Week in Review: December 5, 2017

by Dan Bateyko

Beijing censors online mentions of recent mass evictions and demolitions

As tens of thousands of migrants are evicted from buildings slated for demolition, reports have emerged of a spike in online censorship surrounding the issue. According to China Digital Times (CDT), a leaked censorship directive shows that Beijing “ordered all websites to shut down special coverage of the crackdown on unsafe dwellings and regulate reader comments, and forbid print and non-local media from independent coverage.”

The evictions and the related uptick in information content controls come on the heels of a fire in a migrant worker apartment building  which sparked citywide safety checks earlier this month. Following the incident, The Associated Press reported that Internet censors blocked keyword searches relating to the fire on microblog websites.

A Southern China Morning Post (SCMP) article explains that following the evictions, “a new expression – ‘low-end population”’– went viral on social media. It was initially thought to be some kind of satire made up by internet users. That was before some seemingly official documents calling for action to ‘avoid the massive influx of the low-end population’ and demanding ‘tight control of the low-end population’ were revealed.” According to CDT, as of November 30, the term “低端人口” - “low-end population” - has been banned as a search term on Weibo and blocked on WeChat. An article in Quartz adds that on Alibaba's Taobao e-commerce website, sweaters displaying the term have been pulled from online shops. Weiboscope, a University of Hong Kong project tracking Chinese censorship, made the claim in a related SCMP article that "the level of censorship in recent days was even higher than during the politically sensitive Communist Party’s five-yearly national congress in October."

See previous Week In Review coverage of Chinese internet content controls here .

CIPESA releases policy brief on Tanzania’s Online Content Regulations

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) released a policy brief this week on Tanzania’s proposed Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations. The regulations would confer power onto the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) to regulate online content and includes a number of obligations for service providers and online platforms such as social media companies.

The brief states that while the proposed regulations have important provisions for fighting hate speech and extremism, “the regulations should to [sic] reviewed and amended to have clear, unambiguous definitions and wording, and quash the requirement for registration of bloggers and users of similar online platforms.” CIPESA also raises concerns that the proposal would turn publishers into monitors, obligating them to filter, moderate or otherwise conduct content reviews before publishing content.

The brief makes reference to the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, an initiative to promote openness standards on the Internet across Africa, claiming that the proposed regulations would disregard the Declaration’s aim “to promote cultural and linguistic diversity of content online as a means of enriching the development of societies.”

As previously reported in the Week in Review, the proposed regulations come parliament-approved communications act against "moral decadence” passed earlier this year. Last year, the Tanzanian police faced criticism from civil society for jailing a digital rights activist after he refused to disclose users’ identities on a popular online discussion forum. The BBC also reported that Tanzania government workers faced a social media ban during their work hours.

India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority Releases Recommendations on Net Neutrality

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) released recommendations seen as strongly supporting the principle of net neutrality. The official recommendations, available on the TRAI website, details the Authority’s approach to issues of “blocking”, “throttling”, and “preferential treatment.”

According to an article in Quartz,  the TRAI stated that “Telecom companies cannot control the content people access or the speed at which all online traffic flows …nor can they create ‘fast lanes’ with priority content delivery for higher-paying customers.” While TRAI allows for some exemptions such as specific security threats, these recommendations treat the Internet as a public utility. Following the recommendations’ release, The Times of India released a backgrounder on net neutrality in India, explaining the concept and detailing the previous years’ Free Basics and Airtel Zero zero-rating controversy. A BBC article on the recommendations claims that "given the overwhelming public support for net neutrality, the government is expected to accept the recommendations. But it's not clear when they will become law.”