Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

Facebook and YouTube are allowing themselves to become tools of the Vietnamese authorities’ censorship and harassment

December 1, 2020

On 1 December 2020, Amnesty International published a new report on how Facebook and YouTube are allowing themselves to become tools of the Vietnamese authorities’ censorship and harassment of its population, in an alarming sign of how these companies could increasingly operate in repressive countries. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/03/more-on-facebook-and-twitter-and-content-moderation/].

The 78-page report, “Let us Breathe!”: Censorship and criminalization of online expression in Viet Nam”, documents the systematic repression of peaceful online expression in Viet Nam, including the widespread “geo-blocking” of content deemed critical of the authorities, all while groups affiliated to the government deploy sophisticated campaigns on these platforms to harass everyday users into silence and fear.

The report is based on dozens of interviews with human rights defenders and activists, including former prisoners of conscience, lawyers, journalists and writers, in addition to information provided by Facebook and Google. It also reveals that Viet Nam is currently holding 170 prisoners of conscience, of whom 69 are behind bars solely for their social media activity. This represents a significant increase in the number of prisoners of conscience estimated by Amnesty International in 2018.

In the last decade, the right to freedom of expression flourished on Facebook and YouTube in Viet Nam. More recently, however, authorities began focusing on peaceful online expression as an existential threat to the regime,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns.

Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls. The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen – they’re increasingly complicit.

In 2018, Facebook’s income from Viet Nam neared US$1 billion – almost one third of all revenue from Southeast Asia. Google, which owns YouTube, earned US$475 million in Viet Nam during the same period, mainly from YouTube advertising. The size of these profits underlines the importance for Facebook and Google of maintaining market access in Viet Nam.”

In April 2020, Facebook announced it had agreed to “significantly increase” its compliance with requests from the Vietnamese government to censor “anti-state” posts. It justified this policy shift by claiming the Vietnamese authorities were deliberately slowing traffic to the platform as a warning to the company.

Last month, in Facebook’s latest Transparency Report – its first since it revealed its policy of increased compliance with the Vietnamese authorities’ censorship demands – the company revealed a 983% increase in content restrictions based on local law as compared with the previous reporting period, from 77 to 834. Meanwhile, YouTube has consistently won praise from Vietnamese censors for its relatively high rate of compliance with censorship demands.

State-owned media reported Information Minister Nguyen Manh Hung as saying in October that compliance with the removal of “bad information, propaganda against the Party and the State” was higher than ever, with Facebook and Google complying with 95% and 90% of censorship requests, respectively.

Based on dozens of testimonies and evidence, Amnesty International’s report shows how Facebook and YouTube’s increasing censorship of content in Vietnam operates in practice.

In some cases, users see their content censored under vaguely worded local laws, including offences such as “abusing democratic freedoms” under the country’s Criminal Code. Amnesty International views these laws as inconsistent with Viet Nam’s obligations under international human rights law. Facebook then “geo-blocks” content, meaning it becomes invisible to anyone accessing the platform in Viet Nam.

Nguyen Van Trang, a pro-democracy activist now seeking asylum in Thailand, told Amnesty International that in May 2020, Facebook notified him that one of his posts had been restricted due to “local legal restrictions”. Since then, Facebook has blocked every piece of content he has tried to post containing the names of senior members of the Communist Party. 

Nguyen Van Trang has experienced similar restrictions on YouTube, which, unlike Facebook, gave him the option to appeal such restrictions. Some appeals have succeeded and others not, without YouTube providing any explanation.

Truong Chau Huu Danh is a well-known freelance journalist with 150,000 followers and a verified Facebook account. He told Amnesty International that between 26 March and 8 May 2020, he posted hundreds of pieces of content about a ban on rice exports and the high-profile death penalty case of Ho Duy Hai. In June, he realized these posts had all vanished without any notification from Facebook whatsoever.

Amnesty International heard similar accounts from other Facebook users, particularly when they tried to post about a high-profile land dispute in the village of Dong Tam, which opposed local villagers to military-run telecommunications company Viettel. The dispute culminated in a confrontation between villagers and security forces in January 2020 that saw the village leader and three police officers killed.

After Facebook announced its new policy in April 2020, land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu reported that all the content they had shared about the Dong Tam incident had been removed from their timelines without their knowledge and without notification.

On 24 June 2020, the pair were arrested and charged with “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” under Article 117 of the Criminal Code after they reported extensively on the Dong Tam incident. They are currently in detention. Their Facebook accounts have disappeared since their arrests under unknown circumstances. Amnesty International considers both Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu to be prisoners of conscience.

