Posts tagged “Free Expression”

Oh Canada… China’s Human Rights Record Improving?

A report by Canadian diplomats obtained via Access to Information by the Globe and Mail suggests that China’s Human Rights record is improving. In addition to suggesting that that China is treating dissidents better because they are now only getting 5 years instead of 15-20 it states:

The report also maintains that Chinese scholars “continue to enjoy increasing intellectual freedom.” It praises the “steady increase in personal freedoms of the average person.” And it argues that the Chinese authorities “may be losing the battle to control the Internet.”

Tell that to Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning who are doing 10 years, thanks in part to Yahoo!.

Times are hard for Iran’s online free-speech pioneer

There is a nice article about Hossein Derakhshan in the Ottawa Citizen. It documents his shift in thinking and the troubles it has caused him. back when his blog was shutdown few of his former allies supported him.What changed? Hossein became very concerned about the demonization of Iran, a possible attack on Iran, and the manipulation of human rights issues to support the former.

All this has left him isolated from the community of politically active expatriate Iranians who formerly supported him. Some bloggers have removed links to his blog. Others have actively urged readers to boycott him. Interview requests from western-based Iranian media have dried up, as have invitations to ex-pat events and panel discussions.

It’s quite a change for someone once widely viewed as a free-speech techno-hero.

A while back Hossein shut down the site that he was running that was focused on Internet censorship in Iran as a protest against the use of the issue to demonize Iran. He wrote:

Internet censorship exists in Iran, as it does in many other parts of the world, especially in the Middle East.

But it has recently become another pretext for the United States and its allies to further demonise and delegitimise the government of Iran.

This reminded me of an earlier case regarding China, “The Great Chinese Censorship Hoax“. Two Chinese bloggers closed their blogs and waited for the news media, bloggers and anti-censorship groups to assume, which they did, that the government shut the blogs down. one of the bloggers involved stated:

“I just wanted to make fun of Western journalists? [content] doesn’t need to be serious on the Internet. I don’t like it that Western media take a distorted view of China, though China does have problems,” Wang told Interfax in an emailed statement, “I thought that if I closed my blog, it would stir their imagination and then they would begin blah blah. It really is as expected. So let’s they have an April Fool’s day in advance.”

These are only two cases but I’m wondering if these cases are a signal of an incubating trend.

Yahoo! Settles Law Suits

Yahoo has reportedly settled the law suits brought forward on behalf of Chinese citizen’s who were convicted in China with evidence provided by Yahoo playing a part in their conviction.

The World Organization for Human Rights (WOHR) USA, which brought the case on behalf of Shi Tao and Wang Xiaoning, said Yahoo had agreed to the settlement after “intense pressure” from lawmakers during a congressional hearing last week.

The terms of the settlement are to remain confidential, but Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Jerry Yang said in a statement the company would provide the Shi and Wang families with financial, humanitarian and legal support, and create a relief fund for other political dissidents.

Anti-Censorship/Privacy Enhancing Technologies

This article in Foreign Policy is representative of accounts of the development and use of anti-Censorship/privacy enhancing technologies that only tell part of the story. While technologies such as Tor and psiphon are given great treatment, the frame used to contextualize their use gives the misleading impression that they are only used in “repressive” countries:

One software program called Psiphon, which was developed by researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, allows any person with a computer to serve as a proxy for someone living behind a firewall. Since it was launched a year ago, more than 100,000 people have turned their personal computers into proxies.

The most sophisticated proxy technology may be Tor, developed jointly by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet freedom advocacy organization. Tor is a downloadable software that routes an Internet surfing session through three proxy servers randomly chosen from a network of more than 1,000 servers run by volunteers worldwide. “Tor is state of the art,” says John Mitchell, an expert on Internet security at Stanford University. For citizens of repressive regimes, it may be the best hope or evading the cat’s paw.

This partial picture ignores the global use of these technologies. More and more countries are censoring the Internet — not just China and Iran.

Here’s an interesting anecdote. When psiphon was released the CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster, covered it but the reporter working on the story had to phone me at the Citizen Lab because she could not access the psiphon website from CBC because it was blocked by their filtering software, aka censorware. This is not the first time I’ve heard this. Reporters at CBC need to use tools like psiphon to do their jobs!

The other missing piece is surveillance. The U.S., which has the most sophisticated electronic surveillance program in the world, has been caught illegally spying on citizens. Anti-Censorship/privacy enhancing technologies are used all over the world. Even the Privacy Commissioner of Canada recommends that Canadians use anonymous communications technologies. These are tools developed for and used by people all over the world. To pitch them as something that’s only used in repressive countries is misleading and inaccurate.

