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Georgian Web Users Fear Intrusive Controls

Legislation allows security services to delve into private web traffic without court’s sanction.
By Manana Vardiashvili

Georgian internet users say a law allowing police to monitor emails could help the government keep tabs on political activity online.

According to United Nations figures, Georgia has 1.3 million internet users, almost 30 per cent of the population. The web has become an increasingly important forum for political debate, particularly among young liberals.

Legislative amendments passed at the end of last year give the police the right to monitor online communications without obtaining a court order. A legal instrument that allows web surveillance without any kind of oversight is an alarming prospect for many active internet users.

According to Giorgi Gotsiridze of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, the law covers “monitoring of open as well as private communications on the internet. It constitutes a restriction of the right to private life. Under article 20 of the constitution, restrictions on this right require the approval of a court, or a state of emergency.”

In the absence of either of those two preconditions, Gotsiridze said, “We believe this contradicts the constitution, and we intend to appeal against it in the constitutional court.”

The government denies planning to censor the web, and says the legislative changes merely brought the country into line with standard international practice.

Kakhaber Anjaparidze, deputy chairman of parliament’s legal affairs committee, set out what he saw as the real aim of the new provisions.

“We’re talking about officers conducting operations; for example, they can now join some forum and engage in internet communications with potential criminals. This is an approved technique in the civilised world, and it does not require court approval or a state of emergency,” he said. “As for checking on personal communications and emails without a court order, that too is accepted practice in the modern world.”

Bloggers and other internet users in Georgia disagree, and voice concerns that police will snoop on their activities when they are doing nothing illegal.

“Of course I believe my rights as a user are being violated,” David Shubladze, who writes a blog called Urbi et Orbi, said. “Third parties now have an opportunity to monitor my private communications. This cannot be acceptable.”

Another blogger, David Lobjanidze, who writes about politics, media and other issues, was equally worried about what the government could do with its new powers.

“Maybe these techniques do exist in some countries, and maybe there is some justification for them, but it all depends on how they are going to be enforced in practice. If such activities don’t require a court order, there will always be a risk that someone will exploit these laws to breach privacy rights,” he said.

Similar concerns are expressed in Freedom on the Web 2011, a report by the international watchdog group Freedom House, which ranked the internet in Georgia as only “partly free”. The report noted several incidents in which officials have responded to web postings by demanding their removal.

In one case last year, it said, “the administrator of the Facebook group ‘Against Nanukas Show’, which was critical of the hostess of the Nanukas television talk show, alleged that he was threatened by unidentified state employees and forced to make the group inactive”.

Freedom House also sounded a note of alarm at the ease with which the authorities seemed able to prevent opposition-minded web sites attracting advertisers.

“At present, most online media outlets face difficulty in attracting advertisers, but the problem seems to be more acute for the sites that are critical of the government. Some media owners reported instances in which advertisers decided to withdraw ads from websites after those outlets published news articles overly critical of the government or the ruling party,” the report said.

Activists say state monitoring of the internet appears to be widespread. Nino Tsagareishvili, of the Human Rights Centre, cited the case of Nicole Bedford, who was working as an English teacher in Georgia and was “sacked for critical statements published on her Facebook page”.

After being asked to delete one Facebook posting and apologise for it, managers on the government-run teaching programme which had hired her “asked her to delete another status in which Nicole wrote about an incident where a group of tenth-graders made racist and degrading comments to her. Nicole went on holiday in December, and when she wanted to come to Georgia in January, she was informed by email that she had been sacked,” Tsagareishvili said.

Manana Vardiashvili is a freelance journalist.

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