Internet Realities Watch, vol. 2

Chinese Social Media Crackdowns, India Backdoors, Zimbabwe Blackout, and EU Internet Laws
Blog Post
Jan. 17, 2019

In volume 2 of the Internet Realities Watch, a recurring post where we track the spread of restrictive internet policies and practices, we explore developments in China, India, Zimbabwe, and the EU. Read the previous post here.

China: In its latest crackdown on access to and content on social media, the Chinese government has reportedly hacked Twitter accounts to delete users’ tweets. Government personnel have also approached people in person to demand the same deletion of tweets. LinkedIn censored a pro-democracy activist’s page in its characteristic compliance with the Chinese government’s takedown requests, but then reversed its decision shortly thereafter. And censors are carefully removing short online videos that defame the state, as well as videos that cover topics like one-night stands. (Amy Hawkins’ Foreign Policy piece documents other trends in video removal, including censorship around issues of sex education.)

India: The Information Technology Ministry, the country’s telecommunications regulator, has asked for feedback on new rules that compel companies to give the government access to user messages, reports the Wall Street Journal. This could impact “over the top” services like encrypted messaging application WhatsApp. Wall Street Journal also reports that the rule could force these same companies to “trace and remove objectionable content” within 24 hours. These kinds of demands for “backdoor” access and control have a busy history in the country.

Zimbabwe: After protests over “sharp fuel hikes,” internet access was cut off for most of the day on January 15. Sudan, Congo, and Gabon experienced similar blackouts in the past few weeks.

EU: The European Union’s new Copyright Directive is undergoing approval on the final language before it proceeds to a final vote. “While the majority of the rules in the new Directive are inoffensive updates to European copyright law,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation writes, “two parts of the Directive represent...a dire threat to the global Internet.” Those two parts are Article 11 and Article 13.

Article 11 includes a proposal to make companies like Google pay for linking to news content. However, opponents have argued the system would be ripe to abuse, would incorrectly rope in the likes of Creative Commons websites without opportunity for exemption, and will fail to fix the news sector’s broken business model.

Article 13, the so-called “filter rule,” would essentially trove every social media post in the world and check it against a database of copyrighted works. Many internet pioneers have harshly criticized this proposal on the grounds that building such an automated surveillance system would compromise the internet’s current (relative) openness.

EU (2): A recently released legal opinion from an Advocate General to the European Court of Justice—Europe’s equivalent to the Supreme Court—argues “content should generally only be blocked in countries where it breaches the law, not globally.” This contrasts with stances of the United States and Australia, among others, who have leaned more towards requiring worldwide compliance with their internet laws.

As mentioned in the last post, internet blackouts are a growing trend. Countries with relatively decentralized internets—or at least internets over which governments can relatively easily exert influence—are seeing this as a tempting “solution” to domestic unrest and other political events.

India, as previously mentioned, has demanded access to encrypted communications in the past—but recent events must be understood in context with the country’s possibly shifting views on a global and open internet. In 2018, it led the world in the number of internet blackouts—100 in just a year, by Freedom House’s count. Towards the end of 2018, it voted with Russia on a United Nations cybercrime resolution that would open the door for countries to criminalize political speech, one of the only democracies to do so. Most recently India received criticism for pushing a pervasive internet surveillance order. This coincides with Truecaller, a Scandinavian mobile app, becoming one of the first major international tech firms to comply with India’s demands to store user data on Indian citizens within the country. As a “digital decider” country that is still making key decisions on internet governance, the trend warrants greater attention in policy circles.

China, of course, is no stranger to internet control, but these recent events are still interesting. In particular, LinkedIn’s decision to reverse back against the state’s censorship request is uncharacteristic with its recent history—and it’s also somewhat uncharacteristic of its parent company, Microsoft, which still complies with Chinese censorship requests through the likes of “sanitizing” search results in Bing.

And for Europe, the view of internet law compliance as a country-by-country matter is also important. Privacy experts like David Hoffman have raised concern over countries’ increasingly varied approaches to data governance, especially insofar as this variation may “fracture” how internet data flows and how internet data is managed. Put another way, altering how internet data is technically and physically managed from one country to the next (e.g., via code and via hardware, respectively) could impair the interoperability of the worldwide network.

This is a heated ethical issue of late, as companies like Google have received criticism for altering their products to operate within authoritarian countries—in Google’s case for allegedly planning to develop a censored version of its search engine in order to break into the Chinese market. In the last Internet Norms Watch post, the same was discussed with Netflix, which recently censored an episode of Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act show after a complaint from the Saudi government. One Freedom House analyst, for instance, criticized this move as part of a growing problem of private Western firms bending to the censorship of authoritarian governments.

Of course, the EU legal opinion is not an endorsement of these practices (rather, it's likely a response to the bevy of national legislation in the EU pertaining to internet content, like the Network Enforcement Law (Netzdg) in Germany or France’s terrorism content decree), but it raises interesting questions around whether private companies should bend to the censorship laws of a given country if they don’t physically operate there.