was enacted to address discrimination concerns raised by the civil rights movement, the law has evolved away from trying to correct societal inequities through remedies such as affirmative action. Instead, the law has focused more and more on fairness of processes and less on redistribution or on resolving historical inequity. As a result, the law has adopted a more technical notion of fairness - a kind of actuarial "all lives matter" sort of approach. During Part I, when we discussed the biased Amazon hiring tool, one of the proposed remedies was to "put our thumb on the scale" and just boost the scores of women and minorities. The Barocas and Selbst paper demonstrates that this type of solution is no longer supported by the law. The sense is that the engineers thought, "of course there must be a law prohibiting discrimination, we can use that." In fact, that law punts on redistribution or societal inequity. Jonathan pointed out that treatment of social inequality in Tort law is similar. If you run over a rich person and a poor person at the same time, you have to pay the rich family more - the calculation of damages is based on the victim's future earning power. Tort law, like Title VII, says, "there may be societal inequities, but we're not solving that problem here."

Sandra Wachter's paper proposing counterfactuals as a way to provide explainability is an excellent idea and feels like one way forward in the explainability debate. However, even Sandra seems concerned about whether laws such as the GDPR will actually be able to require companies to provide such explanations. We also had some concerns about the limits of counterfactuals in identifying biases or providing the "best" answer depending on the person - limits Sandra identifies in her paper.

Finally, we take adversarial attacks from the theoretical to a specific example in a recent paper that Jonathan and I wrote with John Bowers, Samuel Finlayson, Andrew L. Beam, and Isaac S. Kohane about the risks of adversarial attacks on medical AI systems.

Please see Samantha's summaries and links to the readings below for a more complete overview of the three classes in Part II.

- Joi

Part 2: Prognosis

By Samantha Bates

Syllabus Notes: Prognosis Stage

Welcome to part 2 of our Ethical and Governance Challenges in AI syllabus! In part 1, the assigned readings and class discussion focused on understanding how the social, technical, and philosophical roots of autonomous systems contribute to problems related to fairness, interpretability, and adversarial examples. In the second stage of the course, the prognosis stage, the class considered the social implications of these problems. Perhaps the most significant takeaway from this stage was the realization that many of these problems are social or political problems and cannot be addressed through solely a legal or technical approach.

Class Session 5: Prognosticating the impacts of unfair AI

Solon Barocas, an Assistant Professor at Cornell University, joined the class for the first day of the prognosis stage. We discussed his paper, "Big Data's Disparate Impact," which offered a legal and technical perspective on the use of algorithms in employment.

On the first day of the prognosis stage, the focus of the class shifted from examining the technical mechanisms underlying autonomous systems to looking at the societal impact of those systems. The Barocas and Selbst paper discusses how data collection and data labeling can perpetuate existing biases both intentionally and unintentionally. The authors outline five main ways that datasets can be discriminatory:

  1. Our own human biases may be integrated into a dataset when a human data miner determines the parameters that an autonomous system will use to make decisions.

  2. The training data might already be biased depending on how it was collected and how it was labeled.

  3. Data mining models consider a limited number of data points and thus may draw conclusions about an individual or a group of people based on data that is not representative of the subject.

  4. As Cathy O'Neil mentioned, prejudice may be introduced if the data points the model uses to make decisions are proxies for class membership.

  5. Discriminatory data mining could be intentional. However, the authors argue that unintentional discrimination is more common and harder to identify.

While there is legal doctrine that addresses discrimination in employment, the authors demonstrate that it is difficult to apply in practice, particularly in the data mining context. Title VII creates liability for intentional discrimination (disparate treatment) and for unintentional discrimination (disparate impact), but it is difficult to prove either type. For example, in order to hold employers liable for unintentional discrimination, the plaintiff must show that an alternative, nondiscriminatory method exists that will accomplish the same goals as the discriminatory practice. They must also prove that when presented with the alternative, the employer refused to consider it. Typically, an employer can mount a successful defense if they can prove they were unaware of the alternative or if there is a legitimate business reason for policies that may be discriminatory (the business necessity defense).

Bias in data mining is so difficult to identify, prove, and rectify in part because as a society, we have not determined the role of the law in addressing discrimination. According to one theory, the anticlassification theory, the law has an obligation to ensure that decision makers do not discriminate against protected classes in society. The opposing theory, the antisubordination theory, advocates a more hands-on approach and states that the law should work to "eliminate status-based inequality" at the societal level by actively improving the lives of marginalized groups. Our current society favors the anticlassification approach in part because the court established early on that antidiscrimination law was not solely intended to improve access to opportunities for protected classes. And while the authors demonstrate how data mining can exacerbate existing biases in the hiring context, there is a societal trade-off between prioritizing efficient decision making and eliminating bias.

This reading also raises the question of who is responsible for fixing the problem. Barocas and Selbst emphasize that the majority of data mining bias is unintentional and that it may be very difficult to identify bias and employ technical fixes to eliminate it. At the same time, there are political and social factors that make fixing this problem in the legal system equally difficult, so who should be in charge of addressing it? The authors suggest that as a society, we may need to reconsider how we approach discrimination issues more generally.

Class Session 6: Prognosticating the impacts of uninterpretable AI

For our sixth session, the class talked with Sandra Wachter, a lawyer and research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, about the possibility of using counterfactuals to make autonomous systems interpretable.

In our last discussion about interpretability, the class concluded that it is impossible to define the term "interpretability" because it greatly depends on the context of the decision and the motivations for making the model interpretable. The Sandra Wachter et al. paper essentially says that defining "interpretability" is not important and that instead we should focus on providing a way for individuals to learn how to change or challenge a model's output. While the authors point out that making these automated systems more transparent and devising some way to hold them accountable will improve the public's trust in AI, they primarily consider how to design autonomous models that will meet the explanation requirements of the GDPR. The paper's proposed solution is to generate counterfactuals for individual decisions (both positive and negative) that "provide reasons why a particular decision was received, offer grounds to contest it, and provide limited 'advice' on how to receive desired results in the future."

Not only would counterfactuals exceed the explainability requirements of the GDPR, the authors argue that counterfactuals would lay the groundwork for a legally binding right to explanation. Due to the difficulty of explaining the technical workings of an automated model to a lay person, legal concerns about protecting trade secrets and IP, and the danger of violating the privacy of data subjects, it has been challenging to provide more transparency around AI decision making. However, counterfactuals can serve as a workaround to these concerns because they indicate how a decision would change if certain inputs had been different rather than disclose information about the internal workings of the model. For example, a counterfactual for a bank loan algorithm might tell someone who was denied a loan that if their annual income had been $45,000 instead of $30,000, they would have received the loan. Without explaining any of the technical workings of the model, the counterfactual in this example can tell the individual the rationale behind the decision and how they can change the outcome in the future. Note that counterfactuals are not a sufficient solution to problems involving bias and unfairness. It may be possible for counterfactuals to provide evidence that a model is biased. However, because counterfactuals only show dependencies between a specific decision and particular external facts, they cannot be relied upon to expose all potential sources of bias or confirm that a model is not biased.

The optional reading, "Algorithmic Transparency for the Smart City," investigates the transparency around the use of big data analytics and predictive algorithms by city governments. The authors conclude that poor documentation and disclosure practices as well as trade secrecy concerns frequently prevented city governments from getting the information they needed to understand how the model worked and its implications for the city. The paper expands upon the barriers to understanding an autonomous model that are mentioned in the Watcher et. al. paper and also presents a great example of scenarios in which counterfactual explanations could be deployed.

Class Session 7: Prognosticating the impacts of adversarial examples

In our third prognosis session, the class continued its discussion about adversarial examples and considered potential scenarios, specifically in medical insurance fraud, in which they could be used to our benefit and detriment.

  • "Adversarial attacks on artificial intelligence systems as a new healthcare policy consideration" by Samuel Finlayson, Joi Ito, Jonathan Zittrain et al., preprint (2019)

  • "Law and Adversarial Machine Learning" by Ram Shankar Siva Kumar et al., ArXiv (2018)

In our previous session about adversarial examples, the class discussion was primarily focused on understanding how adversarial examples are created. The readings delve more into how adversarial examples can be used to our benefit and also to our detriment. "Adversarial attacks on artificial intelligence systems as a new healthcare policy consideration" considers the use of adversarial examples in health insurance fraud. The authors explain that doctors sometimes use a practice called "upcoding", when they submit insurance claims for procedures that are much more serious than were actually performed, in order to receive greater compensation. Adversarial examples could exacerbate this problem. For instance, a doctor could make slight perturbations to an image of a benign mole that causes an insurance company's autonomous billing code infrastructure to misclassify it as a malignant mole. Even as insurance companies start to require additional evidence that insurance claims are valid, adversarial examples could be used to trick their systems.

While insurance fraud is a serious problem in medicine, it is not always clearly fraudulent. There are also cases when doctors might use upcoding to improve a patient's experience by making sure they have access to certain drugs or treatments that would ordinarily be denied by insurance companies. Similarly, the "Law and Adversarial Machine Learning" paper encourages machine learning researchers to consider how the autonomous systems they build can both benefit individual users and also be used against them. The authors caution researchers that oppressive governments may use the tools they build to violate the privacy and free speech of their people. At the same time, people living in oppressive states could employ adversarial examples to evade the state's facial recognition systems. Both of these examples demonstrate that deciding what to do about adversarial examples is not straightforward.

The papers also make recommendations for crafting interventions for problems caused by adversarial examples. In the medical context, the authors suggest that the "procrastination principle," a concept from the early days of the internet that argued against changing the Internet's architecture to preempt problems, might be applicable to adversarial examples as well. The authors caution that addressing problems related to adversarial examples in healthcare too early could create ineffective regulation and prevent innovation in the field. Instead the authors propose extending existing regulations and taking small steps, such as creating "fingerprint" hashes of the data submitted as part of an insurance claim, to address concerns about adversarial examples.

In the "Law and Adversarial Machine Learning" paper, the authors emphasize that lawyers and policymakers need help from machine learning researchers to create the best machine learning policies possible. As such, they recommend that machine learning developers assess the risk of adversarial attacks and evaluate existing defense systems on their effectiveness in order to help policymakers understand how laws may be interpreted and how they should be enforced. The authors also suggest that machine learning developers build systems that make it easier to determine whether an attack has occurred, how it occurred and who might be responsible. For example, designers could devise a system that can "alert when the system is under adversarial attack, recommend appropriate logging, construct playbooks for incident response during an attack, and formulate a remediation plan to recover from an attack." Lastly, the authors remind machine learning developers to keep in mind how machine learning and adversarial examples may be used to both violate and protect civil liberties.

by Joichi Ito at April 03, 2019 06:41 AM

March 29, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Russian regulators ask VPNs to block blacklisted websites, but most have refused

The only service agreeing to comply was the Russian one.

Skitterphoto under CC0

On March 28, Russia’s media regulator said in a press release that it was sending letters to 10 VPN providers asking them to block users’ access to “blacklisted” websites in Russia.

The letters demand that VPN providers plug into the “Federal-State Information System” (FGIS), a technical system that will signal to their services which websites need to be blocked. The move comes as part of the regulator's implementation of a censorship circumvention law that came into effect on November 1, 2017.

Contrary to some headlines, the law does not ban VPN services altogether. Instead, it requires them to abide by the government’s extensive “blacklist” of banned websites and prevent Russian users from accessing them.

Of course, this defeats the purpose of a VPN, a technology used primarily to help people access websites that are blocked in the jurisdiction where they are located. The law is one of the various measures taken by media regulator Roskomnadzor (short for Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) in recent years, in an effort to better control what Russians can and cannot see online.

If these VPN services refuse to comply with the law at Roskomnadzor’s written request, the press release says, the agency will consider “limiting access to the VPN service.”

Nevertheless, for VPN service providers, there may be no real upside to agreeing with Roskomnadzor’s request. Internet freedom activist Vladislav Zdolnikov explained in a comment to Novaya Gazeta:

Ни один зарубежный VPN-сервис не согласится выполнять этот закон по двум причинам.

Во-первых, это противоречит самой сути VPN-сервисов, которые, в том числе, работают на обход блокировок и защиту трафика.

Во-вторых, это огромный ущерб для каждого VPN-сервиса. Новость о том, что какой-то из сервисов начал фильтровать сайты, моментально отобьет желание пользователей их использовать.

No foreign VPN service will ever agree to follow this law for two reasons.

Firstly, this goes against the very principle of every VPN service whose purpose, among others, is precisely to circumvent blockages and protecting traffic.

Secondly, this can be a major blow to any VPN service which dares to comply. News of one of the services beginning to filter access to websites will immediately put off any customer.

The list of VPN services currently on notice includes NordVPN, Hide My Ass!, Hola VPN, OpenVPN, VyprVPN, ExpressVPN, TorGuard, IPVanish, Kaspersky Secure Connection, and VPN Unlimited. OpenVPN is not itself a service, but an open-source technology that enables it.

Almost all have already publicly stated their intent to refuse to comply with Roskomnadzor’s demands:

Some, such as TorGuard, have also declared that they will be removing their servers from Russian soil:

At the time of this writing TorGuard has taken steps to remove all physical server presence in Russia. We have wiped clean all servers in our Saint Petersburg and Moscow locations and will no longer be doing business with data centers in the region.

The only exception on the list is Kaspersky Secure Connection, a service provided by the cybersecurity research firm Kaspersky Labs. The group is headquartered in Moscow, and thus uniquely vulnerable to local laws. Nevertheless, some people balked at their decision to comply with the news rules:

VPN-service (!!!) Kaspersky Secure Connection…
I’m not sure what to compare this absurdity to.
Kaspersky Secure Connection fully agrees to cooperate with Roskomnadzor. Why would anyone be surprised at that!

by RuNet Echo at March 29, 2019 08:35 PM

#WelcomeHomeAlaa: Egyptian revolution activist Alaa Abd El Fattah released after five years in prison

Family and allies rejoiced at the blogger's release.

Alaa Abd El Fattah and Manal Hassan. Photo by Lilian Wagdy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Egyptian blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah was released by authorities late on the night of March 28 after serving five years in prison for defying a protest ban.

The news broke on Twitter when his sister, activist Mona Seif, tweeted simply: “Alaa is out.” She later delighted her brother's friends and allies by posting a photo of the renowned Egyptian revolution activist playing with his family's dog, Toka, who he met for the first time:

First meeting of Alaa and Toka 💓

Supporters around the world have begun posting photos on Twitter with signs reading “Welcome Home Alaa!”:

The feminist organization “si jeunesse savait” [“if youth knew”] celebrates Alaa’s return home

Alaa was a leading voice among Egyptian bloggers and technology activists in Cairo approaching and during the Egyptian Revolution. Together with his wife, Manal Hassan, he helped develop on a range of technology and political activism projects working with activists and bloggers in the region and beyond, including with many members of the Global Voices community.

The 37-year-old activist was arrested and taken from his family’s home in November 2013. More than one year later, in February 2015, he was finally tried and sentenced to five years in prison for “organising” a protest under a 2013 protest law that prohibits unauthorised demonstrations. While he did take part in a protest against military trials for civilians on 26 November 2013, Alaa had no role in organising it. His sentence was confirmed by Egypt’s Court of Cassation in November 2017.

Clockwise: Sanaa (left) and Mona; Alaa Abd El Fattah with his son Kahled and wife Manal Hassan, Alaa and Sanaa, and Sanaa and Mona. Photo from Mona Seif's Facebook page.

Alaa comes from a family of prominent human rights advocates, including human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El Islam, Alaa's father, who was jailed multiple times under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Abd El Fattah’s sisters, Mona and Sanaa Seif, are also human rights defenders who have long campaigned against the military trials of civilians in the country.

Alaa has been jailed or investigated under every Egyptian head of state who has served during his lifetime. In 2006, he was arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest. In 2011, he spent two months in prison, missing the birth of his first child, Khaled. In 2013, he was arrested and detained for 115 days without trial.

Following his release, Alaa will be made to spend every night in his local police station for an additional five years.

For now, however, his family, friends and supporters are relieved to hear that he is out of jail. And so is the Global Voices community.

by Afef Abrougui at March 29, 2019 02:19 PM

March 28, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: Activists in Pakistan and Malaysia confront online backlash after International Women’s Day events

Want your rights protected? Prepare to get attacked on Twitter.

Protesters’ signs after Women's March in Boston, USA, January 2017. Photo by Ellery Biddle, used with permisison.

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from March 22-28, 2019.

Feminist activists in Malaysia and Pakistan are confronting a spike in online harassment triggered by their participation in public events marking International Women’s Day, on March 8.

Women’s groups around the world organized public rallies, marches, and educational events for the UN-recognized occasion. Alongside issues such as access to education, labor rights and political representation, many of these public gatherings put forth strong messages condemning sexual violence and harassment of women and LGBTQI people.

More than anything else, those last messages seem to have triggered the online backlash. In Pakistan, the Digital Rights Foundation’s online harassment helpline received a high number of calls from participants who had received threats of sexual violence, death, and acid attacks.

Feminist writer Bina Shah posted about the threats on Twitter. She also noted that Twitter itself was failing to respond to women’s requests that these threats be removed from the social media platform:

In Malaysia, the photos and profiles of several Women’s Day marchers were widely shared in chat groups and social media pages, so that they could be targeted for abuse. Some were threatened and bullied by strangers and even family members and employers.

Datuk Seri Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the country’s minister in charge of religion, further stoked the online vitriol when he accused the Women’s Day march of “misusing the democratic space to defend things that are wrong in the religion of Islam.”

On March 14, the police announced that seven Women’s Day organizers are under probe for sedition and for violating the Peaceful Assembly Act.

Happy Pakistan Day: No mobile services for you.

Residents of Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad were unable to use mobile phone services for a few hours due to a network shutdown that coincided with a military parade held on March 23 to commemorate Pakistan Day. The date marks the anniversary of the 1940 resolution that became the basis of Pakistan’s independence from Britain.

Although in 2018 the Islamabad High Court declared arbitrary network shutdowns to be illegal, an appeals court granted a stay on the decision. Since then, authorities have invoked security concerns on several occasions to cut access.

EU parliament approves Copyright Directive, elicits region-wide facepalm

Despite the pleas of more than five million people in Europe — through petitions and public marches — the European Parliament approved the much-maligned EU Copyright Directive on March 26.

The Directive obligates member states to introduce laws requiring internet platforms like YouTube to block users from uploading copyright-protected content, effectively imposing a system of “prior censorship” on major internet and social media platforms. The Directive also calls on for-profit media outlets wishing to quote more than a few words from another source will be required to pay fees to the authors or “rightsholders” of those sources.

Diego Naranjo, a senior policy advisor for the coalition group European Digital Rights (EDRi) said that the directive, and in particular Article 13, “sets a dangerous precedent for internet filters and automatised censorship mechanisms – in the EU and across the globe.”

Journalist in Mozambique held for 70 days without charge

A Mozambican journalist who was arrested while reporting on a trend of violent attacks on small villages in Mozambique's province of Cabo Delgado has been behind bars for more than 70 days without trial. Authorities have accused Amade Abubacar of “violating national security” and “incitement to disobedience by means of computerised devices,” but have yet to issue formal charges.

The 32-year-old was briefly detained at a military base, despite not being a member of the armed forces. He later told the Mozambican Bar Association that he was tortured and denied food. Authorities have declined to charge him to court or grant a second request by Amade’s defence team requesting for his provisional release.

Vietnamese activist sentenced to prison for criticizing cybersecurity law

A local activist was sentenced to two years in prison for Facebook posts that were critical of Vietnam’s highly restrictive Cybersecurity Law, which requires internet companies to store their data inside the country and remove content if ordered by the state. Le Minh The is a member of the pro-democracy group Hien Phap and an outspoken advocate for free expression. He is one of six activists and bloggers who are currently being prosecuted for peaceful opposition to the government, according to Human Rights Watch.

Wanna throw an egg at Singaporean official? Don’t say it on Facebook.

Singaporean Facebook user Edmund Zhong is under police investigation for posting a comment indicating that he wanted to throw an egg at Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam. The 20-year-old national serviceman left this comment in a Channel News Asia Facebook post about an Australian teen who threw an egg at a conservative Senator: “I wanna do that to K Shanmugam. I swear.”

Three days later, Zhong received a police notice informing him that he is being probed for the offense of “communicating an electronic record to incite violence” under Section 267C of the Penal Code. If found guilty, Zhong may face fines and/or a prison term of up to five years.

Bangladesh blocks Al Jazeera English over military corruption exposé

Authorities in Bangladesh blocked Al Jazeera's English news website after the media outlet published an article describing allegations that the head of Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency had ordered state security agents to abduct three men to settle a business dispute. Local news site Joban, which posted a Bangla-language summary of the exposé, was also rendered inaccessible.

The government has a long track record of blocking news sites that publish critical information. Notwithstanding, the process for pulling the plug was recently streamlined to make it even easier: Now, security agencies can block websites centrally without obtaining authorization from the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.

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by Netizen Report Team at March 28, 2019 10:17 PM

Facebook comment about throwing an egg at Singapore minister triggers police probe

A 20-year-old Facebook user could face fines or jail time.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam (left) and Facebook user Edmund Zhong (right)

Two Facebook users in Singapore are under police investigation for posting a comment about throwing an egg at Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

Edmund Zhong, a 20-year old national serviceman, left this comment in a Channel News Asia Facebook post about an Australian teen who threw an egg at a conservative Senator: “I wanna do that to K Shanmugam. I swear.” Another Facebook user encouraged Zhong to do it.

Three days later, Zhong received a police notice at his home informing him that he is being probed for the offence of “communicating an electronic record to incite violence” under Section 267C of the Penal Code. If found guilty, Zhong may face up to five years’ imprisonment or fined, or both.

He shared the police notice in a Facebook group called “Complaint Singapore”.

Apparently 3 days ago, 2 officers from Ang Mo Kio Division HQ went to my home regarding my egg throwing comments towards K Shanmugam. Felt a mix of emotions as I didn't expect a harmless but straightforward comment can gain so much reaction.

In a media interview, Zhong said he was only making a joke. He added that his ‘harmless’ comment should be protected on free speech grounds:

To be honest, I don't feel much regret. I feel it's a matter of freedom of speech, and that we have a right to voice such opinions.

In a Facebook post, Shanmugam acknowledged that Zhong was only joking:

When I was told about it, I laughed it off – the somewhat exaggerated words of a young man.

I was then told about some of his background, and that he would be interviewed to establish that he is not actually going to take any action.

I understood Police’s concerns. I can laugh off these comments, but understandably, Police can’t.

I am much more concerned about his public comments, on his FB, on his attitude to narcotics. I hope he does not actually experiment further with cannabis, regardless of how desirable he thinks drugs are.

Critics seized on the last sentence of the minister's post, that referred to cannabis use. Some accused the minister of trying to intimidate Zhong:

The Alternative View, a socio-political Facebook page, wrote:

there is really no need for him to bring in and make uncalled-for insinuations about the man’s character over a few posts about drugs.

But the fact that he did so and even repeated the young man’s name on his post shows up his own character.

Some have defended the police, arguing that the agency was simply performing its mandate, and others reminded Zhong and other social media users to take responsibility for their posts. But many netizens have questioned the appropriateness of the police probe, with some calling it a disproportionately harsh response on the part of the police.

The Online Citizen, a news website, posed a set of questions in response to the incident, inferring that it will set an extreme precedent for future cases:

In light of this recent incident, Singaporeans may have cause to wonder if similar comments towards other public figures in the future would justify the course of action by the SPF [Singapore Police Force] as well as the heavy offences charged.

Do trivial matters such as “innocent” comments made on social media need to be exposed through public investigations by using the SPF as a form of personal security or bodyguards in order to intimidate others from doing the same?

The crime that police have threatened to prosecute Zhong for, under section 267C of the penal code, reads as follows:

Whoever….makes or communicates any electronic record containing any incitement to violence or counselling disobedience to the law or to any lawful order of a public servant or likely to lead to any breach of the peace shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 5 years, or with fine, or with both.

If Zhong's casually expressed desire to throw an egg at the minister can be interpreted to meet the definition and corresponding punishment laid out above, what other kinds of online speech could be punished at this level?

by Mong Palatino at March 28, 2019 05:16 PM

March 26, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
With elections just days away, Ukraine faces disinformation, cyber attacks and further Russian interference

Worried about Russian election meddling? Take a look at Ukraine.

Little green and grey men invading a cyber space. Photo by Filip Stojanovski, CC-BY.

Ukrainians will head for the polls on Sunday 31 March in what will be the first regular national elections since the country's 2014 Euromaidan revolution.

With its Crimean peninsula still occupied by Russian forces, an ongoing military conflict in eastern Ukraine, and rising activity of far-right groups, the country is a prime target for both domestic and external information influence operations.

Ukraine has been in the crossfire of disinformation warfare since 2014, with multiple political actors attempting to disrupt its democratic development. The elections for both the office of the president and parliamentary seats will be a crucial test for Ukraine’s democracy and stability.

Can Facebook counter these campaigns?

Much of the action has taken place on Facebook, which is the country's most popular social network. Despite persistent efforts of civil society and media groups, Facebook has done relatively little to respond to Ukraine's disinformation problem in the past. But the company changed its tune in January, when it publicly announced that it had taken steps to counter some of these issues.

Citing the threat of foreign influence, the company changed its policy towards Ukraine for the election period, banning all political ads purchased from outside of the country (including those concerning politicians, political parties, political slogans and symbols, mobilizing or discouraging voters) and vowing to monitor user behavior more closely.

In short order, on January 17, Facebook reported that it had removed multiple pages and accounts on both Facebook and Instagram linked to two malicious operations that originated in Russia and appeared to include Ukrainian users among their main targets.

One cluster of 289 pages removed by the company had been active in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Baltics, and Central and Eastern European countries.

Facebook also removed 107 pages and 41 Instagram accounts that had operated specifically in Ukraine. Facebook described their activities as “creating networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing.” The accounts and pages were linked to employees of the Russian state news agency Sputnik, but the individuals behind them had represented themselves as being Ukrainian.

According to Facebook, the Ukraine-focused network disseminated local news stories on a variety of topics and spent around US $25,000 on ads. The group's activities resembled the behavior of Russia's Internet Research Agency (IRA), which was found to have run online influence operations during 2016 elections in the US.

Russian online disinformation against Ukraine is nothing new

There is ample evidence that Russian state actors and associates have targeted Ukraine with disinformation campaigns going at least as far back as 2014.

In 2016, the Ukrainian internet portal uncovered a coordinated network of more than 2,000 Facebook profiles linked to a Russian troll farm, which for nearly eight months led an online campaign that sought to topple the Ukrainian government.

A more recent study by VoxUkraine reviewed more than nine million tweets linked to the IRA, of which 750,000  related to Ukraine. This disinformation campaign appears to have been sparked by the 2014 Euromaidan revolution and has steadily gained ground through the occupation and annexation of Crimea. The campaign went into overdrive the day after Malaysian flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine.

#Euromaidan protesters fill central Kyiv on Dec. 1, 2013. Photo by Alexandra Gnatoush. Used with permission.

#Euromaidan protesters fill central Kyiv on Dec. 1, 2013. Photo by Alexandra Gnatoush. Used with permission.

These and other instances have prompted disinformation researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute to state that Ukraine may be home to “the most globally advanced case of computational propaganda”.

Citizen journalists and independent researchers also have played a key role in countering Russian disinformation and alerting both the Ukrainian government and international community about the threats it poses. Despite these efforts and appeals from public officials — including President Poroshenko, who publicly suggested that Facebook open a Ukraine office — Facebook was relatively inactive in responding to the problem until 2019.

It appears that Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections and ensuing public pressure (along with pressure from US legislators) have forced Facebook to more actively respond to threats of disinformation, especially when it comes from Russia and targets democratic elections.

But while the company's recent efforts could be a step in the right direction, it may be too little too late.

Increased disinformation, cyber attacks and other types of interference

There is only so much Facebook or any other tech platform can do by changing its policies or dedicating more time and labor to monitoring user activity in certain countries. Moreover, some of these policy changes can arguably make the situation worse by driving malicious activity into the shadows.

Facebook users were quick to spot several popular pages with seemingly Ukrainian political content that were run from Russia after the network enforced identity and location verification for administrators of popular public pages and verified accounts. In 2018, Ukrainian state security services warned of apparent preparations by Russia to influence upcoming elections by “buying out” administrators of popular Facebook groups in eastern Ukraine and hiring Ukrainian citizens to set up and register news websites domestically. Such persons were offered monetary incentives to disseminate Russian-made content through their social media accounts and web platforms. In cases like these, foreign interference would be much more difficult to detect, let alone expose or counter.

Observers at the Ukrainian Election Task Force say that Russia’s goal is not to aid a particular candidate, but rather “to delegitimize the election process altogether”.

