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Regulating the Internet .BY Decree

The recent announcement of a Belarusian law on aspects of Internet regulation certainly raised a number of alarm bells for many groups seeking to protect free expression online. Certainly, Belarus is no stranger to internet repression, ranging from pro-democracy websites repeatedly under attack,tracking down and arresting activists, and many other insidious acts. Given the extensive and differing coverage of the law in the press, here is a summary of what is expected to take place with this law.

In order to implement the norms stipulated by Decree of the Council of Ministers on February 1, 2010, No. 60 (which states that any entity in Belarus selling goods or services to Belarus citizens on the web must use the .by Belarusian domain name), Belarusian authorities have implemented Law No. 317-3. Fines for breaking the law range as high as 1m Belarus rubles (£77; $120).

The impact of this law has been widely debated on its true intentions. The official news agency states that the law’s intention is “to create favorable conditions for Belarusian economic entities, to enable transparent online shopping, to protect interests of Belarusian internet users regarding the information, which distribution is legally prohibited (slave trade, pornography, propaganda of violence, cruelty and so on), to create conditions to protect honor and dignity”. Currently, many Belarus-based companies rent hosting services from Internet service providers in Russia to save money. With the new law, the government hopes to curb this practice and create better controls for collecting tax revenue from e-commerce services. These views are quick to point out that this regulation does not “cut off access to the global internet”, as some news reports have indicated, and are merely an administrative provision to lay out procedures for punishment that were absent in the 2010 decree.

However, there are a number of features of this law, as well as the 2010 decree, that raise concern. To start, entities that offer internet services to the public (internet cafes, computer clubs, etc.) are obliged to “record and store… personal data of Internet services users and information about the Internet services that have been provided,” according to state press outlet Belta. In fact, in his report to the OSCE, Andrei Richter points out that there are many areas of particular concern, including but not limited to: vaguely defined restrictions and prohibitions on spreading illegal information, unclear role of intermediaries to remove identified violations, and many others. In addition, the involvement of a number of control agencies including “organs of internal affairs, taxation, public security organs of State Control Committee of Belarus” demonstrate the increased capacity of the government to gain control in handling “violations”.

While there is not a looming threat to cut off access to the “foreign internet” in Belarus, this law’s ambiguities, its intentions to gain more control of the internet, and the precedence set by Belarusian authorities to violate internet users’ rights do cause concern. Many countries with a track record of ignoring the rights of its citizenry often create confusing and ambiguous laws to ensure their future manipulation to target critics of the regime. The NDItech team will continue to keep a watchful eye on the implementation of this law as well as any other suspicious legal framework that emerge in other countries.

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Internet Governance in a Year

This year has certainly been a roller coaster for the role of the internet in global society. While there have been many advances in protections for the rights of users, unfortunately, there have also been massive steps backwardin this arena. Recently, the Diplo Foundation hosted a webinar with Jovan Kurbalija (who literally wrote the book on Internet governance) about the 10 biggest developments in IG in 2011. After participating in the webinar, I began to reflect on these developments have been tied to NDI’s work. The full list of developments are available here, and below is a sample of how NDI has contributed to and tracked these developments:

The Internet gets highly political: power of ICTs to push for political change. As stated in the webinar, “social media is now perceived as a decisive tool in modern political life”. NDI will continue to work with local partners over the coming years to adapt and evolve innovative approaches to using ICTs in the political landscape to ensure transparency, accountability, and other features of democratic processes.

A shift in Internet governance direction, from technology to political ministries: Kurbalija identified that “previous vague national Internet governance approaches have started to crystallize”. NDI has been following how the European Parliament, the US, and other countries are formulating citizen-centered approaches to tech regulation. Next year I hope to see these actions progress, with informed decision-making by policy makers and input provided by citizens, business and academics committed to the protection of an open Internet.

Online human rights come into focus: With a diverse set of digital threats facing Internet users, some governments have responded by imposing multi-faceted technical and legal means to “curb” these threats, which instead result in self-censorship among internet users. In addition, many organizations are often unaware about how to best mitigate these threats, and as a result open adopt incomplete strategies that do not address all vulnerabilities. Here at NDI, we seek to know what the full picture of threats are to ourselves and our partners, as well as continually expand the security resources available to our colleagues in this field.

In 2012, I personally hope to see continuation in how multiple stakeholders protect the open Internet, whether it be from propagation of technologies that do more harm than good or ill-designed legislation that does not address the needs of Internet users.

