Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Persian Impediment

A new campaign against internet censorship in Iran has been started: see here.

According to the campaign organisers, "[a]s new and revolutionary mediums of communication and expression become available, The Islamic Republic Of Iran invests greater amounts of resources in an attempt to silence, repress and suppress.

ARTICLE 19 is launching a campaign against internet censorship, and in support of freedom of expression and freedom to impart information on the internet in Iran.

the campaign aims to

  • strengthen the legal and regulatory framework of freedom of expression and media freedom on the internet in Iran; and
  • facilitate discussion on systematic online censorship"

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

French court rules GM maize locations are Top Secret, must be removed from Google Maps

Greenpeace France Ordered to remove information about GE field locations

Marmande, France — If you fly over the south of France you might be tempted to believe that aliens have landed with a huge crop circle appearing in a field of maize. But the aliens aren't from a distant galaxy; it's Genetically Engineered (GE) maize from the laboratory of Monsanto -- that the French government says you have no right to know about.

A French court has ordered Greenpeace France to remove a webpage featuring a Google Map showing the location of commercial GE maize fields in France -- despite an EU law which says the government should make the information available to the public.

So today we have responded by carving a giant 'X' crop circle into one of the GE maize fields in question, marking the spot of the GE maize field that is now censored from Greenpeace Frances' webpage.

"As we are now forbidden to publish these maps of GE maize on our webpage, we have gone into the fields and marked the field for real," said Arnaud Apoteker, of Greenpeace France.

The EU law says that member states are obliged to maintain public registers in order to inform their citizens about the locations of GE fields. But the French Government is dragging its heels in making the EU's directive into national law, depriving its citizens of vital information to protect against the risk of GE contamination of conventional and organic food.

If you are German, you can find out the locations of GE crops easily by looking on government websites, if you are French however, you are kept in the dark.

"By publishing secret locations of fields of GE maize, Greenpeace is defending the right to know and say 'no' to the environmental and health risks associated with GE Organisms," said Geert Ritsema of Greenpeace International.

France is not the only country where the growing of GE organisms is shrouded in secrecy. The Spanish government has so far refused to publish the locations of GE fields. The dramatic consequences of this policy became clear in April of this year when Enric Navarro, an organic farmer, burned his crop of maize which had become contaminated with GE rather than sell the contaminated maize to his customers.

Our recent report 'Impossible Coexistence' showed that in nearly 20 percent of the investigated cases, neighbouring conventional and organic maize fields in Spain are contaminated by GE organisms, without farmers and consumers even knowing about it.

the secret map... (click here for more detail)

Monday, December 11, 2006

Indonesia abolishes criminal libel (partly?)

In full, from the Jakarta Post of 7 December 2006 (I am quoting it in full because I don't know if the link will last):

Insulting president no longer a crime

Ary Hermawan, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Insulting the president is crime no more after the Constitutional Court on Wednesday scrapped three articles in the old Criminal Code.

The court said three articles undermined the country's process toward democracy and caused confusion because they were subject to subjective interpretations.

The code had ruled burning pictures of the president and vice president and mocking them in public were insults. Violators of the law faced a maximum six years in jail.

Court chief Jimly Asshiddiqie said the three articles were now null and void.

"(Those articles) pave the way for law enforcers to curb the right to freedom of expression when dealing with protesters in rallies," he said.

The court had reviewed the code as requested by lawyer Eggi Sudjana and activist Pandapotan Lubis.

Eggi is on trial for slandering Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his advisors, while Pandapotan was arrested after insulting the president at a rally.

The panel of nine judges said the articles made it difficult for people to criticize the president and his deputy.

The verdict was handed down in a split decision with four of the nine judges offering dissenting opinions.

The dissenting judges said the petition made by Eggi and Pandapotan should be rejected. The said the president's dignity must be protected and that the problem with the articles was in their implementation.

However, Jimly said the newly drafted bill on the Criminal Code should no longer incorporate similar articles.

A government-sanctioned team assigned to draft the bill to replace the Criminal Code has insisted on inserting articles on insulting the president. "Every country has such articles," team head Muladi once said.

The code, inherited from Dutch colonial legislation, was often used by former president Soeharto to silence critics during his 30 years in power.

The latest verdict was applauded by human rights and political activists.

