November Roundup: Freedom on the net?

Our monthly roundup highlights trends in digital rights law from around the world. In November, Freedom House released its annual Freedom on the Net report, which revealed an overall decline in internet freedoms for a 9th consecutive year. This is consistent with news coming out of China, Spain, Lebanon, and Sweden, where governments have cracked down on fundamental freedoms online. However, one US court has taken strides towards securing them.

China

Leaked Chinese government documents revealed authorities’ use of facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence to monitor, identify and persecute the country’s minority Uyghur population – demonstrating “the power of technology to help drive industrial-scale human rights abuses.” Using a joint policing platform, Chinese authorities collate the personal data of people they interrogate, including blood type, education level, travel history, and household electric-meter readings, and this data is used by an algorithm to determine individuals who should be considered “suspicious”. Unsurprisingly, China was found to be the worst abuser of internet freedom for the fourth year in a row.

Spain

The Spanish government has made several legislative modifications which would allow them to shut down digital services without a court-issued warrant when “public order” is threatened – a move that is targeted at Catalan separatists. Acting Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, said: “I’m telling Catalan separatists. There won’t be independence either offline or online. The state of law will be as forceful online than in the real world,” The modifications came into force without undergoing proper parliamentary procedures, and grants authorities the powers to remove any content, websites or apps for the purposes of “public safety, civil protection, emergencies, defence of human life or interference with other networks.”

Lebanon

There has been an increase in the arrest and prosecution of people for exercising speech online in Lebanon, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. While it’s common for Lebanese authorities to rely on laws that criminalize libel, slander and defamation to silence speech about the country’s fragile economic situation and corruption, the report demonstrates that these are now being used to target online speech, in particular, and at an alarming rate. Many of those arrested are journalists or editors, whose reporting constitutes “speech that is not only legitimate, but necessary for the functioning of a vibrant society governed by the rule of law.” CYRILLA partner, SMEX, also released a report this month, that focuses specifically on the restriction of online speech by the Lebanese government. As of November, they had tracked 56 cases concerning online freedom of expression in 2019 – already 20 more than last year.

Sweden

The Swedish government’s draft proposal to expand its hacking authority has been approved by the country’s constitutional advisory body. The scope of the proposed law is so broad, it has attracted the concern of human rights watchdogs, who fear the implications it may have on privacy and security. In terms of the draft proposal, anyone even remotely related to the suspect of a crime may be be monitored, and judicial oversight of the process has been diminished. The draft proposal now awaits parliamentary approval, and Sweden hopes it will come into effect in early 2020.

US

A court in Boston found that suspicionless searches of travellers’ electronic devices at ports of entry into the US are unconstitutional. Border and immigration control authorities now have narrowed powers to search and seize devices, and must show “individualized suspicion of illegal contraband before they can search a traveler’s device.” The suit, brought by the EFF and ACLU of Massachusetts, comes after the unprecedented increase in the searches of devices entering the country, which many international travellers reported as “abusive”.

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Tools to Understand the Legal Aspects of the ICT Ecosystem: the CYRILLA Collaborative and the CLFR

Image via CYRILLA

As rapid developments in technology revolutionize our interactions with each other and the world, established fundamental rights, like freedom of expression and privacy, take on different, but no less significant, characters in the digital realm: censorship can be a simple social media policy, and surveillance has traded in binoculars for browser cookies. It’s imperative that these rights — these digital rights — are still protected, and that the national laws which protect them are directed at this objective, because although the possibilities are greater, so are the vulnerabilities.

But technology as regulatory concern can be vexing for human rights activists and even the most attuned policymakers. As governments scramble to bring dynamic technological advancements under their control, some countries enact laws that display a lack of awareness of technical architecture, while others apply or bend analog laws, some of which are already inconsistent with international law, to digital spaces. The result is that digital regulation is inconsistent across jurisdictions, and its subjects often lack an appreciation of the impact it has on their lives. Not only does this threaten fundamental human rights online, but it can be most harmful to the activists and researchers working to defend them.