The Vietnamese authorities’ campaign of repression often results in the harassment, intimidation, prosecution and imprisonment of people for their social media use. There are currently 170 prisoners of conscience imprisoned in Viet Nam, the highest number ever recorded in the country by Amnesty International. Nearly two in five (40%) have been imprisoned because of their peaceful social media activity.

Twenty-one of the 27 prisoners of conscience jailed in 2020, or 78%, were prosecuted because of their peaceful online activity under Articles 117 or 331 of the Criminal Code – the same repressive provisions that often form the basis of ‘local legal restrictions’ implemented by Facebook and YouTube. For every prisoner of conscience behind bars, there are countless people in Viet Nam who see this pattern of repression and intimidation and are understandably terrified about speaking their mind. Ming Yu Hah

These individuals’ supposed “crimes” include peacefully criticizing the authorities’ COVID-19 response on Facebook and sharing independent information about human rights online.

For every prisoner of conscience behind bars, there are countless people in Viet Nam who see this pattern of repression and intimidation and are understandably terrified about speaking their minds,” said Ming Yu Hah.

Amnesty International has documented dozens of incidents in recent years in which human rights defenders have received messages meant to harass and intimidate, including death threats. The systematic and organized nature of these harassment campaigns consistently bear the hallmarks of state-sponsored cyber-troops such as Du Luan Vien or “public opinion shapers” – people recruited and managed by the Communist Party of Viet Nam (CPV)’s Department of Propaganda to engage in psychological warfare online.

The activities of Du Luan Vien are complemented by those of “Force 47”, a cyberspace military battalion made up of some 10,000 state security forces whose function is to “fight against wrong views and distorted information on the internet”.

While “Force 47” and groups such as Du Luan Vien operate opaquely, they are known to engage in mass reporting campaigns targeting human rights –related content, often leading to their removal and account suspensions by Facebook and YouTube.

Additionally, Amnesty International’s investigation documented multiple cases of bloggers and social media users being physically attacked because of their posts by the police or plainclothes assailants, who operate with the apparent acquiescence of state authorities and with virtually no accountability for such crimes.


Putting an end to complicity

The Vietnamese authorities must stop stifling freedom of expression online. Amnesty International is calling for all prisoners of conscience in Viet Nam to be released immediately and unconditionally and for the amendment of repressive laws that muzzle freedom of expression.

Companies – including Facebook and Google – have a responsibility to respect all human rights wherever they operate. They should respect the right to freedom of expression in their content moderation decisions globally, regardless of local laws that muzzle freedom of expression. Tech giants should also overhaul their content moderation policies to ensure their decisions align with international human rights standards.

In October 2020, Facebook launched a global Oversight Board – presented as the company’s independent “Supreme Court” and its solution to the human rights challenges presented by content moderation. Amnesty International’s report reveals, however, that the Board’s bylaws will prevent it from reviewing the company’s censorship actions pursuant to local law in countries like Vet Nam. It’s increasingly obvious that the Oversight Board is incapable of solving Facebook’s human rights problems. Ming Yu Hah

“It’s increasingly obvious that the Oversight Board is incapable of solving Facebook’s human rights problems. Facebook should expand the scope of the Oversight Board to include content moderation decisions pursuant to local law; if not, the Board – and Facebook – will have again failed Facebook users,” said Ming Yu Hah.

[see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/04/11/algorithms-designed-to-suppress-isis-content-may-also-suppress-evidence-of-human-rights-violations/]

“Far from the public relations fanfare, countless people who dare to speak their minds in Viet Nam are being silenced. The precedent set by this complicity is a grave blow to freedom of expression around the world.”

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/12/viet-nam-tech-giants-complicit/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/01/facebook-youtube-google-accused-complicity-vietnam-repression

https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/facebook-vietnams-fickle-partner-in-crime/

ZOOM accused of suspending accounts of human rights defenders

July 29, 2020

Bernise Carolino on 28 July 2020 wrote in the Canadian lawyers Magazine that Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada has condemned Zoom Communications Inc.’s suspension of the accounts of human rights activists, calling it a breach of its responsibility to respect the rights to free expression, association and assembly.

A letter from Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada called upon Zoom to ensure that the communications of its users are not similarly suspended or disrupted in the future. The group urged Zoom to establish a company policy to clarify how it intends to adhere to its international legal responsibility under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The group also requested that Zoom refrain from blocking participation of users based on geography.

