5 Countries Where Your Online Comments Could Land You in Jail

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When you log onto Facebook, you might expect to hear from long-lost friends or to see pictures from the latest family reunion. Maybe you follow Amnesty on Facebook or Twitter, read and comment on this blog, or keep a blog yourself.

But when you log off at the end of the day, you probably don’t expect the police to come knocking on your door. For people in some countries, that’s exactly what can happen. A 2011 study by Freedom House examining 37 countries found that 23 of them had arrested a blogger or internet user for their online posts. These encroachments on internet freedom – regardless of laws – come at a time of explosive growth in the number of internet users worldwide. Governments are clearly terrified because they know that information is power.


Human Rights and the Internet

Anti-government protesters gather in Tahrir Square in the final days of President Mubarak's rule. ©Chris Hondros/Getty Images

By Widney Brown, Senior Director, International Law and Policy, Amnesty International

Technology companies have built their businesses squarely in the sphere of human rights. And their profits reflect the hunger people have for exercising these rights. We are hungry to speak our mind. We are hungry to get information that will help us understand the world and make those in power responsive and accountable. And we want to be protected from interference in our lives by governments.


Internet Freedom in Turkey: System Error

Computer users are pictured in an internet cafe in Istanbul. (UGUR CAN/AFP/Getty Images)

For some reason, Turkey, which boasts one of the most educated and technologically savvy populations in the region, has had a particularly hard time addressing internet freedom. In a country that boasts of its capacity to serve as a model of democracy in the Middle East, freedom of expression on the internet has been a long-standing problem; the Turkish government’s instinct has consistently been to apply broad, clumsy bans on any content that might possibly be objectionable.

It is part of a more general problem of creeping censorship. The Turkish press, as discussed in previous posts, has come under increased pressure. In recent years, Turkey has been particularly aggressive in attempting to police radio and television for “undermining the morality of minors.” Sex and the City II, for example, was banned from cable television because its representation of gay marriage was deemed dangerous to the Turkish family. Tobacco smoking villains in the famous cartoon TinTin similarly resulted in fines from the ever watchful – and humorless – eyes of Turkish bureaucrats. The result has been a media culture that has increasingly engaged in self-censorship to avoid fines and possible closure.


Yahoo – Poster Boy for Internet Censorship

By Tony Cruz, Business and Human Rights Coordination Group

Shi Tao

Yahoo – the company responsible for the 10 year prison sentence of Chinese journalist, Shi Tao – “should be held up as the poster boy of good behavior.”

And thus was the overall tone of the Yahoo Shareholder Meeting I attended on June 24, 2010.

For four years in a row now, I have attended these Yahoo Shareholder Meetings on behalf of Amnesty International. Accompanied this year by Amnesty International Field Organizer, Will Butkus, we set out with our remaining goal to keep the pressure on Yahoo to push for the release of Shi Tao.

Five years ago, Shi Tao sent an email to a pro-democracy U.S. website about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre; an email which would put Yahoo on the human rights violations map when it gave Shi Tao’s personal user information to the Chinese government.

During this year’s shareholder meeting, Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, remained adamant about Yahoo’s desire to move past this issue. In her mind, so it seems that Yahoo has done enough. Well, it’s not enough. The bottom line is that Yahoo turned over Shi Tao’s information to the Chinese government. They violated international human rights, and as Bartz said last year “they made a mistake”

Amnesty's William Butkis and Tony Cruz at the Yahoo! shareholders meeting

So Yahoo can try to spin this in their favor all they’d like, but the facts remain the same. As long as Shi Tao still sits in prison, then Yahoo hasn’t done enough to get him out.

Yahoo has powerful influence in China that it can leverage to ensure Shi Tao’s release. For starters, Yahoo can pressure Chinese Internet company, Alibaba – which controls Yahoo! China in exchange for Yahoo’s 40% ownership share of Alibaba. As one of the largest and most powerful Internet companies in the world, Yahoo even has influence with the Chinese government. And it is up to Yahoo to use that influence until the day Shi Tao is released.

