The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of problems, victories and new trends in Internet rights worldwide. This report covers the news and events that occurred between October 27 and the November 10, 2019.
A BBC investigation has shown how mobile applications and social media services are being used in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to buy and sell domestic workers on the black market. The findings seem to indicate clear violations of programmer rules and terms of service for the main platforms involved – Instagram, Google and Apple.
Domestic workers from the Gulf usually arrive from Africa or Southeast Asia and are hired under the “kafala” or sponsorship system, in which the person or family that hires the worker is responsible for their visa and legal status. The system is known for allowing inhuman treatment of workers. In recent years, workers have used social media to report their difficulties, but this sometimes results in greater punishment at the hands of employers or even government officials.
Two BBC reporters were covered up to Kuwait to report the story, they introduced themselves as a couple interested in hiring a domestic worker. On Instagram and Facebook, and through applications such as 4Sale, available at Apple and Google stores, reporters found that there are people who buy and sell domestic workers in open violation of local labor laws. “Almost all vendors defended the confiscation of women's passports, confining them in the house, denying them free time and giving them little or no access to a phone,” they wrote. All this constitutes violations of Kuwaiti labor laws and international human rights standards.
In a comment on the role of technology platforms, UN Special Rapporteur Urmila Bhoola told the BBC that companies are “promoting an online slave market.” I say that “if Google, Apple, Facebook or any other company hosts applications like these, they must be held responsible.”
When the BBC contacted the technology companies with their findings, they all expressed concern. 4Sale, which allows advertisements, sell and buy various products, repeated the domestic workers section of its platform. Facebook banned the #MaidsForTransfer tag (maids to transfer) from Instagram, although this is unlikely to eliminate the problem. Apple and Google said it would seek to eliminate this activity, which seems to violate its rules (Google prohibits “applications that facilitate or promote illegal activities” and Apple prohibits applications that may “place a person or group in the path of harm”). Apple also pointed to third-party programmers, and noted that it is a programmer's job to follow the company's terms of service.
Since the news appeared on BBC.com, the Kuwaiti authorities began to find out about the matter and have initiated investigations on two people mentioned in the article.
The research analyzes a problem deeply rooted in the main social media and web platforms that offer services and functions that can process communications and commercial transactions of billions of people every day. In the relatively short history of these companies, no company operating at that scale has found a way to effectively examine the content and services of third parties for evidence of damage or even systematic violations of human rights standards, as seen here.
‘Russian sovereign internet law’ is launched
On November 1, the controversial Russian “sovereign internet” law entered into force. The law states that, if a “crisis situation” (inaccurately defined) is declared, the internet in Russia (or at least in some regions) would be isolated from the global internet. Those in favor argue that the measure is necessary to protect Russia against cyber attacks from abroad, while human rights defenders and free expression argue that the law threatens online freedoms.
The law obliges internet service providers to route incoming international traffic through Internet exchange points (IXP) based in Russia, which allows the centralized operation of the internet in a crisis situation. It also provides that service providers install special devices that would help Roskomnadzor, state communications watchdog, block unwanted internet traffic. This would send data to a central tracking facility, which would examine that traffic in real time with deep packet inspection, a method considered much more effective than blocking different IP addresses. The law also provides for the creation of a domestic version of the domain name system (DNS), or the internet telephone directory, so that in case of an internet outage, Russian service providers cannot connect to foreign system servers of domain name.
On September 27, Roskomnadzor announced that he would launch tests on systems in the southern region of Ural, for local discontent. The results were not made public.
Spies like us? Twitter ex-workers were spying on the Saudi government
The United States Department of Justice accused two former Twitter workers of spying on behalf of the Government of Saudi Arabia. The accusations were made public on November 8 and indicate that, without authorization from Twitter, both obtained personal data and other information about critics of the Saudi government who actively use Twitter, and then gave that information to the Saudi authorities, in violation of the rules Twitter internal and US laws.
Ali Alzabarah, one of the former workers, reviewed restricted personal data of some 6,000 accounts, including that of Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz, a prominent Twitter user and acquaintance of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Abdulaziz has filed a lawsuit against Twitter and McKinsey, a US consulting firm that worked for the Saudi government, and argues that both companies have “invaded (the) privacy of the plaintiff and expose him, as well as his family, friends and political associates to prison, torture and even death. “
Abdulaziz and Khashoggi are just two of many Saudi activists and journalists who have faced harassment campaigns coordinated with marks of a government operation, along with other forms of repression, online and offline.
Internet falls again while protests continue in Iraq
In Iraq, there have been public protests of allegations of government corruption and requests for a repair of public services since the beginning of October. That month, the authorities imposed an “internet curfew”, and removed access during the night. On November 4, Iraqis saw a massive internet shutdown that affected most of the country and lasted for 41 hours, according to NetBlocks, an internet censorship measurement group. Reuters reported that after the blockade, violent clashes between protesters and “unidentified attackers” in Baghdad resulted in at least six deaths.
Regional mobile Internet blackout in Pakistan during demonstration
Mobile data networks were blocked on October 22 in parts of Islamabad and Lahore during a series of marches by conservative political parties opposing the regime of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Journalists suspect that the blockades are intended to prevent some groups from broadcasting their march live, but the Government has not made official public statements in this regard.
Media Matters for Democracy, an NGO from Lahore, points out that the Islamabad Superior Court ruled in 2018 that arbitrary blockades ordered by the Government were illegal. However, the Government appealed to this decision and obtained an interim suspension order, until there is an appeal hearing.
Southeast Asian activists denounce attacks on digital expression
Various major media activists, free expression organizations and digital rights in Southeast Asia came together to denounce increasing levels of government repression of online expression in the region. The group pointed to Vietnamese bloggers in prison Nguyen Van Hoa and Le Dinh Luong and Myanmar's digital filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, and highlighted the dangers of their “increasingly authoritarian region.”
“We are witnessing harassment, threats, beatings, prosecutions and imprisonment of bloggers, protesters and human rights defenders, journalists and daily internet users for their legitimate use of online spaces,” they said in a statement. The signers of the statement include the Association for Progressive Communications, Engage Media, Thai Netizen Network and Viet Tan.
Freedom on the net 2019: The social media crisis – Freedom House
Digital welfare and human rights report – United Nations Special Rapporteur for extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston
On blocking websites in favor of abortion: Women in waves and women on the web – Coding Rights, Open Observatory of Network Interference, Women on Waves and Women on Web