In June, Zoom suspended three accounts of activists based in the U.S. and Hong Kong in compliance with a request from the government of China, which claimed that the activists were trying to use Zoom to host meetings commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Zoom then reinstated the accounts and said that it would not in the future permit such requests to affect individuals outside mainland China.

Despite the reinstatement of these accounts, the lawyers’ rights group took issue with Zoom’s plans to develop technology that will allow it to remove or block participants based on their location in response to requests from local authorities claiming that certain activity on the platform is prohibited based on their country’s laws.

All international businesses, including Zoom, must ensure that all their users can enjoy the rights and freedoms afforded to them under international law,” wrote Joey Doyle, a director of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada and an author of the letter, in the organization’s press release. “This is particularly important in this present world where most communication takes place over online platforms such as Zoom.”

Zoom has an international law obligation to respect the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, the right to access information and the right to privacy, said Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as legal bases. The group also called attention to the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which recognizes the right of such defenders to advance the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Joshua Lam, another director of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, and executive director Catherine Morris co-authored the letter, addressed to Eric S. Yuan, Zoom’s founder and chief executive officer, and Lynn Haaland, the company’s chief compliance and ethics officer.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/21/frontlines-guide-to-secure-group-chat-and-conferencing-tools/

https://www.canadianlawyermag.com/practice-areas/privacy-and-data/lawyers-rights-watch-canada-urges-zoom-to-abide-by-international-human-rights-obligations/331904

Anti-Censorship initiative with free VPN accounts for human rights defenders

July 15, 2020

On 14 July Business-Wire reported that the VPN company TunnelBear has partnered with NGOs to give away 20,000 accounts (these NGOs inlcude Access Now, Frontline Defenders, Internews, and one other undisclosed participant).

This program aims to empower individuals and organizations with the tools they need to browse a safe and open internet environment, regardless of where they live. The VPN provider is encouraging other NGOs or media organizations across the world to reach out if they too are in need of support. “At TunnelBear, we strongly believe in an open and uncensored internet. Whenever we can use our technology to help people towards that end, we will,” said TunnelBear Cofounder Ryan Dochuk.

TunnelBear’s VPN encrypts its user’s internet traffic to enable a private and censor-free browsing experience.

By undergoing and releasing independent audits of their systems, adopting open source tools, and collaborating with the open source community, TunnelBear has proven itself to be an industry leader in the VPN space and a valuable private sector partner within the internet freedom movement. Internews is happy to support TunnelBear in extending its VPN service to the media organizations, journalists, activists, and human rights defenders around the globe who can benefit from it,” said Jon Camfield, Director of Global Technology Strategy at Internews.

Contact: Shames Abdelwahab press@tunnelbear.com

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/06/23/trump-now-starts-dismanteling-the-open-technology-fund/

https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200714005302/en/TunnelBear-Kicks-Anti-Censorship-Initiative-Free-Accounts-Activists

Trump now starts dismanteling the Open Technology Fund

June 23, 2020

Raphael Mimoun wrote in Newsweek of 22 June 2020 an opinion piece “Dictators are Besieging Internet Freedom—and Trump Just Opened the Gates”. It is a detailed piece but worth reading:

raph-m

Last week, the Trump administration started dismantling one of the US government’s most impactful agencies, the Open Technology Fund, which supports projects to counteract repressive censorship and surveillance around the world.

The Open Technology Fund, or OTF, is relatively new, founded in 2012 as a program of the government-backed Radio Free Asia. In 2019, it became an independent non-profit reporting to the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). Since its founding, the organization has funded dozens of projects now part of the toolkit of millions of rights advocates and journalists around the world. But OTF is now under attack: the new leadership of USAGM, appointed just weeks ago, fired the leadership of all USAGM entities, including OTF, dismissed OTF’s independent and bipartisan board of directors, and is threatening to hollow out OTF altogether….

Many of those tools help those who most need it, where surveillance, censorship, and repression is most acute. Just last month, Delta Chat declined a request for user data from Russia’s communication regulator—because the security architecture developed with OTF support meant it did not have any data to handover. FreeWechat, which publishes posts censored by the Chinese government on the app WeChat, has been visited over 7 million times by Chinese-speakers. Dozens more OTF-funded tools enable millions to evade surveillance by autocratic governments and access the open internet, from Cuba to Hong Kong and Iran.

OTF’s work is critical to human rights defenders and journalists, but it brings privacy and security far beyond those groups. OTF only supports open-source projects, meaning that the code used must be available for anyone to view and reuse……….

