#imweekly: August 26, 2013

Chinese mobile app WeChat has a growing international presence, making it the fifth most popular mobile app worldwide. Within the country, WeChat is heavily monitored, and users are blocked from sending messages containing prohibited keywords. TeaLeafNation reports that TenCent, which owns WeChat, is now offering two versions of the app: a censored version for Chinese users, and an uncensored version for international use. The problem: the lines between the two are unclear, as shown by the suspension last week of a US-based WeChat account belonging to ChinaGate, a Chinese-language web portal hosted outside of China.

The Finnish Supreme Administrative Court ruled today that the country’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was within its rights when it added an anti-censorship website to its secret list of blocked sites. The blocking took place under a 2006 law that enabled the NBI to maintain a secret blocklist of sites that distribute child pornography. The website lapsiporno.info (“childporn.info”) has been monitoring the bureau’s activities, criticizing the secrecy behind the blocklist and compiling a list of known blocked sites. When lapsiporno.info was blocked, operator Matt Nikki sued the NBI. The court ruled that even though Nikki’s site did not host any child porn, by listing blocked sites it was enabling users to find such sites, and therefore, the NBI’s blocking of lapsiporno.info was legal.

United States
Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook, along with a handful of tech companies, is launching an effort to bring Internet access to everyone on Earth. Zuckerberg told the New York Times that the project—Internet.org—is more about doing “something good for the world” than for profit, but many commentators disagree. The New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan notes that the project offers little in the way of infrastructure building, which is one of the biggest obstacles to Internet access. And The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal points out that the project heavily recuts a John F. Kennedy speech, stripping the original Cold War context and perhaps, Madrigal argues, changing the meaning entirely.

United States
The newest piece of the NSA surveillance scandal: LOVEINT. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that several NSA officers have used their power to spy on their romantic partners. Approximately ten cases of this type of abuse of NSA power have emerged over the past decade, and according to NSA officials, in each case, the employee responsible was punished and/or terminated. The LOVEINT discovery comes amidst the NSA’s admission last week that in the past year alone, the agency violated privacy regulations nearly 3000 times.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#imweekly: August 12, 2013

After multiple employees of Hong Kong-based company Phoenix Satellite Television accused the company’s former Washington, DC bureau chief of sexual harassment last week, nearly all mention of the scandal was scrubbed from the Chinese Internet. Foreign Policy reports that videos about the story have been blocked, while articles on the case have been taken down from China’s state-run news agency. FP notes that the current CEO of Phoenix’s US subsidiary is the son of China’s former Vice Premier.

Pakistan’s Minister of State for Information Technology said last week that the country is working to develop software that will block “objectionable content” worldwide. Once all such content is blocked, the minister stated, the country could theoretically lift its ban on YouTube. The video-sharing site has been blocked in Pakistan since September 2012.

Zimbabwe held presidential elections on July 31; the resulting re-election of President Robert Mugabe is hotly contested. During and after the elections, DDoS attacks took down several human rights and media websites. In addition, Kubatana.net, which publishes human rights and civic information online and via email and SMS, was blocked from sending bulk text messages by an alleged government order.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

China’s Reactions to the Snowden Story

This is a guest post.

On June 9, Edward Snowden, an American former contractor for the NSA, revealed himself as the whistleblower in one of the biggest surveillance scandals in US intelligence history.

Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong in late May stirred a wide and active response on the Chinese Internet. Snowden’s name was one of the top-ranked topics on China’s Twitter-like microblogging website Sina Weibo in June. Vexed by the country’s long-standing and prevalent surveillance system, many Chinese Internet users have hailed Snowden as a hero.

“He is brave. He is a real fighter for human rights. Now he is in China, we should protect him,” wrote Xiaodong Wang, an Internet user based in Beijing. Another user wrote, “it doesn’t matter whether you can call Snowden a hero. What’s worth of praise about him is he chose to break the rules rather than to be one of ‘the Great Silent Majority.’ Few people have his courage.”

Several prominent Weibo users with millions of followers, known as “Big Vs” for the large letter V (signaling a verified user) next to their account names, also expressed their appreciation of Snowden’s actions. Lvqiu Luwei, a well-known journalist who has 2.7 million followers on Weibo, wrote:

To the public, Snowden is a hero. But if he leaked the information to other governments or did this simply for money, people would think of him as a spy. I asked a guest in the programs I recorded yesterday, ‘will there be a Snowden in China?’ And the guest responded with a quick answer, ‘there won’t be a Snowden-like person in China. If there were, the person will never get out of the country.

