#IMWeekly: June 27, 2014

A potentially invasive surveillance bill due to be introduced to Australia’s parliament in July is inspiring resistance within the country. The bill aims to target potential jihadists and other terrorists who may be spreading violent rhetoric in their online networks. Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that jihadists who have been radicalized by their experiences with al-Qaeda and its offshoots may threaten national security, spreading their hateful rhetoric online. As such, this bill would give the Australian government power to store public metadata.

In a climate of political uncertainty, the Egyptian government has sought to extend its hold over its citizenry by creating a media monitoring software that will understand multiple forms of written Arabic. The system, built to read both colloquial and Romanized Arabic, would allow the government to access the digital footprints of various citizens who may be harboring oppositional thoughts online. Human Rights Watch’ Cynthia Wong warns that such a move would restrict Egyptian’s netizens from expressing themselves fully and totally online, noting that the Internet has played a significant role in empowering independent voices of reform in Egypt.

As the reality of stifled internet connectivity intensifies in Iraq, netizens are finding cunning ways around these blockages. FireChat, a smartphone app that doesn’t require an internet connection, has seen an unprecedented surge in downloads and consumption since June 14. Iraq, Bloomberg reports, ranks just behind the United States in terms of daily smartphone usage, making FireChat a widely-used form of communication in the country.  A Citizen Lab report released earlier this month also concluded that ISIS filters placed upon websites in Iraq have been largely ineffective, while the use of Psiphon and Tor has increased significantly in the wake of the internet shutdown.

This week, Russia’s Interior Ministry drafted a ten-year strategy to fight extremism – a strategy that could lead to online surveillance of netizens. Extremism is broadly defined under Russian federal law, ranging from hate crimes to armed revolution. The strategy aims to counter politically radical movements from the bottom up, targeting information sources and netizens spreading extremist rhetoric online. News of this plan emerges during a week when Colin Cromwell, Twitter’s head of global public policy, visited Russia and agreed to block “extremist accounts” under the demands of Russia’s Alexander Zharov, the chief of Russian federal communications agency Roskomnadzor.

Since last month’s coup, Thailand’s junta has increasingly clamped down on pro-democracy movements online. For weeks, the “liking” of Facebook pages dedicated to anti-coup groups has been outlawed, while numerous pro-democracy websites have been blocked. IFEX reported that the junta is now deceiving netizens into unveiling their personal details through a deceptive Facebook phishing app, through which users are encouraged to “log in” with their personal information that is stored in their Facebook profiles. This faulty, fake app is in violation of Facebook’s own policies, and it was suspended twice by Facebook as a result. Access also reports that the junta has recently set up five media monitoring panels that intend to surveil social media for any dissenting opinions.

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

New Citizen Lab report: “Monitoring Information Controls in Iraq in Reaction to ISIS Insurgency”

A new report from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto takes a look at Internet monitoring in Iraq. Since violence led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) broke out in the country several weeks ago, the government has responded by cutting Internet access, first by blocking websites including Twitter and Facebook and then, on June 15, issuing orders for a total Internet shutdown in five of the nation’s 19 provinces.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • A total of 20 unique URLs were found to be blocked on three major Internet service providers (ISPs): Earthlink Telecommunications, IQ Net, and Newroz Telecom. The blocked sites include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, YouTube, WhatsApp, and WeChat, as well as popular VPN services including OpenVPN and StrongVPN.
  • The majority of the websites found to be unavailable corresponded with the list of that the Ministry of Communications ordered to be blocked on June 13. The ISP Newroz Telecom showed no signs of filtering, which “was expected, because this ISP serves the Kurdistan area, and reports have indicated that the shutdown and social media blocking orders did not include Kurdistan.”
Traffic from Akamai, a content delivery network, to Iraq, showing a sharp drop in traffic since the filtering orders from the Iraqi Ministry of Communications. Via the Citizen Lab.

Traffic from Akamai, a content delivery network, to Iraq, showing a sharp drop in traffic since the filtering orders from the Iraqi Ministry of Communications. Via the Citizen Lab.

  • The Citizen Lab also looked at seven websites “affiliated with or supportive of” ISIS. None were blocked. “Given that the insurgency was cited as the rationale for the shutdown and filtering,” wrote the authors, “this finding is curious.” This could suggest that the Maliki government is using the present crisis as an excuse to rein in broader social media around the country—whether or not it is related to ISIS violence.
  • Usage of Psiphon and Tor, which allow users to circumvent filtering, has soared in Iraq in recent days (though Tor use has since fallen slightly).
Directly connecting users of Tor in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

Directly connecting users of Tor in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

Daily users of Psiphon in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

Daily users of Psiphon in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

More information about the Citizen Lab’s analysis can be found in its report, Monitoring Information Controls in Iraq in Reaction to ISIS Insurgency.

