Media Law Roundup: December 18, 2015

Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news stories from around the world. This week’s issue covers the Chinese Internet Conference, Brazilian media shutdown, EU social media age restrictions, and more.

Brazil Court Orders WhatsApp Suspension

This week, a judge in Sao Paulo, Brazil ordered the popular mobile messaging service WhatsApp to be shut down for 48 hours starting December 16 at 9 pm ET. The ruling was quickly overturned. The court’s order is believed to be the result of WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, repeatedly failing to cooperate in a criminal investigation. According to TechCrunch, Brazilian telecom operators have been lobbying to convince the government that the WhatsApp voice service is “unregulated and illegal.” With more than 93 million users, WhatsApp is the most used messaging app in Brazil and, for many, replaces the need for a cellular plan. On December 17, the shutdown was lifted after an appeals court ruled that it was unreasonable to suspend such a service “because the company has failed to provide information to the courts,” New York Times reports. Critics of the move worry that the inconveniences and injustices caused by the shutdown would pale in comparison to what many think might be the government’s next move: a complete shutdown of the social web. Taking a position staunchly juxtaposed to last year’s Marco Civil, an internet Bill of Rights, the Brazilian Congress is currently circulating bills that would criminalize the use of social media altogether. Since 2014, Brazil’s government has spiraled into crisis mode, triggered by political unrest resulting in part from a large-scale corruption surrounding state-owned oil behemoth Petrobras. Since then, many political leaders have seen their approval ratings drop, including President Dilma Roussef, who approved Marco Civil last year. Critics of a social web shutdown say that freedom of expression and citizen privacy are the two biggest concerns now facing the country.


UN Reiterates Endorsement of Multistakeholder Internet Governance

In early December, representatives from 190 countries met for a ten year review of internet policies originally laid out at the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). In the meeting, national leaders, UN members, and non-governmental delegates discussed issues such as the digital divide and internet governance. On December 15 at the UN General Assembly meeting, Secretary in the Department of Electronics and Information Technology JS Deepak summed up the results of WSIS, reiterating the need for a multistakeholder model of internet governance to be adopted globally. “It is imperative that the priorities and concerns of the stakeholders from developing regions are substantively represented in all global Internet governance processes,” said Deepak. The UN adopted an outcome document that identifies emerging trends for advancing information and communications technologies (ICT) around the globe, not just in developed countries. A key outcome of WSIS, as outlined by the UN this week, seems to be the focus on developing countries, where the next 1 billion internet users are expected to come from. Deepak argued that internet policies that enable access should be formulated with full involvement of all stakeholders from the developing world. In addition to a plan of action for internet governance and security issues, the IGF mandate will be extended until 2025, at which point the UN General Assembly will reconvene to review the implementation of WSIS outcomes.


Xi Angers Activists in Address at World Internet Conference

This week, China kicked off its second annual World Internet Conference, a three-day gathering of Chinese political and economic leaders, as well as foreign tech representatives, in the eastern city of Wuzhen. The conference, organized by the Cyberspace Administration of China, is designed as a discussion platform for a range of issues regarding “cyberspace, innovation and society,” LA Times reports. The conference however, has already received criticism from human rights groups, claiming that the event is simply an attempt by the Chinese government to “sell its idea of ‘internet sovereignty.”  In his opening address, President Xi Jinping made headlines by stating that “freedom and order” are both necessary in cyberspace. The President, known for leading a government that imposes strict online censorship on its netizens, defended his right to do so, and proposed that every country should be able to govern its own internet without international criticism. Opponents of Xi’s tactics, including well-known rights group Amnesty International, argue that imposing such online restrictions not only violates the internationally-recognized value of free speech, but affects other countries as well.  The conference, which runs through Friday, December 18, is poised to hear arguments from both proponents and opponents of Xi’s internet governance regime.


EU Rules Not to Raise Social Media Age Limit

On Tuesday, December 15, the European Parliament voted against a bid that sought to ban teenagers from messaging services and social media platforms such as Facebook without explicit parental consent. The amendment to the European data protection regulations would have made it illegal for companies to handle the data of those under 16 years of age without parents’ consent, thereby raising the legal age of digital consent from 13 to 16. Many large tech firms, as well as some secondary schools who make frequent use of technology in the classroom, lobbied against the idea, according to the BBC. While it did not set a specific age limit, the EU ruling will allow all member states to set their own legal age for digital consent, but it must be between 13 and 16 years old. “We feel that moving the requirement for parental consent from age 13 to age 16 would deprive young people of educational and social opportunities in a number of ways,” said the Family Online Safety Institute. The new draft law requiring member states to decide their own age limit is set to be confirmed by a vote in the EP’s civil liberties committee this week, and then by a full parliament vote in 2016.


Germany to Remove Online Hate Speech

In the wake of a national decision by the German government to accept more than a million refugees this year, the country is seeing a substantial rise in online xenophobic hate speech on social media platforms. The refugee crisis has sparked substantial backlash online from far-right nationalist groups who are opposed to the country accepting immigrants. Government officials said on Tuesday, December 15, that Facebook, Twitter, and Google have agreed to “delete hate speech from their websites within 24 hours.” German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement that the new agreement aims to make it easier for users and anti-racism groups to report hate speech to specialist teams at each of the three companies. “When the limits of free speech are trespassed, when it is about criminal expressions, sedition, incitement to carry out criminal offenses that threaten people, such content has to be deleted from the net,” Maas told Reuters. Internet and media experts now speculate about the feasibility of spotting and controlling all hateful language online.


Spanish Gag Law Goes to European Court

On Tuesday, December 15, a group of journalists launched a triple lawsuit against the European Court of Human Rights in an effort to force Spanish MPs to repeal a security law that cracks down on freedom of expression, The Guardian reports. Earlier this year, the Media Law Roundup reported on the story of a Spanish woman who was fined under the public security legislation, called the ‘gag law,’ for posting a picture online of a police officer. Under official terms, the law hands out fines of up to €30,000 for posting pictures of officers that “would endanger their safety or that of protected areas or put the success of an operation at risk.” It is this clause which three separate groups of Spanish journalists are fighting with parallel law suits filed Tuesday. Backed by advocacy group To Defend Those Who Defend, the cases will argue that the law paves the way for censorship and diminished accountability of police forces. Diego Boza, a lawyer behind one of the cases, says the central government is “limiting the right to communicate information, in that police acts can’t be published even when the subjects aren’t identified.” Despite harsh backlash from Spanish citizens, NGOs, and free speech advocates, the Spanish government has repeatedly defended the gag law. The lawsuits will coincide with the Spanish general election on Sunday, December 20, but it is expected to take up to three months for the court to decide if it will hear the cases.


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