It says something for the state on internet censorship around the world that rather than the occasional individual article highlighting the latest country to block its citizens access to online content, we find ourselves today rounding up no fewer than four such instances.
Venezuela: Government protests lead to online crackdown
We begin in Venezuela, the socialist South American state which is in the midst of a political crisis after President Nicolás Maduro declared a state of emergency in 2015 and has since used the powers to pass laws without the approval of the country’s Congress.
Coupled with an ongoing economic crisis since the fall in the price of oil crippled the country’s finances and the last few months have seen violent anti-Government protests that have been mercilessly put down. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 50 people have died to date.
Despite being ravaged by poverty, it is thought that around two-thirds of Venezuelans have access to the internet and coverage of these protests has seen the Government turning to censorship to stop the spread of anti-government content.
Online TV stations Vivoplay.net, elcapitolio.tv and vpitv.com have all been blocked at the DNS level, with others reporting regular and sustained denial-of-service attacks.
The extent of the problem is such that the United Nations Human Rights Commission has even published a report condemning “the censorship and blocking of information both in traditional media and on the internet” which it described as “disproportionate and incompatible with international standards.”
Protestors have also been active on social media, which has resulted in a Presidential decree authorising content filtering and online surveillance. At the same time, Government supporters are being encouraged to flood social media with positive images, meaning outsiders are confronted with a weird mix of images of blissfully happy people and total anarchy.
Egypt: 21 news sites blocked in fresh Government crackdown
Heading in an easterly direction, our censorship roundup lands next in Egypt, where on May 24th the Government ordered ISPs to block access to 21 news sites, which they claimed either promoted terrorism or were responsible for spreading ‘fake news’.
According to the Middle East News Agency [in Arabic], the sites that have been blocked include Masr al-Arabia, Al-Shaab, and Rassd, as well as the Qatari-funded broadcaster Al-Jazeera. It is thought that the Arabic version of the Huffington Post is also affected.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned the move. Their Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said “Broad censorship of news websites represents a new low in Egypt’s lamentable record on press freedom… Egyptian authorities should cease blocking news websites and should allow the media to do its job unimpeded.”
This is not the first case of this nature to affect online freedom in Egypt. In October 2016, it was reported that access to the Al-Arab al-Jadid had been blocked, while efforts were also underway to try and throttle encrypted and HTTPS connections as well as block access to the Tor network.
Pakistan: Online freedom of speech under pressure
Moving west again, and the government of Pakistan has come under fire from another human rights campaign group for its online censorship practices.
Human Rights Watch has accused the regime of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of “leading an all-out assault on free speech on the internet.”
The comments come after it was reported on May 20th that six people had been arrested by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) for comments they have made online. The news agency Reuters quoted an unnamed official as saying “We have received a huge list of suspects, active against national institutions, but we have identified 18 out of over 200 social media activists. They are accused of spreading negative material against the army and other institutions.”
It is thought that at least 40 people have been arrested and questioned over their online activity to date. This comes just a few days after a text message was sent from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to pretty much everyone in the country warning them not to send or share blasphemous content.
Just five days later, the Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who claimed to be acting on the direct orders of the Prime Minister, announced that there would be further efforts to clamp down on social media and prevent online anonymity. Steps being taken included linking all social media accounts to a mobile phone number.
Brad Adams, the Asia Director of Human Rights Watch said: “The authorities need to cease harassing and prosecuting citizens for critical speech and urgently revise laws to meet international free expression standards.”
The last stop on this round-up is the Communist state of Vietnam, where the Government has claimed that Google has agreed to work with the Government to eliminate “toxic” information on its platform.
The regime in Vietnam has used the term ‘toxic’ before to describe anti-government content on both YouTube and Google.
On Friday, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, the Prime Minister of Vietnam met with Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt in Hanoi, where apparently the latter made assurances that Google would look to tackle the issue.
According to a Government statement “Mr. Eric Schmidt said (he) will tightly cooperate with Vietnam to remove toxic information violating Vietnamese laws and will consider opening a representative office in the country.”
Google, however, gave a different take on the meeting in their statement. Taj Meadows, a Google spokesman, told Singapore’s Business Times, “”We have clear policies for removal requests from governments around the world, and those policies have not changed.”
Indeed, on his visit to the country, Eric Schmidt also met with activist and singer Mai Khoi. He said that Schmidt has assured him that he would “would try to improve Internet freedom [in Vietnam] in a delicate way”
Whether Schmidt was simply telling the Government what they wanted to hear, or they are trying to spin the meeting in a positive way, it seems likely that a full and open internet in Vietnam is still some way off.