"We have just made a history," Eggi said after the hearing. "I will use this ruling for my defense plea. The defamation trial against me should be dropped as it is ridiculous to try somebody without a legal basis," he said.

Former staunch Soeharto critic Sri Bintang Pamungkas said the verdict was a "victory" for all activists.

"Dozens of activists have been arrested and jailed because of the articles," he said.

Sri Bintang, a lecturer at the University of Indonesia, was jailed for 34 months for insulting Soeharto while addressing a seminar in Germany in 1995.

Fakhrur Rahman, 21, a student from Jakarta's State Islamic University, is the latest activist convicted of insulting the president during a protest against the Yudhoyono administration. He was sentenced to three months in prison.

Increasing use of criminal law against journalists in western countries?

In what is rather an unfortunate trend, there seems to be an increase in prosecutions against journalists in western countries for matters such as refusing to reveal their sources, publishing 'state secrets' and criminal defamation.

In the Netherlands, the State also use quite enthusiastically the old criminal law provisions of libel and slander. In one case, a well-know PR guru, Maurice de Hond, is being sued for accusing the police of having nibbed the wrong person in an infamous murder case some time ago, and naming the person he reckons did it. A serious accusation, I agree, but we need to remember that alongside the criminal prosecution, the guy now being accused of the murder is already suing De Hond under Dutch libel laws. How, in such circumstances, can a criminal prosecution be justified?

240th Anniversary of the first FOI law

A nice little celebratory press release by the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media:

OSCE media freedom representative marks 240th anniversary of first access to information law

VIENNA, 1 December 2006 - Marking the 240th anniversary of the world's first freedom of information act, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, encouraged those OSCE participating States which have not yet developed and enforced access to information legislation to speed up this process.

Forty five out of 56 OSCE participating States have adopted national laws giving specific rights to citizens and journalists to obtain information from government bodies.

The first access to information act took effect in the then Kingdom of Sweden and Finland on 2 December 1766. Since then, many democracies worldwide have adopted freedom of information laws and set up transparent principles of classification.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

European Treaty on Access to Information

For some years now, since 1998 in fact, the Council of Europe has been talking about agreeing a treaty or other international document on freedom of information - the right of every person to have access to information held by or on behalf of the state. This is an important issue for two reasons: first, because access to information is crucial to democracy and key to enforcing other human rights, and second, because unlike the other major global and regional human rights treaties, the European Convention on Human Rights does not confer a right of access to information.

The early efforts culminated in a Recommendation on Access to Official Documents, adopted in 2002, which is pretty good in terms of substance but which is unfortunately not binding in law. The Council's "Group of Specialists on Access to Official Information", or DH-S-AC in bureacracy-speak, has therefore continued work on putting a treaty together and they are now in fact pretty close to agreeing something. Unfortunately it looks like it'll be a watered-down version of the 2002 Recommendation, which is a shame, and the provisional draft so far has been much criticised by the three civil society groups that have observer status on the Group of Specialists. Criticism of the latest draft of the treaty - which itself has not been made public, as far as I can ascertain - by ARTICLE 19 and others can be found here; an earlier civil society letter criticising the draft treaty can be found here.

No word yet on when the treaty might be ready for consideration by States - the draft is now at the 'expert group' level, and needs to go through at least one further layer of bureaucracy before it'd be ready for signature - but it does feel as though they have some momentum going right now. Mid-2007 perhaps?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

UK press freedom watchdog rings alarm bell

Sir Christopher Meyer, the chairman of the PRess Complaints Commission, reckons that things are moving in the wrong direction in the UK - what with proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act, inconsistent application of the Data Protection Act and their general dislike of the press. The Guardian reports the story here; with some luck, the full text of his lecture at the LSE's POLIS institute - and perhaps even a podcast - will appear somewhere here.

He is reported to have said that government has become less open since his days at No. 10 in the mid 1990s, and that part of the problem is that politicians now actually overestimate the power of the press: "politicians believe that if they don't get a favourable write-up, it is the end of the world." Isn't that true though - once the media have it in for you, that's it (Prescott being the exception to the rule, I'd say)...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Death threat reporter's plea for security refused

This story was reported in last Sunday's Observer. It is a shame to see that the UK government fails to recognise that journalists are under threat as much as civil servants - particularly in the wake of Anna Polotkovskaya's recent murder in Moscow. And it's not as if Nortern Irish paramilitary groups are known for their kindness or their general sloppiness in pursuing people who are on their hitlist...