At its core, CYRILLA addresses this obstacle by organizing and making accessible the world’s digital rights-related laws, cases, and analyses on its open database, which boasts legal resources from more than 140 countries. CYRILLA empowers researchers, journalists, civil society advocates, legal professionals, and human rights defenders to more readily assess legal trends as they shape and impact digitally-networked spaces. The aggregation of this data could potentially highlight threats to human rights online and reveal opportunities for legal reform. To supplement its extensive collection, CYRILLA has included the Global Network Initiative’s (GNI) Country Legal Frameworks Resource (CLFR) reports under its Analysis Section.

Image via GNI

The CLFR helps shed light on governments’ legal authorities to compel information and communications technology (ICT) companies to restrict access to communications services and/or content or share users’ data. This form of digital regulation warrants particular scrutiny for the potential risk to ICT users’ rights. With reports on legal frameworks in over fifty countries, the CLFR also demonstrates the challenges some ICT companies may face in honoring their international human rights responsibilities and commitments when these domestic legal frameworks authorize disproportionate restrictions or lack uniform interpretation. The CLFR reports use a shared methodology to group the pertinent laws, regulations, and policies into six categories:

1) compelling companies to allow interception of customers’ communications;

2) mandating disclosure of non-content communications data;

3) enhanced disclosure or interception requirements for national security or emergency purposes;

4) censorship-related powers, including powers to order ICT companies to block or restrict access to networks, services, and/or websites;

5) oversight of powers pertaining to access to user data; and

6) oversight of censorship-related powers.

The new and improved CLFR web tool allows users to view and compare up to four reports at once, to navigate between categories, and even to download the entire resource in CSV, allowing for better integration with other actors researching digital rights-related legislation like CYRILLA.

This integration enhances the capabilities of both resources. Via the CYRILLA database, researchers can find original laws and regulations referenced in CLFR analysis, and CYRILLA visitors can supplement their reviews of digital rights-related laws and regulations to see how they might be interpreted in practice using the CLFR. The CYRILLA database also links to pertinent case law, as well as draft legislation and legal provisions, helping showcase the implications of or potential real-world shifts in CLFR analysis. These features are particularly helpful with regard to laws permitting interception and censorship for the seemingly-narrow purposes of national security threats or emergencies, a focus of the CLFR. And CYRILLA users can take a bigger-picture view, searching for country-specific data, or by keywords which cover a variety of pressing digital rights issues, including freedom of speechfreedom of assembly, and privacy.

Digital rights advocateshuman rights expertsresearchers, and ICT companies alike have stressed that documenting the development and application of digital rights-related laws is critical to both keeping users’ around the world informed on their digital rights and ensuring policymakers protect these rights. Both the CLFR and CYRILLA are committed to this aim, especially in regions where information is not always readily accessible, like Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Together we hope to enable the research and advocacy required to understand the legal realities that exist and identify problematic trends that need to be curtailed. These tools are a step towards responsible, transparent digital regulation, and, ultimately, stronger digital communities.

Note: this post was originally published on the GNI blog.

CYRILLA at FIFAfrica 2019

In September, the sixth Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) was hosted in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Malcolm Kijirah and Jackie Akello from CYRILLA partner, the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law (CIPIT), were in attendance to discuss and share views on digital rights and internet freedom in Africa, and to build contacts and advocate for the CYRILLA Collaborative.

FIFAfrica is a landmark event that convenes various stakeholders from the internet governance and digital rights communities in Africa and beyond. Attendees deliberate on gaps, concerns and opportunities regarding key internet issues faced by the continent, such as advancing privacy, access to information, free expression, and non-discrimination. FIFAfrica also provides a platform for responding to rising challenges to the enjoyment of internet freedom in various countries, including arrests and intimidation of online users, internet disruptions, and a proliferation of laws and regulations that undermine the potential of digital technology to drive socio-economic and political development on the continent. 

At FIFA, CIPIT hosted a CYRILLA exhibition stand, which was visited by legal practitioners, activists, organizations in the tech space, private individuals, human rights organizations, and research institutions. The team provided information to attendees on the databases being developed, as well as emphasized the significance of the project to the digital rights space. CIPIT also used the platform to build contacts from different jurisdictions, particularly Lusophone, Francophone, West and Central Africa, where it had experienced the challenge of accessing digital rights-related legal data. The exhibition was a success, with CIPIT engaging a number of people interested in learning further information about CYRILLA.

