Internet censorship and blockade in Catalonia - self-sovereign Internet infrastructures

leandro's picture

Dear all, the recent days Catalonia is (in my opinion) under a defacto state of siege. You may have heard that today the 1-O referendum in Catalonia is ongoing. 73% of electoral offices were open this morning despite the blockade from prosecutors, judges and the charges from police forces. There are very long queues to vote. Meanwhile the "guardia civil", a military police, together with the riot police, have entered in large groups to some of the electoral offices to seize the ballot boxes and papers. As a result of the police charges to peaceful people, about 500 people so far have suffered injuries (you can find in the media sad images of the police charges).

As a result of a long list of measures and countermeasures to avoid the referendum (many orders from public prosecutors, only recently from a judge, budget blockade to public payments of many kind), the Catalan government has declared this morning the "universal census" so people can move and vote in alternative offices if his own is blocked (as the validation of voters is done over the Internet). For the political interpretation, images, and discussion you'll find many reports around the Internet in the news and social media.

We could discuss about what is legal, democratic, fair, logic, but focusing on the Internet facet:

The Internet has made a major difference in this process. This universal census was only possible thanks to the Internet. Not only that, but civil society has found ways to spread the message and enable voting that were not possible many years ago. People could print their own ballots at home, and print ballots for their neighbours. An mobile app was used to inform about places to vote and was updated several times as conditions changed. Despite the police forced google to close the app, it was replicated by others. 

Voting is slow and painful but is progressing. There are many network attacks to the servers coordinating the process, but since these are running and replicated outside the governmental data centres, which have been seized. The police has disconnected Internet access and wifi APs to schools to block the election offices, and many sites to collect and coordinate the process. The Internet is now fragmented in Catalonia. More than a hundred of web sites from public but also civil-society organizations have been seized or blocked. A few days ago, the tech responsible of the .cat TLD was literally taken from him home by the police while showering and detained for 3 days with no formal accusation. As a result, the .cat TLD and many .cat sites have been blocked. Some people that replicated web sites where detained and forced (by a judge + police) to give their passwords for, not only the sites, but also their personal email and personal accounts in social media. A judge even ordered to block any related future website. Citizens and electoral offices are using new imaginative and decentralized means to deliver votes and manage the census (using VPNs abroad, Tor, IPFS, anonymizing proxies, etc) to certify the process. The larger the operators are the more easy to block sites for more population. Diversity in Internet connectivity (both access and servers) create alternatives and more resilient societies.

Several local and international organizations are following and collecting details about how the Internet is being blocked and at the same time used creatively (relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to resolve problems) to protect human rights (like those based on decentralization, anonymisation, indirection, replication, tunneling, etc). In the coming days we'll be able to have more precise details about what happened, the role of citizens and community networks and report back.

We may disagree in what is democracy and what goes first: human rights, or the rule of law in a country. In any way, political problems need political solutions, not more police and repression. A useful lesson for Internet Policy work, regulation, diversity in network providers.

Let's see what political solutions we can find now, after years of political fights, and a weekend of repressive police actions against so many citizens willing to express their political opinions. Probably it will not be easier than before. Political negotiation and reforms are the way to go in a democracy, and not censorship, police charges and repression.

Certainly the Internet made and makes a major difference in this process, for those inside and outside, the days before, the event, and the days after. Among many other sad examples around the world, let's learn and apply our lessons to build a more resilient, open and rights-oriented Internet for everyone. Our work and collaboration with community networks is a strong step in that direction.