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The oppression of the Internet is global

February 29, 19:14 UTC+3 Dawson Suzie
© Yuri Smityuk/ITAR-TASS

MOSCOW, February 26. /TASS/. The Western media have been predictably uniform and hypocritical in their outcry over Russia's string of new Internet compliance regulations and legislation.

Unsurprisingly, there is much more to the story than they have been telling.

"Russian Internet Law Could Threaten Security Of Americans' Personal Data" warns the American publication Free Beacon, neatly side-stepping the fact that the American government has been collecting the personal data of citizens all over the globe and, illegally, their own domestic citizenry in a wholesale fashion for donkey's years.

Equally adamant in implying that Russia are doing something unprecedented and nefarious, is the ex-Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg's Bloomberg News Service.

This Bloomberg article claims that Russia has passed "about 20" such laws, yet the claim is not sourced, and in another such article, their own time-line of recent changes to Russia's Internet and communications laws chronicles less than half that many.

Regardless of the exact number, the legal themes that Bloomberg do list are almost mirror images of those which comprise the overarching regulatory environment that has been constructed in a similarly piecemeal fashion by many Western governments.

There are laws against child pornography; on-line piracy (replete with American/DMCA-style content removal notices); extremist content (reminiscent of similar British initiatives); removal of blogger anonymity (akin to the .co.in, .co.nz, .in, and .us top-level domain privacy restrictions) and the creation of a register for high-traffic bloggers; restrictions on foreign-funded organisations (as seen in the United States 'Foreign Agents Registration Act', as well as at least 60 and arguably as many as 96 other countries which have their own versions); the forced installation of 'black boxes' on site at Internet Service Providers (ISPs), (reminiscent of New Zealand's 2013 Telecommunications Interception Capability and Security Bill, which requires all ISPs to 'either have a full intercept capability or be intercept capable, or intercept ready'); and the most recent - a 'Right To Be Forgotten'-style bill enabling the manipulation or cleansing of search engine results about an individual, similar to that of the precedent-setting ruling by the European Union that led to a re-drafting of European Data Protection Regulations.

While the West has a strategic military and economic interest in painting Russia as a rogue or pariah state instituting draconian laws entirely for its own convenience and out of a flagrant disregard for human rights, the balance of facts show that these laws have been instituted almost belatedly and as part of a global trend, largely instigated by the West themselves.

Pressures on Business

Citations of Western businesses canceling expansion plans in Russia or outright evacuating are also rife in Western media. Ostensibly, these examples include: Google moving an engineering office to Poland; Microsoft's Skype development office closing, Adobe closing their Russian operations and Spotify canceling plans to expand to Russia.

What remains unclear is exactly which countries, if any, remain hospitable to, or could act as a digital safe-haven for these companies - as their own home countries of operation have long since passed equally draconian measures against the Internet as Russia has.

Which probably explains why a number of major companies have confirmed that they will continue to operate in Russia despite the passage of the legislation. Some examples of those include Ebay, PayPal, Samsung, Lenovo, and Uber.

Companies that remain undecided, or are at least not yet stating their position publicly, include the major social media companies, along with Apple and Google, though there has been some conflicting reports and confusion around the intentions of the latter.

The reality of course is that the ever-increasing cost of compliance with Internet legislation is a global phenomenon and is not necessarily something that can be avoided or mitigated simply by a company altering their geographic area of operations.

As with the nature of many aspects of business risk management, future compliance costs remain a contingent liability in terms of strategic planning.

Attacks on Putin

The International Business Times states that over 1 million companies could be affected by the Russian laws, along with the oft-repeated claim in Western media that these changes were all spurred by events surrounding the 2012 Russian Presidential election.

There are several on-line references to President Vladimir Putin quite famously having described the Internet as "a CIA project", including by The Guardian; with an inference that this is somehow conspiracy theory, rather than established fact.

Among experts, academics and historians alike, it is common knowledge that the development of the Internet was driven and funded by the American military infrastructure, often in conjunction with state-funded research projects and faculty at major American universities.

Many computer programming languages, operating systems, software platforms, hardware manufacturing initiatives and even social media companies are also known to have been funded by CIA entities like In-Q-Tel, among other technology companies with ties to U.S. intelligence agencies. The U.S. Department of Defense and Department of State are also heavily involved in the development and funding of key technological advances.

To suggest that Putin is merely paranoid or a conspiracy theorist for stating obvious facts which are available in the public domain, is insulting to the intelligence of readers.

Russian Media

Western reports on the Russian laws consistently omit the official names of the Bills, fail to provide any links to or translations of the actual content of the legislation, and lack meaningful analysis of the provisions contained within them.

Instead, readers are subjected to fixed narratives that are then regurgitated in the echo chamber of the 24-hour news cycle; views without any proverbial meat in the sandwich.

