The government of Spain has begun to crack down on freedom of speech and expression online. The crackdown stems from a referendum to be voted on in October where the people of Catalonia will determine if they want Catalonia to become an independent republic and separate from Spain.
Days after a Spanish court ordered all domains associated with the Catalan independence referendum to be taken offline, the Barcelona headquarters of Fundació puntCAT, the .cat domain registrar, was raided by the Civil Guard. The Spanish Civil Guard is a military force with police powers, and they function as a national police organization. Fundació puntCAT is a private non-profit which is a Top-Level Domain (TLD) operator which provides the Catalan speaking community with .cat domain names. Fundació puntCAT is the registrar for over 112,000 domains. The Spanish court has essentially called on Fundació puntCAT to monitor the content of all of the websites which use their services for any mentions of the Catalonia independence referendum. All of Fundació puntCAT’s servers were seized during the raid.
Pep Masoliver, the Director of Innovation and Information Systems for Fundació puntCAT, was detained by the Civil Guard for over two and a half days, but was finally released. Some of the charges being leveled against Masoliver include “prevarication” and civil disobedience. Masoliver is currently required to report to the local police department once every week. The domain registrar now hopes to raise awareness of the crackdown on digital rights that occur in Spain.
“[N]ow we are strongly determined to give international visibility to this unprecedented violation of freedom on internet and neutrality on the net,” a blog post on Fundació puntCAT’s website said. “We particularly show the disproportion of the court order, issued on [September] 15th, which not only has forced us to shutdown webpages, but also attempts to transfer the burden of making censors by forcing us to monitor the content of more than 112,000 .cat domains.” The registrar thanked the many universities, organizations, and individuals around the world for their support.
Ten websites connected with the Catalonia independence referendum were ordered to be shut down by Judge Juan Antonio Ramírez Sunyer of Barcelona Court Number 13. The 10 .cat domain names Judge Ramírez Sunyer ordered to be shut down include ref1oct.cat, ref1oct.eu, referendum.es, referendum.cat, referendumoctubre1.com, referendum.ws, referendumoctubre1.cat, referendumoct1.cat, 1octreferendum.cat and garantías.cat. Now when users attempt to access those sites they are greeted by a takedown notice that states, “This domain name has been seized pursuant to a seizure warrant under the Judicial Authority and is under its administration.” The notice contains the logo of the Civil Guard, which ironically contains the fascist symbol of the fasces.
One organization which has condemned the Spanish government’s crackdown on internet freedom is the Internet Society. The Internet Society, also known as INSOC, is a non-profit which was founded in 1992 and helps develop, support, and promote standards on the internet. In a statement on their website, the Internet Society stated that it did not believe that Top-Level Domain operators should be responsible for monitoring and censoring the content of websites. The organization continued in its statement, saying that Judge Ramírez Sunyer’s order would have a “chilling effect on free expression,” and that it would unjustly restrict the right of the people of Catalonia to access the free and open internet. The Internet Society calls on the government of Spain to restore access to the uncensored internet for the people of Catalonia and Spain.
Voting on the Catalonia independence referendum will be held on the 1st of October, but in the meantime, the government of Spain is doing its best to suppress the campaign. Free speech isn’t just being attacked in cyberspace, the government of Spain has been seizing printed literature which discusses or promotes the independence referendum. In a recent tweet, the Tor Project noted the censorship of sites which discuss the referendum. For now, the people of Catalonia can turn to darknet services such as Tor and I2P to get around the government’s censorship. Websites can avoid censorship by hosting a hidden service on Tor, or hosting on I2P, or even better, by hosting their site on a decentralized peer-to-peer hosting service such as ZeroNet or IPFS, which require no centralized servers to host sites.