Welcome to the Media Law Roundup, a weekly digest of developing media news stories from around the world. This week’s issue covers Google’s tax deal, censorship in Southeast Asia, Iran’s new messaging app, and more.
Sweden has long held a position against filtering or blocking websites, even when under pressure from other countries. Recently, however, the Swedish government has initiated investigations looking into regulating the online gambling market by requiring licenses for gambling sites. In order for licensing to be effective, ISPs would have to block non-licensed gambling sites, which is currently illegal. The Swedish government has unsuccessfully tried to block copyright infringement websites in the past, however courts have repeatedly struck down these measures. In response to previous filtering attempts Bernhard Rohdeler, director of IT industry group Bitkom said, “the blocking of websites should remain the last resort of network policy.” The Swedish government may look into creating laws that enable internet filtering which would require ISPs to block off access to sites down to the IP level.
While communications technology has grown at an exciting rate in Southeast Asia, several governments and authorities have responded with censorship efforts. On January 27, Telekom Indonesia, a state-run mobile operator, blocked Netflix from all of its platforms after the video streaming site’s 130 country expansion. The mobile operator cited Netflix’s violent and adult content as the reason for censorship. In Malaysia, the blog-publishing platform Medium was blocked for carrying an investigative report on corruption claims related to Prime Minister Najib. On January 20, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission asked Medium to remove the post, saying it was “false, unsubstantiated, misleading, and in violation of the written law of Malaysia.” When Medium refused to remove the post Malaysian authorities blocked the entire website. Thailand’s new government, which came to power via a military coup in 2014, is pressuring sites such as Facebook and Google to censor content. The Thai government is also looking into establishing a single gateway internet, which would allow it to single handedly control and censor all content.
WhatsApp passes 1 billion active users, VENTURE BEAT
On February 1, messaging app WhatsApp reached 1 billion active users. In 2014, Facebook purchased WhatsApp for over $16 billion with only 450 million monthly users. Under Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership the app more than doubled its users, and dropped the $1.00 annual subscription fee in January. Facebook is now looking to expand WhatsApp by engaging businesses and charging them to use the service. The app, acquired in 2014 by Facebook, is incredibly popular in developing countries, as it provides a cheaper alternative to SMS texting and operates on low bandwidth. The system also currently supports 53 languages. However, with increased popularity and mobile traffic WhatsApp has been subject to more censorship and privacy laws. In July 2015, the UK threatened to shut down WhatsApp if the company refused to provide British intelligence agencies access to encrypted communications. In December, the Indian government released a draft that would prohibit Indians from deleting messages on the app for 90 days and would allow law enforcement to read messages. After WhatsApp refused to provide data to the Brazilian government, the court ordered a 48-hour blackout for the app in December.
How one messaging app is changing Iranian media, AL-MONITOR
Iranians frequently rely on social media to read and share news, because licensed Iranian media outlets are censored. Now, a new social media app called Telegram, is now the primary platform for news sharing in Iran, with an estimated 20 million users. While Telegram allows Iranians access to many more headlines due to the lack of censorship on the app, not all headlines circulated on the app are true. Many of the rumors shared on Telegram become so widespread that official media outlets respond to and dismiss them. For example, when several Arab countries cut ties with Iran in early January, a Telegram channel claimed that Tunisia also cut diplomatic ties with Iran. This rumor was false and a source from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: “The rumor about Tunisia severing relations created a challenge for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, because a high-ranking official saw the news on Telegram and asked the ministry to provide more details on the matter — all the while we knew that this was only a rumor.” Mohamed Mehdi Rahimi of Mehr News Agency believes that Telegram threatens official media outlets. He noted, “An environment like this will prompt official media outlets to move toward the interests of the audience in order to attract more people, thereby showing further interest in channels such as Telegram. This is a cause for further problems such as imposing limitations on word count, lack of precision in preparing stories, preferring speed over accuracy and so on. All of this goes against the main responsibilities of the professional media and journalism.”
Seven Moroccan journalists and human rights advocates are scheduled to stand trial on March 23. The trial was originally scheduled for January 27, however it was postponed for a second time. Some speculate that pressures from Twitter and human rights groups prompted the delay. Two of the journalists, Maria Moukrim and Rachid Tarik, may have to pay heavy fines for “receiving foreign funding without notifying the General Secretariat of the government.” The others, Maati Monjib, Hisham Almiraat, Hicham Mansouri, Mohamed Essabr, and Samad Iach could face five years in prison for “threatening the internal security of the State.” Opponents of King Mohammed VI have targeted the leader since the mid ‘00s, resulting in the arrests of 35 bloggers and journalists from 2008-2015. Several human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists, and Free Press Unlimited have spoken out against the regime for repressing freedom of speech. Members of civil society have used the #Justice4Morocco Twitter hashtag to show support for those prosecuted and put pressure on the government.
On February 2, the European Commission and US State Department drafted a new data-transfer agreement: the EU-US Privacy Shield. This deal will replace the old agreement, Safe Harbor, which was struck down by the European Court of Justice after Edward Snowden’s leaks suggested that US security services was inspecting European data. Under this new agreement the US will create an ombudsman to field European complaints about American spying, the US will sign written agreements that European data will not be subject to mass surveillance, and European and American privacy watchdogs will collaborate to address any problems. The EU and US will conduct annual reviews to make sure all the provisions of this new pact are met. The British lobby group TechUK has lauded the new deal. Antony Walker, TechUK’s deputy chief executive said, “the fact that EU and US negotiators have worked day and night for several months to secure this agreement reflects how important transatlantic data flows are to the global digital economy.” Privacy campaigner Max Schrems has more doubts about the implementation of the new deal. In response to the creation of an American ombudsman he said, “I doubt that a European can walk into a US court and claim his fundamental rights based on a letter by someone.”
On February 2, French finance minister Michel Sapin accused the UK of negotiating a “sweetheart deal” with Google. The HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) reached a £130 million tax settlement with Google for the firm’s £5 billion of UK sales via Ireland. Google avoids paying the UK’s 20 percent tax rate by using an aggressive tax strategy known as the double Irish and the Dutch sandwich. Ultimately the income arrives in Bermuda, a UK overseas territory and tax haven. In 2014 UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne promised to crack down on tech companies avoiding taxation. He said, “If you abuse our tax system, you abuse the trust of the British people. And my message to those companies is clear: we will put a stop to it.” However, this new tax settlement allows Google to continue avoiding UK taxes. In response to this new deal Sapin said in a press conference, “the French tax administration does not negotiate the amount of taxes owed. It applies the rules.” Although Google’s revenues have grown by 13% in 2015 their global tax rate has gone down fell to 17% in 2015, down from 19.3% in 2014.
In early January, Netflix expanded to 130 new countries. A couple weeks after the initial announcement about the expansion the company decided to ban Netflix access via VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), which allow internet users to hide their location. International Netflix users have a far more limited selection of content and used VPNs to access the more robust American library. Netflix has decided to block VPNs because it violates licensing deals with Hollywood, but it is unclear if Netflix will even be capable of blocking these proxies. For the company, international expansion will be key to growth, however this announcement has led many people to cancel their Netflix subscriptions. According to Robert Stone, a partner at unblocker MediaHint, “the backlash is already growing and users are going to realize very fast that the service they pay 8 Euros for is nowhere as complete as the $8 in the U.S. service…same price, lousy catalog.”