Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a survey of developing media news.
European Union Considering Development of Anti-Propaganda Channel
The European Union is reportedly considering developing a new television channel that aims to counter Russian propaganda broadcasting. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has sought tighter control of media both within and outside of its borders. Said Latvian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Edgars Rinkēvičs, “Russian TV, particularly in the last couple of years, has been very aggressive in what can no longer be considered normal news or normal journalism, but is more information warfare and propaganda.” Latvia and Estonia both have the largest Russian-speaking populations in the European Union. Several EU states are informally supporting the plan for a new Russian-language television channel, though Rinkēvičs stated firmly that the channel would not be used for propaganda. It would instead be a platform for entertainment and “factually correct news.” American efforts to counter Russian propaganda with Russian-language programming have faced some hurdles–its half-hour news show “Current Time” airs only on a small private channel in Latvia and has yet to be picked up in Estonia. “It looked one-sided and sounded more like strategic communication than public service,” said Rita Ruduša, commissioning news editor at Latvian Television. “It’s very well produced but really the other side of what we were getting from Russia.” All discussion on the potential channel is still in the early stages. “As everything in the EU, things take time,” said Rinkēvičs.
How Google, Facebook, and Twitter Have Responded to Russian Censorship Requests
Throughout the past year, search and social giants Twitter, Facebook, and Google have felt pressure from the Russian government to comply with censorship efforts. For example, in September 2014, the Russian government informed Google, Twitter, and Facebook that they would be required to register as “organizers of information distribution” and store user data on Russian servers. On December 26, the Wall Street Journal published an article that examined how these companies responded to block and takedown requests issued by Russian media watchdog Roscomnadzor, specifically for content related to an upcoming rally by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Facebook complied with an initial takedown request and removed a page that advertised the event, but subsequently ignored all further requests. Google ignored all blocking requests. Twitter not only refused to comply with takedown requests, but also sent messages to targeted users informing them that the Russian government had requested their material be censored. Facebook’s initial compliance resulted in criticism–former US ambassador to Michael McFaul tweeted, “We all make mistakes. @facebook should correct theirs in Russia asap. Current action–horrible precedent & bad for business.” Russian parliament member Mikhail Degtyaryov responded to the RIA Novosti news agency, saying, “McFaul should be quiet and Facebook should obey Russian laws. We know what happens to countries that don’t limit extremist activity online–that’s the Arab Spring’…Russia doesn’t need that.” Techdirt viewed the Degtyaryov response as “basically saying that Russia prefers dictatorship to democracy.”
Offensive Tweet Crackdown in the UK
Law enforcement officials in the United Kingdom are cracking down on offensive social media posts. On December 22, 2014, a young UK resident named Ross Loraine joked on Twitter about the news that a garbage truck in Glasgow had lost control and run over nearly a hundred people, causing six casualties. The tweet read, “So a bin lorry has apparently driven in 100 people in Glasgow eh, probably the most trash it’s picked up in one day.” Northumbria Police then arrested Loraine on suspicion of making a malicious communication, defined by UK law as a communication sent “for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety.” On December 30, 2014, the Scotland police department warned from its Twitter account that officers would “continue to monitor comments on social media & any offensive comments will be investigated.” Response to the tweet was swift, with journalists and citizens alike comparing the Scotland police department to Orwellian thought police. London Independent columnist James Bloodworth wrote, “At some point we accepted the dreadful premise that unpleasant-and yes ‘offensive’-opinions ought to be silenced by force.”
French Surveillance Law Comes Into Effect
On December 24, 2014, the French government discreetly enacted a surveillance law that had successfully passed in 2013. The new law allows for the mass collection of citizen data. Techdirt translated the original French report to detail what information can be collected, which includes information “processed or retained by electronic communications networks or services, including technical data related to the identification of subscription numbers or connections to electronic communications services, the inventory of all subscription number or connection of a designated person, location of the terminal equipment used as well as a subscriber’s communications including the list of numbers called and callers, duration and timing of communications.” Techdirt notes that the law is worrying for its ambiguous terminology and also for the fact that its oversight agency, the National Control Commission for Security Interceptions, has “no power to sanction anyone, or even alert the authorities that abuse has taken place.”