As a member of the Africa Internet Rights Alliance (AIRA), CIPIT also participated in private briefings, during which they made submissions on the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, discussed digital ID systems as a pressing issue on the continent, and attended workshops on effective organizational advocacy. Malcolm found these workshops particularly beneficial, as CIPIT is gearing up for the launch of their Africa ICT Policy Database within the next few months: “Among other things, we were taught how to properly identify what our goal is, lay down the campaign strategy, and take record of the milestones covered. The overall objective of the Collaborative is fostering digital rights literacy across the globe, and we clearly see how these strategies can help us promote the use of our database, and engage in advocacy around its contents.”  

Follow our social media channels for updates on when the Africa ICT Policy Database goes live!

We’re hiring! (Kind of.)

Image via Caio Resende/Pexels

The CYRILLA Collaborative is seeking consultants and volunteers to assist with the collection of digital rights-related legal data in Sub-Saharan Africa.

About CYRILLA

The CYRILLA Collaborative (www.cyrilla.org) is producing an open resource toolkit and online database, to accelerate the structuring, sharing, comparison, visualization, and interoperability of legal information on digital rights. At its core, CYRILLA aims to organize, and make accessible, the world’s digital rights–related laws and cases so that a wide range of actors can more readily and confidently assess legal trends as they shape and impact digitally-networked spaces, highlighting threats to human rights and opportunities for legal reform. While the open database is the most visible part of CYRILLA, the Collaborative comprises several organizations developing open tools that can be adopted and adapted as needed by any individual or organization grappling with questions involving legal restrictions on digital rights.

How to Get Involved

To achieve and sustain our vision of providing a comprehensive first-look at the emerging legal frameworks for human rights in the digital age, the CYRILLA Collaborative is always seeking new partners and volunteers to help us collect the latest bills, law, case law, and analyses related to digital rights. The Center for Intellectual Property and Information Technology (CIPIT) at Strathmore Law School in Kenya is our Sub-Saharan African partner in the Collaborative. We’re seeking consultants across Sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in Lusophone and Francophone countries, with experience in legal research or policy analysis who can contribute legal data for national jurisdictions. CIPIT’s funds in this regard are limited. 

Responsibilities

As a consultant for the Collaborative, you can assist us in the following ways:

  • Obtaining the latest information on digital rights-related laws, policies, regulations, cases and developments in Sub-Saharan African countries
  • Translating and adapting Portugese and French case citations and summaries for upload to the ICT Policy Africa database;
  • In regions where information is not available online or in an accessible format, reaching out to authorities to obtain this information.

Consultants can expect a time commitment of 20 hours per week. 
Time commitment for volunteers is flexible.

Countries of Interest

We welcome assistance from all parties who are getting interested in getting involved, but are particularly in need of consultants for the following Lusophone countries:

  • Angola
  • Cape Verde
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Mozambique
  • São Tomé
  • Príncipe

Crediting Contributors

Ultimately, the data will be uploaded to CIPIT’s soon-to-be-launched ICT Policy Africa database, as well as the main CYRILLA database. All researchers will be properly credited as CYRILLA contributors on our website, unless they wish to remain anonymous. CIPIT and the CYRILLA Collaborative will also produce a blogpost highlighting the work of each organization or individual. 

If you would like to get involved, please send an email to cipit@strathmore.edu  and collaborative@cyrilla.org.

October Roundup: Whose internet is it anyway?

Image via Vincent Yu/AP

Our monthly roundup highlights trends in digital rights law from around the world. In October, Singapore and Nigeria introduced stricter regulations to curb the spread of disinformation that may also curb press freedom. While Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and Hong Kong authorities battle it out for the most innovative way to stifle uprisings using social media. Finally, some tips to stay connected and safe during the protests in Lebanon.

Fake news; real consequences

Singapore

This month, Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act finally went into effect. The law requires social media platforms and search engines to remove any content the government considers false. Ministers can unilaterally censor information, posted anywhere in the world, and wrongdoers face hefty fines and up to 10 years in prison. The move was welcomed by Singapore’s Prime Minister, who called it “a practical arrangement” to solve the pressing problem of disinformation. However, pretty much anyone who isn’t an elected official fears the law will be used to stifle free speech and persecute journalists who disagree with them – a development consistent with the country’s decline into authoritarianism. 