#IMWeekly: June 20, 2014

Hong Kong
On the eve of a referendum about voting rights this week, Hong Kong’s digital voting platform was hit by a massive DDoS attack. Today is the first of three days of voting for Hong Kong citizens, who will decide whether to offer universal suffrage, seen as a move that would weaken the influence of Beijing-sponsored candidates. Now in its fourth day, the DDoS attack is being called “one of the largest and most persistent DDoS attacks in the history of the Internet” by the company CloudFlare, which has been contracted to defend the voting platform and said that the attack reached a scale of 300Gb per second today. The attack is widely suspected to be the work of pro-Beijing groups, who oppose the referendum. The vote is unofficial, meaning that its results will have “no legal effect,” according to a statement by the Hong Kong government. More than 200,000 ballots have already been cast. For more information, see our earlier post on the attacks.

The spiraling violence as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sweeps across Iraq prompted the Maliki government to cut Internet access in the country. Last Friday, sites including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were blocked across the nation. Two days later, the government issued orders to ISPs to shut down all Internet access in five of the country’s 19 provinces. The Atlantic reported this week that ISIS is particularly effective at using “gaming Twitter” to push its message and recruit new followers. More information can be found in our blog post about the shutdown.

Twitter announced that it would no longer censor tweets deemed “blasphemous” by the government. In a statement, the company said that it had “re-examined the requests and, in the absence of additional clarifying information from Pakistani authorities, [had] determined that restoration of the previously withheld content is warranted.” Though hailed as a victory for freedom of expression in Pakistan, the decision drew attention to Twitter’s murky takedown policy, which it has declined to make public.

Reporters Without Borders reported that YouTube has been blocked and Google is only partly accessible in Tajikistan since June 12. Blocking has surged in the country over the last two years, usually around times of political tension like last November’s presidential election. On Monday, a Global Voices contributor and the publication’s former Central Asia Editor, Tajik-born Alex Sodiqov, was detained while conducting academic research in the eastern part of the country. The government has allegedly shown him on national television “in an apparent attempt to discredit both him and an opposition politician.” More information can be found in our earlier blog post on Sodiqov’s detainment.

United Kingdom
Revelations emerged this week that the British government has been using a legal loophole to scrutinize its citizens’ social media communications. Charles Farr, director general of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism, revealed that posts and other communications made on platforms like Facebook and Twitter are considered “external communications” because they’re routed through foreign companies. This means that even missives traded by British nationals in the UK, who are usually afforded significant privacy protections, are fair game for government interception—without a warrant—because the data leaves British shores before reentering.

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

Iraqi government shuts down Internet access in five provinces

As violence spreads across Iraq, the government has moved to curb Internet access around the country.

Iraq’s Ministry of Communication issued orders Sunday for a total Internet shutdown in five of the country’s western and central provinces, where violence from a Sunni insurgency led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is particularly intense.

This comes two days after access to Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube as well as communication platforms like Skype, Whatsapp, and Viber was cut across the nation. The government issued the shutdown order to ISPs, asking providers to “shut down the Internet totally,” according to a leaked copy of the ministry’s memo, which Arab citizen media organization Social Media Exchange printed and translated.

The move mirrors other Internet shutdowns in the region. Days after protests broke out in Tahrir Square in early 2011, then–Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered a shutdown that blocked web access in 88% of the country. In Syria, blocks of media sites like YouTube and Facebook were followed by a total Internet shutdown widely credited to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The shutdown may be difficult for the Maliki government to carry out, as Iraq’s market for ISPs is unusually fragmented. There are hundreds of providers across the country, some of which offer service via satellite, limiting potential government control. By comparison, just 10 ISPs were responsible for 69% of web traffic in the US in 2011, according to digital analytics company comScore.

Still, web traffic originating in Iraq has been markedly reduced since the government ordered the access cuts. Renesys, which tracks Internet connectivity, observed two major, hours-long outages before the regional shutdown, first on June 9 and again on June 12, both of which were confirmed by sources as government-sponsored.

Renesys 12.06.14

The militant group ISIS may be particularly adept at using social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to broadcast its message and recruit new followers. The Atlantic’s JM Berger reports that the group has made use of a Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, which it uses to disperse news and spread messaging via posts to users’ accounts on their behalf. ISIS used Twitter over the weekend to share pictures allegedly depicting the mass execution of Iraqi security forces in Tikrit. The Atlantic reports that there has been a dramatic increase in posts on the ISIS app since its introduction in April, reaching 40,000 in a single day as ISIS marched into Mosul last week—a volume that pushed its posts to the top of results for queries like “Baghdad.” Tikrit and Mosul, the nation’s second-largest city, are both located in states whose web access has been cut.

Shared by @_3lawi, via Social Media Exchange.

Shared by @_3lawi, via Social Media Exchange.

Shared by @_3lawi, via Social Media Exchange.

Shared by @_3lawi, via Social Media Exchange.