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Internet Freedom Updates

Freedom in even the freest of countries is under attack, and people need to know what’s happening, especially when their governments are continually trying to cover it up. They also need to understand how freedoms are being squeezed by frantic attempts to get criminality under control. Here are a few select stories about Internet Freedom around the world.

New Government Surveillance Powers in France

We are probably all aware of the Charlie Hebdo incident that left France in shock last January, and the push for greater surveillance powers that was promised would prevent such horrors in the future. Early in May, the French Parliament took a vote on the spy bill that will give the government the power to conduct widespread surveillance on its citizens and residents. Ironically, this very same bill was thrown out last year, but because of what some call fear mongering, it is now France’s very own mass surveillance law. This time the bill was passed after a 438 to 86 vote. It is sad to see the country that inspired America to freedom take this backwards leap, and all at the same time that Americans are fighting tooth and nail to get rid of their own government’s mass surveillance programs.

The bill did not go through parliament unopposed. Civil rights activists united against the bill, calling it a countdown to 1984. The George Orwell themed campaign continued to alert the people and the government to the dangers of instituting such draconian measures, especially into such an icon of democratic rule as France is. Some Socialists and MPs also opposed the bill, but not enough to put even a dent in it. Some commentators say that they have little faith that the new law will really prevent future terrorist attacks, but the Islamic extremist attack in January was timed perfectly to get the French government its new and unsupervised spying license for bulk data collection. Both digital and mobile communications will be arbitrarily sucked up, and video and audio recording equipment will be installed in private homes. Soon, telecommunications companies and Internet service providers may find themselves forced to take part in data mining and sharing under the new law, without the need for any court orders.

Facebook Blocked in Nauru

At about the same time that France was passing its surveillance bill into law, the government of Nauru (a.k.a. Pleasant Island) blocked Facebook. The government has been criticized for its politics, and again the solution was to prevent protesters from airing their views on this most popular social media site. Nauru has not blocked Facebook before, but many other governments who want to silence people who disapprove of their actions have done this many times in the past.

What makes Nauru unique as the newest country that practices censorship is that it is the smallest Island state in the South Pacific – and the third smallest state in the world – and is 90% Christian. It is surprising that such a small state with a population of only about 9000 would go to these lengths to silence the public. Also, we hear of censorship for religious and political reasons related to Islam, but this is the first Christian state to suffer such suppression of speech in the name of “Christian heritage and culture”. Of course the people immediately deny this, claiming that their disenchantment with Justice Minister David Adeang has been going on for some time. Moreover, their complaints are about his authoritarian rule rather than anything that threatens their belief system.

Another interesting development is that the order to ban Facebook in Nauru has apparently come from the Australian government. Pamela Curr of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says that the Australian government wanted to block Facebook so that they could prevent questions from Nauruans regarding a Cambodian resettlement program. Rights groups in Australia are troubled about the program because they have reason to believe that Nauruans are being left out, and they might say something to cause unrest. The government of course denies this, though if the Facebook block is lifted after the plane to Cambodia leaves, we will know that this really happened.

Canada’s Spy Bill C-51

Canada may also be joining the ranks after France as the newest powerful spying government with the passage of bill C-51. This bill has been thrown around the House of Commons for years, but after the terrorist attack last October, the bill got the support that it needed. It now awaits only the grant of royal ascent, which is expected to come in June. Canada has had nowhere near the reputation of the UK or the US when it comes to intelligence gathering. But recent moves to bolster the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canada Border Services Agency may soon change that. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Joseph Harper has already promised to give these agencies 300 million dollars this year to help them better deal with terrorist threats.

Even after last October’s terrorist slaying of the National War Memorial ceremonial guard, only about 30% of Canadians approve of the so-called enhanced national security measures that bill C-51 is purported to provide. Still, the Canadian government suddenly seems dead set on getting this old bill finally out of the door. The CSIS is also being extra careful these days. One journalist, Craig Desson, was refused some stored information about himself on the grounds that releasing it would harm the government’s anti-subversive and anti-criminal efforts – a.k.a. national security. This information can be legally stored by the CSIS (and withheld from the persons they relate to) for up to 50 years.

Canada already wiretaps certain communications on- and offline, but bill C-51 is really going to spice things up. First off, Canada will be able to spy outside of its borders, scooping up financial records as well as communications. The government will also be able to take over social media accounts and use them to sniff out criminal activity. The same was done in the US a few years ago, and Canadian critics say that doing it at home will in just the same way be a despicable violation of constitutional freedoms and rights. The privacy implications are horrendous, and the bill opens up innocents to all kinds of accusations and punishment. Plus, the CSIS has barely any oversight, and Canadians are supposed to trust the agency to police itself. This will sound very familiar and very scary to folks from the US who have been through all this already.

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