Written by Jillian York
EFF looks back at the major trends influencing digital rights in 2012 and discussing where we are in the fight for free expression, innovation, fair use, and privacy. Click here to read other blog posts in this series.
Just as in the United States, where a multi-pronged campaign against SOPA and PIPA killed the freedom-restricting bills, activism for digital rights saw great successes—and innovations—in 2012. While not every campaign was as successful in quashing efforts to restrict rights, it was nonetheless a great year worldwide for digital activism. Here are a few highlights:
Back in February, the Pakistani government issued a request for proposals (RFP) for a filtering system that would allow them to block up to 60 million URLs. In response, local and international organizations alike took a stand for free expression, deploying a multi-faceted strategy in opposition to the government's plans. EFF joined a global coalition of organizations in issuing a letter to the relevant authorities, while local organizations such as BoloBhi and Bytes4All fought with all of their might to discourage companies from responding to the RFP.
And it worked! As Global Voices Advocacy recently recapped, five multinational companies "sided with the movement," refusing to offer bids to the government. The Global Network Initiative added its voice. Access Now got nearly 20,000 people to sign a petition calling on companies to abstain from bidding. In the end, a global movement came together in solidarity to stand for human rights.
After years of pushback from activists and public interest groups around the world against its secretive negotiation process and dangerous intellectual property provisions, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) was handed a resounding defeat in Europe with a rare sweeping majority vote in the European Parliament. Following street protests, public actions, and even members of the Polish Parliament donning Guy Fawkes masks in opposition, ACTA was all but left for dead on July 4, 2012.
Although that blow significantly weakened the once-formidable trade agreement, the struggle against lopsided international agreements that would undermine freedom of expression is not over. For one thing, ACTA remains on the table outside of Europe. For another, still more trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), are being negotiated in a process completely lacking in transparency.
The Lebanese Internet Regulation Act, or LIRA, was a fairly absurd bill by most accounts. Intended to offer some structure to the country's largely unregulated networks, the bill overreached, banning various types of speech and placing conditions on who could own a website.
As Lebanese media expert Magda Abu Fadil recounted, LIRA was "no laughing matter for Lebanese cyber activists who treasure their online freedom, and see how social media can be used as game changers in their own country as well as the Middle East/North Africa region where revolts have been raging for over a year."
Though Lebanon does not have a strong organized digital rights scene (perhaps owing to the fact that the country's Internet has always been mostly unrestricted), Lebanese activists quickly came together to defeat LIRA, with a campaign that included explanatory videos, eye-catching images, and a Twitter hashtag, #StopLIRA. Their work paid off: Following the intense public outcry, LIRA was shelved.
In August, Jordan's parliament considered amending its Press and Publication law to allow the government to censor pornographic content. In a country where (uniquely in its region) the Internet has remained largely open, citizens were rightly concerned and argued that the legislation was too broad and poorly defined, and that the introduction of technical filtering could easily be abused to block other forms of content.
In response, a multitude of stakeholders rallied to take a stance against censorship. Activists were joined by members of the country's startup community and together, the various individuals and groups began working to raise awareness. One tactic used by the groups was a SOPA-style blackout, while the hashtag #BlackOutJo was used to spread the word on Twitter (even Queen Noor, the queen dowager, joined in!) In the tradition of the Speaker's Corner, an Internet freedom tent was set up, becoming a meeting place for journalists, opposition figures, and trade union activists united in their opposition to the amendment. The amendment, and ensuing protests, were covered by global media and supported by international organizations, including EFF and Access Now.
Although the actions managed to raise local awareness and garner significant global attention, the fight in Jordan continues.
In September, the CyberCrime Prevention Act was signed into law in the Philippines, bringing to mind for many the country's history of martial law. The Act, which among other things criminalizes libel, was immediately met with substantial opposition, and the country's digital and human rights community rallied to organize a SOPA-style blackout, which occurred on October 3.
In addition to the blackout, several groups submitted a petition to the court, resulting in the issuance of a temporary restraining order by the Supreme Court on October 9. The order, set to expire in February, continues to be challenged by the government, but advocates in the country continue their fight against censorship.
In December, Egyptian news outlets staged their own SOPA-style blackout to protest provisions of the country's draft constitution that would restrict free expression. The revolutionary message posted by one paper, the Egypt Independent, read: "You are reading this message because Egypt Independent objects to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity."
The online protest was coupled with massive street protests that continue into the new year.
Jillian C. York is EFF's Director for International Freedom of Expression. She specializes in free speech issues in the Arab world, and is also particularly interested the effects of corporate intermediaries on freedom of expression and anonymity, as well as the disruptive power of global online activism. Prior to joining EFF, Jillian spent three years at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, where she worked on several projects including the OpenNet Initiative.