Case 22

Police shutdown of several private political websites

A standard domain as 'piolin.cat' seized by Spanish Guardia Civil in October 2019.
A standard domain as 'piolin.cat' seized by Spanish Guardia Civil in October 2019.

Description

Straight after the Catalan regional Parliament passed a bill outlining a legal framework for the 2017 independence referendum, the Catalan government – on September 7th – launched an official website that was designed to provide citizens with details of how and where to vote (referendum.cat). Following allegations from the Spanish government, the referendum was declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court. This resulted in the subsequent shut down of the Catalan government’s official website by Guardia Civil on September 13th, just six days after its creation. Police agents ordered the host – the local Internet provider CDMon – to obey a judicial warrant.

This shutdown was immediately put into effect, however the Catalan government did launch two mirror websites (ref1oct.eu and ref1oct.cat). Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, said: “The world of electronic communications does not have borders. They can shut down one website, but if you know in advance this might happen, you automatically launch a new one.” New websites were registered by EuroDNS, a company based in Luxembourg, in an attempt to make it more difficult for the Spanish police to shut down. Then, on September 16th, a judge solicited major Spanish Internet operators – Telefónica, Vodafone and Orange – to block access to these new websites and any other mirror that could exist (referendum.es, referendum.cat, referendumoctubre1.com, referendum.ws, referendumoctubre1.cat, referendumoct1.cat, 1octreferendum.cat and garanties.cat, and even referendum.lol, referendum.ninja o referendum.rip). Such websites were perfectly accessible in any other part of the world.

In addition, the .cat Foundation – the civil organization managing how users find websites with the .cat extension – was raided by Guardia Civil on September 15th and forced to block the ref1oct.cat official website and several other .cat pages containing information about the referendum. Guardia Civil even made an arrest during this raid.

The Spanish authorities decided not to restrain their censorship activities only to official websites and on September 27th, Guardia Civil also blocked access to several private websites, including those of the NGO Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the anti-repressive group Alerta Solidària and the pro-Yes movement Crida per la Democràcia. It is said police restricted access – without prior notification – to around 140 private and personal websites (such as assemblea.cat, assemblea.eu, webdelsi.eu, prenpartit.cat, vullvotar.cat, alerta.cat, empaperem.cat, impressorsperlademocracia.com, webdelsi.cat, holademocracia.cat, cridaperlademocracia.cat, etc.). Many of these websites were replaced by a message from the Spanish militarised police, which read: “This domain has been seized and will be brought before a judge.”

Just before the referendum day, on September 29th, a Spanish judge solicited Google to delete an App giving details on how to vote and where. The application was developed by the unofficial Gmail address “Onvotar1oct@gmail.com”. And, on October 1st, the same judge also solicited Amazon to block the server that was being used by the Catalan government in order to count the ballots.

On September 2019, Democratic Tsunami (“Tsunami Democràtic” in Catalan), a new Catalan protest initiative against the trial of the Catalan pro-independence leaders, was made public and soon also faced opposition from the Spanish State. The initiative, up to November 2019, has no public-known leaders and is based mainly in digital communication through channels such as Telegram and its own Android application.

Democratic Tsunami has repeatedly stated that it encourages “non-violent mobilisation to defend basic rights” and is mainly known for its call to demonstration at the Barcelona-El Prat Josep Tarradellas airport in response to the trial’s resolution on October 14th. On October 18th, Spain’s National Court shut down the website “tsunamidemocratic.cat” as the initiative is being currently investigated for alleged terrorism charges; websites replicating its content are not openly accessible from Spain.

On October 30th, the American company GitHub, subsidiary of Microsoft, revealed that the Spanish Civil Guard asked them to block Tsunami’s App based on the accusation that Democratic Tsunami is a “criminal organization”. Although the App can no longer be publicly downloaded, Democratic Tsunami first put it in use after November 11th, 2019 Spanish Congress of Deputies election.

