Netizen Report: If Protecting Your Privacy is “Part of a Conspiracy,” Then We’re All in Big Trouble


from Activist Post:

The Advox Netizen Report offers an international snapshot of challenges, victories, and emerging trends in technology and human rights around the world. This report covers news and events from April 04 – April 19, 2019.

On April 11, two arrests were made in cases that could set game-changing legal precedents threatening online privacy and free speech protections.

The first case made headlines worldwide: WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange was arrested by British police at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had lived since 2012.

Legal and ethical debates about the impact of material released on WikiLeaks — troves of classified documents that have affected the rise, fall and floundering of multiple governments around the world —  alongside sexual assault allegations against Assange, have resurfaced in public debate since his arrest. But these are not new.

What is newly public is the US Justice Department’s indictment of Assange, which was filed in March 2018 but kept under seal until now. The indictment seeks charges against Assange under the 1984 US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, accusing him of conspiring to “knowingly access a computer, without authorization” (e.g. crack a password) to facilitate Chelsea Manning’s “acquisition and transmission of classified information related to the national defense of the United States…”

But the indictment also details the means by which Assange communicated with Chelsea Manning, describing secure, open source technologies such as the chat service Jabber and the open source computer software Linux as “part of the conspiracy.”

Technical experts in the human rights field who handle sensitive information online know that using tools like these is considered only a best practice. These tools were built with privacy as their primary objective, and they are vital to the protection of journalists’ sources, not to mention the transmission of sensitive information about human rights abuses by lawyers, researchers and activists worldwide.

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, Freedom of the Press Foundation Executive Director Trevor Timm warned of the legal precedent that the case could set in the US, pending Assange’s extradition. He highlighted the fact that using digital privacy tools like Jabber has become a “common journalistic practice”:

Once there is law on the books that says “this aspect of journalism is illegal”, it becomes much easier for the justice department to bring other cases against more mainstream government critics down the road, and much harder for judges to immediately dismiss them.


…it’s clear that they are using the conspiracy charge as a pretext to target Assange and potentially criminalize important and common journalistic practices in newsgathering at the same time.

The legal precedent that Timm foresees may be set even sooner in Ecuador, where another “computer-related crime” case is taking shape.

The other case, which has garnered much less media attention, is that of Ola Bini, the Swedish free software developer who was detained at the Mariscal Sucre Airport in Quito, Ecuador, where he has lived since 2013. Bini is part of the broader global digital rights community to which Global Voices is strongly tied.

On April 13, Ecuador’s federal prosecutor announced that the government had filed charges against Bini for “alleged participation in the crime of assault on the integrity of computer systems” and attempts to destabilize the country. Interior Minister María Paula Romo also has said that Bini “supported” WikiLeaks.

Bini will be detained for 90 days while prosecutors pursue their investigation. Police have searched his home and confiscated numerous electronic devices and hard drives. The public prosecutor’s office posted photos of the devices on its website, as if to associate common electronic storage devices with serious crimes. Ecuadorian authorities have yet to offer evidence to support their accusations.

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