Concerns have been raised over internet freedom

Steps against fake news and internet gambling took effect at the start of January

Fake news has come under attack worldwide, with the Czech Republic setting up an office under the Ministry of Interior to combat misinformation spread by websites. At the same time, a new law on gambling backed by the Finance Ministry came into effect requiring internet service providers to block websites that offer illegal gambling. Both moves have raised concerns over internet censorship by government agencies.

The The Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats began operating Jan. 1, 2017, and was set up to combat “hybrid threats, including terrorism and radicalization and foreign disinformation campaigns” that caused serious internal security threats, according to an Interior Ministry statement.

In his annual Christmas message, Czech President Miloš Zeman condemned the step. “We don’t need censorship. We don’t need an ideological police. We don’t need a new department of press and information if we are to continue to live in a free and democratic society,” he said.

He also compared the situation to the times of Konias, an 18th century Czech priest remembered for advocating censorship, including the burning of non-Catholic books, though many historians say this image is exaggerated.

Zeman added that people rely on censorship simply because they do not have a coherent argument to support their side.

Zeman is known for his close ties to Russia, which has been implicated in manipulating the news in the United States during the campaign for the presidency there. Businessman Donald Trump, who has strong business ties to Russia and a pro-Putin agenda, won that election. Zeman is one of few European leaders to have visited Russia since it seized Crimea in 2014 and also began supporting the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

There are legislative elections for all 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies in the Czech Republic in October 2017, and the winning party will chose the prime minister and for, a government. Direct presidential elections will be held for the second time in 2018.

The Interior Ministry has rejected the criticism that it will become a censor, saying that the team of 20 people would not be censoring websites, but instead would be forwarding information to the police, military and intelligence services. It will also help detect disinformation in open sources such as social networks and try to refute it. “The Centre will not have a button for 'switching off the internet'. The Centre will not force the 'truth' on anyone, or censor media content. It will not remove content from the internet or other (printed) media. It will work primarily with open sources available to all and will openly communicate with civil society, the media, and other subjects,” an online statement by the Interior Ministry said.

“The Centre will not lock anyone up, interrogate anyone, or lead any proceedings with anyone. The Centre will not spread any kind of propaganda, but only expertise relating to the field of internal security, and is modeled on similar strategic communications teams that already exist in the Baltic states or in the United Kingdom. The Centre will also inform about serious cases of disinformation and will provide expert opinions for the public and for government institutions. These opinions, as those of a government institution, will be based on the constitutional order of the Czech Republic,” the statement added.

The new on gambling also took effect Jan. 1, and allows for illegal gambling sites to be blocked by internet service providers. Critics say the law is too vague and that the Finance Ministry has not issued any guidelines on how the sites should be blocked.

The ministry claims that it does not want to dictate the methods, as it does not want to limit the options.

Critics also say the new law does not adequately specify exactly what has to be blocked, and also does not define who is responsible. An internet cafe or restaurant that provides WiFi to its customers could be considered the service provider, according to a broad interpretation of the law.

Senators have brought some provisions on the law before the Constitutional Court seeking an annulment, but the court has not yet decided on the case.

In the meantime, the ministry says the law is in effect and that if a company is in violation of the law, the ministry will start administrative proceedings. The ministry estimates it could take up to three months before the first websites can be blocked, though. Critics maintain that even if guidelines were released in the middle of January, it would take even longer to implement them if new hardware is required.

Large service providers say that they are willing to cooperate but do not want to have to increase the prices for services, and also that they cannot make detailed comments until they get more specific instructions from the ministry.

The ministry says the law does not concern internet cafes and other similar providers. It is aimed only at companies working in the internet as a core business. The law has also caused several online gambling firms to seek licenses to make their operations legal.

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