App blocking aimed at protests, expressions of dissent

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Authoritarian regimes most frequently restricted communication apps to prevent or quell antigovernment protests, as they have become indispensable for sharing information on demonstrations and organizing participants in real time. In Ethiopia, ongoing protests that began in November 2015 in response to the government’s marginalization of the Oromo people have been met with periodic blocks on services including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Twitter. In Bahrain, Telegram was blocked for several days around the anniversary of the February 14, 2011, “Day of Rage” protests, likely to quash any plans for renewed demonstrations.

In Bangladesh, the authorities ordered the blocking of platforms including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Viber to prevent potential protests following a Supreme Court ruling in November that upheld death sentences for two political leaders convicted of war crimes. The longest block lasted 22 days. In Uganda, officials directed internet service providers to block WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter for several days during the presidential election period in February 2016 and again in the run-up to the reelected incumbent’s inauguration in May. In both instances, the unprecedented blocking worked to silence citizens’ discontent with the president’s 30-year grip on power and their efforts to report on the ruling party’s notorious electoral intimidation tactics.

Key trends

Social media users face unprecedented penalties: In addition to restricting access to social media and communication apps, state authorities more frequently imprison users for their posts and the content of their messages, creating a chilling effect among others who write on controversial topics. Users in some countries were put behind bars for simply “liking” offending material on Facebook, or for not denouncing critical messages sent to them by others. Offenses that led to arrests ranged from mocking the king’s pet dog in Thailand to “spreading atheism” in Saudi Arabia. The number of countries where such arrests occur has increased by over 50 percent since 2013.

Governments censor more diverse content: Governments have expanded censorship to cover a growing diversity of topics and online activities. Sites and pages through which people initiate digital petitions or calls for protests were censored in more countries than before, as were websites and online news outlets that promote the views of political opposition groups. Content and websites dealing with LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) issues were also increasingly blocked or taken down on moral grounds. Censorship of images—as opposed to the written word—has intensified, likely due to the ease with which users can now share them, and the fact that they often serve as compelling evidence of official wrongdoing.

Market threats to national telecoms lead to backlash

Internet-based messaging and calling platforms faced increasing restrictions from governments seeking to protect their countries’ major state-owned or private telecommunications companies. Given the rising popularity of new communication services over the past decade, telecoms in some markets have become concerned about the future economic viability of their traditional text and voice services, particularly when the new competitors are not subject to the same regulatory obligations and fees.

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Typically free to download, messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram, and Facebook Messenger have proliferated in emerging markets, where the advent of low-cost, internet-enabled mobile devices and smartphones have made sending messages, photos, and even videos via online tools much more affordable than traditional SMS, for which telecom carriers charge a variable rate per message. Indeed, app-based mobile messaging has surpassed SMS texting worldwide since at least 2013.

Similarly, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and internet-based video calling services such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and Apple’s FaceTime have significantly reduced the cost of real-time audio and visual communication for users, resulting in the decreased use of traditional phone services that charge by the minute. Though telecom companies still profit from the data used by internet-based platforms, continual improvements in network infrastructure have only made data plans cheaper, threatening to leave traditional voice and SMS services further behind.

One of the first market-related restrictions on internet-based communication services was imposed by the American telecommunications company AT&T in 2007, when it partnered with Apple to become the sole mobile provider for the first iPhone and subsequently banned VoIP applications that could make calls using a wireless data connection. Google’s Voice app was consequently rejected by the iPhone’s app store, and Skype developed a version of its platform that only allowed iPhone users to make calls when connected to a Wi-Fi network. Under pressure from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), AT&T changed course in 2009, setting a positive precedent and providing users with more freedom to choose from a suite of services based on quality and affordability.

In the past year, restrictions to protect market interests escalated most prominently in the Middle East and North Africa. The UAE had been an early mover, requiring VoIP services to obtain a license to operate as a telecom provider and subsequently blocking both the voice and video calling features of Skype, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger in 2014, in an effort to protect the profits of state-owned telecom companies. Most recently, Snapchat’s calling function was disabled in April 2016. While circumvention tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) were widely used to bypass the blocks, the government cracked down in July 2016, adopting amendments to the Cybercrime Law that penalize the “illegal” use of VPNs with temporary imprisonment, fines of between US$136,000 and US$545,000, or both.

Morocco’s telecommunications regulator issued a directive in January 2016 that suspended all internet calling services over mobile networks, citing previously unenforced licensing requirements under the 2004 telecommunications law. The order seemed heavily influenced by the UAE’s Etisalat, which purchased a majority stake in Maroc Telecom, the country’s largest operator, in 2014. In Egypt, where long-distance VoIP calls on Skype have been blocked since 2010, voice calling features on WhatsApp and Viber have reportedly been inaccessible since October 2015. The calling functions of popular platforms were also disabled in Saudi Arabia, while Apple has been forced to sell its iPhone in the kingdom without the built-in FaceTime app.

