#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.

A Scholar, not a Spy: The Detainment of Alexander Sodiqov

Khorog is a remote and mountainous Tajik town. It’s situated in the country’s volatile Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAO), geographical and political worlds away from Dushanbe, the country’s capital and political epicenter. Khorog has, in recent years, been regarded as as a hotspot for the festering of anti-Dushanbe sentiment. Since July 2012, it has been a site of deadly clashes between the government and opposition forces. Alexander Sodiqov, a Tajik-born PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Toronto, traveled to Khorog to conduct fieldwork for a project on the role of international actors, states, and civil society in Central Asian conflict management. While there, he met with Alim Sherzamonov, an opposition leader based in GBAO, for the purposes of this research. His research would meet an abrupt end on June 16, when Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB) detained Sodiqov, who is also the former Central Asia Editor for Global Voices.

Sodiqov and his family, via Global Voices Advocacy.

Though the reasons for his detainment were initially vague, the GKNB soon claimed that Sodiqov was acting on “subversion and espionage.” Sodiqov’s arrest comes amid claims by GKNB officials that foreign spies are enacting “a big geopolitical-ideological game” to destablize the country. Two days after his detainment, Sodiqov appeared on Khorog local state television reading a forced statement subtly disparaging Sherzamanov. Viewers described him as pale and confused-looking in the video. Sodiqov’s arrest coincides with the partial blockage of both YouTube and Twitter in Tajikistan since June 12, a move many activists fear is a reaction to public discourse that is critical of President Emomalii Rahmon. The past few years have seen blockages of this nature in spades, from such widely-used social networks as YouTube, Twitter, and VKontakte to independent news agencies and websites. Months ago, in the run-up to the presidential elections, YouTube was blocked after a video of Rakhmon drunkenly dancing at his son’s wedding surfaced online.

Many activist organizations have mobilized to advocate for Alex’s release. Some media freedom advocates have launched the #FreeAlexSodiqov Twitter campaign to raise awareness of his arrest, while such organizations as Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, and Avaaz have begun petitions and released official statements condemning the detainment. Fellow academics have banded together to form Scholars for Sodiqov, insisting that his academic work was anything but politically-motivated espionage. A website has also been launched to advocate for his release.