On October 31st, parallelly, Spain passed the 14/2019 Royal Decree-Law which allows the Spanish government to shut down websites and social media over “public order threats”. Spain’s acting president Pedro Sánchez initially presented this decree as a measure to fight the so-called “digital Catalan republic”, which is meant to be an online infrastructure created by the Catalan government to be less dependent on Spain in the cyberspace. The potential uses of this decree are yet to be seen. 

PuntCAT under fire: Internet vs political identities. Source: Internet Governance Project
PuntCAT under fire: Internet vs political identities. Source: Internet Governance Project

The outcome

The .cat Foundation submitted a complaint on September 17th before the ICANN president and CEO Göran Marby, explaining that they were being requested “to censor content and suppress freedom of speech”. POLITICO saw the judicial order used by Guardia Civil as an opportunity to raid the .cat Foundation and said it was unclear about how far police could arrive blocking private websites: “[The warrant] it also appears to instruct the foundation to stop any content related to the referendum from being accessed through .cat domains, though the wording of the warrant is unclear in this respect and, according to two Spanish legal experts, might require clarification.”

On September 27th, the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, who is also responsible for media oversight, said it was not the Commission’s business to interfere in the internal matters of a member state. The Commission chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas also insisted: “We don’t have anything to say, other than reiterate our respect for the legal order and the constitutional order within which all these measures have been taken.” According to Euractiv, “after that, Schinas came under fire from the press pool for not reacting to the crackdown on freedom of expression in a member country. He was reminded that the EU was very vocal in similar cases with other countries, such as Turkey, Russia and Cambodia. “Thank you for your positions. We cannot improvise competences we don’t have,” he answered.” When informing of this press release, the EU Observer pointed out that Spanish movements against pro-referendum websites appeared “to encroach upon internet freedoms and expression”.

In contrast to the EC, the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression was “concerned” about these police manoeuvres. “Regardless of the lawfulness of the referendum, the Spanish authorities have a responsibility to respect those rights that are essential to democratic societies,” said the experts David Kaye and Alfred de Zayas. “The measures we are witnessing are worrying because they appear to violate fundamental individual rights, cutting off public information and the possibility of debate at a critical moment for Spain’s democracy”, they considered on September 28th.

Furthermore, the Pirate Parties – and NGOs of the Pirate movement – denounced fiercely Guardia Civil activities against the freedom of speech: “The internet censorship by Spanish authorities is an unacceptable violation of human rights and political freedoms, regardless of the legality of the Catalan referendum and the merits of the secessionist cause.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation stated: “The Spanish government’s censorship of online speech during the Catalonian referendum period is so wildly disproportionate and overbroad, that its violation of these instruments seems almost beyond dispute.” From their point of view, government censorship of the Internet is prohibited under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, “both of which guarantee everyone’s right to receive and impart information and ideas regardless of frontiers”.

Activist Simona Levi’s movement, Xnet, was concerned about a “situation of persecution and very serious violation of rights”, such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of political opinion.

The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) called for the Spanish authorities, “to put an end to repression and curtailment of freedom of expression online and offline”.

Until today (May13th, 2019), websites such as referendum.es, holademocracia.cat or webdelsi.cat – or even the joke piolin.cat – are still blocked. As the Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull revealed in October 2017, the website of the foundation of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco “remains operational”.

Violated rights

The shutdown of websites represents a clear attack upon the fundamental rights of freedom of expression and information, defined as follows by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights:
 
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In this case, the indiscriminate interference of the police -who in most of the cases did not even hold a judicial order- in shutting down private websites where citizens simply expressed their opinion, is behavior typical of authoritarian regimes. According to Xnet, a pro digital rights organitzation:
 
Catalonia has been the testing ground of what we have always denounced or, in other words, the fact that the space of the Internet has yet again been subjected to a state of exception which “democratic” governments wouldn’t dare to apply to physical space because this violation of rights would immediately be visible. Proof of this is that many of the shut-down websites belong to associations with physical premises. At first, no authority risked ordering that these centers should be closed.
 
  1. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
  2. Article 11.1 of the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights on “Freedom of expression and information”
    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
  3. Article 10.1 of the European Convention on Human Rights on “Freedom of expression”
    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises
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