And if the actions of foreign actors alone were not enough, Ukrainian activists such as political “bot busters” keep uncovering evidence of domestic politicians’ attempts to manipulate public opinion online through the use of inauthentic accounts. In addition, the problematic application of outdated political advertisement regulations to online spaces provides opportunities for further manipulations.

Currently, disinformation attacks against Ukraine are as active as ever, and other technology-related incidents are on rise too. Just ten days before elections, the head of Ukraine's Cyberpolice announced that they have registered increased attacks on Ukraine's election infrastructure by hacker groups associated with Russia. A few days later, a fake e-mail about election rules was sent on behalf of Ukraine’s Minister of Interior.

Alongside state security services working to counter foreign interference during elections, it is vital that activists, researchers and civil society groups keep supporting fact checking, public communications and election observation initiatives on the ground as polling day approaches.

by Tetyana Bohdanova at March 26, 2019 11:31 PM

March 25, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Censored on WeChat: #MeToo in China

In China, authorities see #MeToo as a political threat.

Chinese students displayed anti-sexual harassment banners at the January 20 Women's March in Washington, DC. Image via Voice of America, licensed for reuse.

This post was written by the team of WeChatscope, a research initiative led by Dr. King-wa Fu at The University of Hong Kong.

With more than 1.0825 billion individual users, along with more than 20 million registered public accounts, WeChat has the largest number of domestic users and the most extensive coverage of any social media service in China. As such, it has become a chief component of China's rigorous censorship regime.

In 2017, our team at the University of Hong Kong built a technical web “scraping” system for studying censorship on WeChat's publicly accessible pages. Throughout 2018, we tracked more than 4,000 public accounts covering daily news and preserved censored posts in a publicly accessible database, WeChatscope. This article is the third in a partnership series with Global Voices.

Around the world, #MeToo was one of the most popular hashtags on Twitter in 2018. The global campaign took on different dimensions in dozens of countries, including China. Our data set indicates that online allegations of sexual misconduct were one of most heavily censored topics on WeChat in 2018.

The campaign first emerged on social media in China in October 2017, mostly in the form of reports about revelations among actors and film producers in Hollywood. But similar to what happened in other countries, after these stories made the rounds online for a few weeks, local people began to speak up about their own experiences.

In November 2017, female reporter Sophia Huang began investigating allegations of sexual harassment that appeared in the media. She used the hashtag #MeToo and launched an anti-sexual harassment platform on WeChat to conduct a survey and compile sexual harassment cases.

The first high-profile #MeToo exposé in China to make international news was reported on Weibo on New Year's day of 2018 by Luo Xixi, a former student at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Luo, who had moved to the United States, revealed how she had been sexually harassed by University professor Chen Xiaowu 12 years prior. Her story, which included the hashtag ‘#Wo Ye Shi’ (#我也是, “#MeToo”), went viral within two days. After almost two weeks of investigation, Chen was sacked by the school. The Ministry of Education also stripped Chen of his academic title as Yangtze River Scholar.

The incident triggered a series of campaigns and petitions in several universities calling for school administrators to establish official policies against sexual misconduct. Feminist activists also started using #MeToo and #Wo Ye Shi as campaign hashtags on social media. Within two weeks, these tags became popular topics on Weibo but were disabled from automatically generating a topic page in February. A new term, “rice bunny”, which sounds similar to “me too” when spoken in Chinese, was used as a replacement hashtag to get around the censors.

When Chinese feminists attempted to take the campaign forward for International Women’s Day on March 8, 2018, they were blocked by Chinese censors. The feminist campaign hashtag “#38antiharassment” was blocked. The hashtag #Metoo or #Wo Ye Shi was allowed to be used but only to discuss sexual harassment campaigns in other countries like South Korea.

Campus #MeToo campaign labelled as a ‘political movement’

One month later, in early April, the Chinese #MeToo campaign resurfaced when Li Youyou, an alumna of Peking University, published a post accusing Nanjing University literature professor Shen Yang of sexual misconduct against Gao Yan, a fellow classmate of Li's who died by suicide in 1998.

Shen Yang denied the accusation but the school decided to terminate the 60-year-old professor's contract for “violating teaching ethics”. Coincidentally, Shen is also a Yangtze River Scholar.

Shortly thereafter, eight university students from Peking University wrote an open letter to school authorities, asking them to release information about their investigation into Gao Yan’s death.

This relatively small collective action elicited a strong response from university authorities who attempted to threaten the students with further action. But this backfired when one of the students, Yue Xin, wrote another open letter, exposing how the school had harassed and intimidated the students. Although Yue’s letter was quickly censored, fellow students took screenshots of her letter and circulated them online. Soon, posters appeared on campus expressing support for the #MeToo student activists.

According to China Digital Times, a message circulated in various WeChat groups at Peking University alleging that the school’s Communist Party committee was concerned about the incident. The committee apparently saw the students’ response as a form of activism, or as a political movement in collusion with external forces, and thus presenting a threat to the broader political establishment.

During this time, a search of Yue Xin on WeChatscope's database generated zero results. This may have been a sampling error, but more likely it indicates that the term “Yue Xin” was marked as a politically sensitive term and had been completely censored on WeChat's public domain.

Even though the death of Gao Yan had taken place 20 years ago, posts mentioning the incident were more frequently removed on WeChat than other individual cases because the keywords related to it were flagged for being part of a “political movement”.

A few examples of posts censored on WeChat that were linked to the Gao Yan incident at the Peking University. The first post, “Peking University students Xu Fan and Wang Ao back from 1995 urge Yangtze River scholar Shen Yang not to lie anymore” (北京大学95级徐芃、王敖请长江学者沈阳不要再说谎了) was a public appeal made by two university alumni and published on April 5, 2018. WeChat took the post down on the same day.

The second post, “The resistance and redemption of Gao Yan incident” (高岩事件中的反抗与救赎) is an investigative piece interviewing Gao Yan's parents and Li Youyou. The report probed into the power relations between teachers and students in a university institution. It was published and also removed on April 8.

The third piece is “Please pay attention to the suicide of Gao Yan 20 years ago and the campus sexual harassment policy” (关注 | 20年前的高岩自杀事件 迟到的校园反性骚扰制度). The commentary, published and removed on April 9 also challenged the absence of policy in dealing with campus sexual harassment cases.

Individual stories continue to circulate on social media

Despite the clampdown, individual stories about sexual harassment still continue to circulate on social media. According to BBC's estimation, between June to August 2018, around 30 public figures from education, media and NGO sectors have been accused of sexual violence in China.

The most explosive story was told by 25-year-old Zhou Xiaoxuan about how she was sexually harassed by Zhu Jun, a prominent TV host back in 2014. Her 3000-word story was first shared among friends in a chatroom. One of her friends, an environmental activist named Xu Chao, had her permission to share the story on Weibo and in two hours it went viral. In the next few days, the term “Zhu Jun” appeared on Weibo’s hot search list.

Though Zhu is closely associated with the China Central Television, public discussion of the case was subjected to less censorship than the Peking University incident. In WeChatscope's database, we retrieved one censored post, “New development regarding Zhu Jun's incident. Will people still believe teacher Zhu Jun is innocent?” (朱军事件有了新情况,有多少人还相信朱军老师是清白的?), with a rhetorical question in the headline which may have led readers to believe that Zhu is guilty without any double, and was published and deleted on November 12.

Zhu has denied the accusations and threatened to sue Zhou for defamation, in an ongoing legal dispute that continues to attract public attention. Zhou is now attempting to bring the country’s first-ever civil sexual harassment lawsuit against Zhu.

Our data supports the argument that Chinese censors are blocking content that challenges authorities and advocates for change, even when it does not explicitly touch upon political issues. But it also shows that the #MeToo campaign in China, and other content with similar messages, have managed to find space on Chinese social media. Every now and then, new cases flash on the internet and some attract widespread public attention.

When a person shares their story and it strikes a chord with others, it can be shared by tens of thousands of individual users in a matter of hours. Despite efforts to censor these kinds of messages, these outbursts of sharing have had a significant impact on Chinese university campuses.

by Wechatscope at March 25, 2019 11:23 PM

Two years after completing his sentence, Emirati activist Osama al-Najjar remains in detention

The activist was due to be released in March 2017.

Osama al-Najjar remains in detention, despite completing his jail sentence two years ago. Photo Credit: the activist's Twitter account

Emirati activist Osama al-Najjar remains in unlawful detention, despite having completed his three-year jail sentence more than two years ago.

Al-Najjar was arrested in March 2014 for posting tweets denouncing that his father had been tortured in prison, and calling for his release and that of other prisoners of conscience in the Emirates.

Osama's father, Hussain Al-Najjar, is one of 94 Emirati activists who were prosecuted en masse in 2013 for calling for political reform in the Emirates on charges related to “harming State Security”. He is currently serving 11 years in prison.

In November 2014, the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court, whose verdicts cannot be appealed, sentenced Osama to three years in jail under the country's cybercrime law on a number of charges that include “instigating hatred” against the state and “designing and running a website [with] satirical and defaming ideas and information”.

He was due to be released on 17 March, 2017, but at the request of public prosecution, the court deemed him a ”threat” to national security and extended his detention without specifying for how long. Two year later, Osama remains behind bars, with no end to his detention in sight.

In a recent statement marking the anniversary of the end of his official sentence, the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE said:

As there is no trial proceeding this form of detention, those transferred to such facilities can be held indefinitely with the government – rather than the judiciary – handing down punishment. This type of administrative detention grossly violates international standards of due process.

Although he was not convicted of a terrorist offence, Osama is being held at a counselling centre at al-Razeen prison under the country's counter-terrorism law. Emirati authorities claim that the purpose of these facilities is to offer guidance to those considered to be “a threat against the state”. However, rights groups say that authorities are using counter-terrorism and these so-called counselling centres as a pretext to indefinitely extend the detention of prisoners of conscience.

by Afef Abrougui at March 25, 2019 10:48 PM

Welcome to the Venezuelan internet. Luis Carlos and Naky will be your guides.

Meet Venezuela's internet power couple.

Naky (left), Luis Carlos (right) and their dog, Pepe's, nose (bottom). Photography taken from Luis Carlos’ Facebook profile, used with permission.

After years of censorship, constant power cuts, dwindling presence of non-state media, and vicious political polarization, the internet in Venezuela has become a very complicated place. It is even a battle ground within the political conflict. Trying to find and make sense of information online has become really, really hard.

But we are not alone in our struggle. In this murky and uncertain milieu, thousands of Venezuelans inside the country and abroad have found a special person, a guide who knows how to read in the dark. His name is Luis Carlos Díaz.

He is a journalist, a geek, a foodie and a collaborator here at Global Voices. His name made headlines last week when he was detained by government authorities in Caracas. Yet most of us know him not as story subject, but as a person who is making the media, constantly, and on his own terms.

Luis Carlos and I go way back. We met at university, had a couple of classes together and became very good friends. He made me read Kapuscinski for the first time, showed me how it inspired him to write about journalism for peace, and pushed me to start my own blog. We even opened a blog together with another friend of ours, a space to comment on everything we found hilariously cheesy around us. He also invited me to join Global Voices.

A few years later, Luis Carlos met a real-life wonder woman named Naky Soto, who would become his main collaborator in work and in life. Naky is a communications professional who talks of little else but defending people’s rights and performing citizenship.

The rest is easy to guess. They fell in love, got married, and started a life together.

‘Political Hangouts’

Over the past ten years, Naky and Luis Carlos’ work on various internet platforms has become a touchstone for many Venezuelans as the country has fallen into crisis and the community of Venezuelans outside the country grew rapidly. During this time, censorship intensified (in all forms), and online networks became our most reliable source of information.

Naky and Luis Carlos became some of the most recognized and trusted readers of the situation. They were fast to learn about new communication tools and processes, and even faster to sniff out political motivations and controversy on the national stage. Together, they found ways to explain all of this using a combination of serious analysis, references to pop culture and their signature wit.

For one of their first projects, “Political Hangouts,” they used Google Hangouts to explain what was going on in Venezuela. People would get online and participate, commenting and asking questions.

Soon after, Naky began posting daily summaries on Facebook, where you could learn what was going on, and understand why it mattered. She also became a prolific photographer, posting photos of unique insects (#Bichos) and plants that refused to give away their place to the city's concrete in her photo series #Tercas  (stubborn).

Last fall, one follower picked up on her #tercas hashtag with a powerful response:

For all of those who fight “stubbornly” to achieve a respectful, responsible and free country, I'm putting here some pictures of plants growing in unlikely places. The first: life does not know or respect locks, prison or censorship.

Naky and Luis Carlos’ conversations in Hangouts, on Telegram and on Twitter have become popular at universities and in public spaces around the country and the region. They are not just in it for the followers, but the numbers are impressive. Alongside tens of thousands of followers on Instagram and views on YouTube, they have nearly half a million followers on Twitter (@LuisCarlos and @Naky) between the two of them.

How to use the internet

From Luis Carlos and Naky, we've learned how best to read all kinds of media, how to deal with bad internet service, how and why it is important to register, document, and denounce abuses. They have taught us how to be careful with the information we have and share, what media sources were trustworthy, how to be patient with family members spamming our WhatsApp groups with fake news.

When popular services go down, Luis Carlos often helps people seek alternative solutions:

WhatsApp is down. This is a good moment for an ad: Telegram is still accessible and we're a bunch of people having a great time over there.

He recently created a short video about hackers. The framing message was: “befriend a hacker, love your hacker, learn how they operate because, at the end, we'll all become one”.

Do you know what hackers are and why we need them? I'm explaining it in #TodosLosDíaz (Every Day), specially now that [the country's] politics have been hacked and we need ourselves [around]

Everyday, seriously

Most recently, they have launched a Patreon project where subscribers and supporters can find analytical videos and episodes of “En serio” (in Spanish, “seriously”), their latest collaboration, where they help viewers make sense of the latest wave of political events taking place in the country, which can be remarkably difficult to comprehend.

Screenshot of the episode “Political Happiness”, part of the series #EnSerio (Seriously), taken from Luis Carlos’ Patreon channel.

Venezuela has changed so rapidly, so violently, and so weirdly, that the only way to make sense of it all was to connect with a network of people, inside the country and out. Over the years, these two people have shown so many of us that learning does not need to be limited to certain spaces, and that it can happen in collaboration, connecting people, in constant evolution, surpassing obstacles, and lighting pathways for those who are struggling to find their way.

Through their work, thousands of us — friends and followers and collaborators — found ourselves in a network. We’ve found ways to learn from them, and from each other. As we look ahead, it’s clear. Our network is exactly what we need to keep going.


by Laura Vidal at March 25, 2019 10:47 PM

March 21, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: EU activists make a final push to keep the internet filter-free

The EU might really mess up the internet next week.

“All Rights Reserved.” Drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt, released to public domain.

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from March 9 – 20, 2019.

In the remaining days of March, the European Parliament is expected to vote on a landmark copyright reform that could upend major online spaces for creative and political expression, such as YouTube and Facebook.

The latest draft of the EU Copyright Directive — which largely has been drawn and debated behind closed doors — includes Article 13, that would require internet platforms like YouTube to install “upload filters,” a technical mechanism that would block users from uploading copyright-protected content, effectively imposing a system of “prior censorship” on major internet and social media platforms.

A final vote on the copyright directive is expected between March 26 and 28. In the days leading up to the vote, citizens and digital rights advocates across the region will make a final push to convince legislators to rethink the policy. As of March 12, more than five million people had signed a petition against Article 13, and thousands have called and emailed their Members of the European Parliament.

Dozen of public protests are planned for March 23 and several major websites that would be affected by the rule have planned held a symbolic blackout on March 21 — including the German, Czech, Danish and Slovak versions of Wikipedia.

While a change like this would legally apply only for EU member states, it could have enormous effects on the the internet worldwide. If filtering systems like this were built and put in place in Europe, governments in other countries could take interest and pursue similar (or even identical) mechanisms for their own territories.

To learn more about these efforts, visit the Save Your Internet campaign site.

Iraq postpones debate on controversial cybercrime bill

Iraq’s Council of Representatives is considering a controversial cybercrime bill that would impose a lifetime prison sentence and steep fines for people convicted of using “computers and the internet” to “undermine the independence, the integrity and safety of the country, or its supreme economic, political, military, or security interests” or to ”publish or broadcast false or misleading facts with the intention of weakening confidence in the electronic financial system”.

Earlier this month, human rights groups published a statement urging the Iraqi parliament to withdraw the bill. The Council was scheduled to debate the bill on March 14, but it was later removed from the day's schedule. On Twitter, the official account for the Iraqi Council of Representatives thanked those who contacted it to “criticize some laws,” but did not specify which laws.

Kazakh authorities arrest leader of a campaign against Xinjiang detention centers

Not two weeks before the surprise resignation of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakh authorities arrested activist Serikzhan Bilash on March 11 in Almaty.

Bilash was accused of “inciting ethnic hatred” after he said in a public speech that he wanted to go to war with China, over the country’s Xinjiang “re-education camps.” He explained this would be an “information war,” but authorities evidently did not appreciate the distinction. He has since been flown to the capital, Astana, and released on house arrest.

Bilash leads a group called Ata-Jurt, which has helped more than a thousand Kazakhs advocate for their loved ones who are detained or missing in neighboring China's Xinjiang region, amid the Chinese government's crackdown against ethnic and religious minorities. Gene Bunin, the curator of the English-language Xinjiang Victims Database estimates that Ata-Jurt has published at least 3,000 video testimonies from former detainees and their family members.

Kommersant reporter forced to resign, for running a Telegram channel

Maria Karpenko, a reporter for Kommersant, one of Russia’s leading business dailies, says she was forced to resign after the paper’s editor-in-chief confronted her about a Telegram channel she co-administrates.

The Telegram channel in question, named Rotonda, is run by a group of journalists from other publications in St. Petersburg and focuses on local politics. It has close to 10,000 followers. In an interview with , Karpenko said she believed her editor was pressured into firing her for her critical articles and social media posts, likely by someone in St. Petersburg administration or even the Kremlin.

Venezuelan journalist detained amid crisis

Venezuelan journalist and human rights defender Luis Carlos Diaz went missing on the evening of March 11 and was later found to have been detained by government intelligence officials. He was released on March 12, pending charges and on the condition that he will report to authorities every eight days.

Luis Carlos is a long-time and celebrated member of the Global Voices community. For more than a decade, he has worked to defend freedom of speech and use of digital networks to maintain public access to information amid Venezuela's ongoing crisis. He and his wife, Naky Soto, host a hugely popular video program (previously on YouTube, now on Patreon) where they offer political commentary and humor.

Egyptian authorities delay release of blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah

Egyptian authorities have delayed the release of prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah by 10 days. Abd El Fattah was scheduled to be released from prison on March 17, 2019, the day he completes his five-year sentence in prison. The prominent blogger and political activist was arrested at his family’s home in November 2013. More than a year later, he was tried and sentenced to five years in prison for “organizing a protest” under a 2013 law that prohibits unauthorized demonstrations. While he did take part in a protest against military trials for civilians, he had no role in organizing it.

#RedAMLOVE: There’s a new Twitter army in Mexico

New research by SignaLab, a social media research group at the Jesuit University of Guadalajara, shows a set of emerging trends among supporters of the administration of Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as “AMLO.” The study shows patterns of activity on Twitter that appear to reflect coordinated efforts to promote the positions and interests of the new government, and to undermine its critics.

In an interview with Animal Politico, research lead Rossana Reguillo — who was a target of Twitter campaigns linked to former president Enrique Pena Nieto — lamented the resurgence of this trend with the new administration. Attacks like these “contribute to a climate of polarization and hate speech, which do not bode well for democracy,” she said.

Women’s ‘Aurat March’ leaders face online threats in Pakistan

On March 8, women in seven cities of Pakistan took part in a national “Aurat March,” an array of public rallies promoting the rights of women and LGBTQ people. While the marches garnered significant support online as well, they also became the target of scrutiny by public officials and open threats against some of the lead voices in Pakistan’s women’s movement. Digital Rights Foundation director and Global Voices community member Nighat Dad publicly reported that she, along with hundreds of other women, received rape threats over Twitter.

Philippine media groups denounce cyber attacks

Several media groups in the Philippines marked the World Day Against Cyber Censorship on March 12 by holding a protest to denounce ongoing cyber attacks on independent media sites. Bulatlat, Kodao Productions, Pinoy Weekly and Altermidya are among sites that have weathered distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks since December 2018. The groups say the attacks were backed by the Philippine government. The website for the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines has also been a target.

New research

Reckless VII: Wife of Journalist Slain in Cartel-Linked Killing Targeted with NSO Group’s Spyware – Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto

The Index of Racism and Incitement in Israeli Social Media 2018 – 7amleh / The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media

Free To Be Mobile: Ensuring that women, girls, queer and trans persons can inhabit digital spaces freely and fearlessly – Point of View / India


Subscribe to the Netizen Report



by Netizen Report Team at March 21, 2019 05:08 PM

March 19, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Russian journalist forced to resign for Telegram channel critical of St. Petersburg authorities

Karpenko suspects her superiors were pressured into firing her.

Maria Karpenko was forced to resign from Kommersant daily newspaper for her critical comments about Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin-appointed acting governor in St. Petersburg // Maria Karpenko's Facebook profile

Maria Karpenko, a reporter for Kommersant, one of Russia’s leading business dailies, says she was forced to resign after the paper’s editor-in-chief confronted her about a Telegram channel she co-administrates.

The Telegram channel in question, named Rotonda, is run by a group of journalists from other publications in St. Petersburg and focuses on local politics. It has close to 10,000 followers.

Karpenko wrote on Rotonda:

Привет, это Маша Карпенко, соавтор «Ротонды» и до сегодняшнего дня — корреспондент газеты «Коммерсантъ». Меня уволили: причиной стало недовольство Кремля и Смольного тем, что я пишу здесь и тем, как «Ъ» освещает избирательную кампанию Александра Беглова.

Объясняя причину увольнения, руководитель издательского дома Владимир Желонкин сообщил: то, что я пишу в «Ротонде», не соответствует редакционной политике «Коммерсанта». «Ротонду» он назвал «активизмом, несовместимым с журналистским статусом». Если не относить эти слова на счет критических замечаний «Ротонды» по поводу политики врио губернатора Петербурга Александра Беглова, единственное, что можно назвать активизмом — это настойчивые попытки добиться того, чтобы работа городского правительства была одинаково открытой для всех журналистов (которые я предпринимала в том числе от имени «Ъ» с согласия руководства). Такой активизм считаю не просто совместимым с журналистским статусом, но и неотъемлемой частью этого статуса.

Hi, this is Masha Karpenko, Rotonda’s co-author and until today a correspondent for the Kommersant newspaper. I was fired: the reason for this was the Kremlin and Smolny’s [St. Petersburg city hall] anger at my writings here and my coverage of Alexander Beglov’s [acting governor of St. Petersburg] election campaign in Kommersant.

Explaining the motivations for my dismissal, the director of the publishing house Vladimir Zhelonkin told me: what I write in Rotonda is at odds with Kommersant’s editorial policies. He called Rotonda a piece of “activism incompatible with the status of a journalist.” If we ignore Rotonda’s critical comments about the policies of the acting governor of St. Petersburg Alexander Beglov, my only activity that could possibly be construed as activism were the persistent attempts to provide equal access to the city government’s halls for all journalists, a campaign which I waged with full knowledge of my Kommersant superiors and their blessing. This kind of activism I consider to be not just consistent with my status as a journalist, but an inalienable part of said status.

Karpenko refers to a series of incidents where the government of St. Petersburg allowed only reporters from publications controlled by or loyal to the city authorities to attend their press briefings, while blacklisting critical outlets.

She then writes that Zhelonkin couldn’t have come up with the idea himself. She says he was obviously pressured into firing her for her critical articles and social media posts, likely by someone in St. Petersburg administration or even the Kremlin.

Vladimir Zhelonkin went on Echo of Moscow radio station to comment on Karpenko’s allegations:

Мария Карпенко работала в двух медиа и выбрала работу в одном из них. Её поставили перед выбором и она выбрала. По нашим правилам работать в двух медиа нельзя. Я думаю, что это в трудовом соглашении прописано. Расстались мы по соглашению сторон. Я прочитал её пост [в Телеграме]. Я ей про администрацию президента точно ничего не говорил.

Maria Karpenko worked at two media outlets at the same time and chose to work for one of them [referring to Rotonda] instead. She was given a choice and she made it. Our charter prohibits working for two publications at the same time. This must be written into her contract. We parted ways by mutual agreement. I read her [Telegram] post. I’m sure I haven’t told her anything about the president’s administration.

Other journalists cast doubt on Zhelonkin’s version, saying that even if the rules at Kommersant prohibit working on the side, they're unevenly applied, as demonstrated by Andrey Kolesnikov, Kommersant's star reporter from the Kremlin pool:

It’s interesting how things work at Kommersant: Maria Karpenko lost her job for running a Telegram channel alongside her day job, while Andrey Kolesnikov is still employed there, although he is also the editor in chief of the Russian Pioneer magazine. He is allowed to moonlight without consequences.

Karpenko gave a short interview to Besposchadny Piarschik (The Ruthless Spin Doctor), a Telegram channel focused on the media and PR industry where she disputed Zhelonkin’s statement about the choice she had supposedly been given. Karpenko explained that she was simply informed that her services at Kommersant were no longer required.

She also stressed that she had written a number of critical articles about the city’s administration and never felt any pressure from her superiors to tone it down. But Kommersant’s leadership, she says, was evidently under pressure, in a scenario that ultimately led to her dismissal.

Alexander Beglov, 62, was appointed the acting governor of St. Petersburg last year, after the resignation of Grigory Poltavchenko. Beglov is unpopular among the city’s residents, especially after the winter of 2018-2019 when the city authorities failed to clear the streets of snow and ice, But the Kremlin has made no secret of its preferences in the elections planned for September 2019.

by Alexey Kovalev at March 19, 2019 10:15 PM

‘Blood feud’ against Chechen blogger is the culmination of a months-long, unusually frank conversation about a buried past

Painful memories of war have surfaced in online debates.

Exiled blogger Tumso Abdurakhmanov in a debate with Magomed Daudov, the speaker of Chechnya's parliament. YouTube screenshot, captured by Runet Echo.

On March 12, several Russian news outlets, following by a few North American publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, reported that a top Chechen official declared a “blood feud” against a dissident Chechen blogger in exile in Poland. The blogger in question, Tumso Abdurakhmanov, told AP he was taking the threat “seriously.”

There’s no reason he shouldn’t: the Chechen official, known by his nom de guerre Lord, real name Magomed Daudov, is a former guerilla warlord who switched sides and now supports the Russian government. He reportedly directed the “gay purge” in the strictly Islamic republic, among other things on his less-than-stellar human rights record.

Abdurakhmanov, 32, is no democrat himself. He is a self-described follower of Salafism, a strictly traditional school of Islam, and committed to the failed cause of Ichkeria, the short-lived interwar Chechen proto-state.

The blogger rose to public prominence in 2015, when while driving on a road in Grozny, Chechnya's capital, he supposedly failed to give way to the cavalcade of Islam Kadyrov. The cousin of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s all-powerful ruler, Islam Kadyrov holds various official titles, including the mayor of Grozny for three years. Abdurakhmanov claims Islam Kadyrov confiscated his phone by force and confronted him about the anti-Ramzan Kadyrov and anti-Putin caricatures, videos, and other content from his blog.

Abdurakhmanov, as he described it to reporters, was taken to be questioned by Islam Kadyrov and senior Islamic clerics who accused him of being “hardened Wahhabi.” Following that episode, the blogger fled the country and eventually landed in Poland, where he is currently fighting extradition to Russia. He is sought by Russian anti-terrorist authorities who accuse him of being a member of an “illegal armed group” fighting in Syria — a charge that Abdurakhmanov vocally denies.

While in exile, Tumso Abdurakhmanov took to YouTube to air his anger about Ramzan Kadyrov and his associates, whom he labels as “traitors” to the nation for abandoning the cause of Ichkeria and Chechen independence while swearing loyalty to Vladimir Putin and Russia. Magomed Daudov has long been the target of Tumso’s video missives, enough for the Chechen official to one day call Abdurakhmanov on Whatsapp — in full knowledge that the recording would be made public — and proceed to have a 3-hour conversation with the blogger.

Abdurakhmanov did indeed immediately upload the three hours of tense exchanges in Chechen and occasional Russian, in several parts, to his YouTube channel. The first part attracted 2,5 million views at the time of writing — an astonishing number, given that only 1,2 million people live in the republic of Chechnya. Abdurakhmanov's channel, which goes under the nickname Abu Saddam Shishani, has almost 50,000 subscribers.

Soon thereafter, other senior cadres in Ramzan Kadyrov’s tightly run “royal” court (they refer to Kadyrov as “pachchakh” in Chechen, meaning “padeshah”, or king in Persian) also rang Tumso Abdurakhmanov, knowing that they would be asked tough questions and even insulted in full view of an online audience of millions.

