This Week in Free Expression: August 1, 2014
On Wednesday, China indicted 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award Winner Ilham Tohti, a prominent ethnic Uyghur economics professor and Uyghur PEN member, on charges of separatism. The announcement on Tohti’s case came as security forces flooded parts of southern Xinjiang, the Uyghur Autonomous Region, after the government said dozens of knife-wielding attackers were shot dead this week. “By targeting Tohti based on his ideas, writings, and teachings, Beijing sends the message that advocacy for Uyghur rights is prohibited in any form,” PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel said in an email statement. “The government claims an aim to discourage violence, but the denial of peaceful means of expression risks having the exact opposite effect.”
Meanwhile, details are emerging of ongoing efforts in China to control and channel online speech through the work of “Internet public opinion analysts.” Two million people now reportedly work as public opinion analysts are paid in excess of hundreds of billions of Yuan to “monitor all the social networking sites, collect citizen opinions and attitudes, compile reports, and submit the reports to decision makers.”
Pussy Riot members Maria Alekhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have filed a lawsuit against the Russian government at the European Court of Human Rights over their 21 month incarceration. The pair—guests at this year’s PEN gala—were jailed after performing a song critical of President Vladimir Putin inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February 2012. Their case will invoke the European Convention on Human Rights articles prohibiting torture and protecting free expression. They are seeking €120,000 in damages.
In disturbing news from the web, “canvas fingerprinting” is increasingly being used to track individuals online, instead of the standard “cookies.” The fingerprinting piggy backs on the advance in graphic chips that have made it possible for images to be rendered, analyzed, and sent back to a web server. By combining this information with others such as “fonts available on the system,” the process creates a completely unique fingerprint of a person’s computer that can track activity across multiple web sites and is impossible to delete, as it is native to the computer it is on. Already five percent of the world’s top 1000 websites use “canvas fingerprinting,” according to a study undertaken at The University of Leuven.
A newly minted USA Freedom Act was unveiled on Tuesday after considerable negotiation between Senator Patrick Leahy and the Obama administration. The bill would set important limits on NSA surveillance preventing bulk phone data collection, requiring the NSA to report publicly on their surveillance practices, and establishing the basis for a civil liberties advocate to appear before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The bill will likely be tabled when Congress reconvenes in September.
Surveillance does not come cheap, a paper released on Tuesday attests. The New America Foundation found that the costs of U.S. surveillance are vast and are having a major impact on US business and foreign policy interests and the wider cybersecurity infrastructure. One technology likely to suffer is Cloud computing, which could hemorrhage billions of dollars in coming years due to NSA surveillance alone, the authors find.
CIA Director John Brennan came under intense pressure Friday after allegations of Agency spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee were confirmed. At best, Brennan was not informed by his subordinates that CIA officers had penetrated the computer network of the Intelligence Committee.
Finally, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, his wife, and a photographer remain in detention this week in Iran (another photographer was released this week). Appeals from the Post, PEN America, the U.S. State Department, and other supporters have yet to elicit an official response regarding the reason for their detention.