Media Law Roundup: September 26th

Welcome to the Media Law Roundup September 26, 2014 — a survey of the week’s developing media news.

Instagram Now Blocked in China:

Viral images of the Hong Kong democracy protests prompted China to block Instagram, one of the few social networks that avoided censorship in China. Several images shared with the hashtag #OccupyCentral are no longer viewable now that Chinese access to Instagram has been blocked. Certain searches on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, are also being censored if they contain phrases such as “Occupy Central” or “Hong Kong police.” As many of the images on Instagram are of students blocking tear gas with umbrellas, Buzzfeed, which has some of the most compelling images from the protests, reports that the search term “Umbrella Revolution” has also gone viral. This term is also censored on Weibo. In response to the censorship, roughly 100,000 people downloaded the FireChat messenger app, which allows people to hold group conversations without an internet connection, in order to communicate information about the protests.


Journalists Denied Access to Syria:

Journalists are finding it increasingly more difficult to report on Syria as they are being denied  legal ways to enter the country. On September 11, 2014, journalist Sam Dagher of the Wall Street Journal tweeted that he had been denied access to Syria in August despite having valid press credentials. Though the Syrian government continues to crack down on foreign media entering the country by handing out fewer visas, some journalists have still managed to report on the country through unauthorized trips or through phone interviews with sources. As reporter Rania Abuzied states, however: “There is no substitute for being on the ground, for seeing, living, understanding a story at its core, and relaying that back with the context that it requires.”


Fallout over Apple/Google Encryption:

Not everyone is happy about last week’s news that Apple and Google would be providing default encryption on their new devices. The encryption protects customers’ stored data not only from hackers, but also from Google and Apple themselves, meaning that the companies will no longer be able to satisfy court-orders for information. While privacy advocates consider this a victory for individual consumers, some members of law enforcement claim that the encryption will make it harder for them to do their jobs. FBI Director James Comey stated that encryption would allow mobile phone users to “place themselves beyond the law.” Former FBI Criminal Investigations division head Ronald Hosko argued Apple is practically advertising their services to criminals. He suggested that the companies would regret their move to default encrypt when the next large-scale event or terrorist attack took place, saying, “Our ability to act on data that does exist…is critical to our success.


ISIL and Social Media

Members of ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and Levant) are using popular hashtags on social media in order to spread their own propaganda, reports the United Kingdom’s Guardian. ISIL operatives maintain multiple accounts across YouTube and Twitter, so that as soon as one handle is suspended, another is opened in its place. One ISIL member asked his followers for popular hashtags relating to the Scottish independence referendum, and ISIL supporters were advised to “invade the #voteno hashtags with the video of the british [sic] prisoner.” YouTube has allowed some UK government agents access to its Trusted Flagger Program in order to better prevent the spread of ISIL videos, while Twitter takes seriously any reports from verified law enforcement accounts. Despite these efforts, one social media insider warned, “Just closing down an account doesn’t address the underlying narrative.” Additionally, the French government is no longer referring to ISIL as the Islamic State or by any other similar name. Instead, the foreign ministry has determined to call the group by its Arabic term, Daesh. The word is tonally similar to words with negative connotations, such as Daes (“one who crushes something underfoot”) and Dahes (“one who sows discord”).


Russia Moves to Control Twitter, Facebook, and Google:

Russia has taken another step to solidify control over the media within its borders. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been informed that they have until the end of the year to register with the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roscomnadzor) as “organizers of information distribution.” Registration with Roscomnadzor requires the companies to store user data on Russian servers. Failure to comply with the order could result in unspecified sanctions, fines, or blocking. This news follows earlier laws that required online media outlets and blogs with more than 3,000 visitors per day to register with Roscomnadzor.


Ferguson’s No Media Policy:

A series of town hall meetings in Ferguson, Missouri have denied access to non-residents and members of the press. This news came after press releases had been sent to journalists that announced the schedules and locations for the meetings. The decision not to allow media was, according to a spokesperson for Ferguson, “not, and never…a decision made by the City,” and was instead a call made by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Ferguson is working with the DOJ’s Community Relations Service (CRS), which confidentially deals with conflict resolution in high-pressure areas. The CRS was on hand in Florida after the death of Trayvon Martin. The Huffington Post started, in conjunction with Beacon, a Ferguson Fellowship dedicated to making sure that Ferguson is not forgotten. Their Ferguson Fellow, Mariah Stewart, covered the first of the meetings after gaining access as a Ferguson resident.


Suing for Google Access in China:

Wang Long, a resident of Shenzhen, China, is suing his internet service provider (ISP) for his right to access Google. It has been difficult to access Google in China ever since the company ended its site in 2010. Before the search engine was completely blocked in May 2014, Google rerouted searches from the mainland to its uncensored Hong Kong site.  “There is a contractual relationship,” Wang claims. “[ISPs] should offer me telecom services, yet they still fail to provide access. They should be held responsible for this failure.” Mr. Wang, though knowing his chances of winning are slim, still believes that his case will send an important message about fighting for internet rights to others in China.


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