Week in Review: July 27, 2017

by Jeanette Si

Thousands March on Moscow to Protest Tightened Internet Regulations

Over 2,000 protesters gathered in Moscow on July 23 to demand that Russian officials cease their efforts to censor the Internet and fire the head of the state media regulator. Protesters chanted slogans such as “Truth is stronger than censorship” and “Free country, free Internet” as they paraded the streets of Moscow with banners and signs.

The Kremlin, which has traditionally been rather hands-off in terms of censoring the Internet, has recently introduced many pieces of legislation increasing its online jurisdiction in preparation for the upcoming Russian election. This protest comes just two days after Russia’s lower house of parliament passed a bill that would “prohibit the use of Internet proxy services, including virtual private networks, or VPNs.”

Another law, currently being executed, requires all Internet Service Providers to maintain a six-month record of all the sites that each user visits and for these records to be available for three years.

Human Rights Watch reports that freedom of expression in Russia has been worsening over the past few years, with the number of people jailed for extremist speech in Russia increasing dramatically from 54 to 94 from September 2015 to February 2017.

Get more insights on Russia's Internet here

Iran’s Telecom Minister Denies Claims that He Is “Unwilling to Block Social Media”

Addressing accusations made against him by the assistant prosecutor general, Mahmoud Vaezi -- Iran’s telecommunications minister -- said that he will ramp up efforts to control social media in Iran, despite logistical obstacles.

Iran’s current centrist administration, headed by President Hassan Rouhani, is largely opposed to censorship, but various departments of the government are still in support of censoring the Internet. Many of these Internet companies, like Telegram, also refuse to give in to the government’s demands for content takedowns.

With 40 million users in Iran, Telegram is one of the only sources for unfiltered news in the country. It is also one of the few platforms where centrist politicians, like Rouhani, can freely communicate their thoughts, as they are “not allotted anywhere near the same amount of airtime on state media as conservatives.”

To combat the defiance of Telegram executives, Vaezi has called for “the launch of four domestically produced social media networks -- Salam, Soroush, Wispi and BisPhone -- as state-endorsed alternatives to foreign-owned networks.” Vaezi said that some of these networks have amassed over two million users, and he hopes that they will eventually replace foreign social media platforms such as Telegram in the future.

He also stated that during Rouhani’s first term, his ministry has filtered over “seven million” sites.

See the full picture of Iran's Internet with our curated dashboard

Verizon Argues that Throttling Video Traffic is Compliant with Net Neutrality

Though net neutrality laws have not yet been repealed, Verizon has already begun controlling the connection speeds of different types of content passing through its networks. It has admitted to “throttling all video traffic” on its networks, which has led to increased load times for video content.

Many Verizon customers had reported that their video streaming speeds were capped at 10 megabits per second. A few days later, on July 21, Verizon had posted a statement admitting to capping video speeds.

Verizon argues that its actions fall under an exception carved out in the original net neutrality regulations, which makes an exception for “reasonable network management.” A spokesperson for Verizon said that slowing down video speeds “is a non-discriminatory network management practice designed to ensure a high quality customer experience for all customers accessing the shared resources of [the] wireless network.”

According to the text of the regulation, “reasonable network management actions” must be primarily motivated by a “technical justification” over “business justifications.” Verizon also blocked all video content equally and did not discriminate between different kinds of video.

Video speeds have returned to normal for Verizon customers as of now, according to The Verge.

New Study Shows that Facebook’s Free Basics Does Not Meet Netizen Needs

On July 27, advocacy group Global Voices published a series of case studies on how well Facebook’s Free Basics app serves the needs of the populations it reaches, and found its offerings “lacking.”

As a part of Facebook’s initiative to offer Internet to more people around the world, Free Basics is an application that Facebook has developed to offer a set of customized sites to smartphone users in select countries for free. In doing so, Facebook partners with local telco providers, asking them to bundle the application with certain service plans.

Global Voices researchers found a number of concerns left unaddressed by the Free Basics. For instance, in many multilingual regions, Free Basics would only be offered in one language, creating a linguistic barrier of entry to the app. The selection of sites on the app also heavily favors sites run by American and British companies over local sites, and researchers found that Facebook’s selection of sites often do not “meet the most pressing needs of those who are not online.” In addition, Facebook collects metadata from all Free Basics users, including which sites they visit, when they access certain sites, and for how long.

“It’s building this little web that turns the user into a mostly passive consumer of mostly western corporate content,” said Ellery Biddle, advocacy director of Global Voices, to the Guardian. “That’s digital colonialism.”