Crackdown on Catalan Code: Internet Censorship During the Referendum

By Poppy Prescott

BARCELONA – In the days leading up to the unofficial 1st October 2017 Catalan referendum, the Spanish government chose to turn off the screens of those seeking information and polling details of the event. With hundreds of pro-independence internet domains and services, activists used mirror websites to override such silence, but they now face prosecution. Many question the legitimacy of the Madrid governmental bodies suppressing information online.


On the 20th September 2017, the Civil Guard (Spanish military police) raided the offices of the organisation puntCAT, which is the registry for the domain .cat. Once there, they seized computers, arrested the head of IT and demanded the deletion of all sites related to the referendum. This was five days after a Spanish court had sent a seizure warrant for the removal of all websites relating to the referendum, which had been refused. They cut access to websites such as referendum.cat and ref1oct.cat by disturbing the traffic from every computer to the desired ISP. Over the chaotic course of the next fortnight, several more restrictions were put in place to stop the promotion of over 100 pro-independence movements online. When the registry was asked to monitor domains and block accordingly, without instruction by the judiciary for a specific domain, this raised questions concerning freedom of expression.

I spoke to Matthias Brugger, a German programmer and researcher in this field, who believes the attack on the .cat domain was a “severe attack on the heart of the internet.” In simple terms, the DNS (domain name system) is the phonebook of the internet, which translates domains we know into IP addresses. The Ministry of Justice broke this chain by blocking the domain, which Brugger asserts is the “core infrastructure of the internet”.

In defiance, mirror websites – an exact copy of another website – were repeatedly put up by internet activists. Daniel Morales, a software developer, shared the source code for creating such mirrors, and is now being accused of disobedience, for which he could be sentenced six months to four years in prison IIRC. The Ministry of Justice soon had permission to blacklist and block all online content related to the referendum, including organisations’ sites such as the ANC (Catalan National Assembly), who we hear from later on.

Other forms of censorship can be seen in the alleged state intervention of Catalan television, their prohibition of postal agencies sending voting material, interception of the internet connection at polling stations and the imprisonment of Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, two individuals at the forefront of the pro-independence campaign. Most websites that were targeted are still blocked.


Internet activism

Daniel Morales, a software developer based in Valencia, was one of the first activists to share the complete source code of the referendum website; so mirrors could be uploaded easily. We discussed – via an intelligently encrypted email – the internet censorship during the referendum and consequently, the horrific personal realities he must face.

On sharing the source code to GitHub, Morales states “all the actions were completely individual and decentralized.” But on the 22nd September 2017, the police raided his house. He recounts the details: “My PC was on when 8 cops came to my house because I was downloading the databases where the information of where people needed to vote in order to upload the repository of the mirror…Because of the PC being on, they used the saved sessions of Google (Gmail, YouTube, Android developer console, Drive) and GitHub in order to change my passwords”.

Morales recovered these days later after reporting them stolen, upon the advice of his lawyer. “They were also looking for help in order to decrypt those databases to know which polling stations were available, so I received a call from Madrid, where the headquarters of the police are, to collaborate with them. They took my three hard drives and my cell phone, told me to go to the police station in a few hours and left.”

Spanish authorities have accused Morales of disobedience, which he asserts they cannot legally do, as he is neither a public worker nor disobeying any direct order from an authority. But he is still under investigation and his phone and hard drive are still seized by the police. The treatment of his activism shows the benchmark of censorship has fallen dramatically. He argues “Sharing information shouldn’t be a crime and [the] government shouldn’t be able to close a website just because it says things that they don’t like… Now that I really know for sure that we are living under an undercover dictatorship I will continue to be an activist but in the shadows, as I’ve done before.”


ANC sues Ministry of Justice

“If you are a friend, I’ll do you a favour. If you are an enemy, I’ll be very tough with you. And if you are neither enemy nor friend, I will apply the law as it is” said Francesc Bellavista, the International Relations Coordinator at the ANC when describing how he believes the higher judicial system operates in Spain.

With a degree in Law and a strong commitment to the ANC – an organisation dedicated to Catalonia’s political independence from Spain and reaching a Catalan Republic – Bellavista is certain that the ANC’s website was taken down several times because they are an enemy of the Spanish state. After the 21st December elections, the ANC sued the Guardia Civil against the court of justice, for not following the legal procedure when taking down their websites.

To take a step back for some perspective, both the Spanish government and the Catalan referendum movement were outside of the law here. Of course, not everything that is illegal is a criminal act. In the Spanish criminal court fifteen years ago, it was a crime to call for a referendum not accepted by the central government. This was later removed from criminal court; it is illegal to call a referendum now, but it is not a crime.

Bellavista claims the constitutional court said the referendum is legal, but any action or activity which leads to or is connected to, is illegal and consequently prohibited, banned. The ANC chose a separate path and were perhaps prepared to be legally censored. The problem for Bellavista was the absence of the court and any warrant related to the removal of the website. “According to our law, if you want to shut down a website, you have to state which one, the reasons why, how long for, and give prior notice to the owner of the website. There was nothing of this.”

Coincidentally, three days after the ANC’s claim was submitted to court, their website was reopened. The suit will continue Bellavista states, “We want a court ruling stating that we are right and they were wrong, to avoid this happening again in the future.”

Quickly unblocking websites now may imply the Ministry of Justice would be trying to brush the censorship under the carpet. But this issue of censorship transcends from the original debate of independence and into questions of digital rights and maintaining democracy online; something we must keep a closer eye on as technological advancements with a merge in politics continue. When I sought the expertise of Matthias Brugger, he plainly stated, “These attacks were professional and they deliberately tried to break down the system, and the internet is a weak system that can be broken.”

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