ONI: Myanmar/Burma Internet Closure

The OpenNet Initiative released a report documenting the Internet shutdown in Myanmar/Burma. Similar to the shutdown in Nepal after the King assumed power in a coup in 2005. Both of the ISPs cut their Internet access from September 29 to October 4 with the exception of a few brief periods of access. Also, the shutdown was gradual:

ONI also looked for signs of how the infrastructure was turned off during these outages. The Burmese Autonomous System (AS), which, like any other AS, is composed of several hierarchies of routers and provides the Internet infrastructure in-country. A switch off could therefore be conducted at the top by shutting off the border router(s), or a bottom up approach could be followed by first shutting down routers located a few hops deeper inside the AS.

A high-level traffic analysis of the logs of NTP (Network Time Protocol) servers indicates that the border routers corresponding to the two ISPs were not turned off suddenly. Rather, our analysis indicates that this was a gradual process: traffic fell to 14 percent of the previous week’s average on September 28, going down to 7 percent of the average on September 29 and zero traffic on September 30. This matches with the BGP data coming from AS 9988 and AS 18399 belonging to MPT and BaganNet respectively.

Canada Losing Ground

The headline of Reporters Without Borders’ 2007 Press Freedom Index reads:

Eritrea ranked last for first time while G8 members, except Russia, recover lost ground

A G8 member other than Russia also lost ground: Canada. In this year’s survey Canada ranks 18th with a score of 4,88 while in 2006 Canada ranked 16th with a score of 4,50. While it may only be a small dip, it is a slide nonetheless. As Canadian it is embarrassing and I want to highlight three trends that I see:

1) Government Surveillance of Journalists

Last September it was revealed that the names of journalists who had filed Access To Information as well as the content of their requests were being discussed on conference calls and circulated to the Prime Minister’s Office as well the the departments who were the target of the forthcoming article. In this particular case it was a reporter who had asked for information regarding the landing of CIA planes in Canada:

During that call, and minutes of others like it obtained by The Gazette, officials freely discuss media requests for information their departments have received. They also exchange information on who intends to submit a request and who is about receive documents under the access law.

“Noted there will shortly be another Bronskill/CIA Planes article, as new ATIP info is going out from PSEP,” the public safety and emergency preparedness department reported. “The info essentially reiterates that normal procedures were followed and nothing abnormal was discovered.”

2) A “Controlled” Press Centre

Although it was shelved upon becoming public the Prime Minister’s plan to build a new press centre has serious negative consequences for journalism in Canada. Annoyed with the questions asked by journalists the Prime Minister sought to have his staff select which reporters could ask questions but was refused so he resurrected the Liberal’s plan to build a new media centre in which his staff would control who asked questions. The ability to manipulate and control what questions are asked is a serious threat to democracy. As The Star notes: “If reporters can’t freely question political leaders, press freedom is diminished, and so is democracy.”

3) Media Consolidation

AdBusters reports that “just four corporations now control 70 percent of the country’s newspaper circulation” and my hometown, Vancouver, is the worst in the country. In Vancouver one company owns “70 percent of the entire media market and is the only voice of record for the city.”

[CanWest] now owns both of Vancouver’s daily newspapers (the Sun and the tabloid Province), the city’s top-rated television station (GlobalTV), 12 community newspapers, eight analog and digital television stations, and one of two national papers. For good measure, it also owns the only daily in the nearby provincial capital, Victoria’s Times Colonist.

UPDATED: Nov, 10, 2007

4) Non-Compliance with Access to Information requests

What right does the public have to know?
Access to information system too often a barrier to transparency:Newspaper group

The National Freedom of Information Audit conducted by the Canadian Newspaper Association concluded:

Clearly, most Canadian jurisdictions continue to demonstrate confusion, inconsistency and a flawed understanding of the importance of transparency to the democratic system and how access to information rights are a public right that underpins the transparency principle.

Canada: What Questions Get Asked?

The Toronto Star has an article about the free speech ramifications of the now shelved plan to build a new press centre in which the Prime Minister would get to choose which reports — which questions — would be asked. (The Liberals under Martin tried to do this too).

The background: Shortly after he was elected Prime Minister, Stephen Harper tried to change the rules for press conferences at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, which is controlled by the press gallery. He insisted that his staff be allowed to choose which reporters could ask him questions, instead of the reporters themselves deciding.

… the Prime Minister’s Office asked civil servants to draw up a $2 million plan to renovate a vacant shoe store in downtown Ottawa into a new press conference centre, this one to be controlled by the Prime Minister. The plan has been shelved, at least for now.

