Week in Review: May 4, 2016

by Muira McCammon

Australia: Government Commission Criticizes Geo-Blocking

On April 29, 2016, the Australian Productivity Commission released a draft report that encouraged the government to avoid “any international agreements that would prevent or ban consumers from circumventing geo-blocking technology." The chief executive of Internet Australia, Laurie Patton, applauded the draft and its recommendations; he remarked, “We have consistently argued that geoblocking is fundamentally wrong and that it has resulted in unfair price-gouging of Australian consumers for decades.” For the past few years, Netflix has worked to limit customers outside the United States from accessing United States-only content by using virtual private networks (VPNs); it has tried to develop tools to tell when customers are accessing geo-restricted content. The issue of online copyright infringement has been on the radar of Australian researchers for a long time; in 2015, an Australian survey found that “people would likely stop infringing if legal content was: cheaper (39 per cent), more available (38 per cent), and had the same release date as other countries (36 per cent). 43 per cent of internet users stated that they were not confident of what is legal online content." Karen Chester, a commissioner with the Australian Productivity Commission discussed the policy implications of the report: "Unless you've got a teenager that can help you get around the geoblocking, some people will be able to access and others won't.  Those that won't will just breach copyright, do what we're all doing and get around the geoblock and access the US Netflix or the Canadian Netflix. Making copyright material more accessible and more competitively priced online, and not geoblocking, is the best antidote to copyright infringement." Netflix, at the time of writing, has not commented publicly on the Australian report.

Brazil: WhatsApp Shut Down and Then Reinstated Shortly Thereafter

Brazilian Judge Marcel Montalvao ordered local phone carriers to refuse Brazilian users access to WhatsApp for 72 hours; the court’s initial statement regarding his ruling is now inaccessible. No record of the statement can be found using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Judge Montalvao allegedly sought to punish WhatsApp for failing to turn over data in an ongoing criminal investigation. Shortly after his ruling, another judge intervened and reversed his colleague’s ruling. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckberg got involved in the discussion; his company acquired Facebook in 2014. He celebrated the decision online; he wrote, “WhatsApp is now back online in Brazil! Your voices have been heard once again. Thank you to our community for helping resolve this. That said, the idea that everyone in Brazil can be declined freedom to communicate the way they want is very scary in a democracy. You and your friends can help make sure this never happens again, and I hope you get involved." His post is also available in Portuguese [PT]. Judge Montalvao is the same judge, who previously ordered the imprisonment of Brazilian Facebook Vice President Diego Jorge Dzodan in March; the Facebook employee refused to hand over data for related to a criminal investigation into Brazilian drug trafficking, and as a result, he was said to be violating a Brazilian court order.

China: Government Officials Investigate Chinese Search Engine After Student Dies From Cancer

The death of a cancer patient has prompted government officials to accuse Baidu, a Chinese search engine, of selling listings to companies without properly vetting their services. The cancer patient at the center of this controversy, Wei Zexi, had initially sought treatment from Beijing People's Armed Police Corps Hospital No. 2, a facility that appeared at the top of his Baidu search. The hospital said that it had developed a highly effective treatment with the assistance of Stanford Medical School. As Wei’s health worsened, state media reported that no collaboration between the hospital and Stanford was in effect. Baidu representatives submitted the following statement to BBC: "We deeply regret the death of Wei Zexi and our condolences go out to his family. Baidu strives to provide a safe and trustworthy search experience for our users, and has launched an immediate investigation of the matter." Before his death, Wei posted the following message online: “I did not know how sinister Baidu could be. I don't want to die. My 21 years of effort have not yet born fruit. I still have dreams. I still want to see this wide world." In the aftermath of Wei’s death, thousands of Chinese citizens have promised to boycott Baidu entirely, and many netizens are hoping that Google will return to the country and provide a search engine alternative to Baidu. More details about media responses to Wei’s death can be found here [EN][ES].

Thailand: Ten Facebook Users Face Charges After Criticizing the Draft Constitution

On April 27, 2016, a number of Facebook users in Thailand were detained and charged with sedition and other crimes related to their online postings. Originally, news sources said that eight people had been detained, and that number later shifted to ten. Their writing criticized Prime Minister Prayuth Chanocha and spoke negatively about the controversial draft of the Thai constitution [TH]. The detained individuals were charged with violating the Royal Defamation law, which is also known as “lèse majesté." The last global controversy revolving around the Royal Defamation law involved a Facebook user mocking Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej's favorite dog. A number of human rights groups have asked the Thai government to release the detained Facebook users. Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Director of Campaigns for South East Asia, inquired, “If ordinary people cannot comment on a Facebook post without facing the threat of 10 years behind bars and a hefty fine, what hope is there for any open and honest debate on the military government’s draft constitution?”.  Thai election commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn is said to have told reporters that he wants the detained Facebook users to “be an example."