Below is the conversation between Amnesty International and Yahoo CEO, Carol Bartz, at the meeting (listen to full webcast here):

Cruz: Hi, Ms. Bartz. Tony Cruz here with Amnesty International. I was here last year and brought up the issue of internet censorship and Shi Tao, and when asked a question about this issue, you were quoted saying “That Yahoo is not incorporated to fix China. I’m sorry. It was incorporated to give people a free flow of information and ten years ago the company made a mistake, but you can’t hold us up as the bad boy forever.”

I understand that whenever we come to these meetings it’s an inconvenience. By the time I came up to bat last year, there were two colleagues who spoke on this issue about Shi Tao. It’s an inconvenience and all I can say is you take that feeling of how you felt inconvenienced and that discomfort you felt and you multiply it by a million and it pales in comparison to what this individual must feel like being in prison now for 5 years of10 year sentence.


Google, Actions speak louder than words

Google made an unprecedented announcement this week by claiming it is no longer willing to continue censoring search results on Google.cn, its Chinese search engine. Meetings are underway with Chinese authorities to discuss removing filtering software from Google.cn and, the company further claims, if an acceptable agreement is not reached, Google may shut the search engine down.

Some in the media and some human rights advocates are heralding this announcement as a turning point in corporate America’s relations with China, given that Google attributes their sudden opposition to censorship is the result of a security breach of two Gmail accounts belonging to Chinese human rights activists.

But as Tom Foremski rightly points out over at ZDNET, a leading IT publication:

The question remains is why now? Google could have taken a stand on human rights in China on many occasions in the past.

Many Internet companies operating in China, including Google, have previously complied with the Chinese government’s censorship requirements. And this isn’t the first time that Chinese human rights defenders have been the targeted through their email accounts. Yahoo! handed over Shi Tao’s personal email records to Chinese authorities in 2004 which led to a 10 year prison sentence. He was targeted because of his effort to expose government-endorsed media censorship over the 15th anniversary of Tiananmen. More recently, the Chinese government blocked Twitter, Flickr, and Hotmail prior to the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen in June and attempted to mandate that all PC makers such as Hewlett Packard and Dell install software that filters Internet content.

Foremski also cites a Twitter feed from Guardian reporter Bobbie Johnson – who hits the nail on the head:

Goog [sic] acted after its rights were infringed, not the rights of its users.

That’s why AIUSA pulled out of the Global Network Initiative – a multi-stakeholder initiative – we joined in 2007, with the goal of establishing voluntary principles to promote and respect human rights on the Internet. We saw no tangible results.

We certainly welcome Google’s statements, but actions speak louder than words. And this is the internet company’s opportunity to be a leader. Google should stand with human rights defenders and support the Global Online Freedom Act (H.R. 2271) which could help IT companies resist information requests by the Chinese government.

By Tony Cruz and Anna Phelan, Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group

Yahoo! needs to click its refresh button on Internet Censorship in China

By Tony Cruz, AIUSA’s Business and Economic Relations Group

Yahoo! held its annual shareholder meeting on June 25th — the first meeting with the company’s new CEO, Carol Bartz. In the meeting, Ms. Bartz attempted to show a new face of Yahoo; a bolder and progressive “no-nonsense” Yahoo. It was my third Yahoo! shareholder meeting and a chance to see if Yahoo!’s new face meant new business practices that would respect human rights. I presented two questions:

  1. Since 2006, what concrete steps has Yahoo taken to address the problem of Internet censorship in China?
  2. Will you publicly support the Global Online Freedom Act; legislation that would give you the power to fight the Chinese government?

Ms. Bartz responded:

Okay, I’m going to go real simple here. Yahoo is not incorporated to fix China. I’m sorry. It wasn’t incorporated to fix China. It was incorporated to give people a free flow of information. Ten years ago the company made a mistake but you can’t hold us up as the bad boy forever. We have worked better, harder, faster than most companies to respect human rights and to try and make a difference. But it is not our job to fix the Chinese government. It’s that simple. We will respect human rights, we will do what’s right, but we’re not going to take on every government in the world as our mandate. That’s not the mandate that the shareholders gave us.

