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.

tl;dr

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