Week in Review: June 10, 2015

by Jenny Shore

China: The 26th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre

In China, June 4 has also been referred to as Internet Maintenance Day. That is because the Chinese government has traditionally doubled down on censorship of the internet in connection with the anniversary of the Chinese military’s crackdown on the student-led 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. As has been the case in past years, search terms “Tiananmen Square” and “June 4” were reported by CNN to be blocked. Additionally, users of WeChat’s money transfer service found they could not transfer amounts of 6.4 or 89 RMB, both of which correspond to the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In the Wall Street Journal, Chinese publisher Bao Pu noted that the type of censorship surrounding each anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is a reminder of the way in which the Chinese approach “is pre-emptive rather than solely reactive.” He contends that this “serves Beijing’s long-run purposes better and is an effective social-engineering tool.” 

China: New Government-Issued Human Rights Report

On Monday, the Information Office of the State Council (China’s Cabinet) released a white paper entitled “Progress on China’s Human Rights in 2014.” The report reviewed availability of public services, protection of rights, safety, and metrics of welfare. Among the issues considered was freedom of expression. The report indicates that there are 650 million “netizens” with an internet penetration rate of 47.9 percent. Most of those netizens (508 million) use smartphones, a sharp increase from previous years.

The report discusses as well the state of civic life online, as follows:

"The public can air opinions, and raise criticisms and suggestions freely through the news media, and discuss problems of this country and society…a cleaner cyber space is becoming an ever important place for the public to get information and make their voices heard."

In this way, the report acknowledges a perceived need to regulate the internet – hence, a “cleaner cyber space” – while at the same time recognizing the importance placed on civic activity online.

Iran: Five Social Media Users Arrested

Five social media users were arrested in Iran. Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei was quoted as saying that “several members of a group which systematically took steps against security and called for illegal activities on social media were identified and arrested by the security forces." As noted by Reuters, this follows the arrest of several people in Iran who created a YouTube video using Pharrell Williams’s song “Happy” last year.

Saudi Arabia: Raif Badawi’s Sentence Upheld

Despite international pressure, the Saudi Arabian government has confirmed it will uphold Raif Badawi’s sentence of 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison. Raif Badawi, a liberal blogger, was initially arrested in 2012 and, in January 2015, received the first 50 lashes in a public square in the city of Jidda. After that time, the caning was delayed as international protest erupted, though it was intended that he receive 50 lashes each Friday until all 1000 lashes had been administered. Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, said this week that she been optimistic that the international attention to his case would have helped change the sentence, and asked that this attention persist moving forward.

Syria: Syrian Electronic Army Hacks US Military Website

The Syrian Electronic Army took responsibility for the temporary shutdown of the US military’s official website on June 8, where they left several messages indicating it had been hacked. Brig. Gen. Malcom B. Frost said in a statement that the Army “took appropriate preventive measures to ensure there was no breach of Army data by taking down the website temporarily.” The Army’s Facebook page also warned users not to visit the site temporarily. The Syrian Electronic Army has a legacy of similar hacks, including targeting the websites of Human Rights Watch and Columbia University, as well as the websites of several news outlets including Al Jazeera, Reuters, and the Washington Post. In one instance, they hacked into the Associated Press’s Twitter account and tweeted, falsely, about an attack at the White House, sending the stock market “into freefall” for several minutes. The Syrian Electronic Army acts independently of the Syrian government, but has been acknowledged by Assad who likened the group to “a real army in virtual reality.”

USA: Apple and the FBI on Encryption

Michael Steinbach, assistant director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, testified before the House Homeland Security Committee on Capitol Hill, arguing that tech companies should “prevent encryption above all else.” He contends that terrorist groups, such as ISIS, can make use of encrypted communications. In his testimony, he indicated that he was not advocating back doors, but rather was concerned with end-to-end encryption that made law enforcement access impossible; he proposed collaboration with technology companies to address this. Steinbach’s testimony came two days after Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed EPIC’s Champions of Freedom gathering, where Cook was honored for “corporate leadership.” Like Steinbach, Cook spoke about the importance of balancing privacy and security, to “provide both in equal measure,” in Cook’s words. However, he proceeded to defend the value of encryption to users, noting that “some in Washington are hoping to undermine the ability of ordinary citizens to encrypt their data,” and calling it an “attack on our civil liberties.”

The Internet Monitor Week in Review is a weekly round-up of news about Internet content controls and online activity around the world.