Nigeria

Quite literally taking their cue from Singapore, Nigeria’s government is also fighting the “cancer” of hate speech and disinformation that pose “a clear and imminent danger” to the country. President Muhammadu Buhari approved of the new regulatory code, which strengthens the powers of the National Broadcasting Commission by allowing for police intervention to close media stations, and increasing the value of fines imposed on offenders. Press freedom activists and human rights organizations are concerned that the new code will legitimize the government’s recent strong-arming of journalists, like the arrests of prominent newspaper editors for exposing oil revenue corruption in Nigeria’s southern Delta State.

The revolution will be live-tweeted

Hong Kong

A court in Hong Kong granted the Secretary of Justice a temporary injunction blocking information shared online which “promotes, encourages or incites” violence. The injunction application refers specifically to messages shared on Telegram and LIHKG – two of Hong Kong’s most popular messaging forums, and key platforms for organizing and communicating during the city’s almost six month-long protests. This is just the latest government attempts to bar protestors from using the courts; in addition to the legislature’s emergency ban on face-covering, and threatened internet restrictions. The injunction will remain in place until a formal hearing is held in mid-November.

Zimbabwe

Over in Zimbabwe, President Mnangagwa’s cabinet passed the Cyber Crime, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill, which criminalizes the sharing of misleading or offensive content via social media platforms like WhatsApp. The President believes he’s cleaning up the country’s “cyber-space”, but human rights organizations and democracy watchdogs consider this an excuse to monitor citizen communications and suppress any potential uprisings. The Bill was first introduced under former President Robert Mugabe, after protests against his Presidency were fuelled by local Twitter campaigns. Mnangagwa has also faced severe public anger in the past: in January, he ordered a social media blackout after violent protests broke out in response to fuel price hikes. Now, with rising dissatisfaction pending austerity measures, the Bill is another avenue to silence his critics and crackdown on protestors.

Indonesia

An investigation by the BBC and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has revealed a large-scale social media campaign that uses bots to share pro-government content about the Papua province of Indonesia – a region whose strong separatist movement has long called for independence. Because access to the island is heavily restricted and controlled, social media is often the only way foreign press can receive information about the political situation, and the campaign appears to be an attempt to skew the international perceptions of the unrest. Facebook ads targeting users in the US, UK and Europe were paid for by a Jakarta-based media company, but the Indonesian government has denied its complicity in the campaign.

Lebanon

Lebanese protestors staged sit-ins at major state institutions in Beirut, including the Ministry of Justice, following the anti-government demonstrations that erupted in mid-October. Locals are demanding accountability and a change in the country’s sectarian political system, which has been marred by inefficiency and corruption. The scale of the protests are unprecedented in Lebanon’s history, and largely driven by young people. To support the movement, local digital rights organization and CYRILLA partner, SMEX, released a guide on how protestors can communicate safely and securely if the internet is shut down or throttled by authorities. More tips and updates can be found on their Twitter and Facebook.

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September Roundup: Slander-in-Chief

Image via Emmanuel Herman/Reuters

Our monthly roundup highlights trends in digital rights law from around the world. In September, Indonesian, Ugandan and Tanzanian authorities went to bat for their heads of state by cracking down on media and individuals who criticize them online. Over on the subcontinent, the courts played a crucial role in enabling access to the internet for citizens, while in Ethiopia, digital rights organizations and activists convened for the 2019 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa.

Nothing but respect for MY President

Indonesia’s legislature was ready to resurrect a 400 year old law that would “criminalize contempt” of virtually any entity that exercises state power – from the President to the courts to state agencies. Despite the Constitutional Court deciding in 2006 that the law had no place in the country’s democracy, the government agreed on amending the penal code to reintroduce it. The basis of the decision was the current criminalization of contempt for the national flag, anthem and symbols: the failure to also criminalize contempt for the nation’s leader was considered “bizarre.” But critics noted that this new law could be exploited by authorities to stifle media freedom and opposition, and, amid this fervent pushback, the President himself postponed the vote for further feedback from the public.

