State Dept’s annual human rights report warns of foreign govt’s extending repressive laws to the Internet, the irony being that a coalition of Congressmen are simultaneously pushing for draconian new web filtering legislation here at home. Notes Turkey filtering Playboy.com without court order, based only a summary “legal evaluation” by law enforcement similar to site seizures here in the US.
The US State Dept’s annual human rights report exemplifies exactly what’s wrong the controversial Combating Online Infringement & Counterfeits Act (COICA). The report, entitled the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, is meant to highlight rights violations abroad, but instead highlights violations here at home.
In it the State Dept warns of foreign govt’s increasingly curtailing access to a range of sites on the Internet, using regulations and technology “designed to repress speech and infringe on the personal privacy of those who use these rapidly evolving technologies.”
Saudi Arabia, in particular, has taken site filtering to the next level, allowing average citizens to submit the names of objectionable sites for consideration.
“The official Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) monitored e-mail and Internet chat rooms and blocked sites deemed incompatible with Sharia and national regulations,” reads the report. “In addition to designating unacceptable sites, the CITC accepted requests from citizens to block or unblock sites. According to CITC’s general manager, authorities received an average of 1,800 requests daily to block and unblock sites.”
Saudi authorities claimed to have blocked more than 400,000 sites.
Notice the govt is blocking sites considered “incompatible with Sharia and national regulations.” The COICA currently being considered in Congress also sets up a filtering regime to deal with so-called “rogue sites” deemed incompatible with US copyright law.
The double-standard wasn’t lost on the Center for Democracy and Technology which warned after the legislation was first introduced last September that it would set a precedent that any country can seize or order the blocking of a domain name if some of the content on the domain (even if located elsewhere) violates the country’s local laws.
“The effort to protect the rights of Internet users, human rights defenders, and citizen journalists to speak and access lawful content online will be critically harmed,” it said.
Saudi Arabia is doing just that.
According to the report the government has blocked access to and criminalized the publication or downloading of sites that it “deemed offensive (such as sites involving sex or pornography); contrary to the principles of Islam and social norms, including radical religious sites or sites with controversial religious content (including pages about Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and radical Islam); politically sensitive (including human rights); or offensive to the government or members of the royal family.”
The COICA also likely violates free speech protections since it removes entire sites, and therefore possibly noninfringing content. It also extends the reach of US’ courts far outside its borders, and dims the hopes that accused parties will be guaranteed a full and fair trial.
Turkey also has egregious web filtering mechanisms in place. It’s illegal to insult the Turkish nation or its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and any site that contains such content faces blocking. For nearly two years Turkish citizens couldn’t access YouTube because of a video that purportedly did the latter.
Though that block was at least based on the rule of law, last August Turkey banned Playboy magazine’s website without a court order. It was based solely on “a legal evaluation” that it violated the country’s obscenity laws.
Sound familiar? The US’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) has seized nearly 100 sites as part of its ongoing “Operation in Our Sites” campaign targeting online infringement. The problem is, however that in every case no court order was obtained and the seizures were made after ICE investigators making their own legal evaluations.
A group of lawmakers from both the Senate and House Judiciary Committees recently vowed a renewed effort to pass the COICA to “protect US jobs,” but hopefully the irony of their well-intentioned, though ill-conceived efforts is highlighted with the release of this report.