Web Freedom Again Beset in 2015

Web Freedom Again Beset in 2015
Government censorship of the Internet is a cat-and-mouse game. And despite more aggressive tactics in recent months, the cats have been largely frustrated while the mice wriggle away.

But this year, the challenges for Silicon Valley will mount, with Russia and Turkey in particular attempting to tighten the controls on foreign-based Internet companies. Indeed, major U.S. companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google are increasingly being put in the tricky position of figuring out which laws and orders to comply with around the world - and which to ignore or contest.

On Wednesday, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, signed the latest version of a personal data law that will require companies to store data about Russian users on computers inside the country, where it will be easier for the government to get access to it. With few companies expected to comply with the law, which goes into effect September 1, a confrontation may well erupt.

The clumsiness of current censorship efforts was apparent in mid-December, when Russia's Internet regulator demanded that Facebook remove a page that was promoting an anti-government rally. After Facebook blocked the page for its 10 million or so Russian users, dozens of copycat pages popped up and the word spread on other social networks like Twitter. That only created even more publicity for the planned Jan. 15 event, intended to protest the sentencing of Aleksei A. Navalny, a leading opposition politician.

Anton Nosik, a prominent Russian blogger whose work has been censored by regulators, said it was absurd for a government to think it can easily stamp out an article or video when it can be copied or found elsewhere with a few clicks. "The reader wants to see what he was prevented from seeing," Nosik said in an interview. "All that blocking doesn't work."

Instead, the government took a different strategy, moving Navalny's sentencing to Dec. 30 with little notice in an attempt to diminish protests.

The Turkish government faced similar embarrassment when it tried to stop the dissemination of leaked documents and audio recordings on Twitter in March. The administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the shutdown of Twitter within Turkey after the company refused to block the posts, which implicated government officials in a corruption investigation. Not only did the government lose a court fight on the issue, but while Twitter was blocked, legions of Turkish users also taught each other technical tricks to evade the ban, even spray-painting the instructions on the walls of buildings.

"We all became hackers," Asli Tunc, a professor of communication at Istanbul Bilgi University, said in a phone interview. "And we all got on Twitter."

Despite such victories for free-speech advocates, governments around the world are stepping up their efforts to control the Internet, escalating the confrontation.

"The trendlines are consistent," Colin Crowell, Twitter's global vice president of public policy, said in a phone interview. "There are more and more requests for removal of information."

Pakistan, for example, bombarded Facebook with nearly 1,800 requests to take down content in the first half of 2014, according to the company's most recent transparency report. Google's YouTube video service has long been blocked there. And the government briefly succeeded in getting Twitter to block certain "blasphemous" or "unethical" tweets last year until the company re-examined Pakistani law and determined the requests didn't meet legal requirements.

It's not just autocratic regimes that are pressing for limits on free speech. In the European Union, a court ruling last year established a "right to be forgotten," allowing residents to ask search engines like Google to remove links to negative material about them. Now privacy regulators want Google to also delete the links from search results on the non-European versions of its service because the alternate sites can be easily accessed by anyone in Europe.

Free-speech activists view Facebook, the world's largest social network, with 1.35 billion monthly users, as the company most inclined to work with governments and do whatever is necessary to keep its service up and running.

Last spring, while Twitter was blocked in Turkey and YouTube was shut down, Facebook removed contested content and continued to operate. It has a dedicated team of outside lawyers who field censorship requests from the Turkish government and then recommend to corporate officials whether content should be blocked.

"Facebook can be quite important to the people who use it, so we try to make sure it remains accessible," a company spokesman said. "We aggressively push back on unlawful or overly broad government requests."

Twitter, which has about 284 million monthly users, styles itself as the world's town square and a global champion of free speech, conforming to the letter of censorship laws while winking at workaround strategies, like users changing the location listed on their profile to evade specific blocks that apply in a particular country.

For Turkey's opposition movement, Tunc said, Twitter "basically created an opening, a refreshing alternative, especially during the protests. And they know that. They act like a defender of freedom."

As the biggest player, Google, whose YouTube service seems to draw the particular ire of foreign governments, has been forced into fights on many fronts. It is still viewed by many as a hero for its decision to pull out of China in 2010 rather than continue to censor search results there.

The company explained its philosophy at that time: "We have a bias in favor of people's right to free expression. We are driven by a belief that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual."

While China remains a thorn in the side of most Western Internet companies - Facebook and Twitter are basically blocked there - Russia is the current flash point in the censorship wars.

Over the summer, the Russian government began demanding that anyone with at least 3,000 daily visitors follow rules similar to those applying to a media company and face content restrictions. So far, Twitter and Facebook are simply passing those requests along to their users without making sure anyone complies. Many do not, but so far the Russian government has not pressed the issue.

But the pressure may intensify later this year. Starting Sept. 1, foreign technology companies are supposed to store data about Russian users on computers located in Russia and make a software key available to the government that could be used to unscramble and monitor private Internet communications.

That would give the government leverage in showdowns with tech companies, since it could simply raid the facility or arrest local employees.

Most Western technology companies have no data centers in Russia and no plans to change that.

"Our data centers are all in the United States," said Crowell of Twitter. "It's unlikely that our first data center outside the United States will be in Russia."

Google, whose search engine is the No. 2 player in Russia after the local Yandex service, has gone further, announcing recently that it will close its engineering offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Although the company said it has been consolidating such offices globally, one factor in the closure is the risk of a raid by Russian authorities.

"If what's going to happen is that Russians will show up and stick an AK-47 in an engineer's nostril, Google is going to make sure that no one in Russia has a Google engineering logon," said Ross J. Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University in Britain, who studies privacy and censorship issues and did some work for Google in the past.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on its Russia strategy, saying only, "We are deeply committed to our Russian users and customers and we have a dedicated team in Russia working to support them."

Twitter and Facebook have more room to maneuver. With far fewer users in Russia and virtually no advertising there, they can resist the government's demands with fewer repercussions.

Robert Shlegel, a member of the Russian parliament active in shaping the Kremlin's Internet policies, said in a phone interview that the Russian regulations are in many ways a response to the revelations of former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden about U.S. government spying through Silicon Valley companies.

"This problem was created by the United States," Shlegel said.

Russia's first preference, he said, is to persuade other nations to form a common, international set of rules for social networking sites and crowdsourced news, clarifying when countries could block pages to comply with national laws.

He said Russian authorities have no intention of blocking U.S. Internet companies for failing to follow the data-storage law. "What we need to do is have a dialogue," he said.

And given Western sanctions and the collapse in the ruble's value, Russia needs foreign business support, at least in part to prevent its online economy from grinding to a halt. If strictly enforced, the personal data law, for example, would close most Internet hotel and airline bookings, sending Russians to stand in line at travel agencies instead.

Nosik, the Russian blogger, said the country's Internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, was unlikely to ban U.S. companies like Facebook, if only for fear that millions of Russians who suddenly lost access to years of photographs, family memories, love letters and contacts with friends, would blame the Kremlin.

Only Putin could decide to cut off access, he said.

"The moment Putin wants it done, it will be done within minutes and no law will be required," Nosik said. "On the other hand, so long as Putin doesn't give the command to block them, they will not be blocked."

© 2015 New York Times News Service

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