In conversations watched over 3 million times on YouTube, conducted mostly in Chechen with Russian subtitles, Abdurakhmanov and Daudov engage in surprisingly frank debates about Chechnya and Russia’s recent past, the wars that annihilated the small republic and its population and the subsequent restoration under the Kadyrov family rule.

What seems to have stung Daudov the most was Abdurakhmanov’s reference to the fact that the official shares the noble title of the Hero of the Russian Federation with a Russian army general universally reviled in Chechnya for his brutal counterinsurgency campaigns:

Есть такой генерал Шаманов — он Герой России. И ты Герой России. Когда ты эту медаль надеваешь, тебе от себя не воняет?

There is a general called Shamanov — he’s a Hero of Russia. And you are a Hero of Russia. When you’re wearing this medal, can you feel your own stink?

Alexander Chernykh, a reporter for the newspaper Kommersant, notes in his run-down of the online debates that Daudov briefly hesitates, as if he’s never actually asked himself: how indeed did it come to this?

Seemingly at the end of his patience, Daudov responded with a video of his own, where he accused Abdurakhmanov of tarnishing the memory of Akhmat Kadyrov, Ramzan’s father and the first president of the post-war Chechen Republic, assassinated in the capital Grozny in 2004.

What Daudov said then (“blood feud”) is the matter of some linguistic debate. Media outlets focused on the North Caucasus say the term only applies to narrowly defined circumstances of blood revenge, that one family wages on another, for the murder of one of its own. Since this is not relevant in Daudov and Abdurakhmanov’s case, experts say the latter is unlikely to be targeted in a vendetta, although he still must be in considerable danger, given the brutal end of many of the regime's public enemies.

In a subsequent op-ed on the subject, Alexander Chernykh also notes that those heated exchanges provide a rare glimpse into painful and conflicted issues that are burning hot in today’s Chechnya, ten years after the official conclusion of the Second Chechen War. The wounds of war are still fresh in the North Caucasus, but public debates about its consequences are extremely rare.

Most Chechens are still too traumatised to talk about the war, especially to publicly seek answers to questions like: how should we treat those who fought for independent Ichkeria, then switched sides to join the federal military? Are wartime field commanders such as Shamil Basayev hero rebels, or terrorists?

While both Chechen and Russian popular media and societies are busy containing the tender memories of a recent past, the pain surfaces in uncensored online debates watched by millions.

by RuNet Echo at March 19, 2019 05:43 PM

Activists speak out against Iraq's cybercrime bill

Iraqis who “undermine national independence” online could face life sentence

Baghdad. Photo by MohammadHuzam (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Human rights groups and activists are urging the Iraqi parliament to withdraw a controversial cybercrime bill that would greatly restrict freedom of expression online, if adopted.

The bill imposes long prison sentences for speech-related offences that are only vaguely defined in the text of the bill. Article 3 prescribes a lifetime prison sentence and steep fines for those convicted of using “computers and the internet” to “undermine the independence, the integrity and safety of the country, or its supreme economic, political, military, or security interests” or to “provoke sectarian strife, disturbing the security and public order, or harming the reputation of the country.”

Articles 4 and 6 impose the same punishments for those convicted of promoting ”terrorist acts and ideas” (Art. 4) or ”publish[ing] or broadcast[ing] false or misleading facts with the intention of weakening confidence in the electronic financial system” (Art. 6.)

Earlier this year, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights warned:

“Without a clear and explicit definition of terrorism, it would be easy to use the law to liquidate the resources of political opponents and other activists.”

Internet-related rights are already on shaky ground in Iraq. Last summer, authorities responded to protests denouncing corruption and dire living conditions in Basra and other cities by shutting down the internet.

If adopted, the bill will only make it harder for Iraqis to exercise their rights to communicate, speak freely and access information online.

Earlier this month, nine human rights groups including AccessNow, Amnesty International and the the Iraqi Observatory for Human Rights published a statement urging the Iraqi parliament to withdraw the bill:

…the law will result in Internet users becoming fearful of exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms online, and will empty the right to freedom of expression of its substance. The law would also have far-reaching effects on the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of information as well as the right to participation in public affairs in Iraq.

The parliament was scheduled to debate the bill on March 14, but it was later removed from the day's schedule.

On Twitter, the official account for the Iraqi Council of Representatives thanked those who contacted it to “criticise some laws,” but did not specify which laws. Rights groups and activists welcomed this response, but they remain wary.

It remains unclear if the parliament will introduce changes to the bill or when it will be scheduled for debate again.

by Afef Abrougui at March 19, 2019 03:43 PM

March 18, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
#FreeSerikjan and the long shadow of Xinjiang's camps in neighbouring Kazakhstan

A long-repressed region found its voice in a neighbouring country

Serikjan Bilash makes a speech at the Ata-Jurt collective's office. Screenshot from video shared by the group's YouTube channel on February 2.

Kazakhstan-based activist Serikjan Bilash has helped more than a thousand Kazakhs advocate for their loved ones who are detained or missing in neighbouring China's Xinjiang region, amid the Chinese government's crackdown against ethnic and religious minorities.

And ever since his dramatic arrest by Kazakh police on March 11, on suspicion of inciting “inter-ethnic hatred”, they have been returning the favour.

For the past week, Kazakhs have been making videos to demand the release of Bilash, whose organisation has made the Central Asian country a focal point of international reporting on Beijing's oppressive “re-education” drive in Xinjiang. A typical video with a corresponding translation is below.

Dear (President) Nursultan Nazarbayev, all Kazakh people depend on you. There are Kazakhs suffering from unjustified repression in China. This situation has lasted for more than three years. At first, there were deep frustrations. But Serikjan taught us how to legally write our complaints. He also attracted more attention from the international community. In short, I'd like you to grant him freedom.

Currently there are around 400 such videos supporting his release, many of which have been viewed over a thousand times. Most are addressed to Kazakhstan's 78-year-old strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Whose repression?

Most of the reporting on Bilash's March 11 arrest has focussed on China's “long arm” and its potential to pressure a Central Asian neighbour that depends on it for trade and investment. Although Bilash was arrested and held by Kazakh authorities on March 11, he was put on house arrest the following day by a court in the capital Astana.

There are good reasons to believe China has been embarrassed by Bilash and his informal organisation, known as Ata-Jurt.

Ata-Jurt's campaign, mostly focused on the ethnic Kazakh population of more than 1.5 million in Xinjiang, has done much to reveal the inner workings of the police state there.

UN experts have estimated that around a million ethnic and religious minorities — mostly Uyghurs but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Hui — might be interned in facilities that the Chinese Communist Party recently referred to sunnily as being “like boarding schools.”

Ata-Jurt has encouraged both relatives who have loved ones missing or detained across the border in Xinjiang and people who experienced “re-education” there to speak out about their experiences.

Gene Bunin, the curator of the English-language Xinjiang Victims Database estimates that Ata-Jurt has published at least 3,000 video testimonies produced by 2,000 different testifiers.

Bilash's interviews, in turn, have been featured in dozens of internationally recognized media outlets, all of which reported on his arrest. These reports created a storm of negative PR on a scale Kazakhstan could scarcely have anticipated.

Preserving vital ties with China might be a powerful enough motive for authorities to move against Bilash. But Kazakhstan's authoritarian regime had other reasons to view him as a threat.

Bilash's charismatic public speaking and media-savvy approach to community leadership have ensured him a growing following in the last year or so, particularly among Chinese-born, naturalised Kazakh citizens like himself.

Such levels of support for an independent public figure represent a headache for a regime that is failing to tamp down growing dissatisfaction.

These nerves are betrayed by the video above, widely assumed to have been filmed and distributed by police after Bilash's arrest, which has since been subtitled into English.

In the video, the activist implores fellow Oralman (ethnic Kazakhs who have been repatriated to the country) not to participate in rallies organised by Nazarbayev's foreign-based political rival, the fugitive banker Mukhtar Ablyazov.

Since the video was filmed, he has released another statement via voice message confirming that he was pressured by investigators into denouncing Ablyazov, and that he was also told to refuse the services of his preferred lawyer.

Bilash felt uncomfortable denouncing Ablyazov, he said, because he did not know who Ablyazov was. He would be keeping his lawyer despite the pressure, he added.

What's in a word?

Bilash's insistence that he is a one-issue activist without political ambitions makes it difficult for pro-government groups and media outlets to smear him.

A Facebook account called “Enemies of the People 2.0″ that regularly attacks opposition figures was flooded with negative comments when it attempted a clumsy hit job on Bilash, likening him to Ablyazov.

One user accused the group of “earning its Chinese money” by “tarnishing the name of a decent person.”

The incitement charges against Bilash relate to a speech he made at a gathering themed on Xinjiang last month, during which he called for a “jihad” against China and its policies in Xinjiang.

During the speech Bilash made sure to clarify that by “jihad”, he meant waging an information war, “not getting a gun and going to Syria.” But Kazakh state media cut the speech early so that this clarification did not feature in footage aired on a evening news segment days after his arrest.

If Bilash is charged and subsequently sentenced for these comments, he could spend between five and ten years in jail.

But his release to house arrest in a country where the vast majority of political prisoners are held in pre-trial detention is already an indicator that authorities are unsure how to handle his case.

Freeing him may look like an embarrassing retreat, not to mention an affront to China, but jailing him could be more costly still.

by chrisrickleton at March 18, 2019 06:01 PM

Slovak businessman charged with ordering murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée

Kuciak's 2018 murder triggered mass protests in Slovakia

#AllForJan demonstration in memory of murdered journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in Bratislava, 2 March 2018. Photo by Peter Tkac, CC BY-SA.

Businessman Marián Kočner has been charged with ordering the killing of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018, according to a March 15 announcement by Slovakia's Special Prosecutions Office.

Before he was killed, Kuciak was working with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and his outlet,, to investigate possible links between an Italian criminal group and its presence in Slovakia. He also wrote about the business dealings of Kočner.

The murders caused widespread shock in the country. Demands for justice led to massive protests which forced the resignation of then Prime Minister Robert Fico.

Kuciak was the real target while Kušnírová was killed for simply being in their house when the killers barged in. They were both 27 years old and had planned to marry in May 2018.

According to the prosecution, Kočner personally threatened Kuciak by phone in September 2017 and then ordered the murder that took place on 21 February 2018 in the village of Veľká Mača.

Slovak law enforcement initially detained four people for the killing of Kuciak and Kušnírová. Kočner's assistant Alena Zsuzsová was accused of paying 50,000 euros (about US $57,000) in cash and the forgiveness of more than 20,000 euros (about US $22,700) in debt to three people – a pizza parlor owner, a former police officer and a former soldier – to organize and commit the murder.

During the summer, Kočner was arrested for financial crimes investigated by Kuciak, but it took authorities six more months to arrest the subordinates of the controversial entrepreneur and directly connect him to the assassination plot.

“The reason for the murder was the journalistic work of the victim,” a special prosecutor, who was left unnamed for security reasons, told reporters at a March 15 news conference near Bratislava.

Protest in Bratislava on 9 March 2018 in response to the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová. Photo by Slavomír Frešo via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The indictment was welcomed by media rights organizations and human rights advocates. On Twitter, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Gulnoza Said stated:

We welcome the news that Slovak authorities have charged a suspected mastermind for the murder of investigative journalist . This is a significant step, and a rare one in murders of journalists. We hope authorities keep their promise to bring all perpetrators to justice, thereby making all journalists in Slovakia safer from violence.

Harlem Desir from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe also noted:

In May 2018, Kuciak was posthumously awarded the inaugural award for Journalists, Whistleblowers and Defenders of the Right to Information, by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) in the EU Parliament. Named for slain Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, the award is intended to recognize the work and courage of individuals in exposing corruption and wrongdoing by the powerful.

Continuing Ján Kuciak's legacy

After Kuciak was murdered, OCCRP and its member centers completed and published some of his unfinished research.

In February 2019, they released a report based titled “Unfinished lives, unfinished justice.” This was compiled by OCCRP, the Investigative Reporting Project Italy,, and the Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak (ICJK) based on Kuciak’s reporting about organized crime in Slovakia and its ties to politics and law enforcement.

But ICJK revealed via Twitter how some authorities were not cooperating with them and that they were prevented from attending the press conference announcing the indictment of Kočner.

Despite the fact that authorities have now charged the alleged mastermind of the killing, journalists and media advocates insist there are still unresolved questions related to the case, such as the rumored involvement of prominent politicians. In particular, advocates are interested in learning what the former prime minister Fico and Robert Krajmer, former head of the Anti-Corruption Unit of the Slovak National Crime Agency, may have known about the murders.

Friends and family of Kuciak and Kušnírová have already asked authorities to investigate the ties of newly indicted Kočner with powerful officials that protected him over the last two decades. Kušnírová's family lawyer is worried that Kočner's close friendship with Slovakia’s former general prosecutor, Dobroslav Trnka, could affect the progress of the case.

by Filip Stojanovski at March 18, 2019 05:58 PM

Kazakhstan silences the Xinjiang megaphone

Serikjan Bilash's activism is a spoiler to relations with China.

Serikzhan Bilash (Eurasianet)

The following is a story by Eurasianet and is republished by Global Voices under a partnership agreement. Editor's note: Since this story was first published Bilash has been released from confinement and is under house arrest.

Security services in Kazakhstan had their steely gaze locked onto Xinjiang-focused activist Serikzhan Bilash long before his sudden arrest over the weekend.

When a Eurasianet correspondent met Bilash for the first time last July, prosecutors in his home city, Almaty, had just handed him a formal caution to refrain from participating in a rally summoned by a foreign-based opposition figure.

Bilash, a charismatic public speaker with a strong following among Kazakhstan’s repatriates – the beneficiaries of a government initiative to lure the ethnic Kazakh diaspora to their titular homeland – was bemused.

“I barely know who this man and his group are,” he said, referring to Mukhtar Ablyazov, the nemesis-at-large of veteran President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

“I have one issue – and that issue is Xinjiang.”

Bilash has been relentless, impassioned and single-minded in his focus on the alleged rights abuses perpetrated by Chinese authorities against the ethnic Kazakh community in their western Xinjiang province.

His activism has made life uncomfortable for the government in Astana, which is deeply reluctant to entertain anything that might upset its allies in Beijing. Kazakhstan has responded with muted apprehension to the escalating slew of accounts about how China’s government has, as part of a super-charged anti-extremism campaign, interned hundreds of thousands of people from Xinjiang’s Muslim population, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, in so-called reeducation camps. Eschewing all criticism, Astana’s emphasis has instead been on prioritizing “mutual trust, good neighborliness and respect.”

Bilash’s dramatic detention may have been intended to maintain those cordial relations. Some time after midnight, early on March 10, government agents grabbed the activist from his hotel room in Almaty where he was staying as a temporary security measure. Later, he was loaded onto a plane and flown 1,000 kilometers northward, to Astana. Once there, he was informed that he was being charged with inciting ethnic hatred.

Last year’s note from prosecutors was just one in a string of warning shots from authorities spooked by the mounting popularity of an independent political player.

Plainclothes policemen were regular visitors to the Almaty premises of Bilash’s unregistered Ata-Jurt organization. The group has been busily holding press events and showing videotaped testimonies of people alleging alarming excess by Chinese government forces in Xinjiang.

“This is our friend,” a beaming Bilash told a Eurasianet correspondent who attended an event at the office in January, indicating an unsmiling policeman standing close by.

“We are just pleased he lets us do our work,” Bilash added.

On March 10, the same unsmiling policeman, who gave his first name as Baurzhan, watched on as other officers carted computers and cameras out of Ata-Jurt’s office in black plastic bags before sealing off the premises. Several of the volunteers present during the raid were later questioned by police.

The potential demise of Ata-Jurt as a window onto developments in Xinjiang is hard to underestimate.

Repeated testimonies filmed there by the Kazakhstan-based relatives of Chinese Kazakhs detained in Xinjiang have shed considerable light on the shifting nature of state repression in the region.

Kazakhstan's border with China (Eurasianet)

In recent months, some have had word that their loved ones were being released from the reeducation camps, only for them to be dispatched to forced labor programs. Others have learned their relatives were moved to prisons to begin serving heavy sentences.

Gaukhar Kurmangaliyeva, whose cousin Askar Azatbek, a Kazakh citizen who was in December 2017 allegedly snatched by Chinese security service officers in the Khorgos freeport, a retail zone straddling the border, is one of several petitioners who made the transition to becoming an Ata-Jurt volunteer.

Before watching an online clip of one of Bilash’s pumped-up lectures last March, the part-time cleaner, whose job earns her around 50,000 tenge per month ($130), had no inkling of the scale of repression in Xinjiang.

In Ata-Jurt, she found a community of fellow sufferers. They listened to her readily. It took almost one year of constant emails and phone calls before she received an engaged response from Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry. In late 2018, officials at the ministry told her that Chinese authorities had jailed Azatbek for violating laws prohibiting dual citizenship.

“If they shut down Ata-Jurt and Serikzhan Bilash, where will we go?” asked Kurmangaliyeva.

Bilash has brushed off legal challenges before. In February, a court fined him the equivalent of nearly $700 for leading an unregistered organization.

But where some see a principled crusader undaunted by threats, others see a dangerous demagogue.

In January, a group of Kazakh public figures, including the former lawmaker and writer Mukhtar Shakhanov, signed a public letter condemning Bilash. The signatories described Bilash’s confrontational manner as divisive and said he was exploiting the Oralman, as Kazakh repatriates are known, to “score points.”

“There is more harm than use from the Ata-Jurt volunteers,” concluded the letter. Bilash later told Eurasianet he was summoned by the police for questioning over the contents of the letter.

Critics of the letter, meanwhile, suggest the signatories were put up to the job by the government.

Bilash has also shed allies along his journey to national celebrity.

Kydyarali Oraz, who views himself as the Ata-Jurt movement's founder, did as much as anyone to fight for the rights of Xinjiang Kazakhs, even raising their plight at the United Nations in Geneva in November.

But shortly after that trip, the pair fell out. Bilash accused Oraz of financial irregularities and divided loyalties.

Oraz has since formed a new group. To the suspicious chagrin of his old comrades, this group was swift in securing government registration.

After Bilash’s March 10 arrest, Oraz recorded a video message expressing solidarity with Ata-Jurt and the wider Oralman community. But relations with his former ally remain poor.

“Anybody he disagrees with, he calls a Chinese spy,” Oraz complained in an earlier interview with Eurasianet.

One person who has been unerring in her support for Bilash is perhaps the most important of all.

Former Chinese state employee and Communist Party member Sayragul Sauytbay became a media sensation last year when she became the first person to testify in court about China’s internment camps. She was on trial and facing possible deportation to China after Kazakh authorities arrested her for illegally crossing into the country.

In large part because of Ata-Jurt’s attention-raising, the trial received a steady stream of local and international coverage.

Following each hearing at Sauytbay’s trial, Bilash made impassioned speeches to the Oralman, who would pack the small and stuffy courtroom in the provincial town of Zharkent.

On one occasion, Bilash chased two panic-stricken Chinese diplomats attending the trial as observers all the way back to their car.

When the court freed Sauytbay, her status as a national icon seemed assured.

But Kazakhstan’s authorities have thus far refused Sauytbay permanent asylum, leaving her dependent on temporary extensions of her stay in the country.

That has left her open to pressure from authorities, according to Sauytbay’s lawyer, Aiman Umarova, whose work defending vulnerable women earned her a U.S. State Department award in 2018.

Umarova claims the security services recently asked Sauytbay to distance herself publicly from Bilash. They suggested national television as a suitable forum for turning on her champion, Umarova said.

“They are targeting him because he is the loudest voice raising the rights of Kazakhs living [in Xinjiang],” Umarova, who has expressed willingness to represent Bilash in any upcoming legal hearings, told Eurasianet.

Sauytbay, however, risked their wrath by refusing the offer.

“She told me: ‘If I speak out against him, after everything that those people have done for me, who would I be then?’” Umarova said.

The Xinjiang Victims Database is the largest searchable English-language database relating to victims of the ongoing repression in XUAR.

by at March 18, 2019 05:56 PM

March 15, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Teen theatre production banned by Russian authorities for promoting ‘non-traditional family relations’

Russia's notorious “anti-gay law” eyes another victim.

In front of the Russian Embassy in Helsinki, Finland. In 7 September 2013 a group of activists painted the pedestrian crossing stripes with rainbow colors to protest the Russian anti-LGBT sentimentality and legislation, notably the bans on “homosexual propaganda” // Flickr, Murmur, under CC3.0

“The Pinks and the Blues,” a youth theater production about gender stereotypes, has been banned by local authorities in Komsomolsk-on-Amur in far eastern Russia.

Russian media report that company director Yulia Tsvetkova was questioned by a police anti-extremism unit, and that the actors in her amateur collective, teenagers aged 13 to 15, were questioned as well.

The play was intended to be staged as part of an activist theatre festival called Tsvet Shafrana (The Color of Saffron), touching on diverse subjects such as school bullying, the Prague Spring and anti-war themes. The festival has been called off, due to the ban and its loss of a performance venue.

“The Pinks and the Blues”, developed by the activist troupe Merak, triggered intense scrutiny from local authorities who saw it as a dangerous and subversive activity promoting “hatred against men and non-traditional family relations,” Tsvetkova told Takie Dela, an independent charity news website. In parallel, her festival first lost one venue that agreed to host them, and then another one two weeks later. These cancellations sent a clear signal to Tsvetkova that authorities would not allow the festival to proceed.

“Non-traditional family relations” echoes the formulations of a recent law legislating against “propaganda of homosexuality to minors.” In the recent years, it has been used almost exclusively against advocacy groups for gay rights, gender equality and sex education. Accusations of “gay propaganda” can attract large amounts of attention and pressure from local legislators, child welfare and school authorities, as well as the police’s anti-extremism unit — as it happened in Tsvetkova’s case.

Yulia Tsvetkova, a teacher and a feminist activist, says that during questioning, police agents confronted her with print-outs of her social media posts about sex education in schools, feminism and homosexuality.

She denies ever exposing her child actors to any LGBT-related content, saying:

«Розовый и голубой — типичные “женский” и “мужской” цвета, вот и все, — объяснила Юлия.​ — Постановка именно об этом, и название для нее придумал один из актеров, ребенок 11 лет».

Pink and blue are seen as typically “male” and “female colors”, that’s it. That’s what the play is about, the name was suggested by one of the actors, a 11-year-old child.

Tsvetkova also said the police were acting on three different anonymous letters of complaint against her, all written in the same formulaic language echoing the words of the law prohibiting “propaganda of non-traditional family relations.”

Russia has recently passed a series of socially conservative laws and “traditional values” are regularly mentioned in political speeches and statements. These laws have been used to prosecute activists, health awareness websites and online news media, resulting in fines and website blockages — not to mention intense hate campaigns on social media and other forms of public backlash.


by RuNet Echo at March 15, 2019 06:27 PM

Censored on WeChat: the disappearance of Ye Jianming, former chairman of CEFC China Energy

When people disappear, news about them disappears too

Screen shot from Youtube: View China.

This post was written by the team of WeChatscope, a research initiative led by Dr. King-wa Fu at The University of Hong Kong.

With more than 1.0825 billion individual users, along with more than 20 million registered public accounts, WeChat has the largest number of domestic users and the most extensive coverage of any social media service in China. As such, it has become a chief component of China's rigorous censorship regime.

In 2017, our team at the University of Hong Kong built a technical web “scraping” system for studying censorship on WeChat's publicly accessible pages. Throughout 2018, we tracked more than 4,000 public accounts covering daily news and preserved censored posts in a publicly accessible database, WeChatscope. This article is the third in a partnership series with Global Voices.

No one in China is immune to “disappearance.” Alongside many everyday people, billionaires, celebrities and high-ranking officials have been subject to such treatment.

In 2018, there were a number of high-profile disappearances, including actress Fan Bingbing, Christian church leader Wang Yi, casino operator Yang Zhihui, Interpol chief Meng Hongwei and billionaire Ye Jianming. These public figures all were forcibly disappeared for different reasons. Some have already returned to their normal lives and some are still missing.

When people are disappeared, online news about them also disappears, through censorship.

Fan Bingbing was the most well-known person in this group and, as anticipated, was one of top ten most censored topics on WeChat in 2018. But at the other end of the spectrum was Ye Jianming, the low-profile billionaire whose case triggered major waves of censorship. Like Fan, his case became one of the most censored topics of the year on WeChat.

Until recently, Ye Jianming was the chairman of CEFC China Energy Co., Ltd. and China Energy Fund Committee. As an entrepreneur, he first gained notoriety for the rapid expansion of his business empire and his patriotism. And then he went missing. Soon thereafter, a March 2018 investigative report by Caixin, a renowned finance and business news outlet, revealed that Ye was suspected of committing economic crimes and had been put under investigation. The report was published and censored just hours later. The news startled the WeChat community.

On the same day of its report on Ye, Caixin also published a special report titled “Investigation Casts Shadow on Rosneft’s China Investor CEFC” on its public WeChat account. The report delved into Ye's background, beginning in his hometown in Fujian. It revealed that Ye holds a Hong Kong identity card and that Ye founded CEFC when he was in his mid-twenties in 2002. By 2014, the company was ranked 222nd on the Fortune Global 500 List, with revenues amounting to US $43.7 billion. In a little over a decade, it had become the largest non-state-owned energy company in China.

Other media outlets quickly followed Caxin's reports and reproduced their own story versions on WeChat. Most of these reports were deleted one day later and replaced with a note reading “deleted for illegal content”.

In WeChatscope’s dataset, censored posts that contained “Ye Jianming” also included words like “low-profile” (低調), “mysterious” (神秘), “political and business relationship” (政商關係), “CEFC”(華信), “oil tycoon” (石油巨賈) and “hunt for background” (起底).

The censorship of content related to Ye Jianming went into high gear, pushing the term into the ten most censored topics of the year on WeChat.

Why were Chinese authorities so eager to conceal the mysterious identity of Ye Jianming and the origins of his business?

The state takeover of CEFC

After Ye's disappearance, the Chinese state-owned investment company CITIC group began taking over CEFC’s overseas assets. Though CEFC had been registered as private entity, it was already a close partner in joint ventures with state enterprises like China State Shipbuilding and China Railway, among others. But this quick turn of events suggested that the relationship between CEFC and the Chinese government was deeper than people realized.

Outside China, the corporation had been under scrutiny for its acquisitions around the world for some time. Since 2015, CEFC has made numerous major agreements with private and state-owned corporations outside of China, investing in infrastructure projects and buying shares of companies in Chad, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Georgia and the United Arab Emirates.

In 2015, Ye Jianming was named “special advisor” to Czech president Milos Zeman and soon thereafter, CEFC acquired stakes in a Czech airline. The company also bought a brewery, a media company, a soccer club, and one of Prague’s largest office complexes. In 2016, CEFC China Energy acquired a 35 percent stake in three oil blocks in Chad from Taiwan’s state-owned Chinese Petroleum Corp.

In February 2017, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) granted CEFC a 4% interest (equivalent to more than 3.2 million tons of oil per year) in the company’s onshore oil concession for 40 years. In September of the same year, CEFC had planned to take a $9 billion stake in Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned energy giant. But the deal never went through, due to Ye’s alleged involvement in economic crimes.

These agreements, and the government's swift takeover of CEFC following Ye's disappearance, suggest that the Chinese government was actively using CEFC to engage in economic diplomacy. Analysts suspect that these agreements were intended to incentivize state utilities and corporations to invest in China's ambitious and highly-publicized One Belt, One Road initiative.

CEFC’s political association with the Chinese government was further unveiled after the US authorities arrested Patrick Ho Chi Ping, a former Hong Kong government official, over a bribery scheme involving CEFC's oil holdings in Chad and Uganda in November 2017. Ho was eventually convicted in December 2018. The incident also caught the eyes of international media outlets.

Within China, as these dealings came to light, Ye Jianming was disappeared, CEFC's assets were transferred to the state-owned CITIC group, and the censorship authorities tried their best to keep the open secret in the dark. Still today, the whereabouts of Ye Jianming remain unknown.

by Wechatscope at March 15, 2019 04:53 PM

March 13, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Scheduled release of Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah delayed by 10 days

Alaa has been imprisoned for protest-related activities since 2013

Alaa And El Fattah, photo by Nariman El-Mofty.

Egyptian authorities have delayed the release of prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah by 10 days, his sister, human rights activist Mona Seif said on Twitter.

Abd El Fattah was scheduled to be released from prison on March 17, 2019, the day he completes his five-year sentence in prison.

