Tag: censorship

More Censorship in Venezuela

More than 16,000 murders occurred in Venezuela in 2009. That compares with 4,550 homicides reported in 1998, the year Hugo Chavez was elected president. The fact that Venezuela now has one of the world’s highest violent crime rates underscores the Chavez revolution’s utter neglect of the basic and proper functions of government.

Yet the problem is downplayed by the government, which inexplicably blames capitalism and poverty even though official figures show a fall in poverty rates. As if to highlight the government’s insensitivity, the president of state-run TeleSUR TV station recently laughed off the problem in a widely-seen CNN interview.

Last week, El Nacional newspaper published this graphic front-page photo of crime victims in a morgue. The official response from a government-controlled court has been to ban media from publishing violent images for one month. Thus, today El Nacional ran the front-page photo below, which reads “Censored” in the space where photos should be. The way the Bolivarian Revolution is going, Venezuelans can expect the government to continue resolving social problems in the same way.

The Ecuadorian Government’s Campaign against the Free Press

The World Cup is over but not the Ecuadorian government’s propaganda campaign vilifying the free press.

For those Ecuadorians who don’t have Direct TV, but only have cable TV or the local network channels, the only place to have watched the much-awaited matches was on one of the state-owned TV stations and with constant state propaganda. (You can watch the videos depicting the private press as a snake or as shooting bullets coming out of the TV here, here, here and here.)

When I say constant, I might be understating the frequency: according to Infomedia — a media monitoring company— during the weekend of June 18-20 these ads were broadcasted 414 times for a total of 7,988 seconds or 133 minutes.

To make matters worse, the ads continue to be aired at the same time the not-so-independent National Assembly is debating a new communications law that would create a Communications Council — controlled by the executive branch — with the power to impose severe sanctions on radio and TV stations and newspapers.

For starters, the proposed law contains this contradictory statement in its preamble:

Every person … has the right to … search, receive, exchange and distribute information that is truthful, appropriate, contextualized, plural and without previous censorship…

Of course, it will be up to the council to decide what is truthful (and appropriate, contextualized and plural, whatever that means).

Additionally, the Council would have the power to impose sanctions on TV and radio stations and the written press, including fees of 1-10% of the average sales of the media company during the previous three months. The long list of actions that could provoke a sanction includes the following:

  • not complying with the obligation to broadcast at least 40% of nationally produced material during the daily programming schedule;
  • broadcasting or publishing ads that “provoke violence, discrimination, racism, addiction to a drug, religious or political intolerance and all publicity that threatens human rights”;
  • broadcasting commercials that do not “promote consumption that is social and environmentally sustainable”

Again, the government-controlled Council will judge whether media stations are in compliance.

Moreover, the proposed law stipulates that several positions (editors, general directors, news directors, reporters) at TV and radio stations and newspapers be held by individuals with college degrees in communications and journalism. 

The current communications regime also gives similar powers to a body charged with regulating radio and TV stations, but at least on paper, it is not controlled by the executive branch and does not have the power to impose sanctions on the written press. Even so, the current communications regulation was drafted by a military dictatorship in the 1970s and partly amended since the return to democracy in 1979.  President Correa relied on the content control provisions of the law — mostly ignored since 1979 — to shut down privately owned Teleamazonas TV for three days last year.

The Ecuadorian penal and civil codes already define sanctions for individuals who commit libel. These codes, applicable to all citizens, have been useful for Correa’s government: the op-ed page editor of El Universo, Emilio Palacio, was sued by one of Correa’s allies (Camilo Samán, the president of one of the state-owned banks) and convicted to three years in prison for libel (more on that here). Palacio appealed and then Samán mysteriously lifted all charges against the accused a couple of days before Hillary Clinton met with Correa in Quito.