This is the system used by the president of the United States – and many other countries. It is a bad one, and here’s why. The real issue is not who gets to ask questions, but what questions get asked. If Canada adopts the U.S. style, the Prime Minister will be able to call on friendly reporters and avoid reporters who ask difficult, necessary questions.

The GFW of Comcast?

There have been a number of recent reports stating that Comcast is interfering with file-sharing traffic including BitTorent, Gnutella, and Lotus Notes. The reports state that the technique used is the TCP RST packet technique that the GFW of China has made (in)famous. (An intermediary send RST packets to both ends of a connection, effectively terminating it. For more technical info see Ignoring the Great Firewall and ConceptDoppler.)


China: Media Shift

I thought it might shift.

AT&T Retracts Censor Clause

AT&T has retracted a censorship clause in their ToS which allowed them to “pull the plug” on anything that “tends to damage the name or reputation of AT&T, or its parents, affiliates and subsidiaries.” They’ve now amended the ToS to say:

5.1 Suspension/Termination. AT&T respects freedom of expression and believes it is a foundation of our free society to express differing points of view. AT&T will not terminate, disconnect or suspend service because of the views you or we express on public policy matters, political issues or political campaigns.


The Citizen Lab has released “Everyone’s Guide to Bypassing Internet Censorship (pdf)”. It was a team effort to produce the guide and I’m very pleased to have contributed to it. I’ve long argued that users can benefit from circumvention technology the most when the carefully select the technology that meets their specific needs.

The guide walks users through the process of assessing their needs and and capabilities and lists clusters of circumvention technology options for users to choose from.

Syria: Censorship Concerns

The Angry Arab reports:

Al-Akhbar newspaper has decided to stop distributing the paper in Syria due to censorship and irregularities from the Syrian government.

(The Arabic article is available here.)

China not blocking RSS/Feeds

EDIT: the focus here is on the fact that China is not dynamically blocking ALL RSS Feeds, however, feeds hosted on already blocked sites are, of course, also blocked.

This article claims that RSS feeds are being blocked in China.

More recent reports tell us that the PSB appears to have extended this block to all incoming URLs that begin with “feeds,” “rss,” and “blog,” thus rendering the RSS feeds from many sites—including ones that aren’t blocked in China, such as Ars Technica—useless.

I’ve tested and they are not blocked.

As Danwei points out “Ars Technica feed are inaccessible in China because it is run through Feedburner’s server (, which is blocked.

GV Advocacy has a nice round-up here.

“Cyber Jihadist” Trial

The trial of a man accused of “virtual jihad” is about to start in Germany, reports The case will focus on whether the (re) posting of audio and video files on the Internet along with the occasion appeal for jihad constitutes “attempting to recruit members” for terrorist organizations.

“It’s an important trial because it will shed light on whether what happens in closed chat groups on the Internet falls under freedom of expression or whether you can penalize it if there’s proof of planned attacks,” said Carstensen.[press spokesman for Germany’s criminal investigators’ union (BdK) ]

EU Wants to block searches for “bomb”

“I do intend to carry out a clear exploring exercise with the private sector … on how it is possible to use technology to prevent people from using or searching dangerous words like bomb, kill, genocide or terrorism,” Frattini told Reuters.


Searching for such words brings up quite a number of non-bomb-making-instruction sites, forcing search engines to not allow searches for such generic terms is ridiculous. The top results for a Google search for “genocide” for example returns a Wikipedia entry, a site dedicated to stopping genocide in Darfur among others. That much is obvious.

Perhaps EU Justice and Security Commissioner Franco Frattini meant that specific sites, such as sites with instructions on how to make a bomb, should be removed from search engines. In this scenario it is not that a user cannot search for the word “bomb” but if such a designated web site were to appear in the results it would not be shown to the user. This is what is already done by search engines in regard to copyright violations, hate speech, libel/defamation an any other “legal” request (such as news & politics websites that the Chinese government deems illegal). It would be fairly simple for the EU to request that search engines de-list certain sites, but of course, this comes with all the baggage of filtering systems (over-blocking, under-blocking & circumvention).

The above concerns aside the proposal is actually even more misguided. It assumes that search engines are the only way to access information. Such a policy would not take into account direct access to such sites, links fro other sites, especially forums, chat rooms, IM’s and so on. It is a shortsighted policy that appears to be mostly for show in the same vein as Seth Finkelstein argues about the deployment of censorware:

…governments end up giving money to these companies for the political benefits of being able to Do Something About The Problem (no matter the flaws).

The “wanting to do something” sentiment appears strong in this case as does the lack of careful consideration.