In late February, the Free Alaa campaign posted an update on Facebook, announcing that the blogger's scheduled day of release is now March 27, blaming the ”usual bureaucracy” at Egyptian institutions. The campaign reassured supporters that the delay is not a cause for concern for now:

The truth is the prison authorities have been giving us mixed dates over the past few months because even they find it hard to calculate exactly how long he has been in prison as he has been in and out of prison many times over the past years. They have finally settled on the 27th of March as the last day in his sentence, so accordingly we are tweaking the counter, and continuing the countdown with you

Alaa was arrested and taken from his family’s home in November 2013. More than one year later, in February 2015, he was finally tried and sentenced to five years in prison for “organising” a protest under a 2013 protest law that prohibits unauthorised demonstrations. While he did take part in a protest against military trials for civilians on 26 November 2013, Alaa had no role in organising it. His sentence was confirmed by Egypt’s Court of Cassation in November 2017.

He has been jailed or investigated under every Egyptian head of state who has served during his lifetime. In 2006, he was arrested for taking part in a peaceful protest. In 2011, he spent two months in prison, missing the birth of his first child, Khaled. In 2013, he was arrested and detained for 115 days without trial.

Alaa has long worked on technology and political activism projects with his wife, Manal Hassan. He comes from a family of prominent human rights advocates, including human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif El Islam, Alaa's father, who was jailed multiple times under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Abd El Fattah’s sisters, Mona and Sanaa Seif, are also human rights defenders who have long campaigned against the military trials of civilians in the country. In 2016, Sanaa served a six-month jail sentence for insulting a public official.

The March release date does not mark the end of Alaa's time served, but rather a transition to the final phase of his sentence. After his release, Alaa will be made to spend every night in his local police station for an additional five years.

by Afef Abrougui at March 13, 2019 11:03 PM

Groups denounce continuous cyberattacks against independent media in the Philippines

Groups denounce cyberattacks against several independent media websites in the Philippines. Photo: Kodao Productions, used with permission.

Several media groups in the Philippines marked the World Day Against Cyber Censorship on March 12, 2019, by holding a protest to denounce the ongoing cyberattacks on their websites. The groups say the attacks have been backed by the Philippine government.

Since December 2018, the websites of alternative media groups Bulatlat, Kodao Productions, Pinoy Weekly, and Altermidya have been targeted with distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS).

The websites of Arkibong Bayan, Manila Today and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines have also been attacked in the past month.

According to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, at least 10 cases of cyber attacks against select Filipino news outlets have been documented since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016.

Qurium, a Sweden-based media foundation which has been assisting those media groups, confirmed the DDoS attacks against Altermidya and other alternative news websites:

The details of the DDoS attacks have been reported to the government’s National Computer Emergency Response Team (NCERT) of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). After one month had passed without the government body acknowledging their report, the media groups led by Altermidya decided to protest in front of NCERT’s office.

In a joint editorial, the media groups linked the cyberattacks to the government’s crackdown on dissent:

The Duterte regime is using every means to silence dissent, criticism and free expression: from threats, incarceration to killings, to cyber warfare. The main target of this latest assault are the alternative media that mostly via online disseminate reports and views on events and issues that are rarely covered, if at all, by the dominant media. The goal is to deny a public hungry for information the reports and stories that it needs to understand what is happening in a country besieged by lies and disinformation.

The editorial condemned the increasing attacks against the press, especially those perceived to be critical of the Duterte government.

Altermidya national coordinator Rhea Padilla explained on Facebook why they protested against NCERT:

This is why we are here. We demand that they act on the attacks. Otherwise, we will be lead to believe that NCERT and DICT are complicit in the attack on press freedom.

Altermidya reporter Toby Roca echoed her words:

Jola Diones-Mamangun, executive director of Kodao Productions, criticized the use of bots and trolls to undermine the work of the independent media:

Not content with fomenting disinformation and fake news, the Duterte administration is hell-bent on silencing what it considers as fierce critics and political opponents and goes to extreme lengths and harnessing even the power of the dark web.

by Mong Palatino at March 13, 2019 10:54 PM

Charged with ‘instigating crimes’, journalist Luis Carlos Diaz is released in Venezuela

Diaz has been forbidden from speaking about his ordeal

Luis Carlos Diaz (right) with Marco Ruiz from the National Syndicate of Press Workers (SNTP, left), shortly after his release. Screen capture from video posted by the SNTP.

At roughly midnight on March 12, in Caracas, the National Press Workers’ Syndicate of Venezuela confirmed that journalist and human rights defender Luis Carlos Díaz was released by Venezuelan authorities after being held for approximately 24 hours.

He has been charged with “instigating crimes” (instigación a delinquir) and released on the conditions that he will report to intelligence authorities (SEBIN) every eight days, and remain within Venezuelan territory. He has also been forbidden from speaking about his experience in detention.

The 34-year-old journalist went missing on the evening of March 11. At 2:30 am on March 12, state security officers brought him to his apartment, in handcuffs. They raided the home he shares with his wife, seizing multiple electronic devices, and then left the apartment, taking Díaz with them.

Hours later, dozens of demonstrators gathered outside the public prosecutor's office in solidarity with these calls and with Díaz’ wife, Naky Soto, who is also a well known political analyst and activist.

Demonstrators gathered outside the public prosecutor's office to demand Luis Carlos’ release. Sign reads: “Defending, informing and giving one's opinion are human rights.” Photos shared on Twitter.

Since early morning on March 12, the internet saw a groundswell of support from media freedom and human rights networks around the world calling for his release. The hashtag #DondeEstaLuisCarlos (Where's Luis Carlos?) gave way to #LiberenaLuisCarlos (Free Luis Carlos) which very soon became the first trending topic on Venezuela's twittersphere and among the top tweets worldwide.

After his release, Díaz tweeted to his colleagues from his wife's account, thanking them for their support:

Finally, I already knew I had good friends, but my question now is: How can they connect with each other?

I never imagined what this could achieve. It is incredible. I've been reading for hours and I haven't finished. Thank you.

Luis Carlos is a long-time and celebrated member of the Global Voices community. For more than a decade, he has worked to defend freedom of speech and use of digital networks to maintain public access to information amid Venezuela's ongoing crisis. He and Soto host a hugely popular video program (previously on YouTube, now on Patreon) where they offer political commentary and humor.

Luis Carlos is known for his wit, his skills as a collaborator and mentor, and his unique capacity to understand and explain Venezuela's complicated digital communication environment.

The Global Voices community is relieved that our colleague is safe and with his family. We will continue to monitor his case as it progresses.

by Ellery Roberts Biddle at March 13, 2019 10:39 PM

March 12, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Journalist and human rights defender Luis Carlos Díaz detained by state security in Venezuela

Communities inside and outside Venezuela demand his release

Luis Carlos Díaz. Photo taken from his public Facebook profile.

In the early hours of the morning on March 12, Venezuelan journalist Luis Carlos Díaz was confirmed to have been detained by the Bolivarian Intelligence Police (SEBIN).

His wife, Naky Soto, also a well known political commentator, had reported him missing hours before.

The hashtag #DondeEstaLuisCarlos (Where's Luis Carlos?) gave way to #LiberenaLuisCarlos (Free Luis Carlos) which very soon became the first trending topic on Venezuela's twittersphere and among the top tweets worldwide.

Luis Carlos is a long-time and celebrated member of the Global Voices community. For more than a decade, he has worked to defend freedom of speech and use of digital networks to maintain public access to information amid Venezuela's ongoing crisis. He and Soto also host a hugely popular video program (previously on YouTube, now on Patreon) where they offer political commentary and humor.

Luis Carlos is known for his wit, his skills as a collaborator and mentor, and his unique capacity to understand and explain Venezuela's complicated digital communication environment.

According to SNTP member Marco Ruiz, who attended a gathering in front of the public prosecutor's offices on the morning of March 12, agents from SEBIN searched Diaz's and Soto's apartment and confiscated several electronic devices:

A commission from SEBIN searched Luis Carlos Diaz's residence. They took computers, pen drives, cellphones and money among others. They let Diaz to be present while handcuffed. During those moments, he said to have been beaten during his detention at 5:30 pm.

Luis Carlos Díaz and his wife, political commentator Naky Soto, who has asked people to join her at the Prosecutor's office to ask for Diaz's liberation. Photography taken from Diaz's public profile on Facebook.

After authorities searched their home, and then left again, taking Díaz with them, Soto made an appeal on Twitter, asking people to accompany her to the prosecutor's office on March 12 and ask for her husband's freedom.

Naky Soto told Global Voices via WhatsApp that Diaz had been threatened days before the detention. According to online media Clases de Periodismo, Diaz had been threatened by pro government Twitter accounts after political leaders publicly alleged that Díaz had a role in orchestrating the blackout that left much of Venezuela without electricity for days. There is no evidence to support these claims.

Representatives of Provea (Education-Action Program on Human Rights) were also present during SEBIN's search and took Naky Soto's testimony:

Soto pudo conversar brevemente con Díaz, quien le relató que habría sido detenido cuando se desplazaba […] cuando se desplazaba en bicicleta a su domicilio. Asimismo, le confirmó que habría sido víctima de tratos crueles y degradantes durante su detención. La información suministrada por los funcionarios durante el allanamiento es que Díaz, supuestamente, habría cometido “delitos informáticos”.

Soto was able to speak briefly with Díaz, who told her that he had been detained while he was on his way back home by bicycle. At the same time, he confirmed that he had been victim of cruel and degrading treatments during his detention. The information given by the agents during the search was that Díaz had, allegedly, committed “computer-related crimes”.

The report added that Soto, who is recovering from breast cancer, was also wanted by the authorities:

Según el testimonio, los funcionarios habrían informado que Soto también se encontraba en la orden de aprehensión, pero que debido a su condición (paciente oncológico) no iban a proceder en los momentos. Sin embargo, “si denunciaba, la vendrían a buscar”.

According to the testimony, the agents had informed Soto that she was also wanted by the authorities, but that given her condition (as she's a cancer patient) they wouldn't proceed at the moment; but they “would come for her if [she] denounced”.

Journalist Luz Mely Reyes recounted the events and shared the video with Soto's testimony:

“#FreeLuisCarlos She is Naky. She is a cancer patient. Her husband, journalist and human rights activist [Luis Carlos Díaz] was detained on March 11th by the SEBIN. Naky will be heading to the Prosecutor's headquarters in a few hours, demanding Luis Carlos’ freedom. (Thread with full story)”

Hours later, Soto was accompanied by members of Provea, the SNTP and other supporters. In her public testimony, she denounced Díaz's “arbitrary detention” and added:

“We demand his full release and we want to ask the UN's Human Rights commission in Caracas to help us know how he is physically and psychologically.”

Naky Soto, Luis Carlos Díaz's wife, assured that the activist was detained using as proof an altered video made out of one that was shared by him [on social media]. “The record says he was caught in flagrante delicto, and he was on his bike. There's no way to accuse him as much as they're trying to.

As of 3pm local time on March 12, Díaz remained in custody and was not known to have been charged with any crime.

Global Voices’ community will continue to follow this developing story and stand in solidarity with Luis Carlos and his family.

by Laura Vidal at March 12, 2019 07:03 PM

March 11, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Trying to follow the news in Venezuela? Here are a few sources you can trust

Venezuelans are staying informed with newsletters, messaging groups and infographics

Image by Venezuelan news outlet Efecto Cocuyo. Used with permission.

Since mid-January, when Juan Guaidó laid down an open challenge to the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro's presidency, Venezuelans in the country and abroad have looked high and low for reliable information about what is really happening in their country.

So much anxiety! So much distress! So much despair!

Users have gone to the far edges of the internet to find trustworthy reporting on the political crisis, due to a lack of independent traditional media, along with widespread state censorship that has caused closures of key online and broadcast media outlets. Among those outlets that are still operating, here are a few that Global Voices’ community members recommend.

The dearly loved Arepita (“little arepa“, referring to the local corn-based snack cake) offers a daily summary of the complex and ever-changing situation, with a generous dose of notorious Venezuelan humour. Arepita is distributed in the form of an email newsletter — unlike a website, this is difficult for authorities to censor.

In any part of the globe 🌍, we tell you about your beloved Venezuela in Venezuelan code, emojis, a little bit of humour… and from time to time, even with a song. We are a newsletter made with heart. Free subscription ❤

Other news sites, such as Efecto Cocuyo (“Firefly Effect”), and a longstanding intellectual institution of the Venezuelan diaspora, the English-language Caracas Chronicles, have also turned to newsletters as a way to share their content with loyal readers without risking censorship.

With the forced end of the radio show he was a part of, Luis Carlos Díaz and Naky Soto, a veritable digital media power couple in the country, have taken to social networks and Patreon to spread daily videos explaining different aspects of the situation in an easy, didactic and shareable manner. Díaz is a long-time contributor to Global Voices.

We answered @marimaguita's question about “the sprouts of chavismo / madurismo” and this allowed us to speak about the fate of dirty money from many years of corruption. Watch the full video…

Others have focused on helping readers to navigate the information overload. One group has been creating periodic reports in the form of easily shareable infographics that summarize the latest events, under the simple tagline “What is happening in Venezuela?”

What is happening in #Venezuela? – # 4M – Report at 7:00 p.m.

Given the poor quality of internet access in the country, along with the constant misinformation that makes the Venezuelan web hard to navigate, these infographics have proven valuable for citizens trying to help their families and friends remain informed about the situation.

I am sending these images to my acquaintances who live in areas that have been cut off from the internet. When they go down to the city or enter a wifi, they find out everything quickly. Thanks to those who make them.

Other visible figures within the social media sphere have turned to WhatsApp and Telegram as a means to share reliable information with those who follow them. This is the case of the renowned telecommunications journalist, Fran Monroy, who currently keeps three WhatsApp groups for different purposes:

We opened 3 WhatsApp groups: 2 are unilateral: One of verified information, another of our program @CodigoAbierto, and a third one for free technology discussion. If you want to belong to them, simply send a DM and we will send you the information. Ok?

Opposition political leaders are also producing their own media of sorts. While they are receiving ample attention from international media outlets, major national media groups give them little if any space to explain their positions. To reach their actual and potential supporters, they are instead using video and audio streams, Telegram and WhatsApp groups.

Despite the many attempts of state actors to disrupt online communication or influence online narratives, Venezuelans are finding ways to gather, organize and assess information on their own terms.

by Marianne Diaz at March 11, 2019 09:12 PM

March 08, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
One year without internet in Chad: Citizens have been offline since March 2018

The National Centre of Culture in N'Djamena, Chad. Photo by Notrchad. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

For nearly one year's time, citizens in Chad have been unable to access the internet, in spite of the UN Human Rights Council resolution of 1 July 2016 condemning any government that intentionally prevents or disrupts online access.

Service providers attribute the disruption to technical problems, but organizations like Internet without Borders say that the government has ordered mobile phone companies to cut internet access. It appears that the government is attempting to muzzle citizens’ freedom of expression and to prevent the free circulation of information.

In Chad, the number of citizens with internet access is proportionally the lowest in Africa. On average, 37.4% of people in the continent have access to the internet. In Chad that rate is only 5%.

Pablo Michelot, editor in chief of l'Encre Noir, a current affairs website for the black community, addressed the subject in a recent blogpost titled “The world is a village from which Chadians are excluded”. He commented:

Depuis près d’un an maintenant, les réseaux sociaux sont verrouillés dans la République du Tchad suite à une recommandation du pays d’Afrique centrale de reconduire le Président Idriss Déby au-delà de 2030. Selon le dirigeant du pays en 2016 “le Tchad ne peut pas se concentrer sur un système qu’un changement de pouvoir mettrait en difficulté.”

For more than a year now, social networks have been barred in the Republic of Chad, following the country's move to keep President Idriss Déby in office beyond 2030. In 2016, the president said that “Chad cannot focus on a system that runs into difficulty when power changes hands.”

The number of social media users is rising in other African countries, but in Chad it is a different story. In the twelve months to January 2019, social media use has fallen by 150,000 users, or 54%.

A poster calling on the government of Chad to “stop internet censorship” and “reopen access to social networks”. Reproduced with permission from the Africtivistes blog.

Human rights activists say they are the real targets of the shutdown. The NGO Frontline Defenders commented:

 There is a systematic ban on protests conducted by those whom the government sees as critical of any of its policies. Civil society actors and trade unionists holding unauthorized protests have repeatedly been the subject of police brutality.

…There is frequent interference with the work of journalists, especially those reporting or commenting on human rights issues. Freedom of expression is curtailed and on several occasions in the past five years, .. amidst tense political moments.

On 19 January 2019, Internet Without Borders launched a global campaign with the hashtag #Maalla_Gatetou, which means “why pull the plug?” in Chadian Arabic. The online campaign, coupled with marches in Paris and N’Djamena, aims to show the level of anger towards social media censorship among citizens.

Abdelkerim Yacoub Koundougoumi, Head of Central African Section for Internet Without Borders explains:

La cyberbrutalité et le verrouillage de l’espace numérique par les autorités tchadiennes démontrent clairement la montée des pratiques autoritaires sur l'Internet. Si rien n’est fait, les bienfaits d’Internet pour le progrès démocratique dans le monde, notamment en Afrique, seront réduits à néant

Online repression and digital lockdowns clearly show that the Chadian authorities are taking an increasingly repressive approach to the internet. If nothing is done, we stand to lose the democratic progress that the internet has secured in countries all over the world, especially in Africa.”

Internet users have taken to twitter to express their anger. Here are some recent tweets on the hashtag #Malla-Guatétou:

If I understand correctly, the impact of social networks is so powerful that they are seen as having an unfair advantage over Déby’s murderous Kalashnikovs? Kalashnikovs 0 Keyboards 3. That's the match score.”

They have understood that they cannot take aim at the people for long. CLICKS are more powerful than their CLOUT.”

Ordinary Chadians have been deprived of internet for more than 300 days. African leaders have to know that the internet is a tool for work, so there is no point in shutting it down to try to shut up people who oppose their policies. ‪#Maalla_Gatetou”

Campaign against internet censorship in Chad. The government has been preventing Chadians from accessing social networks for nearly ten months.… ‪#maalla_gatetou “

Observers across Africa are concerned by the situation in Chad. Writing on, Algeria-based blogger Yacine Babouche, wrote:

Le sujet est important et va au delà du Tchad. De Nombreux Etats africains ont désormais systématiquement recours à cette forme de censure. L'histoire d'Internet a montré que l'Afrique est un laboratoire des pires pratiques lorsqu'il s'agit de violer les libertés chèrement acquises.
Ne pas laisser passer au Tchad, c'est ne pas laisser passer ailleurs.

It is an important issue that reaches beyond Chad. Many countries in Africa are now using this form of censorship systematically. The history of the internet has shown that Africa is the testing ground for the bad practices that violate hard-won freedoms.
Not letting it happen in Chad means not letting it happen elsewhere.”

The rates for connecting to the internet in Chad are also among the highest in the continent, rising to as much as 20 times the rates in other countries in the region.

In February, Internet Without Borders began the second phase of their global campaign against social media censorship in Chad (#Acte2).

A week of action to mark one whole year without internet access will take place from 19 to 28 March. The NGO posted on Facebook this video message appeal by Bintou Datt, a values coach for women in business:

Hello, my name is Bintou Datt, creator of women's values, alter-globalist activist and pan-africanist. We are the people, we are young, we have fundamental human rights. I'm appealing to young people in Chad. Let's rise together to defend our rights, to defend what is lawfully and rightfully ours. Today, with the disappearance of these young people from social media, we feel cut off from our friends, from our families, from ourselves and our inspiration. We cannot communicate and yet it is the simplest thing. It is the most basic of rights we can claim, but they cut us off from our friends. So dear young people, dear sisters, dear men and women, young and old, let's rise together to lift this censorship and say “Stop. That's enough. No more.” End the censorship of the young people of Chad. Long live freedom of expression. Long live international solidarity. Long live solidarity among the peoples, which, for me, is the only way. Let's rise up together. Let's take what is rightfully ours, let's take what is our right. Access to information. Let's rise up together. Hand in hand. Let's fight to take back what belongs to us. Let's fight to take back control of our lives. That will not happen without access to information or access to communication. Let's rise up to speak with one voice. The young people in Chad. Thank you. End censorship.

by Abdoulaye Bah at March 08, 2019 10:03 PM

Netizen Report: Activists reject EU plans to pre-censor copyright violations, ‘terrorist’ content

March 2, 2019 demonstration in Berlin against Article 13 of the new EU Copyright Directive. Photo by Tim Lüddemann, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from February 29 – March 8.

An estimated 5,000 people braved freezing temperatures in Berlin on March 2 to protest a proposed EU copyright rule that could radically shift the dynamics of posting and sharing content online.

The latest draft of the EU Copyright Directive would require internet platforms like YouTube to install “upload filters” — a technical mechanism that would block users from uploading copyright-protected content, effectively imposing a system of “prior censorship” on major internet and social media platforms.

Demonstrators carried colorful signs reading “We are not bots,” “Diesel filter instead of upload filter,” “Save the Internet” and chanted the lyrics of the song “Wir sind keine bots” (We are not bots) made by YouTuber Willboy specifically in opposition to the provision. The song was released on Friday, a day before the demonstration, and became a viral hit with over half a million views in just a few days.

Whether or not the Copyright Directive is approved, digital rights advocates will have more battles to fight in the near term, when it comes to policy proposals seeking automated technical solutions to online content challenges.

A European Commission committee tasked with addressing “terrorist content” online has proposed a similar solution that would obligate online platforms to begin using automated tools to “detect, identify and expeditiously remove or disable access to terrorist content.”

The draft regulation demands more aggressive deletion of “terrorist content” (which remains vaguely defined) and quick turnaround times on its removal. But it does not establish a special court or other judicial mechanisms that can offer guidance to companies struggling to assess complex online content.

Instead, it would force hosting service providers to use automated tools to prevent the dissemination of “terrorist content” online. This would require companies to use the kind of system that YouTube has already put into place voluntarily, which has been known to censor documentation of human rights violations and war crimes.

Both this EU proposal and the Copyright Directive put a lot of faith in these tools, showing little concern for the consequences they may carry for free expression, journalism, and public information.

At a public conference in January, Evelyn Austin, from the Netherlands-based digital rights organization Bits of Freedom, expressed deep concern about policies that move in the direction of automated prior censorship:

We see as inevitable a situation in which there is a filter for copyrighted content, a filter for allegedly terrorist content, a filter for possibly sexually explicit content, one for suspected hate speech and so on, creating a digital information ecosystem in which everything we say, even everything we try to say, is monitored.

New evidence of Egyptian activists and journalists targeted with spyware

Dozens of human rights activists and journalists in Egypt have suffered phishing attacks since the beginning of this year, an investigation by Amnesty International has found. The emails used a technique called OAuth Phishing, which relies on malicious third-party applications that deceive the user into granting access to their accounts.

The attacks coincided with a number of political events, including French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit, and happened amid President al-Sisi’s intensifying crackdown on civil society.

Photographer Shawkan walks free in Egypt

After more than five years in jail, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, was released from prison in Egypt on March 4. Shawkan was detained in August 2013 as he was photographing the Rabaa El Adaweya sit-in, in which supporters of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi gathered to protest a military coup that ended his presidency on July 3 that same year. Egyptian security forces dispersed the sit-in and killed at least 817 people and injured many more, according to Human Rights Watch.

Shawkan, who was working for Demotix at the time of his arrest, spent almost four years in pre-trial detention before his sentencing.

Algerian blogger released after two years in prison

Also on March 4, in Algeria, a Skikda court reduced the prison sentence of blogger Merzoug Touati and set him free. Touati has been in jail since January 2017 for reporting on anti-austerity protests. He was sentenced to ten years in jail in May 2018, after he was found guilty of providing “intelligence to agents of a foreign power likely to harm Algeria's military or diplomatic position or its essential economic interests,” for conducting and posting online an interview with an Israeli official.

His release comes amid an ongoing protest movement in the country. Since mid-February, Algerians have been demonstrating in the streets, protesting the country’s economic decline and demanding that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika withdraws from upcoming national elections.

Tajik video activist arrested, released

Digital activist Sharofiddin Gadoev is back in Europe again, after being abducted to Tajikistan, seemingly with the cooperation of security officials in Russia, where he traveled to last month.

A member of Tajikistan’s digitally active, perennially harassed foreign-based opposition, Gadoev appeared in a bizarre video on February 15 stating that he had arrived in Tajikistan of his own free will and was cooperating with authorities. When diplomats from the Netherlands – where Gadoev has asylum status – inquired about the activist’s well-being, Tajikistan’s officials confirmed he had been arrested for unspecified crimes.

Luckily, however, Gadoev had previously made another video in which he asked supporters to disregard anything he might say in the event that he was forcibly extradited to Tajikistan, confirming that he had had no plans to travel there. The release of this eerily prescient video on February 19, combined with pressure from Western diplomats and international rights organizations, appeared to prompt his release on March 2 by Tajik authorities – as dramatic and unexpected as his capture.

India-Pakistan conflict sparks disinformation mayhem online

As military tensions between Pakistan and India have soared in the aftermath of the deadly February 14 bombing in Pulwama, India and subsequent retaliations on both sides of the border, disinformation about the conflict has overwhelmed the internet. Fact-checking groups in both countries have been working to keep up with an onslaught of falsified information and doctored images. Writing for the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo described the online media response:

Whether you got your news from outlets based in India or Pakistan during the conflict, you would have struggled to find your way through a miasma of lies…

Many of the lies were directed and weren’t innocent slip-ups in the fog of war but efforts to discredit the enemy, to boost nationalistic pride, to shame anyone who failed to toe a jingoistic line. The lies fit a pattern, clamoring for war, and on both sides they suggested a society that had slipped the bonds of rationality and fallen completely to the post-fact order.

Tanzanian authorities suspend ‘The Citizen’ newspaper and website

Tanzanian authorities placed independently-owned newspaper and news site The Citizen under a seven-day suspension on February 27, alleging that the outlet had violated prohibitions on publishing false information and statistics. The allegation stemmed from a February 23 story about the falling value of the Tanzanian shilling.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, International Federation of Journalists, and the Federation of African Journalists all condemned the suspension.

Privacy advocates keep pushing back on Kenya digital ID scheme

Rights organizations are petitioning to stop the rollout of Kenya's new national digital ID register, arguing it violates Kenyans rights to privacy, equality, non-discrimination, and public participation.

The National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) merges several different registers, including those that collect information about births and deaths, immigration status, passport details, and driving history. It also gives the government the authority to collect the GPS location of a person's home, and biometric data such as DNA. The law makes no provisions for the protection of all this data.

Ecuador moves to outlaw ‘false information’ and ‘abusive publications’

A law introduced in Ecuador's legislature would penalize internet users for sharing “false” information on social media. In addition, the Law on the Responsible Use of Social Networks would allow victims of “abusive publications” — defined as posts that use information from someone's profile without permission or that damage a person's honor, dignity, good name or privacy — to file legal complaints against their author.

On a better note, the law would also require any individuals or companies that want to capture and store personal data to get users’ permission first.


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by Netizen Report Team at March 08, 2019 03:37 PM

Joi Ito
Supposedly 'Fair' Algorithms Can Perpetuate Discrimination

During the Long Hot Summer of 1967, race riots erupted across the United States. The 159 riots--or rebellions, depending on which side you took--were mostly clashes between the police and African Americans living in poor urban neighborhoods. The disrepair of these neighborhoods before the riots began and the difficulty in repairing them afterward was attributed to something called redlining, an insurance-company term for drawing a red line on a map around parts of a city deemed too risky to insure.

In an attempt to improve recovery from the riots and to address the role redlining may have played in them, President Lyndon Johnson created the President's National Advisory Panel on Insurance in Riot-Affected Areas in 1968. The report from the panel showed that once a minority community had been redlined, the red line established a feedback cycle that continued to drive inequity and deprive poor neighborhoods of financing and insurance coverage--redlining had contributed to creating poor economic conditions, which already affected these areas in the first place. There was a great deal of evidence at the time that insurance companies were engaging in overtly discriminatory practices, including redlining, while selling insurance to racial minorities, and would-be home- and business-owners were unable to get loans because financial institutions require insurance when making loans. Even before the riots, people there couldn't buy or build or improve or repair because they couldn't get financing.

Because of the panel's report, laws were enacted outlawing redlining and creating incentives for insurance companies to invest in developing inner-city neighborhoods. But redlining continued. To justify their discriminatory pricing or their refusal to sell insurance in urban centers, insurance companies developed sophisticated arguments about the statistical risks that certain neighborhoods presented.

The argument insurers used back then--that their job was purely technical and that it didn't involve moral judgments--is very reminiscent of the arguments made by some social network platforms today: That they are technical platforms running algorithms and should not be, and are not, involved in judging the content. Insurers argued that their job was to adhere to technical, mathematical, and market-based notions of fairness and accuracy and provide what was viewed--and is still viewed--as one of the most essential financial components of society. They argued that they were just doing their jobs. Second-order effects on society were really not their problem or their business.