Although affirming the right to freedom of expression in its Constitution, Uganda uses a portfolio of laws to restrict it anyway. The country is notorious for its determined application of outdated defamation laws, which endangers activists who use the internet to oppose the government and its policies. As covered in last month’s roundup, the Computer Misuse Act is also weaponized against activists under its provisions prohibiting “cyber harassment” and “offensive communications.” Various other laws, such as those targeting terrorism, have been used to fragrantly justify interception and monitoring of communications. The President’s arsenal also includes arbitrary internet shutdowns, and a social media tax to pay for the consequences of internet “gossip” Turns out expression isn’t really free after all.

Another country in the running for most creative ways to silence dissent is Tanzania, who initially detained investigative journalist, Erick Kabendra, for questioning over his citizenship in July. Kabendra, known for criticizing President Magufuli’s government, then faced allegations of sedition, before he was eventually charged with tax evasion, money laundering, and organized crime. He’s currently being held in a maximum security prison, where he reports that his health is deteriorating rapidly. His trial has been postponed for the 6th time, and is now scheduled for October 11th, 2019.

It’s because you’re always on that phone

In a landmark judgment for digital rights in India, the Kerala High Court declared that access to the internet is part of the fundamental rights of free expression, education, and privacy under the country’s Constitution. A college student approached the court after she was expelled for violating a rule that restricted the use of mobile phones in her hostel. The court found that mobile phones are now “part and parcel of the day to day life and even to a stage that it is unavoidable to survive with dignity and freedom.” The court explained that access to the internet enhanced educational opportunities for students more than it hampered them. Additionally, restrictions could not be placed on students who were at the age of majority even if they were supported by parents, and the restriction could not only apply to girls: access to the internet also included the agency to decide when and how to access it.

Image via Islamabad High Court

The Islamabad High Court in Pakistan also emphasized the pervasiveness of the internet in our lives by holding that rights that are traditionally safeguarded offline, must also be protected online. The court held that the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) was not empowered to block websites or regulate content without due process, transparency, and oversight. It must instead inform the allegedly infringing party before any action is taken against them and give them an opportunity to respond. The decision comes after the PTA shut down the website of a political party just weeks before the general election, as well as their blocking of news sites during the 2017 Faizabad protests.

The Other, Cooler FIFA

Image via Africa Internet Rights Alliance

The 2019 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa was held in Addis Ababa from September 23rd to 26th. We were represented by one of our partners, the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology (CIPIT), who shared details about CYRILLA with our colleagues in digital rights. Several initiatives towards both access and safety were launched at the forum, including South Africa’s 7-point plan for universal internet access and digital equality, Together! and Data4Change‘s project making online educational tools accessible to the visually impaired, and Safe Sister’s guide for digital security trainers in Sub-Saharan Africa. The forum culminated with host, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), releasing their 2019 edition of the State of Internet Freedom in Africa report. Other discussions included the prevalence of internet shutdowns on the continent, the attack on independent media online, exploring feminism on social media, and the relationship between democracy and the internet. You can find more info on the sessions on CIPESA’s YouTube channel or via #FIFAfrica19.

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CYRILLA Publishes Collection of Right to Information Laws

During its first session in 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 59: ‘Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and is the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.’ Now, we can fit the entirety of human knowledge in our back pockets, our holiday destinations are decided by cookies, and some of you may even be reading this on your fridge. We’re living in a digital age, and information is supreme. 

To enable and protect access to this information, CYRILLA has teamed up with the Global Right to Information (RTI) Rating publish their collection of national right to information laws on our database. The Global RTI Rating, a collaborative project between the Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe, assesses and compares the strength of national right to information laws based on certain indicators, as well as providing access to these laws. The quality and reliability of the RTI Rating has been recognized by numerous leading access to information experts, and it is regularly relied upon by a range of both official and civil society actors. By publishing the collection on CYRILLA, we hope to contextualize right to information law within the broader digital rights law movement.

At least 120 countries boast right to information laws, which provide for access to information held by public authorities, including institutional data, financial records, and environmental assessment reports. The results are encouraging: In Brazil, government departments began publishing their budgets online, which allowed media and citizens to track their spending against the programs they were scheduled to implement. The effort led to the exposure of state corruption and resulted in a number of public officials being investigated and removed from office. In another case, poor students in India gained admission to schools after local NGOs enquired about the availability of seats reserved for children from low-income families. With the information about how power is exercised by their governments, people can demand it be exercised as it should.