Another popular user with the nickname “Pretending to be in New York” (@假装在纽约) posted the following comment on June 25, which gained momentum when circulated on the social media. The humorous tweet makes fun of the Snowden’s story while criticizing the dire human rights conditions and heavy-handed Internet control in China:

If Snowden were a Chinese citizen, 1) Hong Kong would agree to hand him over to the Chinese government; 2) the US would hail him as hero and then try to rescue him immediately; 3) his name would become a ‘sensitive word’ on the social media in China and all discussions related would be banned; 4) Over a thrilling struggle, he would finally board the airplane to New York; 5) people would acclaim the escape on the social media in China; 6) New York University would invite him to be a visiting scholar (referencing to the Chen Guangcheng incident); 7) the state-run Global Times would post articles criticizing Snowden, and it would become the target of Chinese netizen’s besiege. 8) American talk shows making fun of the story would be translated into Chinese.

Still, many Chinese were disappointed at the seeming hypocrisy of the US government, which appears to be engaging in activities more typically associated with the Chinese government. Though Hong Kong—which has a long tradition of free speech—operates separately from Mainland China, it is under the political influence of a nation known for its restrictions on free political expression.

To some in China, the news badly undermined the US government’s criticism of China over cyberespionage. “It looks like Obama has been assimilated by a certain political party (Communist Party of China),” Sina Weibo user Leigh Chiang wrote in a sentiment shared widely across the site.

Somewhere between 300 and 900 Hong Kong residents marched in support of Snowden, despite the ambiguous attitudes from the SAR (Special Administrative Region) government.  

Snowden’s announcement came as China began an official three-day holiday for the Dragon Boat Festival. Still, it managed to catch the eyes of the country’s social media users.

The leak broke just ahead of the much anticipated “laid-back” Sunnylands Summit between Obama and China’s Premier Xi Jinping – where, among other issues, cyber-security was prominent on the agenda. There’s no lack of irony in the leak. The US government has been criticizing the Chinese government for Internet filtering, and a more recent accusation made by the Obama administration is that China has been hacking into American computers. Now it turns out one of the biggest threats to the pursuit of individual freedom and privacy in the US may be the unbridled power of the government, according to a Chinese expert on American affairs. The country that seems to benefit most from Snowden’s revelations is China.

Bloomberg News reported that Lee Kai-Fu, the founding president of Google China, stated that Snowden’s revelation “seriously discredits” US claims about human rights and privacy. Lee, who has 49.3 million followers, is a Big V, also known as verified user on Sina Weibo. He wrote in a microblog post on June 11 that he admires Snowden’s “principles and values.”

Lee Kai-Fu’s criticism of the US government has invoked some criticism on social media, among which some netizens ridiculed him as turning his political stand to align with “Fifty Cent Party,” the people hired by the Chinese government to post comments favorable to the party to sway public opinions.

While Hong Kong-based media outlets are featuring Snowden in top headlines, the mainland Chinese media are not treating this like a big deal. Beijing has remained quite low-key towards the issue, with major news portals’ headlines saturated by the Obama-Xi meetings.

The Global Times, the tabloid-like subsidiary of The People’s Daily, which is the major state-run media outlet in China, ran an article about “the latest online spy game,” accompanied by a caricature cartoon of the NSA emblem, turning the bald eagle into a spy. The article said Snowden could offer intelligence that would help China update its understanding of cyberspace and improve its position in negotiations with Washington.

China’s largest state-run news agency, Xinhua, didn’t mention Snowden in the top 10 stories on its website’s front page. Xinhua has not published any specific reports on Snowden, though there is one video report on the NSA as a “spy agency.” It’s hard to tell whether the lack of reporting is a conscious decision to avoid stirring up a conversation that might come back to China again.

When the country’s media outlets constrained the urge to make the Snowden story headlines, news broke on June 22 that NSA targeted China’s top universities in extensive hacking attacks. Suddenly, reports began to emerge from repressed writers and editors; comments and discussions on the news overwhelmed social media in China.

“The U.S. Has Attacked Chinese Networks for 15 Years,” said a headline in The Yangtze Daily. “Snowden Leaks Information About Prism to Reveal the Hypocrisy of the U.S. Government,” added The Wuhan Evening News.

Tsinghua University was among the targets of NSA’s cyber-snooping activities, with at least 63 computers and servers attacked during a single day in January, according to information leaked by Snowden. The university is home to one of the mainland’s six major backbone networks – the China Education and Research Network (CERNET) – a hub from which Internet data from millions of Chinese citizens could be mined.

A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t have an immediate comment on Mr. Snowden’s comments. Professor Xu Ke, deputy director of the Institute of Computer Networks at Tsinghua University, has previously said that most data passing through network backbones was not encrypted and that most attacks on such networks were carried out by governments, as individual hackers would face ‘colossal’ amounts of information that would be extremely difficult to handle.

While the mainstream media in China remained silent towards the PRISM scandal, observers have noticed the subtle changes of its contents. In April 2013, China tightened its media’s quotations of information from foreign press, aiming to exert stronger control over domestic media outlets. Ironically, Chinese media began to include more quotes from foreign press as the Snowden story was revealed.