Thus began the contentious career of the notion of "actuarial fairness," an idea that would spread in time far beyond the insurance industry into policing and paroling, education, and eventually AI, igniting fierce debates along the way over the push by our increasingly market-oriented society to define fairness in statistical and individualistic terms rather than relying on the morals and community standards used historically.

Risk spreading has been a central tenet of insurance for centuries. Risk classification has a shorter history. The notion of risk spreading is the idea that a community such as a church or village could pool its resources to help individuals when something unfortunate happened, spreading risk across the group--the principle of solidarity. Modern insurance began to assign a level of risk to an individual so that others in the pool with her had roughly the same level of risk--an individualistic approach. This approach protected individuals from carrying the expense of someone with a more risk-prone and costly profile. This individualistic approach became more prevalent after World War II, when the war on communism made anything that sounded too socialist unpopular. It also helped insurance companies compete in the market. By refining their risk classifications, companies could attract what they called "good risks." This saved them money on claims and forced competitors to take on more expensive-to-insure "bad risks."

(A research colleague of mine, Rodrigo Ochigame, who focuses on algorithmic fairness and actuarial politics, directed me to historian Caley Horan, who is working on an upcoming book titled Insurance Era: The Privatization of Security and Governance in the Postwar United States that will elaborate on many of the ideas in this article, which is based on her research.)

The original idea of risk spreading and the principle of solidarity was based on the notion that sharing risk bound people together, encouraging a spirit of mutual aid and interdependence. By the final decades of the 20th century, however, this vision had given way to the so-called actuarial fairness promoted by insurance companies to justify discrimination.

While discrimination was initially based on outright racist ideas and unfair stereotypes, insurance companies evolved and developed sophisticated-seeming calculations to show that their discrimination was "fair." Women should pay more for annuities because statistically they lived longer, and blacks should pay more for damage insurance when they lived in communities where crime and riots were likely to occur. While overt racism and bigotry still exist across American society, in insurance it has been integrated into and hidden from the public behind mathematics and statistics that are so difficult for nonexperts to understand that fighting back becomes nearly impossible.

By the late 1970s, women's activists had joined civil rights groups in challenging insurance redlining and risk-rating practices. These new insurance critics argued that the use of gender in insurance risk classification was a form of sex discrimination. Once again, insurers responded to these charges with statistics and mathematical models. Using gender to determine risk classification, they claimed, was fair; the statistics they used showed a strong correlation between gender and the outcomes they insured against.

And many critics of insurance inadvertently bought into the actuarial fairness argument. Civil rights and feminist activists in the late 20th century lost their battles with the insurance industry because they insisted on arguing about the accuracy of certain statistics or the validity of certain classifications rather than questioning whether actuarial fairness--an individualistic notion of market-driven pricing fairness--was a valid way of structuring a crucial and fundamental social institution like insurance in the first place.

But fairness and accuracy are not necessarily the same thing. For example, when Julia Angwin pointed out in her ProPublica report that risk scores used by the criminal justice system were biased against people of color, the company that sold the algorithmic risk score system argued that its scores were fair because they were accurate. The scores accurately predicted that people of color were more likely to reoffend. This likelihood of reoffense, called the recidivism rate, is the likelihood that someone recommits a crime after being released, and the rate is calculated primarily using arrest data. But this correlation contributes to discrimination, because using arrests as a proxy for recommitting a crime means the algorithm is codifying biases in arrests, such as a police officer bias to arrest more people of color or to patrol more heavily in poor neighborhoods. This risk of recidivism is used to set bail and determine sentencing and parole, and it informs predictive policing systems that direct police to neighborhoods likely to have more crime.

There are several obvious problems with this. If you believe the risk scores are accurate in predicting the future outcomes of a certain group of people, then it means it's "fair" that a person is more likely to spend more time in jail simply because they are black. This is actuarially "fair" but clearly not "fair" from a social, moral, or anti-discrimination perspective.

The other problem is that there are fewer arrests in rich neighborhoods, not because people there aren't smoking as much pot as in poor neighborhoods but because there is less policing. Obviously, one is more likely to be rearrested if one lives in an overpoliced neighborhood, and that creates a feedback loop--more arrests mean higher recidivism rates. In very much the same way that redlining in minority neighborhoods created a self-fulfilling prophecy of uninsurable communities, overpolicing and predictive policing may be "fair" and "accurate" in the short term, but the long-term effects on communities have been shown to be negative, creating self-fulfilling prophecies of poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Angwin also showed in a recent ProPublica report that, despite regulations, insurance companies charge minority communities higher premiums than white communities, even when the risks are the same. The Spotlight team at The Boston Globe reported that the household median net worth in the Boston area was $247,500 for whites and $8 for nonimmigrant blacks--the result of redlining and unfair access to housing and financial services. So while redlining for insurance is not legal, when Amazon decides to provide Amazon Prime free same-day shipping to its "best" customers, it's effectively redlining--reinforcing the unfairness of the past in new and increasingly algorithmic ways.

Like the insurers, large tech firms and the computer science community also tend to frame "fairness" in a depoliticized, highly technical way involving only mathematics and code, which reinforces a circular logic. AI is trained to use the outcomes of discriminatory practices, like recidivism rates, to justify continuing practices such as incarceration or overpolicing that may contribute to the underlying causes of crime, such as poverty, difficulty getting jobs, or lack of education. We must create a system that requires long-term public accountability and understandability of the effects on society of policies developed using machines. The system should help us understand, rather than obscure, the impact of algorithms on society. We must provide a mechanism for civil society to be informed and engaged in the way in which algorithms are used, optimizations set, and data collected and interpreted.

The computer scientists of today are more sophisticated in many ways than the actuaries of yore, and they often sincerely are trying to build algorithms that are fair. The new literature on algorithmic fairness usually doesn't simply equate fairness with accuracy, but instead defines various trade-offs between fairness and accuracy. The problem is that fairness cannot be reduced to a simple self-contained mathematical definition--fairness is dynamic and social and not a statistical issue. It can never be fully achieved and must be constantly audited, adapted, and debated in a democracy. By merely relying on historical data and current definitions of fairness, we will lock in the accumulated unfairnesses of the past, and our algorithms and the products they support will always trail the norms, reflecting past norms rather than future ideals and slowing social progress rather than supporting it.

by Joichi Ito at March 08, 2019 12:06 AM

March 07, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Russia’s latest ‘anti-fake news law’ is so bad even Kremlin pranksters hate it

Russia's ‘anti-fake news’ law passed in the Russian parliament thanks to the overwhelming majority of the ruling United Russia party, despite the unified opposition of the Communist and Liberal Democratic parties //, under CC4.0

Russia has officially outlawed fake news.

On March 7, the State Duma, the lower chamber of Russia’s parliament, approved a package of laws aimed at curbing dangerously irresponsible “fake news” and public dissent against the authorities. Pending approval from the upper chamber of the parliament, the Council of the Federation, and then a signature from President Vladimir Putin, the bills will become law.

The first bill (part of a package of amendments to Russia's media law and administrative code) was steamrolled through parliament in less than three months since its filing in December 2018. The bill defines “fake news” as “deliberately misleading messages of public importance…disguised as genuine public announcements,” and prohibits the act of circulating this type of information with the clear intention of provoking public disorder or other serious disturbances.

The bill provides a schedule of fines, based on the severity of infraction: Private individuals can face fines from 30 to 100 thousand rubles ($455 to 1525.) Legal entities can be fined up to 1,5 million rubles ($22,660) for the most egregious cases resulting in grievous bodily harm, death, mass unrest or damage to critical infrastructure. This is enough to blow an enormous hole in a medium-sized newsroom’s budget.

On the face of it, the law looks reasonable. There is indeed an argument to be made that fake news on social media can cause mass panic or escalate to situations of mob violence and even lynching, as has happened in multiple cases in India, Sri Lanka and beyond. Ironically, at least one recorded attempt at provoking panic and confusion — and also involving critical infrastructure — was traced to the infamous Russian “troll factory” by New York Times Magazine reporter Adrian Chen back in 2014. So the fears of Russian legislators’ that the same weapons could be turned against Russia are not unfounded.

But certain provisions in the new law indicate that the real targets are those online news outlets still not fully controlled by the state or its subsidiaries. The law stipulates that if news websites publish content that violates the law, they should be given a warning and 24-hour grace period to remove the offending content. But this courtesy only applies to news websites with a government-issued broadcasting license. Others who do not have a license — as is the case with many smaller news websites — will be blocked immediately by their hosting providers at the request of the attorney general’s office.

Few journalists believe that the state’s own media outlets will be the target of this new law. A skeptical Vasily Maximov quipped:

Yeah, right, I can just see crippling fines raining down on Channel One, Rossiya 24, NTV, RIA Novosti, RT, TV Zvezda [TV channels and news agencies owned directly or indirectly by the Russian government] and other, smaller fake news firehoses.

The new law is so universally disdained that even the Kremlin’s loyalists can’t withhold their disgust. Lexus the Prankster, aka Alexey Stolyarov, one member of a duo of prank callers who have made a career of phoning the Kremlin’s opponents and publishing recordings of their conversations with figures such as Boris Johnson, tweeted on March 7:

Today, the State Duma passed a deplorable law, thankfully no longer connected to us in its current form. A year ago they invited us as experts to help them put together a draft. We shared our insights with [Leonid] Levin, the chair of the committee. Instead, they (I’m not quite sure who is actually responsible for the execution) took it and twisted beyond any recognition.

Alexander Kots, a war reporter for the staunchly pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, wrote on his Telegram channel that law's fines are extreme enough to deter media houses from publishing:

Госдума приняла-таки антифейковый закон для СМИ, в котором прописала для редакций многотысячные штрафы за распространение фейков. Суммы такие, что в региональных редакциях стажерам придется почки продавать, чтобы расплатиться. Поэтому наказание называют больше профилактическим. Чтоб неповадно было.

The State Duma did indeed pass the anti-fake news law for the media today. Newsrooms can be now fined for the multiples of thousands of rubles for spreading fake news. The figures are such that interns at regional newsrooms will have to sell a kidney to pay it off. So they call it more of a prophylactic measure. To serve as a warning to others.

Kots also notes that there is no clear legal distinction between genuinely malicious disinformation (a rash of which was seen after a shopping mall fire in Siberia that killed 60 people) and less clear-cut cases where there is genuine confusion or conflicting messages or versions of the same event.

В качестве примера приводится “Зимняя вишня” и разогнанный фейк ублюдка Вольнова о количестве погибших. Тут, видимо, угроза массового нарушения порядка в виде несанкционированного митинга горожан. Но это откровенный фейк.

Не очень понятно, как теперь быть с версиями, допустим, катастроф или других трагических событий. Их же через различных экспертов выдвигается бесчиленное множество каждый раз. Несет ли в себе высказывание предположения одну из перечисленных угроз.

As an example, they [proponents of the law] cite the Winter Cherry case and that fake about the casualties that bastard Volnov was pushing. There evidently was a threat of mass unrest at an unsanctioned rally held by the [concerned] citizens. But that was clearly a case of fake news.
But it makes less sense in cases where there are different versions of the same, say, natural disaster or other tragic event. Each time there’s a confusing chorus of experts putting forward an infinite number of conflicting versions. Does every piece of conjecture carry the same threat?

Other journalists felt there was little to discuss seriously:

Hooray, the [Duma] deputies banned fake news, so everything on the internet is true now!

by Alexey Kovalev at March 07, 2019 10:36 PM

‘We are not bots!’ In Berlin, thousands protest proposed EU regulation on internet upload filters

‘Upload filters’ would censor copyright-protected content upon upload

March 2, 2019 demonstration in Berlin against Article 13 of the new EU Copyright Directive. Photo by Tim Lüddemann, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

An estimated 5,000 people gathered in Berlin on March 2 to protest a proposed EU copyright rule that could radically shift the dynamics of posting and sharing content online.

Among other provisions, Article 13 of the draft EU Copyright Directive would require internet platforms like YouTube to install “upload filters” — a technical mechanism that would block users from uploading copyright-protected content, effectively imposing a system of “prior censorship” on major internet and social media platforms.

The protest was part of a series of gatherings that will culminate in European Union-wide protests on March 23, reported.

Demonstrators in the German capital braved the icy cold weather and marched from the Axel Springer skyscraper, past the Ministry of Justice and on to the Brandenburg Gate. While the organizers had originally expected five hundred demonstrators, they estimated that more than ten times as many people came to demand protection of internet freedoms.

Demonstrations against Internet copyright reform in Berlin. #Uploadfilter

The Berlin protest was organized by the alliance “Berlin gegen 13″ (Berlin against [Article] 13) which includes civil society organizations promoting digital rights and media freedoms, informal groups, and political parties opposing this aspect of the Directive.

According to the internet rights advocacy network European Digital Rights (EDRi), Article 13 was the result of closed-door discussions between the European Parliament negotiating team, EU Member States and the European Commission in February. Prepared by France and Germany, the current draft will be put to a vote between March and April in the European Parliament and could become law soon afterwards.

EDRi raised concerns that proposal could lead to unlawful restrictions on freedom of speech and reduce access to knowledge. Diego Naranjo, Senior Policy Advisor at EDRi commented:

The secret discussions have ended with the worst version of the “Censorship machine” we have seen so far. Citizens need to react, once again, to prevent these upload filters that threaten our freedom of expression from becoming reality.

The Berlin protest was third major offline gathering of people opposed to Article 13. Demonstrations in Cologne on February 16 and February 23 also attracted thousands of citizens.

In his speech at the Berlin protest, Markus Beckedahl the founder and editor-in-chief of media activism site stated: “We are not against copyright. But we are against compulsory upload filters!”

Demonstrators carried colorful signs reading “We are not bots,” “Diesel filter instead of upload filter”, “Save the Internet” and chanted the lyrics of the song “Wir sind keine bots” (We are not bots) made by YouTuber Willboy specifically in opposition to Article 13:

The song was released on Friday, a day before the demonstration, and become a viral hit with over half a million views in just a few days.

Julia Reda, Member of European Parliament for the European Pirate Party warned that the center-right European People's Party, which has a majority in the European Parliament, has attempted to hold the vote ahead of the massive protest events scheduled for March 23 by the #SaveYourInternet activist campaign.

Whether or not the Copyright Directive is approved, digital rights advocates will have more battles to fight in the near term, when it comes to policy proposals seeking automated technical solutions to online content challenges. A European Commission committee tasked with addressing “terrorist content” online has proposed a similar solution that would obligate online platforms to begin using automated tools to “detect, identify and expeditiously remove or disable access to terrorist content.”

At a public conference in January, Evelyn Austin from the Netherlands-based digital rights organization Bits of Freedom expressed deep concern about policies that move in the direction of prior censorship:

We see as inevitable a situation in which there is a filter for copyrighted content, a filter for allegedly terrorist content, a filter for possibly sexually explicit content, one for suspected hate speech and so on, creating a digital information ecosystem in which everything we say, even everything we try to say, is monitored.

by Filip Stojanovski at March 07, 2019 09:41 PM

Censored on WeChat: Chinese megastar Fan Bingbing's tax evasion scandal — and her disappearance

Why were authorities censoring celebrity news on social media?

Fan Bingbing and Hugh Jackman at X-Men Singapore Gala Premiere in 2014. Photo by Avery Ng (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With more than 1.0825 billion individual users, along with more than 20 million registered public accounts, WeChat has the largest number of domestic users and the most extensive coverage of any social media service in China. As such, it has become a chief component of China's rigorous censorship regime.

In 2017, our team at the University of Hong Kong built a technical web “scraping” system for studying censorship on WeChat's publicly accessible pages. Throughout 2018, we tracked more than 4,000 public accounts covering daily news and preserved censored posts in a publicly accessible database, WeChatscope. This article is part of a partnership series with Global Voices.

One of the top ten censored topics in our 2018 WeChat database was Chinese megastar Fan Bingbing.

The film and television actress went missing following allegations that she had misled authorities in order to avoid paying taxes on her earnings from the major film, Cell Phone 2. Three months later, she reappeared and was fined the equivalent of US $129 million for tax evasion. She subsequently offered a public apology in which she admitted her wrongdoing and attributed her professional success to the state and party.

Fan's case highlights the importance of the entertainment sector as a major front in China's ideological struggle. In recent years, propaganda authorities have encouraged production companies to produce patriotic films and pressured celebrities of the sector to show their patriotism on Weibo.

But it is difficult to “tame” award-winning directors and celebrities who have a strong presence in the international film market. Fan was seen as a celebrity who could not be touched, but this notion was shattered by her disappearance. By targeting Fan, Chinese authorities successfully demonstrated that no one in the sector can be exempt from their “social responsibility”.

Disappearance censored

During this time, posts on WeChat that speculated on her whereabouts were censored and Fan was derided in official state rhetoric.

Fan became a hot topic on social media after former Central Television host Cui Yongyuan reported that she had signed a so-called “yin-yang contract” in May 2018. He obtained copies of two contracts Fan had signed for Cell Phone 2. One was for US $1.56 million, while the other was US $7.8 million. Fan had only declared the first contract to tax authorities. Fan's office later released a statement accusing Cui of insinuation and defamation.

The term “Yin-yang contract” refers to the existence of two contracts. One is an “official” contract of the actor's fee for income tax reporting purposes. The other states the actual earnings, which are usually higher than the official contract.

After Cui’s exposé, rumors and discussion about Fan and the entertainment sector spread rapidly on social media.

As the incident continued to develop Chinese authorities announced near the end of June plans to place a cap on actor payments in the entertainment industry, limiting actor compensation to 40 percent of a film or program's total production cost, so as to crack down on tax evasion and “money worship” in the industry.

Speculations about Fan's disappearance mounted on social media, but were quickly censored. China Digital Times obtained evidence that, during the same period, propaganda authorities instructed social media companies to censor all mentions of the tax allegations against Fan Bingbing.

Even standard posts speculating on Fan’s status were deleted. For example, a post entitled “Police authorities step in to investigate on “Yin-yang contract” case, Fan Bingbing and her brother were restricted from leaving the country” (警方介入阴阳合同案 ,范冰冰姐弟被限制出境) was published on July 28 and removed on the same day. Related discussions on social media also were censored.

There has been no official explanation of what happened to Fan during the months of her disappearance.

Celebrities and social responsibility

Two months after Fan's disappearance, a survey released by the Beijing Normal University and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences stressed that only nine out of 100 television and film personalities were “socially responsible” and Fan Bingbing was ranked the lowest among the 100.

Chinese Communist Party spokespeople have often used the concept of “social responsibility” to criticize celebrities for not following the Party leadership. At a 2013 forum, the State Internet Information Office told Weibo celebrities to bolster their social responsibility and deliver more positive and constructive messages on social media. This was followed by a series of arbitrary arrests and prosecutions for online “rumor mongering”.

The result of social responsibility survey appears to have been intended to re-shape public opinion about the role of celebrities in society, and to set the stage for Fan Bingbing's public re-appearance.

On October 3, state-affiliated Xinhua news reported that Fan Bingbing had been order to pay about RMB 884 million yuan in overdue taxes and fines. A separate editorial on the official news outlet stressed that “everyone is equal before the law, there is no ‘superstar’ or ‘rich and powerful’, no one can despise the law and hope to be lucky.”

On the same day, Fan reappeared on social media with a letter of apology for her failure to “set right the relations between the interests of the state and society and that of [sic] my own.” She stressed:

There would not be today’s Fan Bingbing if there have not been the good policies of the party and the state, in addition to the support of the audience…I want to assure everyone that after this rectification, I would play with the rules, abide by the law and take my responsibilities seriously.

The news of Fan's tax evasion penalty and her apology pushed “Fan Bingbing” to become the hottest topic on social media and search engines. Yet many Chinese social media users were not happy about the outcome. As expected, her fans were sad to see their idol being humiliated publicly. Others criticized the punishment, saying it was too light.

Public criticisms curbed

Again, the propaganda authorities stepped in to curb political expressions and public criticisms. Posts that suggested the Fan Bingbing incident was engineered by the state were deleted on WeChat. For example, this post “Celebrities like Fan Bingbing were dumbfounded. The state has taken action; Cui Yongyuan strikes hard. A even bigger storm is approaching!” (范冰冰们傻眼!国家动手,崔永元出拳,更大风暴到来了!) was published on October 9 and deleted on October 12.

In addition, posts said the penalty was too light were also deleted. “How come Fan Bingbing is free from jail sentence? Nine hidden rules in the criminal law. Must read” (范冰冰不用坐牢了?刑法九大潜规则,不看肠子都悔青) was published on October 4 and deleted on October 5.

After the announcement of Fan’s punishment, a campaign was launched to recover all back taxes in the entertainment industry. The National Taxation Administration stressed celebrities from the entertainment sector would face criminals if they failed to pay back all the taxes by December 31, 2018.

All told, the Fan Bingbing incident, the newly introduced production budget guidelines in June and the social responsibility survey seem to suggest that the propaganda authorities were trying to make an example out of the actress amid the tax evasion investigation, in an effort to establish the CCP’s leadership of the entertainment sector.

Since her apology, Fan Bingbing has clearly dedicated more attention to her “social responsibilities”. Last November, after Taiwanese director Fu Yue spoke out during the Golden Horse Awards, saying that her biggest hope for “our country” was to be regarded as an “independent entity” — referring to Taiwan's movement for independence from mainland China — Fan Bingbing was the first celebrity to share a patriotic post in response.

The actress promptly shared a post published by the Communist Youth League of China on Weibo, which read: “Not one speck of China can go missing.”


Read more from our Censored on WeChat series.


by Wechatscope at March 07, 2019 12:29 AM

March 04, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Russian rocket Soyuz launches the first OneWeb satellites, tethered to the ground by restrictive legislation

The Soyuz ST-B vehicle carrying six OneWeb satellites on the launchpad // Screencapped by Runet Echo

On February 27, 2019, a Soyuz rocket deployed the first six satellites of what is projected to be a constellation of several hundred low-orbit transmitters able to provide Internet access across the globe, even in remote areas with insufficient infrastructure.

Russia’s RT network posted a video of the launch on YouTube, titled “Internet for ‘everyone’ & ‘everywhere': Soyuz rocket launches 1st OneWeb satellites”:

On the ground in Russia, however, things don’t look as idealistic. Shortly before the launch, Russia’s government signed a resolution requiring all satellite traffic inside the country to pass through government-mandated access stations. Both existing international satellite operators such as Iridium and Thuraya and Russian telecoms will be required to build these stations at their own expense and after a thorough vetting and licensing by Russia’s security agencies: the main domestic intelligence bureau, the FSB (Federal Security Service) and the FSO (Federal Protection Service), providing security to the country’s top officials.

From the start, Russian authorities have been aggressively staking out a claim in the OneWeb venture and ensuring that they will have as much control over the information flows as possible. Despite the joint venture agreement between OneWeb and Roscosmos, Russia’s state space agency, shortly before the inaugural launch OneWeb sold its majority stake to a subsidiary of Roscosmos, thus bringing the project under the Russian government’s firm control. The FSB has actively opposed OneWeb’s arrival, specifically citing suspicions that the network could be used for spying purposes. A Reuters report last October quoted Federal Security Service official Vladimir Sadovnikov who warned that “some of Russia’s regions would become totally dependent on a foreign satellite service.”

Initially, Russian users saw OneWeb and similar competing projects from Facebook and SpaceX as a possible remedy against the ever-tightening grip of censorship on online speech:

Users will be able to connect to the SpaceX network and access the Internet, circumventing any government censorship attempts. OneWeb and Telesat have joined the race. Total number of applications for satellite launches: 18.470. A receiver terminal is expected to cost around 200 bucks.

The mood quickly changed after it became clear that the Russian government not only controlled the majority stake in the launch project, but expected all traffic to go through tightly monitored access points:

Russia’s government vetoed satellite Internet access without government access points

Alexander Plushev, a prominent tech journalist and a host at the independent Echo of Moscow radio network, summarized this disillusionment in a popular Telegram post:

Не раз встречался со странным заблуждением, что от Яровой и автономного интернета нас спасет космический интернет. Всякий OneWeb и прочее. Причем, многие почему-то еще думают, что этот интернет будет бесплатным. Нет-нет, мало того, что он будет по нашим нынешним меркам дорогим, но еще и мимо всех цензурных мер это дело не пройдет. Есть представление, что свободный спутник будет бить сигналом прямо в наш смартфон или даже ноутбук. Не будет. Система разрабатывалась не с целью обхода фильтрации и потому обходить ее не будет. На земле необходимо оборудование, ввоз которого будет жестко контролироваться, ну а теперь еще и сами операторы должны будут получить разрешение в ФСБ.

Не рассчитывайте на чудо, никакая заграница вам не поможет. Ни у каких масков и цукербергов нет благородной цели вырвать вас из плена цензуры, да еще и бесплатно. Идти к счастью придется своими ногами.

Time and again I’ve heard about this peculiar misguided notion that space Internet is our salvation from the “Yarovaya laws” and “sovereign Internet.” I’m talking about OneWeb and some such. Many are even fooled into thinking that this Internet will be free of charge. Nothing could be further from the truth: not only it’ll be quite costly by today’s standards, it will also be subject to every censorship regulation. There’s this erroneous idea of free Internet delivered straight to your smartphone or even laptop. But that’s not the way it works. The system wasn’t designed to circumvent content filtration, so don’t expect them to even attempt to. It also required equipment subject to strict importing regulations, and on top of that operators themselves will be required to obtain a license from the FSB.
Don’t count on any miracles, no foreigner will swoop in to save us. And don’t be fooled: there are no Musks or Zuckerbergs out there on a noble quest to free you from the shackles of censorship, let alone for free. We are to walk our path to happiness on our own legs.

Plushev refers to an ongoing series of restrictive laws and regulations sparked by the 2011-13 wave of popular protests against government corruption and election fraud. In response, Russian authorities passed several laws restricting freedom of assembly and controlling and prosecuting for online speech. “Yarovaya laws” is a series of amendments prescribing mass data retention, ostensibly to fight “extremism.” The “sovereign Internet” is a recent addition to the long list of restrictive bills, acts and laws which proposes a national IT infrastructure to protect Russia against a hypothetical (and highly unrealistic) country-wide internet “blackout.”

Vladimir Putin has recently announced an ambitious plan to improve the country’s IT backbone and provide cheap and reliable internet to all Russians — unless they expect to use it to vent out their frustrations.

by RuNet Echo at March 04, 2019 09:04 PM

One month after Ghanaian investigative journalist's murder, activists seek answers

Ahmed Hussein-Suale Divela [Image credit: Committee to Protect Journalists]

One month after Ghanaian investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein-Suale Divela was shot dead in his car in Madina, Ghana, activists are calling for answers and insights into the circumstances of his gruesome death.

The group United Press for Development staged a peaceful solidarity walk in Accra in mid-February as a message to police that Divela’s killers have been yet been identified or convicted. They say that walks will continue until the group gets answers.

Divela’s killing calls attention to press freedom in Ghana where violent killings of journalists are actually rare, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Yet, Kofi Asante, the group’s organiser, says that his group recorded “31 journalists being murdered in Kumasi, some of them were killed in 2018 and the irony is Ghana has been accredited as the number one country in press freedom in Africa and 23rd in the world.”

Who was Ahmed Hussein-Suale Divela?

Ahmed Hussein-Suale Divela worked with Tiger Eye Private Investigations, an investigative journalism outlet led by Anas Aremeyaw Anas. Their unconventional and controversial approach to investigative journalism has exposed many high profile people across Africa.

Divela had recently contributed to investigative work that exposed Kwesi Nyantakyi, former president of Ghana’s football association, also a former member of FIFA’s General Council, accused of accepting a bribe of $65,000 USD. FIFA's adjudicatory council gave Nyantakyi a lifetime ban from all football-related activities.

Anas announced the murder of Divela in a tweet that included an attached video showing Ghanaian parliament member Kennedy Agyapong speaking live on TV in May 2018:

In September 2018, Divela told the Committee to Protect Journalists via WhatsApp that some “powerful figures in Ghana sought to harm him” after an image of him was published on NET 2 TV station in May 2018 by Agyapong. 

Since my image was published and [the] public was incited against me […] many people have attempted [to attack me]. These criminals after us are people who are […] associated with powers that be in Ghana and can do anything and get away with it. Indeed, it [has] been hinted in some quarters that the very man who published [my image] said he was doing everything possible to quell [my] existence.

MP’s words have power

Agyapong, a member of the ruling New Patriotic Party, has served as an MP for 19 years. In his fight against corruption, Agyapong is known for making bribery allegations against corrupt political officials — especially those within his own party.

A debate ignited over whether or not Agyapong’s remarks on live TV directed at Divela may have provoked his murder:

The boy is very dangerous. He lives here in Madina. If you meet him somewhere, break his ears. If he ever comes to this premises [sic], I'm telling you, beat him.

