UN experts are worried about the Catalan referendum online crackdown
Catalonia is set to have an independence vote this coming Sunday and the Spanish authorities, who say the referendum is unconstitutional, are furious — to the extent that they arrested the Catalan junior economy minister, are trying to prosecute referendum officials, and have raided printing operations and newspaper offices in an attempt to make the poll impossible. The police are allegedly even confiscating parcel tape showing the Catalan flag.
The crackdown has also extended online in a major way. A couple weeks back, a court ordered the puntCat Foundation, which administers the region-specific top-level domain, to shut down referendum-related websites and monitor more than 112,000 .cat domains. The foundation pushed back, so military police raided the foundation’s offices and arrested IT chief Pep Masoliver on “sedition” charges — he was released after two and a half days’ detention.
The pro-independence Catalan National Assembly saw its domain seized without warning — an issue it solved by resurrecting its site with a .eu extension. Referendum.cat, the Catalan government’s official site for the poll, now bears a notice saying: “This domain name has been seized pursuant to a seizure warrant under the Judicial Authority and is under administration”, but the original site can now be found at referendum.party.
The duplication of the Catalan government’s site led police to bring in 14 people for questioning over their disobedience. Their lawyers, not unreasonably, have pointed out that they were never told duplicating websites could be a criminal act.
However, shaky legal accusations aren’t the only problem faced by those trying to keep referendum-related sites up and running. According to the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), Spanish internet service providers are now blocking access to such sites.
— OONI (@OpenObservatory) September 26, 2017
The situation has turned into a desperate .cat-and-mouse game. The president of the Catalan government, Carlos Puigdemont, tweeted out links to sites where people could find information about voting on Sunday, only to have to delete them as the sites got blocked. However, his current pinned tweet directs people to an information source that won’t be so easy to censor: an Android app set up for the same purpose. He advised people to update the app every day to receive new information.
— Carles Puigdemont (@KRLS) September 27, 2017
Needless to say, the Catalan government is pretty angry about the way things are panning out. As a spokesman told the Guardian:
“What they’re doing by blocking domain name servers is doing what Turkey does and what China does and what North Korea does. No western democracy does that. The internet is the kingdom of freedom.”
And it’s not just the Catalans who are outraged. On Thursday, two top United Nations experts — freedom of expression rapporteur David Kaye and Alfred de Zayas, an independent democracy expert — urged the Spanish authorities not to interfere with people’s fundamental rights in the run-up to Sunday. Kaye and de Zayas specifically called out the website blockages, along with the other rights violations that are taking place.
“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.”
Let’s see if the European Commission, which has been on the receiving end of a letter from Catalan government telecommunications chief Jordi Puigneró, manages to come up with a useful response. The letter, addressed to Commission vice president Andrus Ansip, suggests the Spanish authorities have clearly infringed on two EU laws through the .cat crackdown and the site blockages.
Here’s the sort of language that the Spanish authorities seem to be ignoring:
“National measures regarding end-users’ access to, or use of, services and applications through electronic communications networks shall respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons, including in relation to privacy and due process, as defined in Article 6 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”
“… any measures liable to restrict those fundamental rights or freedoms are only to be imposed if they are appropriate, proportionate and necessary within a democratic society.”
Of course, there’s not much time left for the Commission to weigh in on this before the poll, nor would any intervention have much effect at this point. There are only a few days to go before the Catalan independence referendum goes ahead — if indeed it is able to go ahead in any meaningful way. Right now, the threat of violence on the weekend is perhaps a more pressing concern than the Spanish government’s free-expression crackdown.
However, when the dust has settled, we can only hope that the Commission will come down on Spain like a ton of bricks. Whatever your view on the issue of Catalan independence, it’s not acceptable for an EU country to undermine online freedoms in the way we’ve witnessed here.