Spain is undergoing a traumatic crackdown on freedom of expression, as part of a larger political convulsion over the Catalan province’s attempt to hold a binding referendum on independence. As one resident tweeted:
Webs R closed or blocked. Media are summoned not 2 “inform” about referendum. Anybody expressing support [for the referendum] is threatened w criminal charges.
The Catalan referendum is scheduled to take place on October 1st, but a ruling from the Constitutional Court of Spain annulled the Catalonian Parliament resolution implementing the vote. Section 2 of the Spanish Constitution asserts “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards;” but it also “recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.”
One of the key targets of this crackdown is the .CAT top level domain. No, this domain is not about felines. PuntCAT is run by a private, nonprofit foundation devoted to the following goals:
- “rais[ing] the profile of the Catalan identity,”
- “the normalisation of the use of Catalan in the area of the Internet and ICTs,”
- “develop the Catalan-speaking Information Society.”
PuntCAT was one of the first new top level domains authorized by ICANN in 2004. It was one of the few daring and interesting TLDs that managed to slip through the repressive gauntlet of ICANN’s early, paranoid days, mainly because one of its chief advocates was on the board. It took the form of what ICANN called a “sponsored” generic top level domain at the time, and would now be called a “community TLD.” That is, it is a domain which is meant to serve a limited group and only allows registrations consistent with its mission of promoting Catalan identity and culture, similar to the way .EDU is devoted to educational institutions. There are currently about 120,000 domains registered under .CAT.
On Tuesday morning officers from the Guardia Civil entered the .CAT registry’s offices in downtown Barcelona and seized all computers. The move comes a few days after a Spanish court ordered the domain registry to take down all .cat domain names being used by the upcoming Catalan referendum. The order places the burden of blocking domain names based on the content they may contain on the registry operator. An example of what has been blocked is the domain http://ref1oct.cat/. PuntCAT tweeted a protest of the court order to ICANN on September 17. The appeal to a wider community devoted to Internet governance is understandable, but of course ICANN has no ability to affect the situation. Appeals to European Union guarantees of fundamental rights have also been made, but those will probably have to go through the slow, slow mechanisms of the European Court of Justice to have any effect.
Among those arrested by the government is a computer technician who was responsible for electronic voting of the referendum, and a technical manager at Foundation PuntCAT.
Though CAT was created with the permission of the Spanish state and was never intended to be considered an alternative country code top level domain, its managers and of course many of its registrants were avid supporters of the independence referendum. In the event of a “YES” vote on October 1, the puntCAT Foundation is said to have offered to manage a new .CT country code top level domain.
IGP takes no position on the legality of the independence referendum nor does it take a position on the desirability or viability of Catalan independence. We are, in fact, suspicious of identity politics and critical of all forms of ethno-nationalism. But in this case we wish to highlight the freedom of expression and proportionality issues. On that, we take the side of PuntCAT.
The Partido Popular currently ruling Spain has, we believe, reacted in a disproportionate manner to the proposed referendum. Instead of relying on dialogue and persuasion to counter what was a peaceful expression of popular support, they have opted to use all legal powers at their disposal to pre-empt anything related to the referendum, in the process engaging in extraordinary forms of Internet censorship. The Spanish government has imprisoned politicians, removed elected officials from office, and seized control of the autonomous region’s powers. It would be the equivalent of the U.S. federal government taking over the California State Assembly and seizing ballots and electronic means, and blocking domains because they were concerned about the result of a California initiative and referendum vote.
Robert Guerra, an Internet freedom activist based in the United States, said:
As a Spanish citizen I would prefer the country to stay whole. However I can’t support the actions of the Spanish govt. it should counter separatist views with dialogue, debate and exchange of views to improve things – instead of using fascist era tactics to quell opposition.
In the end, the Spanish central government’s response is likely to backfire, polarizing the identity issues associated with the referendum and entrenching positions. The beauty of the CAT domain was that it allowed Catalunia to have its own territory and identity without fusing its identity with a state or raising the political conflicts associated with secession and nationalism. Some might take this incident as proof that it is impossible to keep the two separate, but we prefer to believe that tolerance and freedom can allow diverse identities and communities to co-exist. We hope that European-level fundamental rights protections will be triggered and prove to be effective and that the government’s response does not lead to violence.