Impact of the Charlie Hebdo Attack
On January 7, 2015, twelve employees of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo were murdered by two gunmen, believed to have been militant Islamists. Charlie Hebdo frequently derided all religions, but, according to Muslim belief, it is blasphemous to publish images of the prophet Muhammad. In the aftermath of the attack, the interior ministers of twelve European Union countries issued a statement calling for internet service providers to help “create the conditions of a swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror and the condition of its removing, where appropriate/possible.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls also called for increased surveillance powers, though France’s new surveillance law had just come into force on Christmas Eve, 2014. Said Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Nearly every major terrorist attack in the past couple decades has been followed by new legislation of some kind.[…] Where does it stop? These politicians haven’t demonstrated the need for more surveillance, yet it’s always their go-to ‘solution.’”
NSA Illegal Surveillance Reports Were Released on Christmas Eve
On Christmas Eve 2014, the National Security Agency (NSA) released a series of reports detailing its illegal surveillance of American citizens on its website. The NSA was required to release the reports as the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The reports contain instances of illegal surveillance that occurred both intentionally and as a result of technical or human error. On many occasions, civilian data was collected as the NSA attempted to conduct surveillance on foreign targets. A few reports detail instances of NSA workers ordering surveillance on their spouses or lovers. ACLU staff attorney Patrick Toomey says that the reports show the NSA’s consistent misuse of information over the last ten years. The decision to release the reports on Christmas Eve was met with scorn. Toomey said, “I certainly think the NSA would prefer to have the documents released right ahead of the holidays in order to have less public attention on what they contain.” Meg Neal of Gizmodo was more direct in her criticism, saying, “Of course, it released them midday on Christmas Eve, when basically no one would be paying attention to the internet or in the mood to think about unchecked government snooping for at least the next 30 hours.”
Iran Announces ‘Smart-Filtering’
Iran’s internet censorship program will be experimenting with what it calls ‘smart filtering’ in an effort to avoid blocking entire websites in favor of blocking specific content. Mahmoud Khosravi, head of the Iran Telecommunications Infrastructure Company, said that internet filtering “will be done at the individual level of access and according to the situation of each user, which would involve the user’s profession, age and needs.” While the initial December 26, 2014 reports on the smart-filtering system suggested that currently-blocked websites such as Facebook and YouTube could reappear on the Iranian internet, the Iranian Communications and Information Technology minister Mahmoud Vaezi stated on the following day that bans on “the already blocked web sites such as Facebook and Youtube” will not be lifted. A notable consequence of the smart-filtering system, which Vaezi said would be completed by June 2015, could be the effective shutdown of VPN services and, consequently, the forced identification of internet users. “Only those having a clear identity will be allowed to use the internet or access mobile networks,” said Deputy Information and Communication Technology Minister Nasrullah Jahangardi.
China Blames Google for Gmail’s Disappearance
Since June 2014, just before the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, access to Google services in China has been difficult. Google’s search engine left China in 2010 over censorship pressures, but users were still able to access Gmail through third-party email services. That option has now disappeared, and China has spoken up to both acknowledge and blame Google for the block. A December 30, 2014 editorial in the China’s Global Times read, “China welcomes the company to do business on the prerequisite that it obeys Chinese law; however Google values more its reluctance to be restricted by Chinese law, resulting in conflict.” The editorial when on to say that the access difficulty could be the fault of China’s error, Google’s error, or a combination of the two, but in an email sent December 29, 2014, a Google spokesperson based in Singapore said that Google had checked and found no problems on its end. The Global Times editorial concludes by saying, “We only need to have faith that China has its own logic in terms of Internet policy and it is made and runs in accordance with the country’s fundamental interests.”
Report: Freedom on the Net 2014
The fifth annual Freedom on the Net report was released by Freedom House on December 4, 2014 and found that, for the fourth consecutive year, “internet freedom around the world [is] in decline.” Freedom House presented a summary of their findings, including a list of three emerging threats to freedom: 1) laws that require the storage of user internet data and could threaten online privacy, 2) threats to women and LGBTI that result in online self-censorship, and 3) increased malware attacks that damage cybersecurity both for governments and for human rights groups. The full Freedom on the Net report can be found here.