During the last week of the World Cup, the editors-in-chief of the country’s main newspapers published public letters to the secretary of communications of the presidency (read them here, here, and here), Fernando Alvarado, in which they protested being accused in the government propaganda of being “thieves,” promoting “violence” and lying. The editors also demanded that Alvarado specify which media outlet is guilty of these charges and on what precise occasion they committed these punishable crimes. Guadalupe Mantilla, the editor-in-chief of El Comercio stated in her letter that this regrettable abuse of public funds for propaganda has been characterized “by an aggressiveness never before seen in Ecuador during a democratic regime.”

The government reacted to these letters with another offensive ad on TV that was aired during the Spain vs. Germany match. Last week, the Ecuadorian Association of Newspaper Editors issued a statement, endorsed by the country’s 12 most important newspapers and magazines, that read: “This attack from the executive branch happens at a time when the National Assembly is about to approve a new Communications Law … that flouts all international principles and agreements pertaining to rights and freedoms. Given these facts and given the lack of independence of the judiciary, we affirm that freedom of expression continues to be violated in Ecuador…”

Remember, the FCC Is Our National Censor

Amid charge and countercharge about who is shilling for whom in the debate over Internet regulation, Peter Suderman has the right focus in a short piece on Reason’s Hit & Run blog. The Federal Communications Commission’s Chairman is claiming that he only wants to regulate the Internet’s infrastructure, but one of his colleagues, Commissioner Michael Copps, is non-denying that he wants to censor the Internet.

There may be exceptions, but it’s usually pretty safe to assume that anytime a politician or bureaucrat dodges a question while calling for “a national discussion about” the proposal at hand, what he or she really means is, “I want to indicate that I support this idea without actually going on record as supporting it.”

The FCC does censorship. It’s unfortunate to see willful disregard of this by the folks wanting to install the FCC as the Internet’s regulator.

Socialists Shouldn’t Have to Admit Libertarians Into Their Club

Hastings College of the Law, a public law school in California, has a policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, disabilities, age, sex or sexual orientation.” In 2004, the Christian Legal Society, a religious student organization at the school, applied to become a “recognized student organization” – a designation that would have allowed CLS to receive a variety of benefits afforded to about 60 other Hastings groups. While all are welcome to attend CLS meetings, CLS’s charter requires that its officers and voting members abide by key tenets of the Christian faith and comport themselves in ways consistent with its fundamental mission, which includes a prohibition on “unrepentant” sexual conduct outside of marriage between one man and one woman.

Hastings denied CLS registration on the asserted ground that this charter conflicts with the school’s nondiscrimination policy. CLS sued Hastings, asking for no different treatment than is given to any registered student group. The district court granted Hastings summary judgment and the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether Hastings’s refusal to grant CLS access to student organization benefits amounted to viewpoint discrimination, which is impermissible under the First Amendment.

Yesterday Cato filed an amicus brief supporting CLS – authored by preeminent legal scholar Richard Epstein – in which we argue that CLS’s right to intimate and expressive association trump any purported state interest in enforcing a school nondiscrimination policy. While Hastings may impose reasonable restrictions on access to limited public forums, it should not be allowed to admit speakers with one point of view while excluding speakers who hold different views. Our brief also discredits Hastings’s assertion that its ability to exclude the public at large from school premises renders their content-based speech restrictions constitutional.

We urge the Court to safeguard public university students’ right to form groups – which by definition exclude people – free from government interference or censorship.  (Of course, our first choice would be for the government to get out of the university business and our second choice would be to stop forcing taxpayers to pay for student clubs, but given those two realities – as in the case at hand – freedom of association is the way to go.)

Surveillance, Security, and the Google Breach

Yesterday’s bombshell announcement that Google is prepared to pull out of China rather than continuing to cooperate with government Web censorship was precipitated by a series of attacks on Google servers seeking information about the accounts of Chinese dissidents.  One thing that leaped out at me from the announcement was the claim that the breach “was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.” That piqued my interest because it’s precisely the kind of information that law enforcement is able to obtain via court order, and I was hard-pressed to think of other reasons they’d have segregated access to user account and header information.  And as Macworld reports, that’s precisely where the attackers got in:

That’s because they apparently were able to access a system used to help Google comply with search warrants by providing data on Google users, said a source familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the press.