This isn’t to say right to information laws are the straightforward solution to holding corrupt, authoritarian regimes accountable. Unfortunately, in many countries, enforcement of these laws often falls short of the desired standard. Governments are known to circumvent access to information due to “national security” concerns, and persecute journalists who facilitate this access as well.

By publishing the RTI Collection, CYRILLA allows users to connect national right to information laws with relevant court cases decided before and after their implementation, providing more insight into their real-world effectiveness. Users can further compare a country’s right to information laws against its Constitution and other laws which impact or limit access. We are also uploading analyses of national right to information laws by academics and think-tanks in, to better inform advocacy campaigns, research, and strategic litigation efforts. 

All national right to information laws are now available on CYRILLA.

Toby Mendel, the Executive Director of the Centre for Law and Democracy,  is hopeful about the collaboration: “The RTI Rating is happy to collaborate with CYRILLA as we see this as a mutually beneficial partnership. For our part, we expand the range of relevant resources available through CYRILLA, while they help take our invaluable resources to new audiences. This, in turn, should help to promote strong right to information laws in countries around the world.”

You can find the RTI collection of laws on CYRILLA here and you can find more information about RTI in the “Collections” section of our website.

August Roundup: Freedom of Expression on Trial

Supporters of the jailed academic, Stella Nyanzi, after the sentencing. Dr. Nyanzi appeared at the court session on Friday via video link from a maximum-security prison.
Supporters of Stella Nyanzi, an imprisoned Ugandan researcher, after she was sentenced on August 2. Sumy Sadurni/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Our monthly roundup highlights trends in digital rights law from around the world. Last month, Ukraine, Uganda, and Kenya put free speech on trial; Nepal and Turkey introduced new laws restricting freedom of expression; and India’s annexation and blackout in Kashmir spurred criticism from both inside and outside the country.

Freedom of Expression on Trial

In August, courts in Uganda and Ukraine ruled against freedom of expression, while courts in Kenya took a positive step towards protecting free speech.

On August 2, a court in Uganda sentenced researcher Stella Nyanzi to 18 months in prison after she criticized President Yoweri Museveni on Facebook. The court claimed her criticism constituted cyberharassment, exploiting communication laws like The Computer Misuse Act to prosecute her. According to Joan Nyanyuki, director for East Africa at Amnesty International, the Kenyan government has repeatedly used this act to restrict free expression online. 

Then, on August 6, a judge in Kiev ruled that news site Hromadske defamed CP14, a far-right group, because the site referred to them as a “neo-nazi” group. Despite the court ruling, CP14 has regularly promoted neo-Nazi viewpoints. Therefore, the case “harms freedom of expression” because it “might have a ‘dissuading effect on journalistic work’”, preventing news organizations from covering the actions of CP14 and similar groups in the future.

In a more positive move, a judge in Kenya found section 84 (D) of the Kenyan Information Act, which bans “obscene material” online, unconstitutional. The judge alleged that the law is too vague and ruled in favor of blogger Cyprian Nyakundi, who faced charges under this section for criticizing Kenyan authorities.

Nepalese Activists Warn Against New Mass Media Bill

In Nepal, the Ministry of Law and Justice is drafting a controversial Mass Media Bill. Post Online Media obtained a copy of the Bill, revealing that journalists face fines up to $88,000 and a maximum of 15 years in prison if they are found to be publishing or broadcasting any content against sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity. Ramesh Bista, general secretary of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, explained that “some provisions in the draft bill are clearly aimed at controlling media houses and journalists”, and confirmed that politicians did not reach out to any journalists when drafting this law.

Countries Create New Restrictions for Media Registration

Countries around the world continue to introduce legislation requiring social media users to register as media entities. On August 1, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council passed an amendment that will further stifle freedom of expression. Under this law, “streaming services and online broadcasters” need to obtain a license that costs up to $18,000 in order to keep publishing. Similarly, the Uganda Communications Commission also extended its requirements for online publishers to register. Since March 2018, authorities have imposed a fee of $20 per year to publishers, and now the measure will include news organizations and citizens with many followers, in a move that will affect influencers like musicians and athletes, and also limit dissent.