Agyapong justified his actions and said his comments were not meant to provoke harm and referred to a skirmish Divela allegedly once had with one of Agypong’s staff members. In another video, Agyapong suggests that Anas is actually a prime suspect in Divela’s death. He offered to pay a 100,000 Ghanaian Cedi reward (about 19,000 US dollars) for anyone who finds Divela’s killers as proof that he did not call for his murder.

Agyapong left Ghana after police questioned him — he strongly denied that he was fleeing Ghana or that he has been identified as a suspect.

Six people have been arrested and released on bail in connection with Divela’s murder. Police stated arrests were “based on reasonable suspicion.” However, their identities have not yet been released.

Dangerous journalism

Tiger Eyes Investigations had been receiving death threats for several years and was accused of using unethical techniques that violate journalism ethics.

While there is no evidence to show that Agyapong had any direct connection to Divela's killing, his words do have power and were spoken on a TV station owned by him. 

A CPJ report reveals that in 2018, about 53 journalists throughout the world were killed, “34 of whom were targeted for murder in reprisal for their work.” Between 2016 and 2017, 102 journalists were killed as a result of their work. Over one thousand journalists were murdered in the last decade (2006-2017) according to a report by UNESCO.

The high profile assassination of The Washington Post columnist, Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, by agents of the Saudi government drew global ire.

Awil Dihar Salad, a veteran journalist in Somalia, was killed in December 2018. Salad fled Somalia in 2005, fearing he could be targeted, but later returned and was then murdered.

Earlier in July 2018, three Russian journalists were killed in the Central African Republic while “investigating the activities of the so-called Wagner group, a group of private military contractors.”

Engaging in investigative journalism can be like signing a death warrant. Many African governments operate in opacity and they firmly resist attempts at exposure. Considering the poor remuneration of journalists, it does not make sense for most journalists take this level of risk. 

Yet, Divela’s death is not forgotten and his work lives on. Journalists and activists will keep walking until there is resolve. 

by Kofi Yeboah at March 04, 2019 04:31 PM

Photojournalist Mahmoud ‘Shawkan’ Abu Zeid walks free, after more than five years in prison

Shawkan will remain under ”police observation” for another five years

Shawkan was arrested in August 2013 while he was covering a sit-in opposing the removal of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Photo shared by the Freedom for Shawkan campaign on Facebook.

After more than five years in jail, Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also know as Shawkan, was released from prison in Egypt on March 4.

The Freedom for Shawkan campaign announced the journalist's release in the early hours of Monday by posting a photo of the journalist with his father and brother.

Shawkan was detained on August 14, 2013 as he was photographing the Rabaa El Adaweya sit-in, in which supporters of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi gathered to protest a military coup that ended his presidency on July 3 that same year. Egyptian security forces killed at least 817 people and injured many more, according to Human Rights Watch, when they dispersed the sit-in.

Shawkan, who was working for Demotix at the time of his arrest, spent almost four years in pre-trial detention before his sentencing. This was in violation of Egyptian law, which sets the maximum limit to two years. He was tried along with 739 other defendants in what came to be known as the “Rabaa Dispersal Case”.

On Septembr 8, 2018 a Cairo Criminal Court convicted him on spurious charges of murder and affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, now designated as a terrorist group by the Egyptian government.

During the same trial, 75 prominent members and affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death, and 47 other defendants were sentenced to life in prison.

Despite having spent five years in jail, Egyptian authorities kept Shawkan in prison without official explanation. In November 2018, Egyptian media outlet Mada Masr found that Shawkan and 214 others were made to stay in prison for an additional six months, because prosecutors deemed them incapable of paying for damages incurred during the sit-in and its dispersal.

Despite his release, Shawkan will remain under “police observation” for an additional five years, which means he will have to report to a police station every day at sunset. He will be made to spend the night at the police station, until there is a court order to decrease what they call “precautionary measures.”

Press freedom under siege 

Press freedom remains under siege in Egypt, where authorities continue to arrest, prosecute and harass independent media workers. On January 29, authorities at Cairo International airport detained journalist and human rights researcher Ahmed Gamal Ziada upon his arrival from Tunisia, where he is studying journalism. Following his detention, Ziada was disappeared for two weeks, until he was charged with spreading false news on social media on February 13. On March 2, he was granted release on bail, pending investigation.

On February 19, security officials at the same airport detained New York Times correspondent David D. Kirkpatrick upon his arrival. Kirkpatrick had his phone confiscated and was held for seven hours without food or water, the New York Times said. He was then expelled back to London without an explanation.

by Afef Abrougui at March 04, 2019 04:12 PM

March 02, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Censored on WeChat: Huawei, ZTE and ‘Amazing China’

Photo taken by ShamsiohcHWOI CC: AT-SA via

This post was written by the team of WeChatscope, a research initiative led by Dr. King-wa Fu at The University of Hong Kong.

With more than 1.0825 billion individual users, along with more than 20 million registered public accounts, WeChat has the largest number of domestic users and the most extensive coverage of any social media service in China. As such, it has become a chief component of China's rigorous censorship regime.

In 2017, our team at the University of Hong Kong built a technical web “scraping” system for studying censorship on WeChat's publicly accessible pages. Throughout 2018, we tracked more than 4,000 public accounts covering daily news and preserved censored posts in a publicly accessible database, WeChatscope. This article is the third in a partnership series with Global Voices.

Throughout 2018, two other top-10 censored keywords in our dataset were the names of technology giants ZTE and Huawei. The censorship of both terms has strong association with the censorship of “China-U.S trade war”.

Both companies play important roles in China's booming technology industry, which has become instrumental in China's national plan to achieve greater dominance on the global stage, known officially as “Made in China 2025.”

Together, the two companies are leading the development of China's 5G network, a strategic component of the plan. At the same time, both companies found themselves in pivotal positions in the China-US trade war in 2018.

‘Amazing China’ and the US ban on ZTE

China's powerful tech sector was the prime focus of the 2018 propaganda film, “Amazing China”, which heavily featured innovations led by Huawei and ZTE. The documentary-style film claimed that China had already successfully developed quantum semi-conductors that would increase the transmission speed for high-quality videos on a 5G mobile communication network, an important infrastructure development for smart cities.

Not six weeks after the film's release, the US Department of Commerce activated a ban on ZTE, that would prevent the company from trading with American technology companies for seven years. The official order — which was issued but then immediately suspended in 2016 — cited ZTE's sale of banned technologies to Iran, which had come to light in a 2012 FBI investigation. It also covered the purchase of semiconductors and other electronic components from Intel and Qualcomm.

Just three days after the US announced an injunction order against ZTE, putting the previously suspended ban into full effect, China's propaganda department ordered the removal of “Amazing China” from all online video platforms in the country.

Scores of WeChat posts were removed in short order. Posts containing the words “chip” and “crisis” were deleted, along with posts commenting on the so-called “chip war.”

An in-depth analysis of the ZTE incident, written by veteran journalist Wang Zihui, was published and removed from WeChat public domain on April 26, 2018. The article explains the background of the US export ban and ZTE's lack of investment in research and development of core chip technology. Another censored piece, entitled “A Japanese engineer's views towards the ZTE incident” (一位日本工程技术人员对中兴事件的看法), compared ZTE's business model with its Japanese counterparts. This piece was also published and then removed the same day.

By May 9, US sanctions had brought ZTE's sales to a standstill, forcing the company to freeze production. WeChat posts that mentioned the China-US trade war, Donald Trump, and a variety of messages suggesting that China had been put at a disadvantage, were all censored.

Censoring ‘salted fish’

On May 14, the tide began to turn when Donald Trump said that he was willing to cooperate with President Xi Jinping to “resume ZTE’s business.” These were Trump's exact words — although somewhat unclear, they were widely interpreted to mean that he would either lift the ban or extend its suspension.

Soon thereafter, articles discussing the probability that ZTE would be able to regain a share in global 5G markets began to disappear. It seemed that any narrative suggesting China had been harmed or treated unfairly — possible signs of vulnerability — was to be scrubbed from the network.

Another more curious expression that was censored in high volume was “salted fish.” A reference to the common Cantonese food, people often use the term to describe a person or a company that is somehow doomed. The expression of “the return of dead fish” (咸魚翻生)signals that a person or thing that was once doomed has come back to life.

When Trump suggested lifting ZTE's injunction order, a flurry of WeChat posts questioned whether ZTE, the salted fish, could come back to life. Along with “salted fish ZTE”, expressions like “the United States lets off ZTE this time” were also censored. Articles that were critical of state-backed enterprises like ZTE were targeted too.

Censoring Huawei

As the ZTE incident cooled off and the US lifted its export ban on July 13, censorship of themes related to Huawei became more and more visible.

Established in 1987, the Chinese tech champion operates in more than 170 countries and has the largest market share in smartphones and telecom equipment across the world.

US officials began investigating whether Huawei violated U.S. sanctions against Iran as early as 2016, when the US government imposed a “suspended” seven-year export restriction on ZTE. While it was anticipated that Huawei would become another bargaining chip in the trade war, the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Canada at the request of the US Justice Department came as a surprise to the whole world

Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, was reportedly suspected of trying to evade US trade curbs on Iran. Her arrest was reported to the Chinese public on December 6, after Xi returned to China from the G20 Summit in Argentina.

Two days later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the Canadian ambassador calling the arrest “unreasonable, unconscionable, and vile in nature” and warning of “grave consequences” if Meng was not released. State-affiliated media outlets echoed the message of the government.

At the same time, the propaganda authorities handed down several censorship notices demanding that unauthorized media outlets stop reporting on Meng’s arrest and China’s 5G development. Our data confirms that WeChat followed the propaganda directives of the state.

A report on Meng's arrest, “Meng Wanzhou is targeted, Huawei is suffering” (晚舟搁浅,华为遭难), which connected the incident to the trade war, was removed on December 7, 2018, one day after it was published on WeChat.

Speculations and conspiracy theories that circulated among overseas Chinese communities also made their way onto WeChat, but were quickly censored. One of the more popular theories connected Meng's arrest with the December 1 death of Stanford theoretical physicist Zhang Shoucheng. Another connected the arrest with a factory fire at the Dutch tech giant ASML, the world's leading manufacturer of extreme ultraviolet lithography machines.

Theories that built upon nationalist expressions were also censored. For example, this commentary titled “Huawei is a demon's mirror” (华为,就是一面照妖镜), which compares the US to a demon wanting to contain the expansion of China, was published on WeChat on December 7 and removed one day after.

Monitoring the censorship pattern involving ZTE and Huawei, we can see that the Chinese government is walking a thin line. The government wants the country to be seen as a great power, part of the “Made in China 2025″ campaign. And it wants the reputations of Huawei and ZTE to remain strong. But it does not want these companies to be seen as state-controlled — this image could damage China's reputation, presenting it as a “threat” to the existing world order amid the trade war between the U.S. and China.


WeChatscope team includes Dr. King-wa Fu, Dr. Yun Tai, Regina Chung and Coco Young.

by Wechatscope at March 02, 2019 12:14 AM

March 01, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Netizen Report: Two of Egypt’s leading digital activists await their release from prison, after years behind bars

Alaa Abd El Fattah. Photo by Alaa (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from February 22-28.

Two prominent digital activists in Egypt are expected to be released from prison in the coming weeks. Both Mahmoud Abu Zeid, a photographer, and Alaa Abd El Fattah, a blogger and political activist, have spent most of the past five years behind bars.

Their families and supporters are determined to see them freed on time. But there is growing concern that state security may delay their release. In early February, the families of 18 political prisoners, including Abd El Fattah, were barred from visiting their jailed loved ones.

While his prison term is set to end on March 17, 2019, Abd El Fattah will then be under close police surveillance and made to spend every night in his local police station for the next five years.

Alaa Abd El Fattah was a leading voice in the 2011 protests that helped to overthrow former president Hosni Mubarak, and has been jailed or investigated under every Egyptian head of state who has served during his lifetime. He was given a five-year prison sentence for violating Egypt’s protest law, which prohibits public demonstrations without prior authorization by police. Public prosecutors also brought a separate case against Abd El Fattah for allegedly “insulting” the judiciary in a tweet, where he criticized Egypt’s justice system for its lack of independence.

In 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Abd El Fattah’s detention was “arbitrary” and that he had been denied guarantees of due process and a fair trial. Since December 2018, his family has run an active online campaign, “100 days for Alaa”, advocating for his timely release.

Mahmoud Abou Zaid, aka Shawkan. Photo shared on Twitter by @Ciluna27.

Mahmoud Abu Zeid, known online as Shawkan, was unlawfully detained and tried for photographing the 2013 bloody dispersal of the Rabaa El Adaweya sit-in, while he was employed by Demotix. Supporters of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi had gathered to protest a military coup that ended Morsi’s presidency soon thereafter. Human Rights Watch reported at the time that Egyptian security forces killed at least 817 people in the incident, and injured many more.

From then on, Shawkan spent nearly four years in pre-trial detention, in violation of Egyptian law which sets the limits between six months and two years, depending on the seriousness of the crime. On September 8, 2018, he was convicted on spurious charges of murder and affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, now designated a terrorist group by the Egyptian government. He was sentenced to five years in prison, despite the fact that he had already served as much time.

Although he was set to be released in mid-February 2019, he remains behind bars as of this writing. On February 27, the International Press Institute called on Egyptian authorities to release him immediately.

Protests in Algeria trigger internet outages

Since mid-February, Algerians have been overriding protest laws and demonstrating in the streets, demanding that Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika withdraw from upcoming national elections. On February 21 and 22, the independent technical research group NetBlocks reported that multiple internet provider networks were intermittently shut down, likely as a result of demonstrations.

Bouteflika has been president since 1999 and is seeking a fifth term in office, despite his poor health. The 81-year-old suffered a stroke in 2013 and has been confined to a wheelchair and has made few public appearances since then. Protesters have emphasized the country’s weak and increasingly unstable economy — 29% of people under 30 are unemployed.

Twitter and SoundCloud knocked offline in Venezuela

On February 27, Venezuelan technical research group VE Sin Filtro reported that both Twitter and SoundCloud were blocked for all subscribers to the country’s largest internet provider, state-owned CANTV.

Since mid-January, when opposition politician Juan Guaidó declared himself acting president of the Republic, in an open challenge to sitting President Nicolas Maduro, public protests and confrontations between the Maduro-aligned military and opposition leaders backed by the US have triggered numerous internet outages and blocks on websites including Wikipedia, Instagram and multiple services belonging to Google, including YouTube.

Samoan blogger arrested for ‘false statements’

Australia-based blogger Malele Paulo was arrested in Samoa on February 8, while he was visiting the country to attend his mother’s funeral. Malele is a known critic of the government who writes under the pen name King Faipopo.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi filed a defamation complaint against Malele, concerning a post in which the blogger alleged that the prime minister had engaged in corruption and theft. He has been charged under Samoa’s criminal libel law with “making false statements with the intention of causing harm to a member of our Samoan communities’ reputation.” He is scheduled to appear in court on March 5.

Russians may get the ‘right to make mistakes,’ but not to speak freely

Russian netizens could face censorship and fines for sharing “unreliable information” or criticizing the government online if two new laws are passed by the country’s Duma. But in a relatively positive development, new changes to the draft legislation include the “right to make mistakes.”

With this change, Russian authorities could issue advanced warning to individuals or media outlets whose writing they deem false or offensive. If they heed authorities’ warnings to delete offending content, individuals can avoid penalties on first violation — and media outlets can avoid having their websites blocked. It is worth noting however that such warnings will not be extended to media outlets that do not have a government-issued license.

Nepal’s IT management bill would stifle free expression

A draft law before Nepal’s parliament would give authorities broad powers to order the removal of social media content, penalize users for “improper” posts, and block entire online platforms if they are not registered in the country. It would also require foreign tech companies with a large presence in the country, like Facebook and Google, to establish in-country offices and to pay a special tax on the earnings they accrue from Nepali users.

The bill would replace the existing Electronic Transaction Act, which the government has invoked in 106 cases over the past three years, in prosecutions for online content. Free expression advocates warn the new legislation could open the door to even more arbitrary prosecution, as the bill does not require authorities to seek court approval before they order internet service providers (ISPs) to block websites. ISPs that do not comply with these orders will face fines.

Indonesian fact-checking site suffers cyber attack

The Indonesian fact-checking website was reportedly attacked and infiltrated on February 19, just two days after the national broadcast of the second presidential debate. Attackers changed the site's DNS configuration and redirected users to a ghost video on YouTube. is a collaborative project among 24 media outlets in Indonesia, aimed at countering fake news and disinformation. The Legal Aid Institute for Press condemned the attack, and called on law enforcement to immediately investigate the incident. The site has since been restored.

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by Netizen Report Team at March 01, 2019 02:08 PM

February 27, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
USCYBERCOM attack gives Russian legislators new justification for tighter internet controls
Cyber operations at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Aug. 1, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Boyd Belcher)

Cyber operations at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. US Air Force photo by Boyd Belcher, licensed to public domain.

On February 27, the Washington Post reported that the US Cyber Command successfully penetrated — and briefly took offline — the network of Russia's infamous “troll factory”, also known as the “Internet Research Agency,” in November 2018.

While multiple US officials touted the move as show of the country's relative savvy in the field of cyber warfare, Russian legislators are using the attack as justification for imposing greater control over the Russian internet.

Speaking on condition of anonymity to the Post, people privy to the operation said that “the president [Trump] approved of the general operation to prevent Russian interference in the midterms.” According to the Post's sources:

The operation “marked the first muscle-flexing by U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), with intelligence from the National Security Agency, under new authorities it was granted by President Trump and Congress last year to bolster offensive capabilities.

Multiple sources have since confirmed that the attack indeed took place. BBC Russian, citing its own sources inside the “troll factory,” reported that USCYBERCOM’s offensive on the eve of 2018 midterm elections “wiped out the servers” of IRA’s US department.

In a response to the Washington Post’s report, RIA FAN (a media outlet known for its links to the IRA) confirmed that the attack occurred, but still mocked USCYBERCOM's incursion attempt, calling it a “complete failure” and emphasizing the fact that it was quickly contained. The authors also noted that the attacked did not cause significant damage to the IRA's system, or to the team’s morale.

How serious was this attack?

There is some debate as to how exactly devastating the attack was and whether it achieved the desired effect. RIA FAN described the attack in considerable technical detail, explaining how US CYBERCOM exploited standard vulnerabilities in a single IRA computer in order to execute an attack on the company's internal network.

После подключения мобильного устройства Apple iPhone 7 Plus к персональному компьютеру был произведен не только автоматический запуск iTunes и синхронизация данных пользователя, но и получен доступ в интернет со стороны ОС Windows и загружены некоторые файлы обновления системы, которые установились автоматически.

После этого компьютер стал по факту управляем удаленно и с него были проведены все необходимые процедуры для полноценного вторжения в локальную сеть ФАН. Стоит отметить, что вторжение в локальную сеть было проведено с IP-адресов, подконтрольных американским компаниям, в том числе, с серверов компании Amazon, которые обычно используются хакерами для заметания своих следов и скрытия настоящего источника атаки.

After connecting to a PC workstation, the [infected] Apple iPhone 7 Plus forced the launch of iTunes and user data synchronization, then accessed the internet via Windows OS and automatically downloaded and installed several system update files.

At this point, the infected workstation was being remotely controlled, opening the pathway for a full-scale attack on FAN’s intranet. It is worth noting that the intrusion originated from IP addresses controlled by US-based companies, including Amazon, often used by hackers to cover their traces and obscure the true source of attack.

The response in Russia

The IRA has taken these revelations as an opportunity to confirm its aggrieved status as a victim of unprovoked US aggression.

And what's more, USCYBERCOM’s efforts appear to have re-energized the regulatory push to insulate the Russian internet from the rest of the world, and introduce increased levels of network-wide surveillance.

The Washington Post’s article mentions this only in passing:

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov asserted Wednesday that “in general” there are a “huge number of cyberattacks against various Russian organizations, legal entities and private individuals from the territory” of the United States. “This is the reality now in which we live,” he told reporters. He added that such threats underscore the need for a “sovereign Internet” in Russia.

But inside Russia, USCYBERCOM’s November offensive is being spun for all it’s worth, in propagandistic terms.

Russian state media, officials and pro-government experts are having a “we told you so” moment: this is exactly why we need the “sovereign internet” law, they are saying, referring to the controversial Klishas bill that Runet Echo has covered in the recent months.

The proposed legislation seeks to establish state-regulated internet exchange points that would allow for increased monitoring and control over internet traffic moving into and out of the country. This in turn would give authorities much greater power to censor objectionable (and politically inconvenient) content online.

Those who oppose the bill saw the attack against IRA (and the Washington Post's coverage of the incident) as powerful ammunition for proponents of the bill:

Now we know to whom we owe the “sovereign internet” bill. In November 2018 the US launched a cyberattack, pushing Prigozhin’s “factory” offline.

So, that’s why they’ve been pushing for “sovereign internet” for us…

There is no proven link between the November cyber attack on IRA and the Klishas bill, filed for review in the Russian parliament in December 2018, and awaiting a second reading in March 2019. But the bill’s accompanying paper does identify “the aggressive nature of US National Cyber Strategy” as its primary motivation:

В подписанном Президентом США документе декларируется принцип “сохранения мира силой”. Россия же впрямую и бездоказательно обвиняется в совершении хакерских атак, откровенно говорится о наказании: “Россия, Иран, Северная Корея провели ряд безответственных кибератак, которые нанесли ущерб американским и международным компаниям, нашим союзникам и партнёрам и не понесли соответствующего наказания, что могло бы сдерживать кибератаки в будущем”. В этих условиях необходимы защитные меры для обеспечения долгосрочной и устойчивой работы сети Интернет в России, повышения надёжности работы российских интернет-ресурсов.

The document signed by the US President openly declares the principle of “peace through strength.” It also directly and without any corroboration names Russia as the culprit in a number of hacker attacks and openly calls for retaliation: “Russia, Iran, and North Korea conducted reckless cyber attacks that harmed American and international businesses and our allies and partners without paying costs likely to deter future cyber aggression.” In these circumstances, there is a need for preventive measures to ensure a long-term and sustainable functionality of the internet in Russia and improve the reliability of Russian internet resources.

Pro-Kremlin experts insist that the bill’s aim is not to isolate Russia from the outside, but, conversely, to protect its own internet infrastructure from outside attacks and prevent a country-wide blockage.

Natalia Kasperskaya, Kaspersky Labs’ cofounder and one of the most influential IT experts to consult the Russian government on internet regulation, said in an interview with RT:

Речь идёт о том, что если нашей стране выключат интернет СНАРУЖИ, то он продолжит работать. То есть речь идёт о том, чтобы принять некоторые профилактические меры по тому, чтобы Рунет продолжил бы работать в худшем случае, если нам закроют доступ.

We are talking about a situation when someone switches off the internet for our country from the OUTSIDE, so that we are prepared to keep it going. This [bill] is about taking some preventive steps to assure the functionality of Runet in the worst case scenario, if we are denied access.

What Kasperskaya describes here is a significant exaggeration — what the US has done in Russia so far does not come close to a nationwide internet shutdown, and the likelihood that outsiders could even execute such a move (which would violate international human rights and cybercrime doctrine) is still remote.

While there is a legitimate argument to be made for a more robust and reliable national IT infrastructure (IRA’s weak spots were all foreign-made: a Windows workstation, an Apple iPhone and Western-made servers hosted outside of Russia), there is little doubt that this bill, as well as its accompanying initiatives, will be used to further “tighten the screws” on online freedoms in Russia. 

As for USCYBERCOM, its attack appears to have achieved little in terms of deterrence, while handed the proponents of these restrictive policies an extra argument in their favor.

by RuNet Echo at February 27, 2019 09:17 PM

February 25, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Journalists, teachers, and activists targeted in attacks on free speech in the Philippines

Press freedom advocates denounce the arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa. Source: College Editors Guild of the Philippines

The recent arrest and detention of Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of the news site Rappler, is just the tip of the iceberg of intensifying attacks on Philippine media.

As assaults on press freedom in the Philippines multiply, they come in various forms: red-baiting against members of media included in “military hit lists” of suspected communist rebels, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks on alternative media sites, and a systematic use of trolls and bots against government critics on social media.

Yet media is not the only target: teachers and activists also experience harassment in what they describe as a ‘constriction’ of freedom under the Duterte government.

Cyber-libel case

A vocal critic of the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, Ressa was named a 2018 Person of the Year by TIME Magazine. The globally acclaimed investigative journalist was arrested on 13 February on charges of cyber libel, stemming from a Rappler 2012 story that linked businessman Wilfredo Keng to former Supreme Court Justice Renato Corona, who was impeached in 2012. The Rappler story cited news reports linking Keng to illegal drugs and human trafficking.

While Ressa was allowed to post a bail of PHP100,000 (US$1,917) on 14 February and is now free, press freedom advocates assert that the charges are politically motivated. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) had originally dismissed the charges against Ressa but subsequently retracted its decision, despite the fact that Ressa was not acting as Rappler editor when the article was published in May 2012. On top of this, the article in question was published four months before the Philippine Cyber Crime Prevention Act became effective.

Red tagging of journalists

In the past, media practitioners have been regularly red-tagged as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army. This includes critical media organizations like the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), which has been accused of acting as a “CPP front” in spurious reports published in Manila-based tabloids.

Cong Corrales, an associate editor at the Cagayan De Oro City-based community paper Goldstar, has been included in a list of “communist terrorists”. The list, which also mentions some of his family members, is being widely circulated by suspected military agents. Unsurprisingly, this orchestrated witch-hunt coincides with the launching of Hustisya-Northern Mindanao, an organization defending the victims of Martial Law, which was imposed on Mindanao Island, the second largest island of the Philippines, in May 2017.

DDoS cyber attacks

At the same time, alternative media sites Bulatlat, Kodao Productions, and Pinoy Weekly have been subjected to massive DDoS cyber-attacks since December 2018 that resulted in the repeated takedown of their websites from the internet. Most recently, Bulatlat and Kodao Productions, considered to be among the oldest alternative media organizations in the Philippines, have been specifically targeted, resulting in their shutdown on 25 January.

The NUJP website also came under attack in early February, receiving a record 615 gigabytes of total bogus traffic. When Bulatlat sought the aid of Qurium Media Foundation, a Sweden-based secure hosting provider for threatened media, it noted that:

…the attackers used nearly 2,000 computers to saturate the website and make it unreachable. In another attack, they sent 3 million packets per second of bogus traffic.

Altermidya, an independent network of alternative media, has concluded that the cyber-attacks have the markings of systematic and well-funded machinery:

Clearly, this is not just the handiwork of a hacker acting alone. Several international studies, including one from the University of Oxford, revealed how government is funding cyber-attackers to manipulate public opinion over the internet. We believe that there is no one else that could possibly be behind these attacks than the Duterte administration itself, which has taken increasingly bold steps to curtail press freedom and the people’s right to know.

A unity statement by NUJP, AlterMidya, Bulatlat, Kodao Productions, Pinoy Weeklyand writers and artists alliance Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity reads:

The attacks are an affront against the ordinary people whose perspectives define the stories of the alternative media. These are attempts by those in power to drown out the voice of the marginalized and the oppressed, displaying Duterte’s fear of committed journalism that seeks to inform, educate and guide the public in decision-making.

Profiling of public school teachers

Anyone publicly criticizing Duterte's policies such as the violent anti-drug campaign, or the imposed military rule over Mindanao is subject to surveillance, intimidation, and threats. This is particularly true of one group: members of the teachers’ union, who have become targets of profiling at the behest of the Philippine National Police and the Department of the Interior and Local Government. Fortunately, one umbrella organization, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers is openly denouncing such violation of freedom of expression:

LOOK: Alliance of Concerned Teachers conducted a protest action at Camp Crame, Quezon City to condemn the profiling or inventory by the PNP of its member-teachers.

Another group the authorities are eager to watch closely are the students. This week, the government's National Youth Commission has publicly requested that President Duterte revoke the scholarship of students who join “anti-government protests”.

Police are constricting the flow of people to the EDSA anniv commemoration mob — ironically on the day we are cherishing the democratic right to assemble and protest. They are afraid of the new EDSA!

EDSA is shorthand for Manila's Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, the site of the February 1986 public demonstration that ousted US-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

But Filipinos are not taking the constriction of their democratic space lightly. Thousands of ordinary people, rights advocates, and activist groups came together at the EDSA shrine on 23 February to oppose what they say is the increasingly dictatorial regime of President Duterte. This outspoken expression of frustration comes at a particularly sensitive time: February 25 marks the anniversary of the popular uprising that overthrew late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

by Karlo Mikhail Mongaya at February 25, 2019 04:41 PM

How Saudi leaders are using religion to consolidate power and silence critical voices

The Great Mosque of Mecca, considered the holiest city in Islam. Photo by Wikimedia user Basil D Soufi [CC BY-SA 3.0].

When Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed last October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, it cast a long shadow on the exercise of free speech for journalists from Saudi Arabia and across the Arab region.

The resulting political fallout also shook some of the most powerful institutions and voices in Islam.

After the circumstances of Khashoggi's disappearance and death came to light, multiple world leaders openly accused Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman of ordering the journalist's murder. In what appeared to be a response to these accusations, the Imam of the Grand mosque in Mecca delivered a Friday sermon on October 19 in which he exalted Bin Salman, the Kingdom's de facto ruler.

Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais lauded the “modernizing reforms” of Bin Salman and denounced attacks against “these blessed lands” in his sermon, which was pre-approved by Saudi authorities. He went on to conclude that “it [was] the solemn duty of all Muslims to support and obey the king and the faithful crown prince, the protectors and guardians of the holy sites and Islam.” 

Responding in a opinion piece for the New York Times, UCLA School of Law professor Khaled M. Abou El Fadl said the sermon had “desecrated and defiled” the podium of the prophet.

“By using the Grand Mosque to whitewash acts of despotism and oppression,” he wrote, “Prince Mohammed has placed the very legitimacy of the Saudi control and guardianship of the holy places of Mecca and Medina in question.”

Saudi Arabia's long history of politics in religion

With its theocratic system of governance, this is not uncommon in the ultraconservative kingdom. In fact, Saudi leaders have long used religion as a tool of political power since the Kingdom's inception.

Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

Every year, millions of Muslims from around the world travel to Mecca to perform Hajj or pilgrimage, one of Islam's five pillars. This has allowed the Saudi government to claim a special form of religious legitimacy in Islam. The Kingdom has exploited this legitimacy to gain and maintain political power.

When the first Saudi state was established in 1744, Muhammad ibn Saud, emir of the small oasis town of Diriya, made a pact with religious leader and theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Abd al-Wahhab started an ultraconservative religious movement (today known as Wahhabism) based on an austere interpretation of Quran and prophetic traditions.

Fanack, an independent media and analysis site focused on the MENA region, explains that the union was intended to “create an Islamic realm ruled by a strict interpretation of Islam.”

This first Saudi state collapsed decades later, and a second state was established in 1824, only to collapse again in 1891. In 1924 and 1925, the Ibn-Saud family invaded Mecca and Medina (Islam’s two holiest cities) respectively, with the help of Wahhabi fighters. In 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established. Ever since, Saudi rulers have continued to use religion to serve their political interests.

Voices challenging official religious discourse silenced 

Today, the kingdom's history is at the top of mind for many Saudis as they grapple with rising levels of repression under the leadership of Mohammad Bin Salman. Religious clerics are enlisted to treat those who denounce rights violations or call for reform as “enemies of Islam,” and state authorities continue to deploy religious discourse to serve the political interests of rulers.

In January 2019, Saudi Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdullatif Ibn Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh condemned the Arab uprisings of 2011 and 2012, describing them as “poisonous and destructive to the Arab and Muslim human.”

In an implicit reference to criticism targeted at the kingdom after Khashoggi's murder, the Minister denounced what he described as ”unjust attacks from the enemies of Islam” and accused Muslims who are critical of the kingdom and its policies of “spreading sedition, bringing discord, and inciting against their rulers and leaders.”

Reflecting on the link between Wahhabism and political oppression, Saudi human rights activist Yahya Assiri, who lives in exile in London, tweeted on January 13

Oppression is a comprehensive system, and [in our country] it is enabled by religion. When Ibn Saud and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab allied, Saudi Arabia and Wahhabism grew as a malignant twin. Our country will not survive unless we get rid of the Saudi Wahhabi oppression. As we have said this, others, with a good intention, have said that Wahhabism is a religious movement, while it is purely political

But the voices of people like Assiri are silenced in Saudi Arabia.

Another such voice is that of Abdullah Al-Hamid, one of the founders of the now-dissolved Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), who is currently behind bars.

Al-Hamid is serving eleven years in prison for his human rights activities, on charges that include “breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler,” and “inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations.” He was convicted in 2013 by the infamous Specialized Criminal Court, established to try terror-related cases but often used to go after human rights activists.

Rights groups reported that Al-Hamid began a hunger strike on 17 February. In a statement attributed to him and published by the MBS MeToo human rights platform, Al-Hamid announced that he’s demanding the release of imprisoned human rights activists and political prisoners.

Abdullah Al-Hamid. Photo from his Goodreads account.

In addition to his human rights activism, Al-Hamid is a poet and an academic. In his writings, he has used Islamic texts and traditions to call for democratic reforms, advocate for human rights, and to critique the religious institutions that enable repression in Saudi Arabia such as the Council of Senior Scholars, the kingdom’s highest religious body which advises the king on religious matters.

He once accused the Council of serving to support ”those who steal the people’s money, dignity and freedom” and of playing a role in ”harming citizenship, plurality, tolerance” and ”producing violence and extremism.”

He also has advocated for a “modern religious discourse that embraces a consultative rule” and he opposed what he described as the “common religious discourse” in the kingdom which “calls for prayer behind a unjust Imam…even if he violated [one's] freedom, justice and equality.”

Crackdown on independent clerics 

While silencing those who challenge the government's official discourse, Saudi Arabia has also taken a hard line against clerics who are not sufficiently supportive of the Crown Prince's policies and actions.

Saudi clerics Sheikh Salman Al-Awda, Ali Al-Omari and Sheikh Awad Al-Qarni were all arrested in September 2017 on various charges that include their alleged ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Rights groups say the charges were brought on because the clerics did not vocally support the severance of diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar by Saudi Arabia and its allies. And all three may face the death penalty.

At 62, Sheikh Salman Al-Awda is a prominent cleric with a massive social media following, not only in Saudi Arabia but across the Arab region. The combined number of his followers on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube is more than 22 million. He previously expressed support for the Arab uprisings of 2011 and called for democratic reforms in the kingdom and the region.

Amnesty International and other human rights groups linked his arrest to a tweet posted on 8 September, in which he reacted to news reports of a potential reconciliation between the nations. In the second part of the tweet, he wrote: “May God harmonize between their hearts for what is good for their people”.

Ali Al-Omari is a religious scholar and the chairman of 4Shbab, a youth-focused Islamic TV channel. In contrast to others, he was not vocal on political issues in the Kingdom. He even once tweeted in support of the Kingdom’s leaders, and posted a tweet praying for Bin Salman’s success when he was appointed crown prince back in June 2017.

Sheikh Awad Al-Qarni faces a number of accusations that include supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed in Saudi Arabia, and slandering the Kingdom, its policies and its systems.

Several other clerics are also currently behind bars in Saudi Arabia. Some have called for democratic reforms in the kingdom, like Al-Awda, while others voiced opposition to Bin Salman’s policies or social reforms. Others like al-Omari previously expressed support to Saudi rulers and the Crown Prince.

What these cases confirm is that under Bin Salman’s de facto-rule, silence is no longer enough. Beyond a mandate to stamp out “independent” voices — the words of anyone who is not writing in service of the Kingdom's leadership or political agenda — clerics must go the extra mile and outwardly praise the Crown Prince and Saudi leadership.

The opinions and ideologies of those prisoners of conscience currently behind bars in Saudi Arabia, including women’s rights defenders, human rights defenders, Shia protesters and religious clerics, may vary. But under the de facto rule of Bin Salman, these individuals are all subject to injustices at the hands of Saudi authorities including arbitrary detention, solitary confinement, torture, and enforced disappearance. To legitimise and whitewash these acts of oppression, Saudi rulers never hesitate to use religion as a cover-up.

by Afef Abrougui at February 25, 2019 10:20 AM

February 23, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
Singaporean activist sentenced to 16 days in jail after hosting video chat with HK youth leader Joshua Wong

Jolovan Wham, via Twitter.

The following post is originally written by Holmes Chan and published on Hong Kong Free Press on 21 of Feburary, 2019. The edited version is republished on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement.

Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham has been handed a 16-day jail sentence for refusing to pay a fine for a public talk he hosted with Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong via Skype in 2016. He is out on bail pending appeal.

Wham is an activist known for his campaigns promoting the rights of migrant workers, free speech in Singapore, and reform of the country’s laws on detention and the death penalty.

Last month, Wham was convicted of illegal assembly over a November 2016 forum he hosted on the topic of “civil disobedience and social movements,” which featured Joshua Wong and local media activists. Wham was told by police that he needed a permit for Wong to speak, but he went ahead without one.

On 21 February, the court fined Wham S $2,000 (USD $1476) for organising a public assembly without a police permit. He also received a fine of S $1,200 (USD $886) for failing to sign a police statement.

Singaporean media reported that Wham chose not to pay the fine, and that the court sentenced him to 16 days in prison for failure to pay the fine. Aside from illegal assembly, Wham was also charged for refusing to sign his police witness statement. He said at the time that he chose not to sign because he was not given a copy.

Wham intends to appeal the judge’s decision. He has been released on a bail of S $8,000 (USD $5,906), according to media reports.

The forum in question was organised by Community Action Network, a non-governmental group concerned with freedom of expression in the city-state. According to Wham, the police told him it was compulsory to get a work permit and police permit if any of the participating speakers were not from Singapore – even if they spoke remotely via video link.

After the event, Wham was questioned by police for 45 minutes. He was finally charged in November 2017, but the case did not come before a judge until January 2019.

Joshua Wong told HKFP that Wham’s prosecution was “an embarrassment and a terrible injustice,” and that he deeply regretted the judgment.

Jolovan generously invited me to share and exchange my experience in Hong Kong’s fight for freedom and justice with the Singaporean community – the irony is not missed here that Jolovan has become a subject of injustice as a result.

I’d like to express my respect and admiration for Jolovan’s perseverance of his values, and my wish for the Singaporean people to one day be able to enjoy true freedom and democracy.

‘Stretching of the law’

Singaporean journalist and Global Voices collaborator Kirsten Han, who was also a guest speaker at Wham’s forum, decried the sentence as “outrageous.”

[The forum] posed no threat to public order whatsoever, and the stretching of the law to declare a forum illegal simply because a non-Singaporean Skyped in shows how broad Singapore’s public order laws are, and how they can be used to restrict Singaporean’s civil liberties…There’s no sentence that I’d consider fair, because he should never have been charged.

Han also disputed the prosecution’s account of events. According to Channel NewsAsia, the prosecution argued in court that “thousands” were invited to the forum and 366 people indicated they were interested in attending.

However, Han said the event only had slightly more than 60 attendees and was “pretty standard.” “The venue wasn’t that big anyway,” she added.

by Hong Kong Free Press at February 23, 2019 05:22 PM

February 22, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
As Putin preaches ‘sovereignty’ and tech modernization, experts lament loss of online freedoms

In his annual state of the union speech, Vladimir Putin promised Russians a faster, more reliable internet; it definitely won't be any freer, say experts. // TASS/ under CC2.0

On February 20, Vladimir Putin addressed the Russian parliament in his annual state of the union speech. He pledged massive investments in social programs and civil infrastructure, notably the county’s IT backbone:

Уже в текущем году необходимо принять генеральную схему развития инфраструктуры цифровой экономики, включая сети телекоммуникаций, мощности по хранению и обработке данных. И здесь также нужно смотреть вперёд. Задача ближайших лет – организовать повсеместный доступ к высокоскоростному интернету, начать эксплуатацию систем связи пятого поколения, 5G.

This year we must adopt a master plan for developing the infrastructure of a digital economy, including telecommunications networks, as well as data storage and processing capacities. Here we need to look ahead as well. The task for the next few years is to provide universal access to high-speed internet and start using 5G communications networks.

Improving internet infrastructure and ensuring that all Russians are online may sound progressive. But these developments will come about in an era of unprecedented online information control in Russia. 

In February, two reports came out that noted a sharp, continuous downwards trend in online freedoms. Indeed, it seems that while more Russians will have access to the internet, it will be an internet governed on the state's increasingly strict terms.

One study compiled by Agora, a human rights group, lays out the different ways the Russian authorities are clamping down on individual users, social networks and online media. The most significant trend, Agora says, has been a wave of laws and regulations that force internet service providers and tech giants to “police” online content on the Russian government's behalf.

On more than one occasion, internet service providers have been forced to block access to websites for publishing information about court proceedings, or exposing government corruption. In one high-profile case, providers were made to block access to the website of Alexey Navalny, a prominent opposition activist and anti-corruption campaigner. Agora's report says:

Власти подготавливают почву для блокировки сервисов, которые считают основными катализаторами массовых протестов, пытаясь представить ее как требование соблюдать национальное законодательство. Делегирование полицейских и цензорских функций частным игрокам не только минимизирует ущерб репутации, но и, очевидно, более оправдано с точки зрения расходования ресурсов и эффективности контроля

The authorities are paving the way for blocking online services that they see as catalysts for mass protests, while attempting to present this crackdown as simply a requirement to follow national laws. Delegating policing and censorship functions to private actors not only minimizes reputational damage, but also ensures more effective control and spending.

Agora also notes a sharp increase in restrictions on individual pieces of content: a total of 662,842 items were censored in 2018, in comparison to 115,706 in 2017. This includes blocked websites and individual URLs, online news articles, social media posts deemed “extremist” or “inflammatory” etc.

In a rare instance of good news, one of the most infamous items of the Russian criminal code, Article 282 (“Incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as abasement of human dignity”,) responsible for the majority of prosecutions for online speech, was reined in by an amendment passed in December 2018. This appears to have brought a decline in prosecutions related to online speech. However, legal experts are skeptical about the possible “liberalization” of Russian laws.

Agora’s report predicts that public prosecutors may shift towards using other, less severe articles in both the criminal and administrative codes to punish dissent. This could enable them to silence individual users and organizations, while triggering less visible public backlash.

Agora also notes that western IT platforms are increasingly acquiescent towards the demands of the Russian authorities, a trend that Runet Echo covered previously. Citing Google's Transparency Report, Agora says that in June 2018 Google satisfied 79 percent of all data removal requests from the Russian government, while only 62 percent of similar requests from the US authorities were complied with. Google's report shows that requests for content removal from the Russian government multiplied by more than five-fold in six months in 2016 from 2,045 in June to 11,164 in December.

To Google's credit, it didn't comply with any of the 94 removal requests from the Russian government which it classifies under “Government criticism.” Google also provides some examples of the content they're removing, and a significant part of is genuinely dangerous to the public: ads for illegal casinos scamming people out of their hard-earned rubles, violent racist propaganda, online drug markets selling dangerous substances etc.

But Google readily complied with requests for removal of activist videos calling for rallies against corruption — because these rallies were arbitrarily declared “unsanctioned” and thus in violation of a pointedly restrictive law aimed at stifling public dissent.

Twitter, Google and Facebook have all shown that they're willing to remove content or make it unavailable to Russian users upon receiving requests from the Russian authorities to comply with the local laws. There is little indication that the companies take into consideration the exceedingly restrictive nature of some of these laws, or that they are weighing these requests against Russia's constitution.

Another report by the Internet Protection Society (OZI) is even darker in its predictions: it’s titled “The New Year Pessimism,” and it notes the longest and sharpest drop of its online freedom of speech index since the measurements began in 2016. OZI lists seven events that impacted the index in January, all in a negative way: from new pieces of legislation to landmark cases, such as the prosecution of Yana Antonova, a pediatric surgeon in Krasnodar, who was targeted for sharing a video by Open Russia, an activist media outlet declared an “undesirable organization.”

Being associated with an “undesirable organization” — the government-mandated list also includes the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundation — is an offence punishable by a law introduced in 2015 by a range of penalties, from a heavy fine to a prison term. Sharing a Facebook video also counts as “collaborating with an undesirable organization,” which Antonova learned the hard way.

The OZI report also emphasized the potential damage of the “Klishas bill”, which came as part of the package of restrictive pieces of legislation currently reviewed by the Russian parliament.

Named after its author, senator Andrey Klishas, the bill aims to create a “sovereign” infrastructure for the Russian internet, ostensibly to shield it from foreign interference. The other, an “anti-fake news” bill also co-authored by Klishas, is even more controversial and almost universally condemned by experts. Yet both passed in the first reading thanks to the overwhelming majority that the ruling United Russia party holds in the parliament.

It seems that the Russian government is finally confident in its ability to control online activity — so confident that it can now offer internet access to all Russians, without fearing the consequences.

by RuNet Echo at February 22, 2019 06:57 PM

Samoa arrested blogger ‘King Faipopo’ accused of defaming prime minister

Blogger Malele Paulo also known as King Faipopo. Source: Facebook

Samoan police arrested Australia-based blogger Malele Paulo on 8 February while he was visiting the country to attend his mother’s funeral. Malele is a known critic of the government who writes under the pen name King Faipopo.

The police confirmed that Malele was arrested for “making false statements with the intention of causing harm to a member of our Samoan communities’ reputation.”

In August 2018, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi filed a defamation complaint against Malele, which appears to have set the stage for his arrest after he entered the country in early February. He was released on bail on 9 February, and was able to attend his mother’s funeral.

In 2013, Samoa withdrew libel from its criminal law as a media reform initiative. But the change didn't last long. At the end of 2017, the parliament of the Polynesian island nation unanimously voted to revive its criminal libel law after Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said it is needed “to fight ghostwriters and troublemakers,” despite opposition from media freedom advocates. The Tuilaepa government said the law will be used against anonymous bloggers and Facebook users who spread lies and misinformation.

The prime minister cited this law in his complaint against Malele, whom he accused of posting false information about him and Samoan politics. Malele reportedly wrote on his blog that Tuilaepa committed murder, corruption, theft, and gun smuggling.

Tuilaepa insisted that he is not against citizens expressing their views:

I am not prohibiting anyone from exercising their freedom of speech or freedom of expression but I take issue when the rights of the innocent, like myself are violated through lies and deceit. This kind of lying and attacking members of the community through social media is what the law was designed to prevent.

After Tuilaepa filed the defamation complaint, his government sought the extradition of Malele from Australia.

A police statement concerning Malele's arrest also cautioned the public to avoid making defamatory statements on social media:

The damage that defamatory statements on social media outlets and cyber bullying has done to several members of the community is a matter that these laws are designed to address. Where complaints are laid with the police, we will do our best to assist those being victimised on social media platforms by false statements.

Pacific Freedom Forum Chair Bernadette Carreon of Palau described Malele’s arrest as an attack on freedom of speech:

Focus on fighting corruption, not freedom of speech.

New legislation, based on old criminal libel laws from colonial times, forces Samoa leaders to look backwards, not forwards.

Another critic of the government, blogger Ole Palemia, criticized the decision to arrest Malele:

What the people need to know and always remember is that corrupt PM Tuilaepa and all the politicians are public figures therefore they are subjected to public criticism – that's what you call democracy.

Malele’s arrest has sparked intense debates in Samoa. A news report surveyed the views of some citizens who expressed concern about the timing of the arrest while others agreed with the defamation case and urged critics to show respect to the country’s prime minister.

Malele is scheduled to appear before the court on 5 March.

by Mong Palatino at February 22, 2019 05:47 PM

Netizen Report: Both Bangladesh and South Korea are waging a ‘war on porn’ — and paving the way for political censorship

Photo by Cory Doctorow. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from February 15-21, 2019.

Over the past week, authorities in both Bangladesh and South Korea have publicized plans to double down on censoring pornography and other content they see as objectionable.

Bangladeshi telecommunication authorities issued a ban on more than 18,000 websites that allegedly contained pornography or “obscene” content. A list of targeted sites that was sent to internet providers and later made public included, the internet’s largest Bengali language-based blogging platform, and Google Books. Posts and Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar described the effort as a “war” against pornography.

Although users reported that they were unable to access their blogs, posted a notice on February 18 stating that their system was functioning properly and that they had not received official notification from the authorities about any disruption in service. Although the site is included on an official list of banned sites, it was accessible in the country as of February 22.

Established in 2005, Somewhere in Blog or Badh Bhangar Awaaz (The Voice of Breaking Barriers) was the first public blogging site built for the Bengali language. An average of 60,000 bloggers post or comment on the platform each day.

Along with these sites, and sites that do contain explicit pornographic material, a number of high-profile social media users have been asked to remove their accounts or take down specific pieces of content by government authorities.

Meanwhile in South Korea, the Korean Communications Standards Commission, a state regulatory agency, issued a press release on February 12 confirming suspicions among tech experts that authorities are using new, technically sophisticated methods to identify and block pornography and pirated content online. Using a technique known as SNI eavesdropping, authorities are now able to block HTTPS content with increasing ease.

The production and circulation of pornography are illegal in South Korea, and the country heavily regulates intellectual property rights, thanks in part to its trade agreement with the US. But experts and free speech advocates are warning that this new approach could lead to censorship of sites that do not contain pornography, and thus begin to chip away at people’s rights to access information and express themselves freely.

A petition has been filed on the official website of South Korean president Moon Jae-in expressing strong condemnation of the move, and arguing that this aggressive and costly effort to filter online content will be a waste of taxpayer money, as users will likely turn to VPNs and other types of circumvention tools to access sites that interest them. More than 250,000 people have signed the petition.

YouTube blocked in Venezuela, again

Venezuela has been in political deadlock since mid-January, when opposition politician Juan Guaidó declared himself acting president of the Republic, in an open challenge to sitting President Nicolas Maduro. Several waves of public protests and confrontations between the Maduro-aligned military and opposition demonstrators have coincided with a series of network shutdowns, in which residents have been intermittently unable to access the internet and major social media platforms.

On February 19 and 20, the local technical research group VE Sin Filtro reported that YouTube was blocked for all subscribers to the country’s largest internet provider, state-owned CANTV. The group noted that in this instance, in contrast to previous shutdowns of the video platform (which is owned by Google), other Google services such as Gmail and Google Drive did not appear to be affected.

Facebook and VK are back in Uzbekistan, just in time for a conference on internet access

Facebook, YouTube, and the Russian social media site VKontakte began working in Uzbekistan on February 19, just in time for a two-day conference focused on internet connectivity in the Central Asian region. All three sites have been blocked in the country since September 2017. Users are wondering whether the block has been lifted for good, or if the measure was only taken for the benefit of important conference delegates from neighboring countries.

Uzbekistan’s authoritarian system has relaxed somewhat under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, and Facebook has emerged as one of the places where citizens can discuss and debate changes taking place in society — as long as they know how to use a VPN.

Pakistani authorities target anti-Saudi activism, ‘hate speech’

On February 21, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry announced plans to crack down on online hate speech, emphasizing its presence on social media and suggesting that social media monitoring would help curb the problem. Although hate speech is officially criminalized under Pakistan’s Electronic Crimes Act, the 2016 law does not offer a concrete definition of the term “hate speech.” Experts have noted that this omission could lead to an overly broad interpretation of the law.

Following a visit to Pakistan by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the Interior Ministry ordered relevant authorities to block the social media pages of five groups associated with Shia Muslims, included two student groups. The order alleged that the groups’ pages were publishing “propaganda” against a “VVIP” delegation visit to Pakistan. Those targeted presume that the delegation in question was that of Bin Salman.

Kenyan advocates take government to court over national digital ID system

The non-governmental Kenyan Human Rights Commission filed a legal challenge against a plan to build a national digital identification system for Kenya, which was approved on December 31, 2018. Under the newly amended law, Kenyans wishing to take advantage of public services would be required to register in the so-called “National Integrated Identity Management System” and provide multiple pieces of personal data as means of authentication, including their name, photo, gender, date of birth, citizenship, phone number, e-mail address, physical and permanent residence and marital status.

Jackson Awele, who serves as counsel for the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, argued before the court that the system violates Kenyans’ constitutional right to privacy, as it “permits the State to require from citizens all manner of private information, including DNA information, without their consent” and offers no assurances that this massive trove of data would be protected from misuse or theft.

Uyghur video surveillance database was exposed on the internet for months

Dutch internet security researcher Victor Gevers found a massive database of surveillance video from western China sitting online, open to scrutiny by anyone who happened upon it. Gevers alerted Chinese authorities to the vulnerability, but not before reviewing some of its contents, which included the personal data of more than 2.5 million people, and their estimated locations, which appear to have been based on surveillance camera footage and mobile phone tracking data.

All the geographic coordinates listed in the system correspond to China’s western Xinjiang region, where the central government is known for its aggressive surveillance and detention programs targeting Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minority groups.

EU copyright directive would probably screw up the internet

A landmark copyright reform effort that would radically upend the dynamics of big content platforms has been making its way through the legislative process in the EU and could be brought to a vote as early as mid-March.

Although final language is still up for debate, draft versions of the directive would require platforms such as YouTube to assess the ownership of a piece of content — whether it be video, audio, text or image — before a user can successfully upload the file. Another provision would require for-profit publishers to pay other online sources if they wish to quote from them. Although non-profit publishers would be exempt from the requirement, this shift that would still likely discourage many websites from linking to valuable online sources.


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Ellery Roberts Biddle, Marianne Diaz, Mohamed ElGohary, Rohith Jyothish, Oiwan Lam, Talal Raza, Rezwan, Chris Rickleton, Taisa Sganzerla and Sam Woodhams contributed to this report.

by Netizen Report Team at February 22, 2019 12:45 AM

February 20, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
A Tibetan-Canadian student was attacked online after winning student council elections. She thinks Beijing is to blame.

Image from Chemi Lhamo Instagram via The Stand News.

This article was originally written by Leung Hoi Ching and published in Chinese on Hong Kong based citizen media, the Stand News on February 15, 2018. The following trimmed English version is translated by Zhao Yunlin.

On February 9, students at the University of Toronto's Scarborough Campus elected Chemi Lhamo, a 22-year-old student of Tibetan origin, as their student council president.

Just days after the election results were announced, thousands of mainland Chinese overseas students signed an online petition of protest, accusing Lhamo of having close associations with pro-Tibet independence organizations. They demanded the school disqualify her from the elected position.

Demeaning comments from overseas mainland Chinese students

Lhamo’s personal social account was flooded with demeaning comments and veiled threats of violence from overseas students who appeared to be from mainland China. As her story began to make headlines in international media outlets, students from Hong Kong and Taiwan fired back in defense Lhamo's defense.

In a phone interview with Stand News, Chemi Lhamo said she believed that the incident was mobilized by organizations associated with Chinese government, an accusation that Chinese officials have denied.

Before this election, I had already been elected as vice-president of the student council for eight whole months and nothing ever happened. However, after all these sudden events, you cannot help but think that there is an organization manipulating these events behind the scenes. It’s really funny how I’ve been serving as a vice-president for so long, how I’ve organized many events and never held back from expressing my ideals, but nobody has ever asked me about my political opinions.

She also said that her fellow students from mainland China began to behave strangely. One of Lhamo’s classmates from mainland China spontaneously asked her, via mobile message, to draft a statement regarding Tibetan independence. She also received phone calls playing “red songs” (propaganda songs praising the Chinese Communist Party). Lhamo could not understand these songs, as she does not speak Mandarin Chinese.

Alongside the joint attacks and the comments on the internet, a group of students went to the student council office to demand that the election results be reconsidered. The campus student council has now temporarily closed its conference room, for safety reasons.

Chemi Lhamo has been a student activist for some years. She is an active member of the Tibetan community in Toronto and once joined a protest outside the university's Confucius Institute, the local branch of a global network of Chinese cultural institutions that are sponsored by the Chinese government and intended to promote China's soft power overseas. In recent years, she has also exchanged views with social activists from Hong Kong and Taiwan on topics related to freedom of speech, self-determination, democracy and related topics at public events.

Lhamo has never been afraid to speak up or show her Tibetan identity – she wears a Chuba, the traditional Tibetan dress, every Wednesday. Until the election, she had never perceived any animosity from her Chinese classmates. This is what led her to worry that this barrage of harassment was instigated by Chinese authorities.

From stateless refugee to student council president

Before immigrating to Canada at 11 years of age, Chemi Lhamo was a stateless refugee residing in India. Her grandparents were forced into exile along with the Dalai Lama in 1959. Within these rigid borders, no matter where she and her family went, they were looked down upon.

Every time someone asks me: ‘Where are you from?’ I always end up struggling to answer – I sometimes say that I’m from India, but I was denied citizenship status there; sometimes I say that I’m from Tibet, but when they ask me how Tibet is like, I really don’t know how to answer, because the Chinese embassy won’t even issue me a visa to go to Tibet. But it’s this experience of being viewed as an outsider that has made me understand my people’s culture better: the Tibetan culture.

Lhamo recounted that when she had just immigrated to Canada, a new kid from Tibet unexpectedly came to class. She was excited and happy to have found someone from her own land to become friends with, and she knew that he could speak the Tibetan language. However, frowning at her, he told her: “How about we don’t speak Tibetan? I can speak English.”

I don’t know if he was either ashamed or had some kind of guilt. I really don’t know. But it was then when I realized that some young Tibetans don’t want to speak their own language as if they were being pressured to speak another language.