The Russian media, by contrast, actually seem to do more groundwork to educate their readers about precisely what it is that is being proposed, and/or passing into law.

They argue that the changes are not about control so much as they are about autonomy. That Russia's Internet architecture remains significantly more free and open than China's Golden Shield Project, which is colloquially known as the 'Great Firewall of China' and effectively functions almost like an entirely separate Internet, or arguably the world's largest intranet.

Reportedly, the Russian government position is that “being part of a global system, without domestic controls on that system, is dangerous”. Certainly being reliant on global systems is dangerous, if foreign entities can control, limit, sanction and spy on an entire nation's access to that system.

In the Russian media, a really good parallel is made to payment systems. Most countries host their own national payment systems, that can continue to function independently of international controls. This is necessary to the continuation of commerce in the event of international upheaval or attempts to meddle in domestic economies.

If a country is wholly dependent upon international entities for the establishment and provisioning of their communications services, they become beholden to those same entities for their upkeep, governance and continuity.

Failure to maintain independent infrastructure would be extremely undesirable when degrading geopolitical and diplomatic conditions could potentially allow aspects of the network architecture to be effectively wielded as a weapon against certain nations.

So-called 'Enemies of the Internet'

According to Reporters Without Borders, the so-called "Enemies of the Internet" are Cuba, Syria, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, USA, UK, Belarus, India, Pakistan, China, Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, North Korea, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Their list is current as of 2014, as it was not updated in 2015.

But some countries I can think of that haven't so far been deemed “Enemies of the Internet”, yet for which there is substantial evidence available that they have engaged in similar behaviours as the aforementioned, include: Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Turkey, Israel, Gambia, Sri Lanka and Azerbaijan.

In 2015, the Sydney Morning Herald reported "The digital privacy of Australians ends from Tuesday, October 13, 2015." In a snappy and humorous video clip at the top of their article, if you blink you may miss the list of Australian agencies that will be able to collect personal data without a warrant:

The ASIO (the Australian equivalent of the CIA); AFP (Australian Federal Police); in fact, "all Police forces"; the Commissions for: Law Enforcement Integrity; Crime; Securities and Investment; Competition and Consumer; NSW Crime; NSW ICAC; NSW Police Integrity, QLD Crime and Misconduct; WA Corruption and Crime; SA ICAC; the Customs and Border Protection Service; with "others to be announced."

Summarising the content of the legislation, the Herald states:

The electronically logged data of mobile, landline voice (including missed and failed) calls and text messages, all emails, download volumes and location information will be mandatorily retained by Australian telcos and ISPs.

Intelligence and law enforcement agencies will have immediate, warrantless and accumulating access to all telephone and Internet meta-data required by law, with a $2 million penalty for telcos and ISPs that don't comply.

There is no sunset clause in the Abbott government's legislation, which was waved through parliament by Bill Shorten's Labor with only minor tweaks. The service providers are to keep a secret register of the agency seeking access to meta-data and the identity of the persons being targeted. There is nothing in the Act to prevent investigative "fishing expeditions" or systemic abuse of power except for retrospective oversight by the Commonwealth Ombudsman. That's if you somehow found out about an agency looking into your meta-data - which is unlikely, as there's a two-year jail sentence for anyone caught revealing information about instances of meta-data access.

In the wake of the Bill's passage, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) wrote that "governments around the world, individually, and in concert, continue to argue that the stockpiling of the private, personal data of entire populations [has] become a global norm."

This fits with Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty which quoted Danny O'Brien from the EFF as saying "it's a race to the bottom."

Yet stands in stark contrast to the myriad Western media articles decrying Russia's actions and excluding the wider context of the similar legislative agendas of their own governments.

The speed with which the international digital landscape is changing is abundantly evident in the case of South Africa. In 2013, it was declared “free” by none other than Freedom House - which has "75 years championing democracy" and is frequently used as a source for Western media's complaints about Russia's new Internet restrictions.

Fast-forward to 2015 and their judgment already appears to be defunct, as South Africa has a 'Scary new Internet censorship law' that is “far-reaching and absolute” and even applies restrictions to citizens posting on social media platforms.

Turkey is world renowned for its suppression and manipulation of the Internet at times that it is politically expedient for them to interfere with it; acts which have repeatedly attracted the ire of the hacktivist group Anonymous.

Social media sites including Reddit have repeatedly been blocked outright, leading to international rights groups to school Turkey's Internet users on how to use proxy servers to avoid state censorship and allow them to still maintain their on-line voices and get eye-witness accounts and news out to the world.

Israel has gone a step further - demanding that the entire world censor content on the Internet, attempting to build an international coalition to control opinion on-line, particularly social media sites.

Gambia has repealed a law protecting freedom of expression on-line.

