Media Law Roundup: November 20, 2015

Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news from around the world. This week’s issue covers the FCC hearing, Bangladesh internet shutdown, Tanzania elections, and more.

Turkey Bans Reddit under Controversial Internet Law

On November 13, the US-based social media site Reddit was banned in Turkey under the controversial Internet Law No. 5651. Reddit is a popular user-policed discussion site where fora vary from breaking news to celebrity gossip. According to reports, the ban was discovered after a number of Turkish users reported not being able to access the front page of the site on Friday. An official Turkish government website confirmed the ban stating that it  was implemented after “technical analysis and legal consideration.” Internet Law 5651, a hot-button issue in Turkey, allows the Supreme Council for Telecommunications and IT (TIB) to ban websites that it believes contain harmful content (including anything involving pornography, prostitution, terrorism or illegal file sharing) or content relevant to crimes against the first President of Turkey, Mustafa Ataturk. It has been in effect since 2007. According to The Verge, the TIB doesn’t require court authorization to ban websites on these grounds and may do so without concrete evidence of the existence of such content. Authorities say the motive for the ban is unclear, and the site was restored to users on November 15 without a full explanation.


Russian Lawmaker Proposes Bill to Ban Officials’ Use of Mobile Phones

This week Communist Party lawmaker Vadim Solovyov submitted a new draft bill to the Russian State Duma that proposes state officials and civil servants be banned from using mobile phones, as well as foreign messenger apps and search engines. According to Solovyov, many Russian officials “currently use software and communication through which foreign intelligence services can fairly easily access confidential and official information.” Global Voices reports that under the new bill, authorities would be banned from using software products or communications technology such as WhatsApp or Google search engines. Currently, the text of the proposed bill does not provide an exhaustive list of applications that would be banned. It also does not explain if the ban would apply only to authorities’ work-related communication or to private conversations as well.  Solovyov says these specifications were left open to the discretion of the Russian President. The lawmaker has defended his bill, citing a growing number of cyberattacks on the information systems used by Russian officials. According to Solovyov, banning certain applications would “greatly improve the security of confidential and official information.”


Microsoft Announces New Grant-Making Strategy

On November 17, American tech giant Microsoft announced its new plan to bring reliable broadband to ‘underserved’ parts of the world that are not connected to the internet. Through its new Affordable Access Initiative, the company will offer grants to commercial entities that “propose scalable solutions to facilitating access to Internet and cloud services in underserved communities,” Tech Times reports. The intent of the new strategy is predicated on the idea that reliable internet access will help those in rural and remote communities gain access to financial and career opportunities. According to Microsoft, 57% of the world is still offline. Any commercial company with two or more full-time employees will be able to propose a project idea that tackles the issue. Successful candidates will gain access to Microsoft’s own services and software, to be used in a project aiming to spread internet access around the globe. The company plans to collaborate with a variety of stakeholders, including those from both the public and private sectors, civil society, and internet service providers to accomplish the goals of the project.


FCC Hearing Yields Social Media Call to Action

On November 17, 2015 the Federal Communications Commission held an Oversight Hearing in which US Representative Joe Barton suggested the FCC shut down websites used by ISIS and other terrorist groups. Barton addressed FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler when he asked if there is anything the commission can do under existing law to shut down social media sites that ISIS is known for using to disseminate propaganda, instill fear, and even communicate to each other. Wheeler suggested that Congress update its definition of a “lawful intercept” under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which currently allows internet service providers (ISPs) to intercept a suspect’s internet communications and send a copy to law enforcement. During the hearing, Wheeler agreed to work with lawmakers if Congress updates the laws. Currently, the FCC’s net neutrality rules prevent ISPs from blocking transmission of lawful content. Barton and Wheeler did not go into specifics of which sites would be shut down or what the unintended consequences of a shutdown would be for non-terrorist users.


Tanzanians Arrested for Publishing False Election Information

This week, Global Voices reported four Tanzanians who were charged under Section 16 of the Cybercrime Act of 2015 on two counts for publishing false election-related information on the social messaging platform Whatsapp.  Leila Sinare, Godfrey Soka, Deo Soka, and Monica Gaspary Soka appeared before Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s court in Dar Es Salamm, Tanzania. One count is brought against Sinare, who allegedly posted an audio recording on Whatsapp containing content meant to mislead and threaten the public during the Tanzanian general elections, held last month. The second count, brought against the other three detainees, is for a similar audio recording created by all three and posted to a Whatsapp group called “Soka Group.” The accused are not the first to be detained under the controversial Cybercrime law, according to the report. At least three other individuals have been tried for “misuse of the internet.” Advocates for freedom of expression argue that the law gives too much power to police. Currently, it allows police to search the computers, houses, and online data of those suspected of cybercrime violations. The four accused have pleaded not guilty and will appear in court on December 3.


Internet Shutdown in Bangladesh a ‘Mistake’

On Wednesday, November 18, Bangladeshi officials announced that access to Facebook, Viber, and Whatsapp had been blocked following a Supreme Court ruling upholding death sentences for two men convicted of war crimes, BBC reports. Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid face imminent execution after being convicted of genocide and rape by a special war crimes tribunal.  Soon after, the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission announced that it had accidentally cut off access to the entire internet across the country. Commission chairman Shahjahan Mahmood reported that there was no directive to shut down the internet, and that it happened accidentally during the process of blocking social media apps in Bangladesh following the court ruling. Government officials have received a slew of complaints from a range of people including users unable to send messages and businesses unable to process online orders. The blackout started around 1:00 pm local time and lasted 75 minutes, according to news reports. The Commission says it restored access as soon as it realized the mistake. The three social media sites were initially blocked to maintain order following the ruling.


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