Romania Begins Internet Censorship

The Romanian administrative body for gambling has assumed the responsibility of censoring which websites can be accessed by Internet users in the country.

A new law went into effect in Romania in June that amends the organization and operation of gambling. Through the new legislation, the National Office for Gambling (ONJN) assumed the role of controlling Internet censorship and determining which websites will be accessible in Romania. Passed on June 12, Law 124/2015 stipulates:

"[...] Providers of networks and services of electronic communications [...] are obliged to respect the decisions of the Supervisory Board of ONJN on restricting access to the websites of gambling unauthorized in Romania, as well as those on advertising gambling organized by a gambling operator which is unlicensed in Romania."

On June 24, ONJN adopted without public debate a decision that was first published on the institution's website only a month after its adoption, according to which providers are obliged not only to block access to some DNS hosted sites, but also to redirect users to some Special Telecommunications Service-hosted sites. In late July, ONJN had already sent a notice to Internet providers requiring them to implement the decision.

ApTI and five other non-governmental organizations warned ONJN last year that its proposed measures violate fundamental rights, but the institutions simply ignored our message, including a request to hold a public debate before adopting the relevant legislation. Today the Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Romania - the Helsinki Committee sent a new request to ONJN, hoping that at least now, in the last moment, the institution will understand that these are not merely technical issues, but measures of unexpected effects.

What does ONJN’s decision mean?

Internet service providers will be obliged to implement a system for filtering websites, mandatory for all their clients. They will essentially become censors of the information Romanian users can access.

Moreover, the Special Telecommunications Service (STS) will be able to collect all the IP addresses of the Internet users in Romania who are trying to access those sites.

What are the problems?

    1. Internet censorship is established

    2. The right to private life is violated by altering the confidentiality of electronic communications

    3. The interception of transmissions of electronic data is a crime

    4. Locking DNS access creates a series of indirect technical problems to computer security

    5. Such measures are unnecessary and can be easily overcome

1. Internet censorship is established

According to the European Union’s directive on electronic communications, member states cannot abusively block or limit Internet access.

The fundamental problem is that blocking websites through the Internet provider is a measure of censorship of online content, and poses serious problems regarding human rights in general and freedom of expression in particular.

Internet and websites are widely recognized as means of mass communication; thus blocking access to them arbitrarily is likely to violate Article 30 of the Constitution of Romania, whose paragraph (2) states, "Any censorship is prohibited," and paragraph (4), "No Publication can be suppressed."

The fact that an administrative authority, not a court, may decide, without the possibility of appeal, that a particular site should not be accessed by users, raises questions in relation to the constitutionality of the decision.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression explained in relation to this that “Blocking measures are an unnecessary and disproportionate means to achieve the stated purpose."

Moreover, the implementation of such a blocking system through Internet providers means that we see created and operated a number of tools of censorship that can be easily extended to other areas. Once we accept to see Internet blocking and once there is a system to implement such decisions, we will see more and more people asking for more and more to be censored.

For example, blocking access to websites was initially passed in Italy in order to prevent access to unauthorized online gambling. Despite these initial intentions, today we see Internet censorship in Italy for many other purposes, by multiple agencies and with and without the protections required by the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.

2. The right to private life is violated

Internet Service Providers have obligations to ensure the confidentiality of electronic communications, which they should only mediate technically.

When they have to block access and redirect users, ISPs have to intervene in the communication between the Internet user and the site in question, and redirect users, without notice, to another website, in this case one operated by a militarized institution.

By this the ISP transmits to STS all traffic data that can identify an Internet user, in violation of Art. 4 of Law 506/2004 on privacy in electronic communications, and Law 677/2001 by sending personal data (such as IP addresses) to third parties without informing the user or obtaining his/her consent.

According to the principle of hierarchy of normative acts, an order of an administrative authority cannot violate mandatory provisions of law or violate fundamental rights.

3. The interception of electronic data is a crime

The interception of transmissions of electronic data is a crime under Art. 361 of the new Penal Code. The criminalization of such acts is imposed by the fact that such activity is in practice an alteration of the proper functioning of information systems and networks.

ONJN therefore seems to oblige ISPs to operate in a typically criminal manner, taking advantage of an unified legal framework. If any other person or entity would do exactly the same actions as those mandated by ONJN, they would certainly face charges under the Romanian penal code.

4. Locking DNS access creates problems to computer security

According to studies published by ICANN, the main authority that manages Internet resources, blocking websites and particularly blocking the DNS prevent the implementation of mechanisms to secure DNS (DNSSEC), which are essential for the proper functioning of the Internet.

5. Such measures are unnecessary and can be easily overcome

As any measure aimed at the censorship of the Internet, the measures proposed by the ONJN are unnecessary from a technical point of view and can be easily overcome by any Internet user who can use any search engines to find information on OpenDNS, alternative DNS, Google DNS, VPN, Tor or other similar things.

ONJN measures will, however, create an infrastructure to censor Internet content which is likely to be used by others for other purposes (see e.g. the recent measures to block Internet content in Portugal for alleged copyright violations).