France, which gained worldwide support and condolences in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, responded to the disaster by rushing through new Internet censorship legislation, amongst other constitutional changes, that have converted it into one of the most legislatively repressive states in Europe, if not the world.

Egypt has imposed repeated and wholesale blackouts of Internet access on its beleaguered populace, notably during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in the country and also at times at which it was most critical to the citizenry that they be able to communicate with each other and the global community.

Other cases of Internet censorship legislation date back to 2010, such as in Sri Lanka.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Azerbaijan is among the top 10 countries that are most hostile to a free press, silencing them with a variety of means including restrictions on the Internet.

Perhaps the most surprising case study of all is my home country, New Zealand. Supposedly among the safest and most peaceful democracies in the world, New Zealand has in fact become a world-leader in expanding the legislative powers of its intelligence and police agencies, and going several steps further: instituting retrospective law changes to avoid culpability for past illegal conduct by those same agencies and getting caught performing thousands of warrant-less data requests from all manner of companies and industries for the purposes of gaining access to private and confidential information about thousands of its citizens.

This kind of extra-judicial activity by New Zealand police forces has become rife, and it seems the string of legislation imposed after the fact has merely been a mechanism to justify what was already happening, rather than to grant powers for future use.

The GCSB Bill which was proposed on April 15, 2013 and passed into law in August 2013 by a mere two votes, in the wake of massive public resistance efforts including a mainstream and nationally co-ordinated protest movement against the prior illegal actions of the state spy agency and in opposition to the Bill, came into force despite the NZ Law Society deeming the Bill "flawed".

At the time, citizens were assured that the retrospective law changes would only need "tinkering every 5-7 years". Yet a mere two years later, on August 13, 2015, it was announced that New Zealand spies were demanding even greater powers.

Particularly since the current Prime Minister of New Zealand, John Key, an ex-Member of the Federal Reserve Bank of America, took office in 2008, New Zealand has been viewed as a proxy US-state. Much of the expansion of state spying legislation there has had a flow-on effect elsewhere in the world in the wake of its passage.

In August 2014, NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden revealed that there are multiple NSA facilities operating on New Zealand soil: a fact that had been previously unknown to citizens of that country. Especially within the 'Five Eyes' intelligence network, it is likely that the institution of laws like the GCSB Bill were not just to justify past and enable future spying on its own domestic citizenry, but to provide legislative cover for activities undertaken in conjunction with the intelligence agencies of the United States of America.

The wording of the provisions of the Bill seem to confirm this. Information collected can be shared with "any person or office holder (whether in New Zealand or overseas) authorised by the Minister to receive the intelligence." The Minister of the spy services at the time of the Bill's passage was in fact, the Prime Minister himself. The Bill goes on to state "the Bureau may co-operate with, and provide advice and assistance to, any public authority (whether in New Zealand or overseas) and any other entity authorised by the Minister". 

As if that isn't wide open enough to interpretation, there is even a catch-all included: Section 8c, sub-section (2) states: "To avoid doubt, the Bureau may perform its function if: ... (c) even though the advice and assistance might involve the exercise of powers by, or the sharing of capabilities of, the Bureau that it is not, or could not be authorised to exercise or share in the performance of its other functions.

This being the legislative framework imposed by one of the most "safe" and "peaceful" countries in the world, highlights the profound hypocrisy demonstrated by the West when lecturing Russia on digital freedoms.

There was no such global outcry by the American elite over the passage of the GCSB and TICS legislation in New Zealand - because that legislation suited and benefited their own intelligence agencies and security agenda.

Yet when the shoe is on the other foot, they are in uproar.

Even Scandinavia can no longer be counted on to be a bastion of freedom.

When interviewed by American TV host Bill Maher, WikiLeaks Editor-in-Chief Julian Assange said of Sweden:

"There's been a historic transformation of Sweden that is really quite fascinating... it's something that I've become embroiled in of course. We all used to, in our debates, go 'well, we should adopt this proposal, because haven't they done something like that in Sweden?' So Sweden in the liberal consciousness of the United States formed a certain archetype, something that was out there, that you could point to, as some utopia under the sun... the country has now made a dramatic shift to the right... it is the closest ally of the United States on continental Europe."

In Conclusion:

It is true that all of these types of legislation, from whichever country they originate, are a dangerous signal of ever increasing state powers and ever diminishing freedoms of the public. However the West is clearly more intent on vilifying Russia than looking at the issues in the global context in which they are unfolding, or turning their critical glare inwards upon themselves and their own allies.

In short, they want to have their cake and eat it too.

By Suzie Dawson

Suzie Dawson is a journalist, blogger and activist from Auckland, New Zealand, who covers issues such as mass surveillance, privacy, social justice and technology in the digital age.

 

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