This Week in Censorship: News from Iran, India, Vietnam, and China
By Maira Sutton
Iran: Authorities Seeking Information on Censorship Tools
The Islamic Republic of Iran has recently become notorious for its efforts to create a “halal” Internet. This week, a security researcher found that Iranian authorities published a “Request for Information” (RFI) seeking details on new types of censorship tools that are available in the market. Ars Technica reported that the Persian language RFI calls for “proper conditions for domestic experts in order to build a healthy Web and organize the current filtering situation.” The deadline for response was yesterday, April 19.
The existence of the RFI suggests that Iran is seeking to nationally expand its scope of online content blocking and filtering. The RFI states:
The creation of a comprehensive Internet purifying system that works based on analysis of Web content is considered among the most important activities in this area and efforts must be made to cultivate domestic technologies…In addition to creating a domestic industry, among other goals of the institute are the purchase and acquisition of foreign technical knowledge and leveraging of the latest technology alongside domestic ones.
What’s clear is that the Iranian government is seeking a more sophisticated system to block content, beyond its current mandate of blacklisting entire sites and banning words. EFF will continue to monitor this initiative and the Iranian government’s efforts to facilitate online censorship.
India: Professor arrested over a political cartoon; CIS urges Parliament to overturn 2011 censorship legislation
A chemistry professor in the state of West Bengal was arrested on Friday for posting political cartoons about the state’s Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee. Ambikesh Mahapatra’s arrest follows increasing public discontent with Minister Banerjee and her style of governance. The local police charged Mahapatra with cyber crime offenses, claiming he had spread “derogatory messages against respectable persons.”
Following the arrest last week, there has been a massive backlash and an online campaign to condemn the charges. The highest trending Twitter hashtag in India is currently #arrestmenow, which has been adopted by users to tweet critical, often humorous, opposition to the police action. It echoed a similar situation in December, when the Indian blogosphere and Twitterverse was aflame with criticism against Minister of Communications and IT, Kapil Sibal after he demanded that websites such as Google and Facebook filter content deemed offensive. Indian netizens’ increasing use of social media to fight back against state-mandated efforts to censor online speech is a welcome sight.
In related news, a Member of the Indian Parliament made a motion to overturn an Internet censorship law that was introduced last year. Information Technology (Intermediary Guideline) Rules 2011 require sites such as Google and Facebook to respond to requests to take down “disparaging” or “harassing” content within 36 hours upon finding that the claim is “valid” — though the terms by which they would confirm this is unclear. Center for Internet and Society has launched an action campaign to help bolster public support for the MP’s motion.
Vietnam: Authorities release a decree to enact mass censorship while more bloggers are arrested
On Friday, Vietnamese authorities released a draft decree that would force websites to censor content that is deemed unfit for the public. Called “Decree on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online,” it would also outlaw the use of pseudonyms, forcing individuals with personal blogs to publicly list their real name and address. The main aim of the decree is to privatize censorship by placing the burden of the task onto tech companies, and to silence dissident voices that are not in line with the Vietnamese Communist Party.
In order to avoid having to comply with national censorship laws, companies such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo! have not placed data centers in Vietnam. This new decree would force all foreign companies to do so in order to require compliance with the local laws. In addition, any website that hosted news would be subject to government approval of their content.
Today, the state arrested three more bloggers, according to news reports. They could face up to 20 years in prison for blogging criticism against the government. Reporters Without Borders has listed Vietnam as the third worst country on their list of “Enemies of the Internet,” following China and Iran.
China: Ai Weiwei Publishes Op-Ed on Internet Censorship
China is notorious for its methodical, pervasive, and real-time national online censorship scheme. From blocking platforms entirely to enabling controlled Internet blackouts, they have the single most powerful infrastructure to censor content in their country.
One of the most vocal opponents to their censorship initiative is artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, who published an Op-Ed on the topic in the Guardian last Sunday. As someone who has encountered his fair share of direct state censorship, he had some optimistic words about the role of Internet in the public sphere.
…people are learning how to exercise their own rights. It is a unique, treasured moment. People have started to feel the breeze. The internet is a wild land with its own games, languages and gestures through which we are starting to share common feelings…
He went on,
…In the long run, [state] leaders must understand it’s not possible for them to control the internet unless they shut it off – and they can’t live with the consequences of that. The internet is uncontrollable. And if the internet is uncontrollable, freedom will win. It’s as simple as that.
There’s plenty of evidence to show that in reality, it’s much more complicated than that. However, without the bravery of individuals such as Weiwei, who are willing to risk everything to stand up for their beliefs and opinions, the Internet would be a much different space.