At the time, Lhamo was only 12 years old. Feeling insecure about her identity, she convinced her parents to move back to a neighborhood with a Tibetan community. From then on, she learned more about Tibetan language, culture and Buddhism and became an activist.

Tibetan values, such as be considerate, be respectful to the elderly, ignorance as the root for negativity and etc., has give me a lot of strength. And the more I understand my culture, the more confident I feel.

This strength and confidence, she says, has enabled her to speak up as an immigrant and a Tibetan:

Being an immigrant is very difficult, but this struggle is what makes me who I am. Today, I speak about the Tibetan people loud and clear with pride thanks to the strength that my identity as a Tibetan gives me.

During the student council election, I often emphasize the need for the marginalized to have their own representation during the student council elections. We need representation so that our rights be upheld.

Suffering will end

For Lhamo, the ideal world is one without borders or boundaries — Tibetan independence and autonomy is not the real issue at stake.

My vision for Tibet is the same vision that I have for the whole world: I wish for Tibetan people to enjoy the same rights as Canadians, namely freedom to express themselves, freedom of belief, freedom to avoid political oppression.

I don’t only wish for Tibetan people to enjoy these rights, I also wish that people from Hong Kong and Taiwan, Eastern Turks, the 60 million refugees around the world and for everyone to enjoy these rights.

Many people in Hong Kong believe that China has become more authoritarian in recent years, adopting a more heavy-handed policy towards political dissidents and ethnic minorities. Even in Hong Kong, the space for freedom of speech and association has diminished.

Chemi Lhamo is familiar with the political challenges faced in Hong Kong after the 2014 Umbrella movement but she shared her optimism with Hong Kong people and urged them not to give up:

I learned a concept from the Tibetan culture known as impermanence: everything has an end and I believe that all suffering will also end…I hope that one day I’ll be able to go to Tibet wearing my Chuba.

by The Stand News at February 20, 2019 10:17 PM

February 18, 2019

Global Voices Advocacy
EU proposal pushes tech companies to tackle ‘terrorist content’ with AI, despite implications for war crimes evidence

Yarmouk, Syria. The area had been damaged by airstrikes and fighting between the regime and rebels. Photo by Ahmad Shihabi, used with permission.

This post is published as part of an editorial partnership between Global Voices and Ranking Digital Rights.

A new video on Orient News’ YouTube channel shows a scene that is all too familiar to its regular viewers.  Staff at a surgical hospital in Syria's Idlib province rush to operate on a man who has just been injured in an explosion. The camera pans downward and shows three bodies on the floor. One lies motionless. The other two are covered with blankets. A man bends over and peers under the blanket, perhaps to see if he knows the victim.

Syrian media outlet Orient News is one of several smaller media outlets that has played a critical role in documenting Syria’s civil war and putting video evidence of violence against civilians into the public eye. Active since 2008, the group is owned and operated by a vocal critic of the Assad regime.

Alongside their own distribution channels, YouTube has been an instrumental vehicle for bringing videos like this one to a wider audience. Or at least it was, until August 2017 when, without warning, Orient News’ YouTube channel was suspended.

After some inquiry by the group, alongside other small media outlets including Bellingcat, Middle East Eye and the Syrian Archive — all of whom also saw some of their videos disappear — it came to light that YouTube had taken down hundreds of videos that appeared to include “extremist” content.

But these groups were puzzled. They had been posting their videos, which typically include captions and contextual details, for years. Why were they suddenly seen as unsafe for YouTube’s massive user base?

Because there was a new kind of authority calling the shots.

Just before the mysterious removals, YouTube announced its deployment of artificial intelligence technology to identify and censor “graphic or extremist content,” in order to crack down on ISIS and similar groups that have used social media (including YouTube, Twitter and the now defunct Google Plus) to post gruesome footage of executions and to recruit fighters.

Thousands of videos documenting war crimes and human rights violations were swept up and censored in this AI-powered purge. After the groups questioned YouTube about the move, the company admitted that it made the “wrong call’’ on several videos, which were reinstated thereafter. Others remained under a ban, due to “violent and graphic content.”

The myth of self-regulation

Companies like Google (parent of YouTube), Facebook and Twitter have legitimate reasons to take special measures when it comes to graphic violence and content associated with violent extremist groups — it can lead to situations of real-life harm and can be bad for business too. But the question of how they should identify and remove these kinds of content — while preserving essential evidence of war crimes and violence — is far from answered.

The companies have developed their policies over the years to acknowledge that not all violent content is intended to promote or incite violence. While YouTube, like other platforms, does not allow most extremist or violent content, it does allow users to publish such content in “a news, documentary, scientific, or artistic context,” encouraging them to provide contextual information about the video.

But, the policy cautions: “In some cases, content may be so violent or shocking that no amount of context will allow that content to remain on our platforms.” YouTube offers no public information describing how internal mechanisms determine which videos are “so violent or shocking.”

Groups like the Syrian Archive take pains to document contextual details of videos. This screenshot from their database shows video clips, a map, other metadata and a summary of a suspected 2013 sarin gas attack in Damascus.

This approach puts the company into a precarious position. It is assessing content intended for public consumption, yet it has no mechanisms for ensuring public transparency or accountability about those assessments. The company is making its own rules and changing them at will, to serve its own best interests.

EU proposal could make AI solutions mandatory

A committee in the European Commission is threatening to intervene in this scenario, with a draft regulation that would force companies to step up their removal of “terrorist content” or face steep fines. While the proposed regulation would break the cycle of companies attempting and often failing to “self-regulate,” it could make things even worse for groups like Orient News.

What does the Commission proposal say?

Under the proposal, aimed at “preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online,” service providers are required to “take proactive measures to protect their services against the dissemination of terrorist content.” These include the use of automated tools to: “(a) effectively address the re-appearance of content which has previously been removed or to which access has been disabled because it is considered to be terrorist content; (b) detect, identify and expeditiously remove or disable access to terrorist content,” article 6(2) stipulates.

If adopted the proposal would also require “hosting service providers [to] remove terrorist content or disable access to it within one hour from receipt of the removal order.”

It further grants law enforcement or Europal the power to “send a referral” to hosting service providers for their “voluntary consideration.” The service provider will assess the referred content “against its own terms and conditions and decide whether to remove that content or to disable access to it.”

The draft regulation demands more aggressive deletion of this type of content, and quick turnaround times on its removal. But it does not establish a special court or other judicial mechanism that can offer guidance to companies struggling to assess complex online content.

Instead, it would force hosting service providers to use automated tools to prevent the dissemination of “terrorist content” online. This would require companies to use the kind of system that YouTube has already put into place voluntarily.

The EU proposal puts a lot of faith in these tools, ignoring the fact that users, technical experts, and even legislators themselves remain largely in the dark about how these technologies work.

Can AI really assess the human rights value of a video?

Automated tools may be trained to assess whether a video is violent or graphic. But how do they determine the video’s intended purpose? How do they know if the person who posted the video was trying to document the human cost of conflict? Can these technologies really understand the context in which these incidents take place? And to what extent do human moderators play a role in these decisions?

We have almost no answers to these questions.

“We don’t have the most basic assurances of algorithmic accountability or transparency, such as accuracy, explainability, fairness, and auditability. Platforms use machine-learning algorithms that are proprietary and shielded from any review,” wrote WITNESS’ Dia Kayyali in a December 2018 blogpost.

The proposal’s critics argue that forcing all service providers to rely on automated tools in their efforts to crack down on terrorist and extremist content, without transparency and proper oversight, is a threat to freedom of expression and the open web.

The UN special rapporteurs on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the right to privacy; and the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism have also expressed their concerns to the Commission. In a December 2018 memo, they wrote:

Considering the volume of user content that many hosting service providers are confronted with, even the use of algorithms with a very high accuracy rate potentially results in hundreds of thousands of wrong decisions leading to screening that is over — or under — inclusive.

In recital 18, the proposal outlines measures that hosting service providers can take to prevent the dissemination of terror-related content, including the use of tools that would “prevent the re-upload of terrorist content.” Commonly known as upload filters, such tools have been a particular concern for European digital rights groups. The issue first arose during the EU’s push for a Copyright Directive, that would have required platforms to verify the ownership of a piece of content when it is uploaded by a user.

“We're fearful of function creep,’’ Evelyn Austin from the Netherlands-based digital rights organization Bits of Freedom said at a public conference.

We see as inevitable a situation in which there is a filter for copyrighted content, a filter for allegedly terrorist content, a filter for possibly sexually explicit content, one for suspected hate speech and so on, creating a digital information ecosystem in which everything we say, even everything we try to say, is monitored.

Austin pointed out that these mechanisms undercut previous strategies that relied more heavily on the use of due process.

Upload filtering….will replace notice-and-action mechanisms, which are bound by the rule of law, by a process in which content is taken down based on a company's terms of service. This will strip users of their rights to freedom of expression and redress…

The draft EU proposal also applies stiff financial penalties to companies that fail to comply. For a single company, this can amount to up to 4% of its global turnover from the previous business year.

French digital rights group La Quadrature du Net offered a firm critique of the proposal, and noted the limitations it would set for smaller websites and services:

From a technical, economical and human perspective, only a handful of providers will be able to comply with these rigorous obligations – mostly the Web giants.

To escape heavy sanctions, the other actors (economic or not) will have no other choice but to close down their hosting services…

“Through these tools,” they warned, “these monopolistic companies will be in charge of judging what can be said on the Internet, on almost any service.”

Indeed, worse than encouraging “self-regulation”, the EU proposal will take us further away from a world in which due process or other publicly-bound mechanisms are used to decide what we say and see online, and push us closer to relying entirely on proprietary technologies to decide what kinds of content is appropriate for public consumption — with no mechanism for public oversight.

by Afef Abrougui at February 18, 2019 09:57 PM

Censored on WeChat: As tensions in China-US trade conflict rose, so did WeChat censorship

Free image from pixabay.

This post was written by the research team of WeChatscope, a censorship monitor project, led by Dr. King-wa Fu, at The University of Hong Kong.

With more than 1.0825 billion individual users, along with more than 20 million registered public accounts, WeChat has the largest number of domestic users and the most extensive coverage of any social media service in China. As such, it has become a chief component of China's rigorous censorship regime.

In 2017, our team at the University of Hong Kong built a technical web “scraping” system for studying censorship on WeChat's publicly accessible pages. Throughout 2018, we tracked more than 4,000 public accounts covering daily news and preserved censored posts in a publicly accessible database, WeChatscope. This article is the second in a partnership series with Global Voices.

The most censored topic in the 2018 WeChatscope dataset was the China-US trade war. This high-profile conflict has triggered heated public discussions on Chinese social media, with state-affiliated media outlets covering the news extensively and accusing the US of preaching unilateralism and protectionism.

Many of these outlets publish directly to WeChat. As such, thousands of stories about the China-US trade conflict posted on WeChat public accounts are removed by WeChat operators shortly after publication.

These trends indicate that the channeling of public opinion and censoring of independent expression go hand-in-hand.

Our results are also consistent with the findings of other organizations. In June 2018, China Digital Times revealed that Chinese propaganda authorities issued a detailed set of instructions to media outlets after China announced a 25 percent tariff on 659 products, in retaliation for tariffs set by the US Trade Representative.

Authorities told Chinese journalists not to report on or react to comments made by Donald Trump or officials from the US. The censorship instruction stressed:

The trade conflict is really a war against China’s rise, to see who has the greater stamina. This is absolutely no time for irresolution or reticence.

At the same time, it also warned against overheating patriotism against the US:

Don’t attack Trump’s vulgarity; don’t make this a war of insults.

When one cross-references the censorship timeline (figure III) and the trade war timeline, a pattern emerges. Upsurges in censorship all took place in close proximity to the peak moments of the China-US confrontation.

In figure 1 (below), the first surge appears after US President Donald Trump announced on March 22 that the US would impose a tariff on USD $60 billion worth of goods imported from China.

On April 2, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce reacted with a counterattack, levying a tariff on 128 kinds of imported goods from the US.

Figure 1. Timeline of censored content related to China-US trade war

From April until the end of May, the curves measuring censorship and the intensity of trade talks are mirror images of one another. There was a clear surge of censorship after the US Department of Commerce concluded that Chinese telecom company ZTE violated US sanctions on April 16. This subsided and then re-emerged in early May, when the US demanded that China reduce the trade gap by USD $200 billion within two years.

Many posts censored during this period contained the views of economic experts such as Gao Shanwen, a researcher from the People's Bank of China, and real estate tycoon Ren Zhiqiang.

Gao Shanwen's post “Deep friction between China and the United States” (中美贸易摩擦深处的忧虑), removed from WeChat on August 2, analysed key conflicts, from global trade to technology markets, between the two countries. Ren Zhiqiang discussed the Sino-US trade war (任志强谈中美贸易战,能不能听懂是你们的事) and criticized China's closed-door policy of recent years. This post was removed from WeChat on October 17.

But they were in good company — pro-Chinese government nationalistic pieces were also censored. A piece entitled “Are China and the United States still in the same boat?” (北方青杨:中美还在一条船上吗?), which boasted about China's strength in resisting US hegemony, was also removed from WeChat on August 18.

Figure II. The word “tariff” is central to the censorship of trade war.

Another spike took place in late June after China announced a 25 percent tariff on 659 products as a retaliation against the US tariff-imposition list. The timing of the spike coincided with the propaganda department's issuing of censorship instructions on the China-US trade war.

The most frequently mentioned keywords to appear in the censored posts are “tariff” (see figure II), “Huawei” and “ZTE” (figure III).

Censored keywords “tariff”, “ZTE” and “Huawei” in relation to China US trade war censorship.

Another spike was seen around July 6 after the Trump administration imposed a China-specific tariff list that placed a 25 percent tariff on 818 imported Chinese products valued at USD $34 billion.

The overall volume of censorship remained at high levels between July and September, as both China and the US kept introducing new tariff lists.

Stories about the negative impact of the war in China were also a top target for censorship on WeChat. A number of posts about the fall of the Chinese stock market in June 2018 were deleted. One post entitled “Trump imposed China's 200 billion commodity tariffs. 2 trillions in the stock market just evaporated overnight!” (特朗普再收中国2000亿商品关税 股市一夜蒸发2万亿!千股跌停) was published on WeChat on June 20 and removed the next day.

After China cancelled trade talks with the US on September 22 and issued a white paper accusing Washington of economic bullying, overall levels of censorship dropped slightly, leaving some space for channeling public opinion against US economic power.

But then, the sharpest spike in censorship appeared in early November when the US and China resumed trade talks in a phone call between US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He. This particular spike was likely intended to cool down the propaganda war against the US and to prepare the public for a deal.

At the G20 summit on December 1, 2018, the heads of both sides finally reached an agreement on a 90-day armistice negotiation period. After that, the most commonly censored content in our dataset was about the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada.

All told, it is clear that Chinese authorities have been very careful in maneuvering public sentiment on WeChat. Across the board, they have worked to protect China's image as a strong country and to blame the US for triggering the trade war. Yet they have also worked to prevent excessive resentment against the US, for fear that the public would view any compromise by the Chinese government as a defeat.

In our next post, we will take a closer look into the ZTE and Huawei's censorship pattern.


WeChatscope team includes Dr. King-wa Fu, Dr. Yun Tai, Regina Chung and Coco Young.

by Wechatscope at February 18, 2019 09:51 PM

Joi Ito
The Quest to Topple Science-Stymying Academic Paywalls

Science is built, enhanced, and developed through the open and structured sharing of knowledge. Yet some publishers charge so much for subscriptions to their academic journals that even the libraries of the world’s wealthiest universities such as Harvard are no longer able to afford the prices. Those publishers’ profit margins rival those of the most profitable companies in the world, even though research is largely underwritten by governments, and the publishers don’t pay authors and researchers or the peer reviewers who evaluate those works. How is such an absurd structure able to sustain itself—and how might we change it?

When the World Wide Web emerged in the ’90s, people began predicting a new, more robust era of scholarship based on access to knowledge for all. The internet, which started as a research network, now had an easy-to-use interface and a protocol to connect all of published knowledge, making each citation just a click away … in theory.

Instead, academic publishers started to consolidate. They solidified their grip on the rights to prestigious journals, allowing them to charge for access and exclude the majority of the world from reading research publications—all while extracting billions in dollars of subscription fees from university libraries and corporations. This meant that some publishers, such as Elsevier, the science, technology, and medicine-focused branch of the RELX Group publishing conglomerate, are able today to extract huge margins—36.7 percent in 2017 in Elsevier’s case, more profitable than Apple, Google/Alphabet, or Microsoft that same year.

And in most scholarly fields, it’s the most important journals that continue to be secured behind paywalls—a structure that doesn’t just affect the spread of information. Those journals have what we call high “impact factors,” which can skew academic hiring and promotions in a kind of self-fulfilling cycle that works like this: Typically, anyone applying for an academic job is evaluated by a committee and by other academics who write letters of evaluation. In most fields, papers published in peer-reviewed journals are a critical part of the evaluation process, and the so-called impact factor, which is based on the citations that a journal gets over time, is important. Evaluators, typically busy academics who may lack deep expertise in a candidate’s particular research topic, are prone to skim the submitted papers and rely heavily on the number of papers published and the impact factor—as a proxy for journal prestige and rigor—in their assessment of the qualifications of a candidate.

And so young researchers are forced to prioritize publication in journals with high impact factors, faulty as they are, if they want tenure or promotions. The consequence is that important work gets locked up behind paywalls and remains largely inaccessible to anyone not in a major research lab or university. This includes the taxpayers who funded the research in the first place, the developing world, and the emerging world of nonacademic researchers and startup labs.

Breaking Down the Walls

To bypass the paywalls, in 2011 Alexandra Elbakyan started Sci-Hub, a website that provides free access to millions of otherwise inaccessible academic papers. She was based in Kazakhstan, far from the courts where academic publishers can easily bring lawsuits. In the movie Paywall, Elbakyan says that Elsevier’s mission was to make “uncommon knowledge common,” and she jokes that she was just trying to help the company do that because it seemed unable to do so itself. While Elbakyan has been widely criticized for her blatant disregard for copyright, Sci-Hub has become a popular tool among academics, even at major universities, because it removes the friction of paywalls and provides links to collaborators beyond them. She was able to do what the late Aaron Swartz, my Creative Commons colleague and dear friend, envisioned but was unable to achieve in his lifetime.

But, kind of like the Berlin Wall, the academic journal paywall can crumble, and several efforts are underway to undermine it. The Open Access, or OA, movement—a worldwide effort to make scholarly research literature freely accessible online—began several decades ago. Essentially, researchers upload the unpublished version of their papers to a repository focused on subject matter or operated by an academic institution. The movement was sparked by services like, which Cornell University started in 1991, and became mainstream when Harvard established the first US self-archiving policy in 2008; other research universities around the world quickly followed.

Many publications have since found ways to allow open access in their journals by permitting it but charging an expensive (usually hundreds or thousands of dollars per article) “article processing charge,” or APC, that is paid by the institution or the author behind the research as a sort of cost of being published. OA publishers such as the Public Library of Science, or PLOS, charge APCs to make papers available without a paywall, and many traditional commercial publishers also allow authors to pay an APC so that their papers appearing in what is technically a paywalled journal can be available publicly.

When I was CEO of Creative Commons a decade ago, at a time when OA was beginning in earnest, one of my first talks was to a group of academic publishers. I remember trying to describe our proposal to allow authors to have a way to mark their works with the rights they wished to grant to their work, including the use of their work without charge but with attribution. The first comment from the audience came from an academic publisher who declared my comments “disgusting.”

We’ve come a long way since then. Even RELX now allows open access for some of its journals and uses Creative Commons licenses to mark works that are freely available.

Many publishers I’ve talked to are preparing to make open access to research papers a reality. In fact, most journals already allow some open access through the expensive article processing charges I mentioned earlier.

So in some ways, it feels like “we won.” But has the OA movement truly reached its potential to transform research communication? I don't think so, especially if paid open access just continues to enrich a small number of commercial journal publishers. We have also seen the emergence of predatory OA journals with no peer review or other quality control measures, and that, too, has undermined the OA movement.

We can pressure publishers to lower APC charges, but if they have control of the platforms and key journals, they will continue to extract high fees even in an OA world. So far, they have successfully prevented collective bargaining through confidentiality agreements and other legal means.

Another Potential Solution

The MIT Press, led by Amy Brand, and the Media Lab recently launched a collaboration called The Knowledge Futures Group. (I am director of the Media Lab and a board member at the press.) Our aim is to create a new open knowledge ecosystem. The goal is to develop and deploy infrastructure to allow free, rigorous, and open sharing of knowledge and to start a movement toward greater institutional and public ownership of that infrastructure, reclaiming territory ceded to publishers and commercial technology providers.

(In some ways, the solution might be similar to what blogging was to online publishing. Blogs were simple scripts, free and open source software, and a bunch of open standards that interoperate between services. They allowed us to create simple and very low cost informal publishing platforms that did what you used to have to buy multimillion-dollar Content Management Systems for. Blogs led the way for user generated content and eventually social media.)

While academic publishing is more complex, a refactoring and an overhaul of the software, protocols, processes, and business underlying such publishing could revolutionize it financially as well as structurally.

We are developing a new open source and modern publishing platform called PubPub and a global, distributed method of understanding public knowledge called Underlay. We have established a lab to develop, test, and deploy other technologies, systems, and processes that will help researchers and their institutions. They would have access to an ecosystem of open source tools and an open and transparent network to publish, understand, and evaluate scholarly work. We imagine developing new measures of impact and novelty with more transparent peer review; publishing peer reviews; and using machine learning to help identify novel ideas and people and mitigate systemic biases, among other things. It is imperative that we establish an open innovation ecosystem as an alternative to the control that a handful of commercial entities maintain over not only the markets for research information but also over academic reputation systems and research technologies more generally.

One of the main pillars of academic reputation is authorship, which has become increasingly problematic as science has become more collaborative. Who gets credit for research and discovery can have a huge impact on researchers and institutions. But the order of author names on a journal article has no standardized meaning. It is often determined more by seniority and academic culture than by actual effort or expertise. As a result, credit is often not given where credit is due. With electronic publishing, we can move beyond a “flat” list of author names, in the same way that film credits specify the contributions of those involved, but we have continued to allow the constraints of print guide our practices. We can also experiment with and improve peer review to provide better incentives, processes, and fairness.

It’s essential for universities, and core to their mission, to assert greater control over systems for knowledge representation, dissemination, and preservation. What constitutes knowledge, the use of knowledge, and the funding of knowledge is the future of our planet, and it must be protected from twisted market incentives and other corrupting forces. The transformation will require a movement involving a global network of collaborators, and we hope to contribute to catalyzing it.

by Joichi Ito at February 18, 2019 03:36 AM

What the California Wildfires Can Teach Us About Data Sharing

When a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the eastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant failed, leaking radioactive material into the atmosphere and water. People around the country as well as others with family and friends in Japan were, understandably, concerned about radiation levels—but there was no easy way for them to get that information. I was part of a small group of volunteers who came together to start a nonprofit organization, Safecast, to design, build, and deploy Geiger counters and a website that would eventually make more than 100 million measurements of radiation levels available to the public.

We started in Japan, of course, but eventually people around the world joined the movement, creating an open global data set. The key to success was the mobile, easy to operate, high-quality but lower-cost kit that the Safecast team developed, which people could buy and build to collect data that they might then share on the Safecast website.

While Chernobyl and Three Mile Island spawned monitoring systems and activist NGOs as well, this was the first time that a global community of experts formed to create a baseline of radiation measurements, so that everyone could monitor radiation levels around the world and measure fluctuations caused by any radiation event. (Different regions have very different baseline radiation levels, and people need to know what those are if they are to understand if anything has changed.)

More recently Safecast, which is a not-for-profit organization, has begun to apply this model to air quality in general. The 2017 and 2018 fires in California were the air quality equivalent of the Daiichi nuclear disaster, and Twitter was full of conversations about N95 masks and how they were interfering with Face ID. People excitedly shared posts about air quality; I even saw Apple Watches displaying air quality figures. My hope is that this surge of interest in air quality among Silicon Valley elites will help advance a field, namely the monitoring of air quality, that has been steadily developing but has not yet been as successful as Safecast was with radiation measurements. I believe this lag stems in part from the fact that Silicon Valley believes so much in entrepreneurs, people there try to solve every problem with a startup. But that’s not always the right approach.

Hopefully, interest in data about air quality and the difficulty in getting a comprehensive view will drive more people to consider an open data and approach over proprietary ones. Right now, big companies and governments are the largest users of data that we’ve handed to them—mostly for free—to lock up in their vaults. Pharmaceutical firms, for instance, use the data to develop drugs that save lives, but they could save more lives if their data were shared. We need to start using data for more than commercial exploitation, deploying it to understand the long-term effects of policy, and create transparency around those in power—not of private citizens. We need to flip the model from short-term commercial use to long-term societal benefit.

The first portable air sensors were the canaries that miners used to monitor for poison gases in coal mines. Portable air sensors that consumers could easily use were developed in the early 2000s, and since then the technology for measuring air quality has changed so rapidly that data collected just a few years ago is often now considered obsolete. Nor is “air quality” or the Air Quality Index standardized, so levels get defined differently by different groups and governments, with little coordination or transparency.

Yet right now, the majority of players are commercial entities that keep their data locked up, a business strategy reminiscent of software before we “discovered” the importance of making it free and open source. These companies are not coordinating or contributing data to the commons and are diverting important attention and financial resources away from nonprofit efforts to create standards and open data, so we can conduct research and give the public real baseline measurements. It’s as if everyone is building and buying thermometers that measure temperatures in Celsius, Fahrenheit, Delisle, Newton, Rankine, Réaumur, and Rømer, or even making up their own bespoke measurement systems without discussing or sharing conversion rates. While it is likely to benefit the businesses to standardize, companies that are competing have a difficult time coordinating on their own and try to use proprietary nonstandard improvements as a business advantage.

To attempt to standardize the measurement of small particulates in the air, a number of organizations have created the Air Sensor Workgroup. The ASW is working to build an Air Quality Data Commons to encourage sharing of data with standardized measurements, but there is little participation from the for-profit startups making the sensors that suddenly became much more popular in the aftermath of the fires in California.

Although various groups are making efforts to reach consensus on the science and process of measuring air quality, they are confounded by these startups that believe (or their investors believe) their business depends on big data that is owned and protected. Startups don’t naturally collaborate, share, or conduct open research, and I haven’t seen any air quality startups with a mechanism for making data collected available if the business is shut down.

Air quality startups may seem like a niche issue. But the issue of sharing pools of data applies to many very important industries. I see, for instance, a related challenge in data from clinical trials.

The lack of central repositories of data from past clinical trials has made it difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to look back at the science that has already been performed. The federal government spends billions of dollars on research, and while some projects like the Cancer Moonshot mandate data openness, most government funding doesn’t require it. Biopharmaceutical firms submit trial data evidence to the FDA—but not to researchers or the general public as a rule, in much the same way that most makers of air quality detection gadgets don’t share their data. Clinical trial data and medical research funded by government thus may sit hidden behind corporate doors at big companies. Preventing the use of such data impedes discovery of new drugs through novel techniques and makes it impossible for benefits and results to accrue to other trials.

Open data will be key to modernizing the clinical trial process and integrating AI and other advanced techniques used for analyses, which would greatly improve health care in general. I discuss some these considerations in my PhD thesis in more detail.

Some clinical trials have already begun requiring the sharing of individual patient data for clinical analyses within six months of a trial’s end. And there are several initiatives sharing data in a noncompetitive manner, which lets researchers create promising ecosystems and data “lakes” that could lead to new insights and better therapies.

Overwhelming public outcry can also help spur the embrace of open data. Before the 2011 earthquake in Japan, only the government there and large corporations held radiation measurements, and those were not granular. People only began caring about radiation measurements when the Fukushima Daiichi site started spewing radioactive material, and the organizations that held that data were reticent to release it because they wanted to avoid causing panic. However, the public demanded the data, and that drove the activism that fueled the success of Safecast. (Free and open source software also started with hobbyists and academics. Initially there was a great deal of fighting between advocacy groups and corporations, but eventually the business models clicked and free and open source software became mainstream.)

We have a choice about which sensors we buy. Before going out and buying a new fancy sensor or backing that viral Kickstarter campaign, make sure the organization behind it makes a credible case about the scholarship underpinning its technology; explains its data standards; and most importantly, pledges to share its data using a Creative Commons CC0 dedication. For privacy-sensitive data sets that can’t be fully open, like those at and 23andme, advances in cryptography such as multiparty computation and zero knowledge proofs would allow researchers to learn from data sets without the release of sensitive details.

We have the opportunity and the imperative to reframe the debate on who should own and control our data. Big Data's narrative sells the idea that those owning the data control the market, and it is playing out in a tragedy of the commons, confounding the use of information for society and science.

by Joichi Ito at February 18, 2019 03:36 AM

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