Chinese protesters back Iranian women, Ethiopia hosts internet meet while keeping the internet off, and NSO’s legal woes

Ellery Roberts Biddle

 

It feels as if the world can see and hear the voices of regular people in China in a way that seemed impossible just a few weeks ago. Reports of new demonstrations happening in different city plazas and university campuses across the country seem to surface by the hour. Protesters are taking incredible risks in the face of China’s notorious surveillance regime, most of them for the very first time. China operates the world’s most powerful and sophisticated digital censorship apparatus for this express purpose: to keep people quiet. And indeed, the news is awash with stories of protest messages and media being censored across the Chinese internet, alongside reports of pro-China trolls flooding protest hashtags on Twitter with pornography and ads for escort services. There’s probably a whole lot that is going unspoken or unreported. South China Morning Post’s Vivian Wu, who is posting terrific minute-by-minute coverage of the protests, tweeted that there is still “a huge info vacuum about real China.” 

But if the censorship regime were truly all-powerful, we wouldn’t even know this much. I’ve spent nearly a decade editing and organizing coverage of protest movements in the social media era. And I never imagined I could open my browser to find people in China and Iran, two of the “original gangster” internet authoritarian states, if you will, defying these controls and beaming their solidarity across borders. My former colleague Mahsa Alimardani, a seasoned expert on internet controls in Iran, re-shared a video from Shanghai, in which people shouted: “We don’t want a dictatorship, we want a democracy. We don’t want a leader, we want to vote. We stand with the people of Xinjiang! We stand with the women of Iran!” It’s a reminder that when you’re connected, it remains possible to transmit and receive information.

It’s an option that people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region have not had, or only had intermittently, for two years now. Information about atrocities and human rights abuses is almost impossible to gather. And an estimated six million people have been silenced. There remains no internet access in Tigray and no timeline for when access might be restored. Nonetheless, this week, government delegations, tech experts and civil society groups gathered in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, for the UN Internet Governance Forum. As if this were not ironic enough, delegates were apparently prohibited from bringing digital devices into the main conference hall. Nigerian tech law expert Gbenga Sesan put it plainly: “The focus on restricting access to digital devices, just the same way the Internet is still shut down in Tigray, is weird for an INTERNET Forum!”

NO IMMUNITY FOR NSO IN US COURTS

Embattled Israeli spyware giant NSO Group faces legal action in several jurisdictions, including civil trial in the U.S. In 2019, WhatsApp sued NSO Group after researchers proved that the company had exploited a technical vulnerability in WhatsApp’s systems in order to send its invasive surveillance software, known as Pegasus, to at least 1,400 people, including more than 80 journalists and human rights defenders. NSO does this exclusively as a client of governments. But that does not absolve it of responsibility for the harms it causes.

WhatsApp, owned by Meta — one of the biggest enablers of digital data collection and surveillance on earth — is one of the most popular communication tools worldwide. In some countries, it is cheaper and far more common to use WhatsApp for messaging and voice calls than to use one’s regular telecom provider. This makes the service an ideal target for governments seeking to surveil their critics.

We know from independent research and reporting that journalists and human rights defenders in at least 20 countries have had their mobile devices infected with Pegasus, and the consequences have ranged from public humiliation to imprisonment and worse. If spyware companies like NSO think they can get away with targeting people through WhatsApp, there is no reason to expect they’ll stop, unless the courts can force their hands.

This is why the legal challenge against the Israeli tech giant is so significant. After the original filing, NSO responded with its own court petition, seeking “sovereign immunity” from legal challenges in the U.S., arguing that it was merely acting as a contractor of foreign governments. But this tactic now looks likely to fail. In an amicus brief filed last week, the U.S. Justice Department issued a stern rebuke to NSO’s petition, noting that “no foreign state has supported NSO’s claim to immunity” and that NSO has “not even identified the states for which it claims to have acted as an agent.”

The WhatsApp lawsuit, alongside parliamentary investigations in Europe and increasing concern in the U.S. government, adds to the pressure for legislation to be passed to rein in the use of commercial spyware.

WHAT WE’RE READING

  • The Washington Post’s Cate Cadell has a great thread on the major components of China’s extreme surveillance, from facial recognition, to smartphone forensics, to real-name registration on social media, and how they might be deployed in a protest setting. 
  • Journalist Tony Lin has been imploring photo editors at media outlets to blur the faces of individuals in protest photos from China, lest they be identified and punished later on. “It might be a few clicks but it could be a decade difference if they’re implicated,” he points out. 
  • Jelani Cobb gave an insightful explanation of his decision to leave Twitter in the New Yorker, reasoning that “Twitter is what it always was: a money-making venture—just more nakedly so. And it now subsidizes a billionaire who understands free speech to be synonymous with the right to abuse others.”