Not only did Ms. Bartz avoid answering my questions, she also seemed to have misconstrued their meaning. Amnesty International members are not asking Yahoo! to “fix” China. And we haven’t singled out Yahoo! in our campaign against Internet censorship. We’ve targeted Microsoft and Google, too. Because Yahoo!’s actions have led to the highly publicized imprisonment of two Chinese dissidents, we’ve asked the company to call for the release of Shi Tao and to adopt business practices that actively support human rights. You can take action right now to remind them.

After a civil suit was settled with Shi Tao’s family, Yahoo! attempted to “fix” itself. Yahoo! hired a new CEO and implemented a new marketing strategy to distance itself from its tarnished image. The company even created a Business and Human Rights Program. But Shi Tao remains in prison and Yahoo! continues to censor its search engine in China. (I wonder how that technology has helped the Chinese government to block browser searches using the key-word Uighur this week.) So, I still don’t understand how Yahoo! “will respect human rights” and “will do what’s right” when the company hasn’t addressed the problem of Internet censorship in China – a problem that limits innovation and restricts freedom of expression.

The Internet is vital in bringing change to China, and increasingly so around the world. It appears the Obama administration agree, since they objected to China’s mandated web filtering software. Former Amnesty USA Chair Chip Pitts has been blogging about tech companies and democratic rights and the reaction in the US Senate, following the news that Nokia provided technology to the Iranian government that was used to monitor and repress protesters and dissidents. Hmm… doesn’t that sound familiar?

Pitts makes a good point: whether the Internet’s “liberalizing effect” on the flow of information will continue greatly depends on how Internet technology companies, NGOs and governments interact. Take action and remind Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft that they, too, bear the burden of promoting the freedom of information no matter where they operate. It’s time to get behind the Global Online Freedom Act.

Iranian Protesters Stay One Step Ahead in the Cyber World

In the face of a tightening government grip on all things viral, Iranians have managed to circumvent the communication restrictions laid upon them to tell the world their story in ways previously thought to be reserved only for social networking. For anyone who has so much as glanced at the news during the past week, Twitter has been the name of the game for Iranian protesters.

With a limitation of 140 characters per post, only the most pertinent information is tweeted—rally locations, real-time updates, and details only those on the ground can see. While sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been blocked off before, Iranians have continued to gain access to them via proxies, servers that allow users to access another site through them. Proxy sites are continuously being updated in an effort to stay one step ahead of the Iranian government’s filtering apparatus.

The Iranian government’s strategy for blocking the flow of information appears to be two-fold. Foreign news services have all been asked to leave (just this morning, the BBC reporter Jon Leyne, one of the few reporters left, was given a similar request) and the internet speed has been slowed to a snail’s pace. According to the Wall Street Journal, limiting bandwidth in this manner is meant to discourage and frustrate users so much that they’ll give up.

This strategy is, for now, not working. Iranians have harnessed the internet in ingenious ways—from their Twitter posts to uploaded YouTube videos. All major news networks have caught on to the phenomenon, allowing the messages coming out of Iran to truly reach the entire world.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

China Mandates PC Companies Install Software That Censors

By Tony Cruz, Amnesty International USA’s Business & Economic Relations Group

Starting July 1, 2009, the Chinese government is mandating all PC makers such as Hewlett Packard and Dell install software that filters Internet content.  The government says it is to help give parents control over inappropriate material, such as pornography, but Business Week reports that the software blocks political and religious websites. And after the government of China’s recent internet crackdown on the 20th anniversary of Tienanmen Square earlier this month, and the widely known controversial self-censorship of companies such as Yahoo and Google, it is clear that the Chinese government continues to use technology to suppress freedom of expression.