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Filtering at the Legal Layer

Restriction of open dialogue can take a variety of forms. Systematic and pervasive technical means to block keywords, denial-of-service attacks against websites, and overcrowding discussion platforms in order to drown out dissenting points-of-view are just a few popular methods used around the world. However, many regimes do not have the resources to conduct these widespread and labor-intensive means to enforce people to fall in line with government rhetoric. Therefore, it becomes imperative to create regulatory framework which ensures punishment to those who “cause national panic,” “offend the public,” or other ambiguous jargon to quash “undesirable” discourse. Undesirable, that is, to the regime in power.

The Thai Computer Crimes Act is one such law, where content regulation issues are combined with cybercrimes like hacking and email phishing under vaguely defined terms. One of the most startling features of this law is that internet intermediaries, under Articles 14 and 15, are held just as accountable for the actions of other users to disseminate content “that can cause damage to the third party or public.”

Since the law’s inception, the number of legal cases initiated against internet users has skyrocketed. It is worth noting that the vast majority of these charges overlap with pre-existing legal codes in Thailand used to quell independent political discourse. The most infamous example of this is the lèse majesté law, which makes defamation and insult of “the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent” a punishable offense. Predictably, this law fails to define what constitutes “defamation” or “insult,” and the responsibility to charge someone of violating lèse majesté is on the state or the public, allowing anyone to take action against anyone else.

The Thai Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté have come under strong criticism for their infringement on rights to free expression by Committee to Protect JournalistsFreedom House, and Reporters without Borders. In recent years, there has been no shortage of individuals who have been persecuted for violation of Thai Computer Crimes Act and lèse majesté.

One case that has garnered much attention is that of Chiranuch Premchaiporn (Jiew), the executive director of the online newspaper Prachatai. Jiew is being held liable under the Thai Computer Crimes Act for comments, posted anonymously on the site by readers, in violation of lèse majesté. While her trial is still ongoing, supporters of internet freedom have rallied to her defense and demanded reform. Local groups such as the Thai Netizen Network and My Computer Law have even proposed specific amendments to the Thai Computer Crimes Act to eradicate persecution of journalists and other free speech advocates.

Fear of accusation of violating these acts, which certainly leads to extensive self-censorship among Thai internet users, proves to be an effective technique for a repressive regime to silence dissidence. Sadly, this also proves that countries do not have to employ sophisticated technical means to suppress internet freedom.

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Seeing the Suppression: Mapping Local Internet Control

The Mapping Local Internet Control project launched last week by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society illustrates the ability of Internet users within a particular country to access the global Internet through their Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or other Autonomous Systems used to route web traffic. One of the key findings of this project is that approximately 96% of all web traffic in China is routed to websites hosted within China. So why is this significant?

This mapping is able to demonstrate one of several means that Chinese authorities use to restrict content online – through centralizing Chinese web traffic to 4 points of control (ways to access the Internet), Chinese authorities can more readily curtail access to any content deemed objectionable.

Visualization of how this control takes place in China is even more striking when compared to other countries guilty of censoring independent content online, such as Iran and Russia. This visualization on the nature of accessibility in China is especially valuable, given the more limited information available on mapping online discourse in Chinese when compared to research on the ArabicPersian, and Russian blogospheres.

However, as Hal Roberts addresses in his blog entry on the report, there are certainly other factors that could contribute to this phenomenon of funneled Chinese web traffic. He states, “The extremely high proportion local web traffic in China may be the result of the success of the Chinese government in blocking the international sites, like Facebook, YouTube, and Blogger, that are generally the biggest destination in other countries. Or it might be because Chinese people like to read content written in Chinese by other Chinese about Chinese topics run by Chinese people. It is likely some combination of the two factors.” This combination that Roberts highlights has certainly gained attention in other areas over the years: the dominance of China’s Baidu search engineover global counterparts in the Chinese market, as well as the array of localized social networking tools for Chinese Internet users that offer similar functionality to their international equivalents. Another symptom of this control is the creation of vocabularydesigned to evade keyword filtering while criticizing the Chinese regime.

It is important to point out that the routing of web traffic through a limited number of access points is only one example of curbing online discourse within a country’s borders. Sadly, use of physical intimidationfinancial pressure, and abuse of rule of law are increasingly commonplace to quell Internet activism in repressive environments like China. Even Roberts notes this trend, stating, “There is no need to launch a DDoS attack against a dissident site that is hosted within the offended country when agents of the offended country can simply knock on the door of … the individual activist publishing the content…”

While the cat-and-mouse game of Internet censorship continues in several countries, projects such as Mapping Local Internet Control, which illustrate the extent of techniques for censorship and surveillance of Internet users, illuminate the opaque efforts to control web traffic within a country’s borders as well as enable activists to strategize ways to counteract these methods of control.


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