I'll quote a bit from the story to give you the gist of things:

Henry McDonald, Ireland editor

Sunday November 12, 2006


Human rights organisations have accused the British government of being as indifferent as the Kremlin to death threats against journalists from terrorists and criminals.

Index on Censorship and Article 19 - two groups that defend freedom of speech around the world - have criticised the decision to deny a colleague of the murdered Northern Ireland reporter Martin O'Hagan admission to the Key Persons Protection Scheme.

Paul Goggins, the Northern Ireland Office Security Minister, has written to the Sunday World journalist, who has received his third death threat in four years. The latest is understood to come from republican dissidents.

The minister's letter says the reporter is not entitled to government support to fortify his home. This normally includes putting in bulletproof windows, hidden CCTV cameras and panic buttons linked to the nearest police station. Instead the minister suggests that the Belfast-based reporter move home.

In his correspondence, Goggins admits that the journalist, whose identity The Observer is not revealing for fear of further threats to his life, is in danger. 'The Chief Constable has indicated that the threat pertaining to your is "Substantial - Level 3",' he writes.

However, he continues: 'In this context I must balance the application against the other criteria... You are not employed in one of the occupations normally covered by the Scheme, and therefore have failed to meet the requirements of this criterion. I have also concluded that you are not occupying a wider public role which is contributing to the objectives of the scheme.'

Click here for the rest.

I can only hope that the journalist will be able to overturn this decision on judicial review. All told, it doesn't bode well for other journalists who find themselves in the same situation, or for the British government's general awareness of the important role journalists play in a dmeocratic society...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Spanish court rules free music downloads are legal for own use

image from http://www.elcorreodigital.com/

Let's see if this one survives appeal (it does come across as slightly nutty):

from http://technology.guardian.co.uk/print/0,,329617493-117802,00.html

Giles Tremlett in Madrid
Friday November 3, 2006

A Spanish judge has dealt a blow to the global music industry after ruling that there is nothing illegal about downloading music for free from the internet as long as it is for personal use.

The decision, the first of its kind in Europe, opens the way for Spain's estimated 16 million internet users to swap music through online sites. "This is extremely unusual," said a spokesman for the international recording industry body IFPI, as the judgment was announced yesterday.

Judge Paz Aldecoa threw out a case against an unnamed 48-year-old man who offered and downloaded digital versions of music on the internet, according to Spanish press reports. He also sent selections of music recorded on CDs out to people in the post, prosecutors claimed.

The judge ruled that, under Spanish law, a person who downloaded music for personal use could not be punished or branded a criminal. "That would imply criminalising socially admitted and widely practised behaviour where the aim is not to gain wealth illegally but to obtain private copies," she said in her judgment.

"If the purpose of the copy is not to gain wealth there is no way that it can be considered illegal," Victor Domíngo, head of Spanish internet user's association Internautas, told the Abc newspaper yesterday. "It would be a lot different if someone downloaded in order to sell on."

But Antonio Guisasola, from Spain's Promusicae recording industry federation, said the judge had got it wrong. "We have already appealed against the decision," he said. "Peer-to-peer [P2P] sharing is not legal in Spain."

full story on the Guardian.co.uk website

MTV / EBU Conference on Public Service Broadcasting

Was at a conference on public service broadcasting (over time perhaps only here) on Friday, organised by MTV (no, not that one, this one, the Hungarian public broadcaster) and the European Broadcasting Union, sharing the platform with such luminaries as Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for the Media, and Miklos Haraszti, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Mind you - 'sharing' is probably too grand a word - they got a twenty minute presentation whereas I was just part of a twenty minute panel and was asked 1 (one) question.

Interesting titbit: Reding announced that a Commission Communication on Mobile TV would be published in January 2007, and that in December, the world can expect a new Commission Communication on on-line content, covering net neutrality, digital rights management, interoperability and intellectual property rights.

Rest of the conference concerned a mix of the 'crisis' of public service broadcasting in Europe generally, and the particular problems facing the Hungarian public broadcaster (no money, no audience, poor programming and, apparently, very soon, no headquarters as the lease on their current premises is about to run out).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Amnesty calls on Bloggers to Stand Up

In a press release last week, Amnesty calls on bloggers to stand up and protest restrictions on internet freedom. Something to support. It's never to late to stand up and be counted. They also draw attention to their Urgent Action request regarding the Iranian blogger Kianoosh Sanjari, who has been arrested (again). It is feared he is being tortured. Please write.

