Media Law Roundup: April 30th

Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a survey of developing media news. 

Russia Runs Propaganda Agency

On April 2, 2015, The Guardian reported on what is being called Russia’s “troll army,” a group of paid bloggers who spend their time filling Russian websites with pro-Putin/anti-West propaganda. The bloggers maintain blogs that contain typical blog material such as recipes or music, but also receive “technical tasks” each morning. These technical tasks were political posts designed to sway public opinion, each containing a link to a news article and a conclusion that each blogger should reach in his post. For example, a post on Putin’s condolences to France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks had the conclusion, “The Russian leader has always stood against aggression and terrorism in general. Thanks to the president’s initiatives, the number of terrorist acts inside Russia has decreased dramatically.” Members of the group are paid approximately $750 a month; a nondisclosure agreement is the only official documentation signed. In addition to their blog work, members were directed to participate in forums by posting “memes or links that depicted the Russian government as superior and effective.” Andrei Soshnikov, a Russian journalist who infiltrated the group two years ago, shared his concerns with The Guardian. He noted that younger people are more likely to spot propaganda, but that the older generation may “look at all these forums and networks, and it turns out that everyone else out there is even more radical than they are, than their neighbors are.”


EU vs. Google

On April 15, 2015, the European Union officially charged Google with violating anti-trust legislation. The EU has accused Google of favoring its own shopping service in search results. If found guilty, Google could be fined up to $6.4 billion. These charges come as the result of a five-year investigation by the EU into Google’s business practices. On the day that formal charges were announced, the European Commission also reported that they would be opening an investigation into the Android platform. A leaked memo published by Re/code shows that Google anticipated the move by the EU. The memo contains a series of graphs that depict vibrant competition in the online shopping sector and concludes with, “All told, consumers have a lot of choice–and they are exercising it.” The official charges against Google are the latest entry in the strained relationship between Europe and Google. In November 2014, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution that encouraged the breakup of Google. Several European companies welcomed the announcement of formal charges. Michael Weber, CEO of German mapping service Hot Map, said, “After so many years with everyone thinking that we were crazy, it’s good to see something happening. The sun is shining today.”


Russia Attempts to Bans Memes, Internet Pornography

On April 10, 2015, the Washington Post reported that Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor declared internet memes with “nothing to do with [a] celebrity’s personality” to be illegal. Global Voices reported that the story coincides with a recent court ruling in Moscow, which found that a meme featuring singer Valeri Syutkin violated his privacy. The ruling on internet memes is not the result of a new law, but is rather a clarification of existing legislation that governs image distribution. Russia is not stopping at the banning of internet memes—it  hopes to reduce internet pornography as well. Global Voices reported that a recent ruling by a Russian district court could indirectly have made all internet porn illegal. The ruling, which was reported by Russian newspaper Izvestia on April 15, 2015, required Roskomnadzor to take down 136 websites should they take longer than three days to remove all pornographic material, citing the Convention for the Suppression of the Circulation of Obscene Publications, which was signed in 1910 by the Tsarist Empire, though the district court ruled that the Russian Federation was still obligated to follow the agreement. It remains to be seen whether the same agreement will be cited for the removal of all internet pornography in Russia.


App Finds Old Offensive Posts

Ethan Czahor was hired as Jeb Bush’s chief technology officer in February 2015, but abruptly resigned after offensive social media posts he had made in the past surfaced.  Now Czahor has revealed a new app designed to help others avoid similar situations. Clear, which is currently only available for iPhone, analyzes a user’s social media posts and flags words that could signal that a post is inappropriate. Users will then be able to scroll through flagged posts and delete those that may be considered problematic. Clear also searchers for “warning signs like references to racial groups or sexual orientation, and it also analyzes the general sentiment.” The app currently has a waiting list of around three hundred users, though Czahor expects that users will only need to wait up to a week for access. TechCrunch’s Anthony Ha wonders if the app is truly necessary, arguing that the best way to avoid negative responses to offensive material is to simply avoid posting offensive material. Czahor defends the app’s existence by stating that some social media posts are only offensive due to lack of context (Czahor cited his own tweets as an example). “I would agree that anything that’s obviously hateful or intolerant, you shouldn’t be able to hide in your past, said Czahor. “But if that exists in your heart, you won’t be able to hide it in your future.”


China’s Great Cannon

On April 10, 2015, Citizen Lab published a report on an internet tool that it dubbed the “Great Cannon.” Citizen Lab opens its report by referencing the Distributed Denial of Service (DDos) attacks made on and GitHub during March 2015, going on to say, “We show that, while the attack infrastructure is co-located with the Great Firewall, the attack was carried out by a separate offensive system, with different capabilities and design, that we term the ‘Great Cannon.’” The Great Cannon works by intercepting data in transit from one website to another and inserting new, malicious scripts. Researchers were able to determine how the Cannon functions because the attack continued for days, suggesting that China is not concerned with disguising its DDoS weapon. The Edward Snowden disclosures revealed that the United States has a similar tool as part of its QUANTUM program, though it has yet to be used as publicly as the Great Cannon. Baidu was a target for the Great Cannon’s attacks because it does not use HTTPS encryption, which the Chinese government discourages its companies to use. The Citizen Lab report concludes with a warning that the use of an unsuspecting user’s devices for cyberattacks sets a “dangerous precedent” and contravenes international and domestic norms.


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