Case 22

Police shutdown of several private political websites

Description

During 2017 October 1st. Catalan independence referendum process, Catalan government launched on September 7 the official website about how to vote and where (referendum.cat), right after the regional Parliament passed the bill providing a legal framework for the referendum. As the referendum was declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, following allegations by the Spanish government, Guardia Civil shut down that website just six days after, on September 13. Police agents ordered the host -a local Internet provider, CDMon- to obey a judicial warrant.

Immediately this shutdown was effective, Catalan government launched two mirrors (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, an attempt to make it harder for the Spanish police to shut it down. Then, on September 16, a judge solicited major Spanish Internet operators -Telefónica, Vodafone and Orange- to block access to these new websites and any other mirror it 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). Websites were perfectly accessible in any other part of the world.

Also, the .cat Foundation -the civil organization managing how users find websites with the .cat extension- was raided by Guardia Civil on September 15 and forced to block ref1oct.cat oficial website and several other .cat pages containing information about the referendum. Even one person was arrested.

Because Spanish authorities decided don’t restrain their censorship activities to official websites. On September 27,  Guardia Civil also blocked access to several private websites, such as 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 clamped down up to 140 private and personal websites without previous notification (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 Spain’s militarized police, which read: “This domain has been seized and will be brought before a judge.”

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

Before

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The outcome

.cat Foundation submitted a complaint on September 17 before ICANN president and CEO Göran Marby explaining they were being requested “to censor content and suppress freedom of speech”. POLITICO saw the judicial order used by Guardia Civil as a key to raid .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 27, 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 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 about this press release, EUObserver pointed out Spanish movements against pro-referendum websites appeared “to encroach upon internet freedoms and expression”.

Contrarily 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 28.

Also 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 by 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 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 (2019, May 13), websites 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 laws

  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

 

 

Additional Resources:

Documents

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