But OTF’s work on internet freedom isn’t limited to funding technology development. The organization takes a holistic approach to internet freedom, providing life-saving training and capacity-building to groups directly targeted by cyberattacks, harassment, and violence: LGBTQI advocates in Indonesia, journalists in Mexico, civic activists in Belarus, or exiled Tibetan organizations. OTF also funds events bringing together researchers, technologists, policy-makers, and advocates. Those gatherings—whether global like the Internet Freedom Festival or focused on specific countries or regions like the Iran Cyber Dialogue, the Vietnam Cyber Dialogue, or the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa–have been transformative. They have helped build a tight community in a space where trust is hard to achieve. Without such events, many of the projects, tools, and collaborations to circumvent censorship and counter surveillance would not exist.

See also: https://www.theverge.com/2020/6/23/21300424/open-technology-fund-usagm-circumvention-tools-china-censorship-michael-pack

https://www.newsweek.com/open-technology-fund-trump-dismantling-1512614

Amnesty accuses Facebook of complicity in Vietnamese censorship

April 22, 2020

On 21 April, Reuters reported that Facebook has begun to significantly step up its censorship of “anti-state” posts in the country. This follows pressure from the authorities, including what the company suspects were deliberate restrictions placed on its local servers by state-owned telecommunications companies that caused Facebook to become unusable for periods of time. The next day Amnesty International demanded that Facebook reverses immediately its decision.  “The revelation that Facebook is caving to Viet Nam’s far-reaching demands for censorship is a devastating turning point for freedom of expression in Viet Nam and beyond,” said William Nee, Business and Human Rights Advisor at Amnesty International. “The Vietnamese authorities’ ruthless suppression of freedom of expression is nothing new, but Facebook’s shift in policy makes them complicit.

Facebook must base its content regulation on international human rights standards for freedom of expression, not on the arbitrary whims of a rights-abusing government. Facebook has a responsibility to respect freedom of expression by refusing to cooperate with these indefensible takedown requests.” The Vietnamese authorities have a long track record of characterizing legitimate criticism as “anti-state” and prosecuting human rights defenders for “conducting propaganda against the state.” The authorities have been actively suppressing online speech amid the COVID-19 pandemic and escalating repressive tactics in recent weeks.  “It is shocking that the Vietnamese authorities are further restricting its peoples’ access to information in the midst of a pandemic. The Vietnamese authorities are notorious for harassing peaceful critics and whistleblowers. This move will keep the world even more in the dark about what is really happening in Viet Nam,” said William Nee.

Facebook’s decision follows years of efforts by Vietnamese authorities to profoundly undermine freedom of expression online, during which they prosecuted an increasing number of peaceful government critics for their online activity and introduced a repressive cybersecurity law that requires technology companies to hand over potentially vast amounts of data, including personal information, and to censor users’ posts. “Facebook’s compliance with these demands sets a dangerous precedent. Governments around the world will see this as an open invitation to enlist Facebook in the service of state censorship. It does all tech firms a terrible disservice by making them vulnerable to the same type of pressure and harassment from repressive governments,” said William Nee…

In a report published last year, Amnesty International found that around 10% of Viet Nam’s prisoners of conscience – individuals jailed solely for peacefully exercising their human rights – were jailed in relation to their Facebook activity. In January 2020, the Vietnamese authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on social media, including Facebook and YouTube, in an attempt to silence public discussion of a high-profile land dispute in the village of Dong Tam, which has attracted persistent allegations of corruption and led to deadly clashes between security forces and villagers.  The crackdown has only intensified since the onset of COVID-19. Between January and mid-March, a total of 654 people were summoned to police stations across Viet Nam to attend “working sessions” with police related to their Facebook posts connected to the virus, among whom 146 were subjected to financial fines and the rest were forced to delete their posts. On 15 April, authorities introduced a sweeping new decree, 15/2020, which imposes new penalties on alleged social media content which falls foul of vague and arbitrary restrictions. The decree further empowers the government to force tech companies to comply with arbitrary censorship and surveillance measures.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/10/28-ngos-ask-eu-parliament-to-reject-cooperation-deal-with-vietnam-on-11-february/

Re Facebook and content moderation see also the Economist piece of 1 February 2020: https://www.economist.com/business/2020/01/30/facebook-unveils-details-of-its-content-oversight-board

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/viet-nam-facebook-cease-complicity-government-censorship/