This is hardly the first time telecom surveillance architecture designed for law enforcement use has been exploited by hackers. In 2005, it was discovered that Greece’s largest cellular network had been compromised by an outside adversary. Software intended to facilitate legal wiretaps had been switched on and hijacked by an unknown attacker, who used it to spy on the conversations of over 100 Greek VIPs, including the prime minister.

As an eminent group of security experts argued in 2008, the trend toward building surveillance capability into telecommunications architecture amounts to a breach-by-design, and a serious security risk. As the volume of requests from law enforcement at all levels grows, the compliance burdens on telcoms grow also—making it increasingly tempting to create automated portals to permit access to user information with minimal human intervention.

The problem of volume is front and center in a leaked recording released last month, in which Sprint’s head of legal compliance revealed that their automated system had processed 8 million requests for GPS location data in the span of a year, noting that it would have been impossible to manually serve that level of law enforcement traffic.  Less remarked on, though, was Taylor’s speculation that someone who downloaded a phony warrant form and submitted it to a random telecom would have a good chance of getting a response—and one assumes he’d know if anyone would.

The irony here is that, while we’re accustomed to talking about the tension between privacy and security—to the point where it sometimes seems like people think greater invasion of privacy ipso facto yields greater security—one of the most serious and least discussed problems with built-in surveillance is the security risk it creates.

Mistaken Moral Equivalency

Former Google executive turned Obama administration deputy chief technology officer Andrew McLaughlin made some unfortunate comments at a law school technology conference last week equating private network management to government censorship as it is practiced in China.

By many accounts, President Obama’s visit to China was unimpressive. It apparently included a press conference at which no questions were allowed and government censorship of the president’s anti-censorship comments. On its heels, McLaughlin equated Chinese government censorship with network management by U.S. Internet service providers.

“If it bothers you that the China government does it, it should bother you when your cable company does it,” McLaughlin said. That line is wrong on at least two counts.

First, your cable company doesn’t do it. There have been two cases in which ISPs interfered with traffic in ways that are generally regarded as wrongful.  Comcast slowed down BitTorrent file sharing traffic in some places for a period of time, did a poor job of disclosing it, and relented when the practice came to light. (People who don’t know the facts will argue that the FCC stepped in, but market pressures had solved the problem before the FCC did anything.) The second was a 2005 case in which a North Carolina phone company/ISP called Madison River Communications allegedly blocked Vonage VoIP traffic.

In neither of these anecdotes did the ISP degrade Internet traffic because of its content—because of the information any person was trying to communicate to another. Comcast was trying to make sure that its customers could get access to the Internet despite some bandwidth hogs on its network. Madison River was apparently trying to keep people using its telephone lines rather than making Internet phone calls. That’s a market no-no, but not censorship.

Second, if the latter were happening, Chinese government censorship and corporate censorship would have no moral equivalency. In a free country, the manager of a private network can say to customers, “You may not transmit certain messages over our network.” People who don’t like that contract term can go to other networks, and they surely would. (Tim Lee’s paper, The Durable Internet: Preserving Network Neutrality Without Regulation, shows that ownership of networks and platforms does not equate to control of their content.)

When the government of China forces networks and platforms to remove content that it doesn’t like, that demand comes ultimately from the end of a gun. Governments like China’s imprison and kill their people for expressing disfavored views and for organizing to live freer lives. This has no relationship to cable companies’ network management practices, even when these ISPs deviate from consumer demand.

McLaughlin is a professional colleague who has my esteem. I defended Google’s involvement in the Chinese market during his tenure there. But if he lacks grounding in the fundamentals of freedom—thinking that private U.S. ISPs and the Chinese government are part of some undifferentiated mass of authority—I relish the chance to differ with him.