The Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in internet rights around the world. It originally appears each week on Global Voices Advocacy. Afef Abrougui, Ellery Roberts Biddle, Marianne Diaz, Oiwan Lam, James Losey, Karolle Rabarison, Elizabeth Rivera, Juke Carolina Rumuat, Nevin Thompson, and Sarah Myers West contributed to this report.
The specter of “fake news” is still looming large, and the power of internet companies to control and capitalize on news distribution seems to grow greater by the day. This has democratic leaders around the world scrambling to in free speech laws and to distinguish between the motivations behind online news and information—whether they be political power, money, or the simple free exchange of ideas.
In early December 2017, Brazil’s government established a council to monitor and possibly order the blocking of false news reports on social media ahead of the 2018 presidential elections. The news swiftly raised concerns about censorship among the public.
In its first meeting, the council proposed to create a tool through which users could file reports about news that appeared suspicious. The council has not explained how this system would interact with social media companies, which are the only entities capable of removing content or accounts propagating “fake news.” Members say they are negotiating support from social media companies, but it remains unclear where this will lead.
Previous attempts at such control have yielded mixed results. When Facebook introduced a “report fake news” feature in December 2016, many users reported fake content as part of an effort to discredit information or ideas with which they disagreed, even when those ideas were based on verified facts.
Across the Atlantic, French President Emmanuel Macron announced new measures targeting “fake news” that will mandate content deletion, censorship of websites that spread false news, and the closure of accounts of infringing users, following judicial orders.
In addition, a new bill before the French Congress that is intended to target sponsored content on social media platforms. If adopted it would require companies to “make public the identity of sponsors and of those who controls them,” and to impose limits on the amount of money paid to sponsor such content. The law’s purpose is to “protect democratic life,” according to Macron.
In both France and Brazil, it remains unclear precisely how government actors will compel social media companies to identify and/or remove such content at this scale.
Vietnam hires thousands of workers to go after “wrongful views” online
Colonel General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy chairman of the General Political Department of the People’s Army of Vietnam, announced at a Dec. 25, 2017, meeting that the military has created a special force tasked with “combating wrongful information and anti-state propaganda.” The special force already has 10,000 workers.
China censored more than 100,000 websites in 2017 for “harmful” content
China’s state-run Xinua news agency reported on Jan. 8 that approximately 128,000 websites were censored in China in 2017 due to “harmful” content, including news from “unauthorized” sources, material said to threaten “social stability,” and pornography. Most recently, Cyberspace Administration officials penalized the popular Toutiao news aggregator app, which they said had illegally distributed news content without having obtained necessary permissions from the authorities.
Chinese courts hear challenges against censorship, surveillance
A Beijing court agreed to hear a case addressing the media regulator’s censorship of LGBTQ content online. In June 2017, the China Netcasting Services Association sparked outrage when it issued new rules banning online content that depicts “abnormal sexual relations or behaviour,” including homosexuality.
The lawsuit—filed by 30-year-old Fan Chunlin from Shanghai—challenges the media regulator to provide a legal basis for the description of homosexuality as “abnormal.” The court is expected to deliver a ruling within the next six months.
In Jiangsu province, a court agreed to hear a challenge by a consumer rights group against Baidu, one of China’s largest internet companies. The Jiangsu Provincial Consumer Protection Committee charges that Baidu products, including its mobile app and web browser, are accessing users’ messages, phone calls, contacts, and other data without their consent.
Indonesian drone aids censorship instead of surveillance
Indonesia’s Ministry of Communications and Informatics has deployed a new program that is intended to enhance the process of blocking “negative” content on the internet by using artificial intelligence. Known as “Cyber Drone 9,” the program combines new technical tools (which do not actually include drones) with a team of staff who will monitor “negative” content identified by the software and decide whether it should be censored.
Internet and mobile phone penetration are rising everywhere—except in Venezuela
The Venezuelan news and commentary site El Estimulo published an in-depth report (in Spanish) on falling rates of internet and mobile phone connectivity in Venezuela. The article highlights International Telecommunication Union statistics showing that mobile phone penetration has dropped from 102 percent in 2012 (a number reflecting individuals with multiple mobile phones) to 87 percent in 2016, and also charts damage to subterranean internet infrastructure that the state has failed to repair. The article quotes Global Voices author Marianne Diaz:
The increasing deterioration of infrastructure is neither coincidental nor accidental. It is the result of decisions and policies implemented by power structures. The end result is that it is making citizens suffer the consequences of infrastructural decay and the state is not upholding its obligations to guarantee access to basic services. …
Tunisia’s biometric ID bill is dead, for now
The Tunisian government withdrew a proposed law on Jan. 9 that would have imposed a national biometric identification scheme for all Tunisian citizens. The withdrawal was due in part to an influx of requests and amendments proposed by the parliamentary commission of rights and freedoms, many of which were drawn from citizen input.
“Information Not Found: The ‘Right to Be Forgotten’ as an Emerging Threat to Media Freedom in the Digital Age”—Center for International Media Assistance
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