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Pressure to regulate mobile communication services in the past year threatened to impede access to such platforms in other regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, where mobile internet use has been growing rapidly. In Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, private telecommunications companies lobbied governments to regulate internet-based messaging and voice calling platforms such as Skype and WhatsApp, citing concerns over their profits. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s single telecommunications provider, state-owned EthioTelecom, announced plans in April 2016 to introduce a new pricing scheme for mobile users of popular communication applications. Companies in the European Union (EU) pushed EU officials throughout 2016 to regulate new communication services, calling for a “level playing field” that subjects messaging and calling platforms to the same regulatory framework, licensing fees, and law enforcement access requirements as traditional telecoms.

Users punished for their connections and readership

One goal of social media is to allow users to share content with a wide circle of connections. Police in some countries seem determined to undermine that goal, specifically pursuing individuals whose content goes viral. In Zimbabwe, Pastor Evan Mawarire was arrested in July 2016 after his YouTube videos criticizing the country’s leadership sparked the #ThisFlag social media campaign and inspired nationwide protests. Elsewhere, charges often multiplied as content was passed along: In November 2015, 17 people in Hungary were charged with defamation for sharing a Facebook post that questioned the legitimacy of the mayor of Siófok’s financial dealings.

In a disturbing development, defendants whose content failed to spread widely were nevertheless punished as a warning to others. In Russia, mechanical engineer Andrey Bubeyev was sentenced to two years in prison in May 2016 for reposting material that identified the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula as part of Ukraine on the social network VKontakte. He shared the information with just 12 contacts.

Authorities in other cases scoured social media for a pretext to charge specific individuals, or were so intent on suppressing certain content that identifying the correct defendant was of secondary importance. In Ethiopia, charges against an opposition politician and student protesters principally cited evidence gleaned from social media. Pseudonymous accounts offered limited protection and raised the risk of mistaken identity. A man in Uganda was charged on suspicion of operating the popular Facebook page Tom Voltaire Okwalinga, but he denied being responsible for the page, which frequently accused senior leaders of corruption and incompetence. Some people were held responsible for posts clearly made by others. At least three criminal charges were filed in India against the administrators of WhatsApp groups based on offensive or antireligious comments shared by other group members.

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A number of users were apparently targeted only to punish their associates. In Thailand, Patnaree Chankij, the mother of an activist who opposes Thailand’s military government, was charged with insulting the monarchy based on a private, one-word acknowledgement she sent in reply to a Facebook Messenger post from her son’s friend; police said she failed to criticize or take action against the antiroyalist sentiment in the post, instead replying “yes” or “I see.” Patnaree told journalists that the charge was in reprisal for her son’s activities. In China, police detained the local relatives of at least three overseas journalists and bloggers who produce online content that the Chinese government perceives as critical.

Broad antiterrorism laws lead to unjust penalties
In numerous authoritarian countries, officials enforced antiterrorism and national security laws in a manner that produced excessive or entirely inappropriate punishments for online activity. In the gravest cases, such laws were used to crack down on nonviolent activists, prominent journalists, and ordinary citizens who simply questioned government policies or religious doctrine.

In December 2015, a court in Russia handed down the first maximum sentence of five years in prison for extremism to blogger Vadim Tyumentsev, who was charged for posting videos that criticized pro-Kremlin separatists in eastern Ukraine and called for the expulsion of refugees coming to Russia from the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. In July 2016, a new Russian law increased the maximum prison term for justifying or inciting terrorism to seven years. Penalties are even harsher in Pakistan, where antiterrorism courts sentenced two men in separate cases to 13 years in prison for promoting sectarian hatred on Facebook. A lawyer for one of the men said he had only “liked” the post in question, which was described as “against the belief of Sunni Muslims.”

Overly broad definitions of terrorism often resulted in spurious convictions. In Jordan, activist Ali Malkawi was arrested for criticizing the stance of Arab and Muslim leaders regarding the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority. He was sentenced to three months in jail under the antiterrorism law for “disturbing relations with a friendly state.” Ethiopian blogger Zelalem Workagenehu was found guilty of terrorism and sentenced to over five years in prison in May for facilitating a course on digital security.

In some cases, journalists were branded as terrorists for independently documenting civil strife and armed conflicts. Sayed Ahmed al-Mousawi, an award-winning Bahraini photojournalist, was sentenced to 10 years in prison under an antiterrorism law in November 2015 due to his role in covering antigovernment protests and providing SIM cards to alleged “terrorists.” Hayri Tunç, a Turkish journalist for the news site Jiyan, was sentenced to two years in prison for creating “terrorist propaganda” through his tweets, Facebook posts, and YouTube videos related to the conflict between the state and Kurdish militants.

Source:- Freedom House

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