India’s Actions in Kashmir Threaten Free Press

Meanwhile, India’s annexation and communications blackout of Jammu and Kashmir is drawing criticism from both inside and outside of the country. Indian state West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, stated that Narendra Modi’s government is preventing the press from reporting from Kashmir. Likewise, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, described the communication blackout in Kashmir as “unprecedented” in a democratic society. Digital Rights Foundation and 65 other digital rights organizations have condemned the blackout, stressing that it violates fundamental rights.

Authorities in Southeast Asia Impose Extralegal Censorship

Over the course of the year, a number of countries in Southeast Asia have taken measures limiting free speech, and unfortunately that trend is continuing. In Singapore, Law and Home Affairs minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam compelled both Facebook and YouTube to block a satirical rap video, which he claimed was prejudiced against Chinese Singaporeans. The ability of the Singaporean political leaders to censor content has raised concerns amongst civil society especially because the government recently passed a fake news law.

In Indonesia, the government-run North Sumatra University fired the entire staff of Suara USU, a news website managed by students, after they published a queer love story. The university authorities accused the students of “promoting homosexuality” and violating “the vision and mission of the university”. A trial between the individuals that used to run the website and the rector is currently taking place after the students filed a petition.

Read last month’s round-up here

July Roundup: New Laws Restrict Free Expression

Legal experts held a meeting on July 10 in the Cambodian Ministry of Interior to review the content of the draft law on cybercrime. | Facebook

CYRILLA’s monthly roundup highlights digital rights legal updates and trends to contextualize the legislation and caselaw in our database. As governments continue to propose restrictive new laws in the name of progress, the CYRILLA Collaborative is committed to documenting these instances. Al-Jazeera English recently covered our efforts to catalogue legislation and caselaw in the Middle East and North Africa in an article about the continued threats newly introduced “cyberspace” legislation poses to activism.

This month, we explore legislation that threatens free expression in Southeast Asia, the worsening environment for freedom of expression in Hong Kong, a Turkish court ruling, and a number of detentions that infringe on fundamental rights.

A Dangerous Pattern for Free Expression in Southeast Asia

In Southeast Asia, a number of new laws restrict digital rights. In Cambodia, the ministries of Interior and Justice are reviewing a draft law on cybercrime, allegedly to catch up with other developing countries’ legislation. However, Cambodian activists and human rights defenders have expressed concerns that the government might use the law to restrict the freedoms of critics of the government.

In Singapore, the government recently passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in May, citing the need to prevent the spread of “fake news.” The law gives ministers the ability to order social media companies to “correct” or remove content that the government disagrees with. Many journalists and press-freedom activists state that the law, which will come into force later this year, is a “straightforward power grab” and a “mechanism for expanding government controls into digital world.”

Deteriorating Situation for Freedom of Expression in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, the legislation has not necessarily gotten worse, but the situation for freedom of expression has deteriorated. Amidst the protests, which have turned increasingly violent, The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) recently published their annual report, which claims 2019 is “the worst year” for freedom of expression since the city’s post-colonial history begun in 1997. The study, “Red Line Stifles Freedoms,” documents a number of incidents that demonstrate the government’s strong control over the press. In an official statement, HKJA urged the government “to reaffirm their commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of press through concrete actions,” including withdrawing the controversial extradition bill and enacting a freedom to access information law.

Turkish Court Rejects Claim it Violated Right to Freedom of Expression

Earlier this month, the Turkish Constitutional Court rejected a complaint claiming authorities violated the right to freedom of expression by censoring online content. Academics Kerem Altıparmak and Yaman Akdeniz submitted the complaint, which contained examples of blocked Twitter accounts and domains “belonging to individuals and organizations critical of the government.” From 2014 and 2018, Turkish authorities prevented users from accessing between 245,825 websites and domains, according to a report by the Istanbul Freedom of Expression Association (İFÖD).

Human Rights Defenders Detained for Expressing Their Right to Free Speech

Authorities detained a number of human rights defenders, artists, and activists. Recently, Israeli authorities arrested Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet. She was released nine months ago after a five month prison term and three years of house arrest. Last week, Israeli prosecutors filed an appeal with the Supreme Court to reopen a case against her concerning a poem she posted online.

In Nigeria, authorities have detained journalist Jones Abir again. He had been detained for two years without a trial until August 2018, because as Amnesty International states, “journalists, bloggers and people that stand up for human rights in Nigeria are constantly being arrested, harassed and intimidated by the authorities.” According to human rights groups, the government continually trumps up charges to jail people who speak against them.