Internet Governance Forum - Highs and Lows

Today is wrap-up day at the Internet Governance Forum. I've been following and trying to participate in the forum via the official and IGF community websites, with mixed results (as I blogged yesterday, the site has been up and down, and I only got a few questions to the floor). The chair is summing up the results right now, so why don't I take this opportunity to highlight a few memorable events and moments.

First things first: any international forum at which a senior Microsoft executive admits that perhaps it is time to pack up and leave China must be considered successful. Fred Tipson is quoted on the BBC website as saying that "[t]hings are getting bad ... and perhaps we have to look again at our presence there ... We have to decide if the persecuting of bloggers reaches a point that it's unacceptable to do business there ... We try to define those levels and the trends are not good there at the moment ... It's a moving target." This on the heels of a highly critical Human Rights Watch report - which however distinguished between the apparently relatively considerate efforts of Microsoft and Google on the one hand, and the 'complete sell-out' of Yahoo! on the other - and governmental efforts in the west to outlaw corporate involvement in censorship abroad.

And, credit where credit's due, the Forum has successfully brought together a truly disparate group of business, government and civil society representatives in an on-going forum for discussion on a huge range of issues relevant to internet governance. So the objective of creating 'dynamic coalitions' may well have been achieved. I hope some of the momentum created in Athens will be carried forward and implemented through concrete action, for example by Microsoft and co. taking their responsibilities a bit more seriously and staying out of the business of censorship.

But did it achieve enough? Well, yes and no. No because it didn't actually do anything. And no because many of the sessions (workshops and main) rehashed old themes of access and content restrictions, how bad China is (although the governmental rep saying "we do not have restriction at all" was pretty hilarious - more discussion of that here and here), that corporates should not get involved in censorship and how much child porn and porn generally there is on the net. No new themes came up, no new approaches to break the eternal deadlock appeared. Pessimists might say that it was all a big role play: civil society played its part by criticising censorship, the corporates played theirs by denying any really serious complicity in human rights abuses, and China said that any restrictions imposed were to protect the tourists (okay, so I hadn't heard that one before!). But the IGF does not actually have the power to make any binding decisions (other than deciding that their next meeting will be at Copacabana beach) and it is probably unfair to expect it to solve anything overnight. So to criticise it for not 'doing' anything would be unfair. I'm an optimist and I declare that something has been achieved. People were brought together and ideas were shared. Microsoft and Cisco sat around the table with Amnesty and ARTICLE 19. A commitment to carry forward this discussion over the next couple of years was made. And - as I said at the start of this post - the corporates moved a step closer to admitting that perhaps they need to look at their involvement in internet censorship again. Now that's actually fairly important.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

IGF - Internetforum Gone Fishing?

I've been following the proceedings at the Internet Governance Forum for the last few days. Unfortunately the site's not too reliable - it's been down twice over the last few days. Does this sum up the state of the Forum...? These very silly people have claimed responsibility for bringing the site down.

Scroogle Scraper

Wikipedia describe Scroogle (.org, not to be confused with the .com porn site) as "a screen-scraping proxy for the Google search engine that circumvents Google's tracking of user activity via cookies and/or IP address. The site also allows users to perform Google searches without receiving Google advertisements. A Yahoo scraper is included. There is support for 28 languages, and Mozilla offers a Scroogle plugin for the Firefox search bar. Scroogle is operated by Google critic Daniel Brandt, who also runs the Google Watch website. Google tried to block the site, but the creator found methods to get around the block."

The service has apparently been around for years, and there seems to have been intermittent warfare with Google, but as of today, it works. There's even a Firefox 2 plugin for it. I've been trying it for a few days now and it seems to work fine. No access to the Google cache, but that makes sense (I think).

Why use it? Me, on the principle that it ain't none of Google's business what I search for - they've got it enough of my private data as it is (what with my Gmail account and now this blog...). Imagine Google committing the same mistake as AOL and releasing a whole bunch of identifiable user data to the world. My Muppet Show fixation would be immediately obvious, alongside my obsessive compulsive monthly urge to Google myself (when oh when will I finally manage to knock my blasted namesakes off the top spot in Google...).

First posting

Just testing the system.