Policy response by human rights to COVID-19: the Human Rights Foundation

April 5, 2020

Further in the series of posts on this topic: On 13-14 April 2020, the New York based Human Rights Foundation will host COVIDCon, a virtual Oslo Freedom Forum event focused on how tyranny sparked and is exploiting the novel coronavirus pandemic to crack down on civil liberties. For earlier posts: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/tag/covid-19/

This two-day event, open to global audiences, will feature presentations and panels about the current pandemic and its relationship to state censorship, disinformation, surveillance, and the future of civil liberties. COVIDCon sessions will showcase the difference in the responses of authoritarian regimes and democratic governments to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Confirmed speakers include former Chinese prisoner of conscience Yang Jianli; Iranian journalist and human rights activist Masih Alinejad; Russian democracy advocate Garry Kasparov; recently expelled Wall Street Journal deputy China bureau chief Josh Chin; entrepreneur and angel investor Naval Ravikant; Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong; futurist and “After On” author Rob Reid; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum; Ideas Beyond Borders’ Melissa Chen; China-U.S. expert Kyle Bass; and others.

Day 1 of the conference will focus on how tyranny sparked the pandemic. Sessions will include:

  • Censorship in China: The Pandemic Spark
  • How Democracies and Dictatorships are Reacting to the Virus
  • China: Savior or Culprit?
  • Reporting on COVID-19: State Censorship and Surveillance
  • What the Pandemic has Revealed about Chinese Economic Dominance
  • The Increasing Risk of Synthetic Biology

Day 2 of the conference will focus on how tyranny exploits the pandemic. Sessions will include:

  • Iran’s Criminal Negligence: COVID-19’s Gateway to the Middle East
  • Pandemic Power Grab: State Abuse of Emergency Laws
  • Trampling on the Rule of Law and Undermining Public Health
  • Keeping Protest Movements Alive During The Pandemic
  • How the Pandemic Changes the Relationship Between Citizen, Technology, and State

REGISTER

https://mailchi.mp/dcbac9797509/authoritarian-regimes-ill-equipped-for-public-health-emergencies-287692?e=f80cec329e

EU Parliament ‘improves’ proposed Terrorist Content Regulation

April 18, 2019

After my earlier piece about the risks in the draft EU regulation on terrorism content [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/01/31/ngos-express-fear-that-new-eu-terrorist-content-draft-will-make-things-worse-for-human-rights-defenders/], I am happy to report that some NGOs have welcomed the changes now made in the latest version.

On 17 April 2019 eub2 reports that “EU Parliament deletes the worst threats to freedom of expression proposed in the Terrorist Content Regulation”: Read the rest of this entry »

NGOs express fear that new EU ‘terrorist content’ draft will make things worse for human rights defenders

January 31, 2019

On Wednesday 30 January 2019 Mike Masnick in TechDirt published a piece entitled: “Human Rights Groups Plead With The EU Not To Pass Its Awful ‘Terrorist Content’ Regulation“. The key argument is that machine-learning algorithms are not able to distinguish between terrorist propaganda and investigations of, say, war crimes, It points out that as an example that Germany’s anti-“hate speech” law has proven to be misused by authoritarian regimes. Read the rest of this entry »

World Press Freedom Index 2018 is out – colorful but disheartening

January 30, 2019

The World Press Freedom Index 2018 is out.

Published every year since 2002 by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the World Press Freedom Index is an advocacy tool. The Index is a point of reference that is quoted by media throughout the world and is used by diplomats and international entities such as the United Nations and the World Bank.

The Index ranks 180 countries and regions according to the level of freedom available to journalists. (It is a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country and region. It does not rank public policies even if governments obviously have a major impact on their country’s ranking. Nor is it an indicator of the quality of journalism in each country or region.)

Click here for more information

THE PRESS FREEDOM MAP, which is distributed in print and digital versions, offers a visual overview of the situation in each country and region in the Index. The colour categories are assigned as follows: good (white), fairly good (yellow), problematic (orange), bad (red) and very bad (black).

 

https://rsf.org/en/ranking

LinkedIn reverses censorship position re Zhou Fengsuo’s profile

January 7, 2019

Zhou Fengsuo –  Getty Images

On 3 January, LinkedIn sent Zhou a message saying his profile and activities would not be viewable to users in China because of “specific content on your profile” (without saying which content!). Hours later, Microsoft-owned LinkedIn reversed its decision, apparently after South China Morning Post reporter Owen Churchill brought attention to the case. See the exchange below:

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