#imweekly: August 5, 2013

Saudi Arabia
Raif Badawi, founder of the website Free Saudi Liberals, faces seven years in jail and 600 lashes for “‘setting up a website that undermines general security’ and ridiculing Islamic religious figures.” The website is a public discussion forum that authorities have blocked for years; the judge in this case ordered it shut down. The government arrested Badawi in June 2012 for cybercrime and failing to obey his father, and sentenced him more than one year later, in July 2013. Badawi initially faced charges of apostasy, which would have condemned him to death.

Russian blogger Anton Ilyushchenko discovered that a local nightclub had posted pictures on its website of seemingly intoxicated patrons “engaged in what appeared to be amateur striptease contests and public sex acts.” The Omsk resident posted them on his blog and criticized the nightclub. The post went viral and police began investigating him for distributing pornographic material, charges that carry a punishment of two to six years in prison. Some people said Ilyushchenko posted the pictures to generate traffic for his blog. Most who have spoken online about the case criticize the police for caring more about the image of the city and for failing to go after the nightclub where the photos originated.

Vietnam’s prime minister approved a decree that states blogs and social media sites can only contain personal information. “Personal electronic sites are only allowed to put news owned by that person, and are not allowed to ‘quote’, ‘gather’ or summarize information from press organizations or government websites” said Hoang Vinh Bao, director of the Broadcasting and Electronic Information Department at the Ministry of Information and Communications, to local media. The decree also forbids foreign Internet service providers from sharing “information that is against Vietnam.” Facebook users in Vietnam criticized the law, asking if sharing a link was now a punishable offense and lamenting that the government showed no signs of understanding the value of an open society. Digital rights organizations have criticized the decree’s vague language. The law is set to take effect on September 1, but it is unclear how the government will enforce the rule.

The Wikimedia Foundation is accelerating plans to enable native HTTPS for all its projects after leaked information indicated that the NSA’s XKeyscore program “specifically targeted” the site. The Chinese anti-censorship organization Greatfire took Wikipedia to task in June for dragging its feet on native HTTPS. China completely blocks HTTPS versions of Wikimedia’s projects, and Greatfire alleges that Wikipedia’s move could force the Chinese government to loosen its censorship of the site. In addition to Internet filtering and blocking, China is adding another tactic to its censorship arsenal: fact-checking. The nonprofit Beijing Internet Association is teaming up with the state-run Beijing Internet Information Office to launch a website that corrects falsehoods on the Internet. One visiting scholar at Columbia University said the site’s utility may be limited if people don’t trust the government. Amidst the government’s overarching censorship, one area will remain free. The University of Macau will become the first university on mainland China to obtain access to an uncensored Internet when it moves to its new facility on Guangdong’s Hengqin Island in January.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#imweekly: July 15, 2013

“Put only on back pages… close the comment box.” Released last month, the Directives from the Ministry of Truth series revealed a repository of more than 2,600 messages sent from government officials to website editors in China during the last decade. The collection offers a window into the mechanisms and idiosyncrasies behind China’s censorship and information filtering systems – including addressing the government’s increasingly nuanced mechanism for how, when, and where to present sensitive information, if at all. In pouring over the archive of messages, experts concluded that one of the most fundamental aims of internet censorship and filtering in China is to prevent gatherings of unauthorized groups.

Are Nigerian officials positioning themselves to heighten online surveillance in the country?  Nigeria’s Minister of the Interior recently stated the government’s intentions to monitor activity online in the name of national security. Earlier this year, The Premium Times of Nigeria reported that the government brokered a $40 million contract with an Israeli software security company to allow widespread monitoring of Nigerian’s online activities. The move was met with widespread criticism from Nigerian netizens, worried about the potential of widespread surveillance without the protection of data privacy laws legal provisions for interception. Nigeria’s lower house of parliament ordered an immediate halt to the deal.

The Kremlin is taking a step back to take a step forward – ordering nearly $15,000 worth of typewriters to skirt fears of foreign government surveillance, in light of the NSA leaks. Russian officials expressed outrage after the leaks documented surveillance of Russia’s leadership at the London G20 meetings. Officials said they were able to deal with the threat.

For protestors in Turkey – it started with police deploying tear gas and water cannons to disperse their encampments. Now, those threats are beginning to move from the physical world into the digital space, reports the EFF. Dozens of social media users have been detained since the protests began in the country, on charges ranging from false information to insulting officials. Users have also been detained for sharing images of police brutality. Meanwhile, officials are using legal controls already at their disposal to potentially tighten the flow of information in the country – one representative called on Twitter to open an office within the country, which would legally give Turkey the right to obtain user data. There is also a push to enact legislation allowing for the removal of any “fake” social media accounts.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.