For the last three years, I’ve represented Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) at Yahoo! and Google’s shareholder meetings addressing their decisions to self-censor. I’ve asked executives to support freedom of expression on the Internet through such legislation as the Global Online Freedom Act (H.R. 275) which could help IT companies resist information requests by the Chinese government.

Imagine this scenario: if Yahoo! and Google backed this legislation three years ago, the choice facing HP and Dell today would be an easy one — respect human rights or go to jail. But they have not taken concrete steps to rectify their decision to self-censor, a decision that even Google co-founder Sergei Brin calls a “mistake”. In fact, AIUSA recently pulled out of the multi-stakeholder initiative we joined in 2007, with the goal of establishing voluntary principles to promote and respect human rights on the Internet, because we saw no tangible results.

This week we’re able to see in real-time how critical the Internet is for Iranians as a forum for protest and communication. In China, the Internet is equally vital in voicing dissent and discussing justice and rights. If PC companies cave into the Chinese government’s demands to install software that filters internet content, then it could be the next step towards stifling this budding online democratic movement towards accountability, transparency, citizens’ right to participate.

So what’s next for PC companies? Will they be pioneers in socially responsible business practices or will they bend to the Great Firewall of China?

Join us in defending online freedom in China by taking this simple action.

With contributions from Anna Phelan (BERG) and Lillian Tan, Corporate Action Network Intern

Twitter Saves the Day

Since Friday’s Presidential election, the Iranian government has blocked access to several social networking sites, such as Facebook, and cut off cell phone services. But updates have continued to stream in from Iran via Twitter. While these updates are only 140 characters or less– they are certainly packing a punch.

Recent tweets read:

“Demo spread from Azadi sq, to streets and hwys around it. Cars honking horns, smaller groups marching. False hopes?”

“Dispersed fights in Tehran; sound of shooting heard”

“Tho today’s protest is illegal, police not moving in. Possibly too big to handle, or images of attax beg. to embarrass ldrs”

Follow the election protests on Twitter here. The Atlantic has a page called “Live-Tweeting the Revolution” with Twitter updates, as well. Other sites, such as Flickr, are constantly uploading photographs from these rallies.

It almost seems like 24-hour news networks just can’t keep up– they’ve even been accused of falling behind on coverage by bloggers!

Update: Twitter has pushed back its scheduled down time due to how important it has become for communication with Iran over the past few days.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Why Microsoft, Google and Yahoo! need to be reined in

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

Reporters without Borders (RWB) today issued its “Enemies of the Internet” report, exposing state censorship of free speech and expression around the world. Topping the group’s list were Burma, China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

While the United States is not on the list, RWB and Amnesty International earlier in the week highlighted the role of U.S. companies in internet censorship by calling on Microsoft, Yahoo! and Google to uncensor their search engines and blogging portals, even if just for a day, on the World Day Against Cyber Censorship (today March 12th).

The call on the companies is a reminder that censorship does not just happen by states acting alone. The very companies that provide access to information on-line are actively participating in the restriction of such access.

So, what happens when U.S. companies adopt the censorship practices of other countries rather than export the ideals of free speech that are largely granted to users in their homeland?

There is a clear need for regulation. While the industry has begun attempts at self-regulation, they have made far too little progress in far too much time. Rep. Chris Smith has been vigilant in trying to pass the Global Online Freedom Act, which would bring about transparency in state requests of U.S. firms to censor protected speech, and help the companies to refuse such requests, with the backing of the U.S. government.

To date, the companies have opposed the bill’s chances of becoming law.

If RWB and Amnesty’s call for one day of freedom from online censorship goes unheeded by the companies, it in itself will speak volumes — how can we expect them to make meaningful strides in their ongoing operations if they can’t even commit to a one-day, mostly a symbolic gesture?

If the U.S. doesn’t want to find itself on the “enemies” list one day, it needs to step in and regulate companies based in its soil that are essentially partners in the crackdown on free expression occurring across the world.