Week in Review: November 17, 2017

by Dan Bateyko

Freedom House releases annual Freedom on the Net report

Freedom House, a U.S.-based non-profit, released its annual study of Internet freedom, the Freedom on the Net report, providing “a ranked, country-by-country assessment of online freedom, a global overview of the latest developments, as well as in depth country reports.” According to the report, nearly half of the 65 countries assessed experienced a decline in Internet freedom this year.

Among the key findings presented in the major developments overview, Freedom House highlights the use of online content manipulation and disinformation, mobile internet shutdowns, live video restrictions, cyberattacks against news outlets, and VPN restrictions this year.

In regards to internet shutdowns, the report cites mobile internet restrictions in Tibetan areas in China and Oromo areas in Ethiopia as part of a trend restricting internet service for political or security reasons in areas with ethnic or religious minorities. The report goes on to note that network disruptions this year have coincided with elections and large gatherings such as at public festivals.

Freedom on the Net includes an interactive chart of censored topics by region and country. Each country is also accessed for obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of users rights to give it a total Internet freedom score.

Along with this year’s report, Freedom House also released an Internet Freedom Election Monitor, a project to estimate the risk of restricted access during next year’s upcoming elections.

Somaliland blocks social media during election

During its November 13 presidential election, Somaliland shut down access to social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp, according to reports from Africa News.

The national electoral commission announced its decision to shutter social media at a press conference last week, citing concerns of hate speech and "fake news." The Somaliland Human Right Centre then challenged the decision to block services such as Twitter, Whatsapp, Snapchat, and Instagram by submitting a petition to Somaliland's Supreme Court. As of November 16, regional ISPs are still blocking social media sites and VPN connections, according to an article in The National Somaliland, an English media outlet in Somaliland.

As part of its global campaign against internet shutdowns, Access Now, a digital rights NGO, published a coalition letter to the National Electoral Commission urging them not to block the services. The block in Somaliland is part of a regional and continent-wide trend of disrupting internet access in the run up or during elections.

Paper on Internet censorship capabilities in Cyprus finds unreported censorship cases

A paper entitled “Internet Censorship Capabilities in Cyprus: An investigation of online gambling blocklisting” shared initial findings on blocking practices across the island.

According to a 2012 gambling law, ISPs are obligated to block access to to unlicensed gambling services; the service URLs are submitted to the ISPs through a publicly available blocklist. The paper’s authors examine the censorship practices of five regional ISPs in regards to the gambling law’s provision by making use of a number of blocklists for testing, including Harvard Berkman Klein Center’s Lumen database, as well as network measurements from the Open Observatory of Network Interference and Open DNS resolvers in Cyprus.

According to the preliminary results of the paper, "the most common identified method of content blocking Cypriot ISPs is DNS hijacking.” In the paper’s conclusion, the authors make note of distinct filtering regimes on the island:

"RoC block list isn't blocked in the north of Cyprus, but that a number of other websites have been blocked there, matching the list of websites blocked in Turkey. This opens up a discussion of more than one regime of freedom of expression on the island, and also raises the question of whether there may be a third point of difference with blocking practices implemented in the British sovereign bases."

The conference paper will be presented at the 7th International Conference on e-Democracy.