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October 21 2010

18:26

2010 Press Freedom Index Shows Europe on Decline

Reporters Without Borders yesterday released its 2010 World Press Freedom Index. Thirteen of the EU's 27 members are in the top 20 in terms of press freedoms, but some of the other EU nations are very low. The European Union has had a reputation for valuing and respecting human rights, and new data suggests that reputation is at risk.

RSF top 10.jpg

"We must salute the engines of press freedom, with Finland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland at their head," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard. "We must also pay homage to the human rights activists, journalists and bloggers throughout the world who bravely defend the right to speak out."

Many Northern European nations, such as Finland, the Netherlands and Norway, have remained at the top of the ranking thanks to their strong protections for media institutions and journalists. But overall the freedom of expression model in Europe is weakening, and part of the reason is an ongoing effort to implement online content filtering, restrict file-sharing and other related measures.

Along with those developments, Ireland is still punishing blasphemy with a 25,000 Euro fine, the U.K. continues to keep outdated and worrying defamation laws on the books. Plus, Italy and France have seen their political leaders interfere with press activity. It seems that the legislative aspect is the most significant when it comes to Europe losing its world leader human rights status.

EU's Gallo Report

As I mentioned in my previous post for MediaShift, Reporters Without Borders is concerned that France might sacrifice online freedom for the sake of security by implementing a new Internet filtering system. The goal of the legislation is to limit access to pedophile and porn sites. Filtering is a widespread practice today in Europe, and can be very harmful to Internet users if badly implemented. It can also have a chilling effect on freedom of the press.

gallo-report.png

In late September, the European Union adopted the Gallo Report, which made several suggestions about how the EU can better defend intellectual property rights and combat piracy. For Reporters Without Borders, the measures outlined in the report represent a repressive approach that violates the right of Internet users in part because it ignores the fact that legal file-sharing exists and fosters online creativity.

"The Gallo Report is an illustration of the will of the entertainment industry to try to impose private copyright police," said Jérémie Zimmermann, founder of the advocacy group La Quadrature du Net. "Repressive schemes such as the 'three strikes' policies and other Internet access restrictions negate fundamental rights, such as the right to a fair trial, the freedom of communication or the right to privacy."

EU members have begun implementing the Gallo Report, in spite of court rulings that go against its recommendations. Earlier this month, Ireland's High Court in Ireland ruled against three major record labels who wanted to see a "three strikes" policy implemented against Internet users who possess or share illegally downloaded content.

"The High Court ruled that laws to identify and cut off Internet users illegally copying music files were not enforceable in Ireland," according to the Irish Times.

However, the biggest ISP in the country is still implementing a three strikes policy by sending warning letters to those identified as illegal file-sharers. So does France, but Mark Mulligan, an analyst with research firm Forrester, told the BBC it is unlikely to happen in the U.K.

European Decline

When it comes to Internet filtering, file sharing and related issues, Europe is home to varying policies and laws. That's why one of the problems with the Gallo Report is how vague it is. This leads to a situation wherein nations in Northern Europe can be at the forefront of press freedom and online rights while its neighbors rank much lower. The two issues are of course closely related in the Internet age.

Overall, press freedom in Europe is on the decline, and we are far from reaching a consensus on how free European citizens can be to use the Internet.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

September 30 2010

19:42

Will France Sacrifice Online Freedom for the Sake of Security?

On September 8, the French Senate voted for a bill, called Loppsi 2, that seeks to create a dangerous online filtering system that could jeopardize the work of journalists and bloggers, as well as online freedom of speech for French citizens.

If this bill becomes law, any French website could be shut down with nothing more than a notification from an administrative authority. When the bill was passed in a lower house last February, it required intervention from a judge to make that happen.

The situation in France reflects the trend that's seeing democratic states such as England and Spain step up online surveillance and control. This could pose a serious threat to freedom of expression and information. Under the current French bill, a government department called the Central Office for Combating Crime Related to Information and Communication Technology would be able to order Internet service providers and website hosts to filter websites without requiring a court order.

Filter Failure

The effectiveness of online filtering has been disputed by many studies, including one released by the French Federation of Telecom and Electronic Communications Companies in July 2009 entitled, "Study of the Impact of Blocking Paedophile and Porn Sites." At Reporters Without Borders, we raised concerns about the law, noting in a release that:

Filtering mechanisms will not be able to prevent their circumvention by offenders, will not eliminate offending content from the Internet and will have no impact on the source of the problem. And furthermore, they tend to filter out innocent content as well, such as the websites of child protection groups or sites that defend minors who have been the victims of sexual abuse.

zommerman.jpgJeremie Zimmerman, co-founder and spokesperson of the advocacy group La Quadrature du Net, has long been warning against the dangers of this law. He cautions about how "collateral censorship" can affect the work of reporters and bloggers.

"Technically, blocking legal websites is inevitable," he said. "Unfortunately, there is no legal means to gain access to the list of the blocked websites."

Brice Manenti covers the issue for the magazine Nouvel Observateur. "With Loppsi 2, I am worried for freedom of speech as a citizen, more than as a journalist," he said. "Allowing filtering is a way to get to a generalized filtering of the web, as it is in China for example. Freedom of expression would be under particular threat."

Legalized Spyware

In July 2009, an earlier version of the law stated that the police who suspect criminal activity would be able to use remotely introduced spyware under an investigating judge's supervision in order to obtain information from computers without the knowledge of those targeted. If any kind of criminal activity is discovered -- even if it's outside of the initial suspicions -- the information obtained can still be used to bring a prosecution.

The French Commission on computing and freedoms reserved judgment regarding this aspect of the law in 2009. (Journalists would be protected from of this kind of spyware by a law that protects the the secrecy of journalists' sources, but bloggers and amateur journalists would not be protected.) The law would also extend the length of phone taps on people suspected of a crime.

In and of itself, Loppsi 2 is not a bill focused on freedom of speech and freedom of the press; but as it is currently drafted it ends up posing a threat to these principles. In a September article, the French daily newspaper Le Monde accused presidential aides of using a domestic intelligence agency to identify an official who was leaking information about a judicial investigation about a case involving labor minister Eric Woerth and L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt. Reporters without Borders subsequently joined with Le Monde in a lawsuit related to these actions. From our release about this action:

Reporters Without Borders campaigned for years for a law explicitly protecting the confidentiality of journalists' sources and appeared before both the National Assembly and the Senate when they examined the proposed law that was eventually adopted.

The organization is outraged that covert police activity has trampled on the protection of sources enshrined in article 2 of this law. The authorities have a right to investigate leaks of confidential information but such investigations must be conducted according to the law. Any failure to respect the law protecting journalists' sources must be punished or else it will be rendered meaningless.

In light of this example, there is reason to be concerned about the government's increased use of spyware. It seems like it would only be a matter of time before it finds its way onto bloggers' computers and machines inside newsrooms.

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

September 16 2010

18:33

What I read today…

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