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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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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