Burmese filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi has has also spent three months under arrest after he criticized the military on Facebook.

If you have any feedback or would like to suggest a story, let us know in the comments or send us an email at collaborative[at]CYRILLA.org.

After RightsCon: What’s Next for CYRILLA?

Early Saturday morning at Columbia University’s Global Center in Tunis. June, 2019.

Work continues full-steam ahead with the CYRILLA Collaborative! Last time, we updated you on our inaugural strategic partners’ meeting, hosted at Harvard University Law School and the Berkman Klein Center back in January. Last month, we were fortunate to keep that momentum going at our second strategic partners’ meeting for the CYRILLA Collaborative, held immediately after RightsCon 2019 at Columbia University’s Global Center in Tunis. 

On June 15th, partners SMEX, Association for Progressive Communications, CIPIT, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, Derechos Digitales, and HURIDOCS came together once again for a full day of continued collaboration. We not only picked up where we left off with some of the great work emerging from the previous meeting, but also explored some fascinating new topics with exciting implications for the CYRILLA digital rights legal database. We had a guest from GUARDINT, another initiative initiative working at the intersection of law and digital rights, present to the group about their work tracking surveillance-related case law in Europe, as well as learn more about our data model and taxonomy.

From developing the data model to incorporating machine learning capabilities, here are some of the highlights and key outcomes of our gathering:

Iterating the CYRILLA Data Model and Taxonomy

In Tunis, we reviewed and revisited the core component of the CYRILLA suite of open tools – the open data model and collaboratively produced taxonomy of digital rights topics. While the data model is in its final stages, we also discussed a few key issues, such as:

  • How can users to not only identify and filter courts by their specific names, but also to compare similar court types across jurisdictions? For now, we are adopting the Judicial Body filter list from the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression database, but will continue to think this question through.
  • Currently, individual laws in the database exist as singular entities – but what about digital rights-relevant amendments to these laws? As amendments are only sometimes, but not always, integrated into publicly available legislation, we decided they should be considered linked entities in order to maintain consistency across the data model.
The current draft of the CYRILLA data model. June, 2019.
  • As we come closer to finalizing the data model, we will circulate it for broader community input and review before implementing on CYRILLA and the databases of some of our partner organizations. Please reach out to collaborative@cyrilla.org if you would like to be part of the review process!

Incorporating Machine Learning into the CYRILLA Database

We were also eager to begin the process of incorporating machine learning capabilities into the CYRILLA database. Our technical partner HURIDOCS has taken the lead on this effort, with the support of grants they received from NESTA and Google. 

  • During RightsCon, in the days before our meeting, HURIDOCS Artificial Intelligence Specialist Natalie Widmann conducted a short study with a number of our partners. By analyzing their interactions with the documents from Columbia Global Freedom of Expression’s database, the study sought to surface patterns about how users of the platform locate and categorize documents.
  • At the meeting, Natalie shared the findings of her study with the rest of the group. Then, she briefed the group on her work at HURIDOCS and the different machine learning techniques that can improve CYRILLA’s usability. HURIDOCS intends to use the data from this study to begin implementing a semantic search function that will make it easier for CYRILLA users to locate and tag documents across different datasets.

Looking to the Future: Governance of the CYRILLA Collaborative

We’re almost a whole year into our grant for the CYRILLA Collaborative, and our time together in Tunis was a wonderful opportunity to reflect and take stock of everything we’ve been able to achieve together with our partners! 

  • To make sure that this work can continue sustainably, we continued earlier conversations from our last partners’ meeting about governance models for CYRILLA. The broad consensus was that CYRILLA should become a stand-alone entity with a board to oversee it. 
  • In support of this, over the coming months, we will be working together with our partners and the broader community to begin developing terms of reference for a CYRILLA governance board and its individual members, as well as visioning documents to chart the medium and long-term development goals of the Collaborative.
  • We also discussed exploring linking CYRILLA to a larger, potentially academic, entity, but all agreed that we did not want the Collaborative to lose its identity as a network of global south–based organizations. 

Over the coming months, we will be uploading a ton of legislation and case law from South Asia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa. If you’d like to collaborate with us, we want to hear from you! Email collaborative@cyrilla.org to get in touch.