We commissioned a study on the Indian app economy back in 2013. The report was completed in 2014. One thing that study did not pick up on was the danger that governments could use the app store to control access to information. We were not alone in missing this critical implication: For more than a decade, we users of digital devices have actively championed an online infrastructure that now looks uniquely vulnerable to the sanctions of despots and others who seek to control information. We flocked to smartphones, app stores, social networks and cloud storage.
It’s interesting that Chinese Internet users have to protest the blocking of what I thought would be illegal workarounds. But earlier this week, after a number of V.P.N. companies, including StrongVPN and Golden Frog, complained that the Chinese government had disrupted their services with unprecedented sophistication, a senior official for the first time acknowledged its hand in the attacks and implicitly promised more of the same.
Iran has released 3G and 4G frequencies. It is now possible to share pictures taken by one’s phone. The Islamic Republic has eased up on its efforts to strangle the Internet, while not actually killing it. I’ve been talking about this off and on. But, Iran has added a new twist.
We’ve been talking up the need to look beyond Korea as THE model to emulate because their vaunted successes have been achieved with massive long-term subsidies that are difficult for most countries to replicate. But here are some other less known features of the Korean Internet environment that one would not want to emulate: Every week portions of the Korean web are taken down by government censors. Last year about 23,000 Korean webpages were deleted, and another 63,000 blocked, at the request of the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC), a nominally independent (but mainly government-appointed) public body. In 2009 the KCSC had made just 4,500 requests for deletion. Its filtering chiefly targets pornography, prostitution and gambling, all of which are illegal in South Korea.
How can a person be responsible for, and have his punishment decided by, what others do? But this seems to be the thinking of the Chinese Communist Party. “They want to sever those relationships and make the relationship on Weibo atomized, just like relations in Chinese society, where everyone is just a solitary atom,” Mr. Hao said. In May, his microblog accounts on Sina and other Chinese services were deleted without any explanation.
An old folk tale describes a tired traveler in the desert, where the nights are cold. His camel is outside the tent. The camel wants the warmth of the tent. The traveler permits him to bring in the snout. By morning, the camel is in the tent and the traveler outside.
Few days back I was asked to speak on the above subject at a workshop held at the Center for European Political Studies in Brussels. I discussed what effects the continuing efforts by ETNO and likeminded groups to introduce some form of government mandated rent extraction from Over the Top players such as Google and Facebook are likely to have on small alternative media using the Internet as a workaround or simply as a low-entry-cost publishing opportunity. The slideset that I used is Samarajiva_CEPS_Mar13.
Some time back I wrote about the dangers of the emergence of an International Internet Union at the behest of Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao. They’ve held a conference in London to beat it back, but apparently were missing something really important: a counter narrative. In his closing message, he said: “State-sponsored attacks are not in the interests of any country, long term… those governments that perpetrate them need to bring them under control.” He did not name names. Some private-sector delegates like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales were less reticent.
It seems that all governments under threat fear communication media. Instead of the kill switch, Cameron of the UK seems to be proposing a narrower ban: social media use by miscreants. How does this work? Does the government know who is planning mayhem and who is not? Does it shut down base stations in affected areas, or does it target specific people?
Here‘s how you enforce it. Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border. But others believe that the risks are outweighed by the potential impact. “We’re going to build a separate infrastructure where the technology is nearly impossible to shut down, to control, to surveil,” said Sascha Meinrath, who is leading the “Internet in a suitcase” project as director of the Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group.
China is a big country. By definition, its ethnic conflicts are localized. The newest is Inner Mongolia. And the mobile networks are being shut down, only in the affected region: “First they shut down our Internet, then they interrupted our cellphone service and finally they imprisoned us at school,” said the student, an intense, foppishly dressed literature major who was not on campus when the lockdown took effect last Saturday. “The students are afraid, but more than that, they are angry.
The al-Assad government in Syria appears to be responding to the use of ICTs by citizens unhappy with the political status quo more intelligently than its fallen counterpart in Egypt. The Syrian government is cracking down on protesters’ use of social media and the Internet to promote their rebellion just three months after allowing citizens to have open access to Facebook and YouTube, according to Syrian activists and digital privacy experts. Security officials are moving on multiple fronts — demanding dissidents turn over their Facebook passwords and switching off the 3G mobile network at times, sharply limiting the ability of dissidents to upload videos of protests to YouTube, according to several activists in Syria. And supporters of President Bashar al-Assad, calling themselves the Syrian Electronic Army, are using the same tools to try to discredit dissidents. In contrast to the Mubarak government in Egypt, which tried to quash dissent by shutting down the country’s entire Internet, the Syrian government is taking a more strategic approach, turning off electricity and telephone service in neighborhoods with the most unrest, activists say.
It’s fascinating how the game is getting played out in Syria, one of the most brutal Arab dictatorships. The regime learned from Egypt. But so did the resistance. The regime monitors the networks and periodically shuts/slows them down. But the counter move of smuggling in hundreds of satellite phones had already negated that move.
It seems like overkill when there are only 50 subscribers to Twitter in the whole country, but the Cameroon President seems ultra insecure. He should be, perhaps. He has been in the same job since 1982, a West African Ben Ali. And predictably, the Minister of Communication has equated the President’s security with that of the Nation. What next?
Did China shut down the telecom system during the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989? There was no Internet to shut down back then. This time around, they seem to be adopting a gradualist response, according to NYT: The words “Jasmine Revolution,” borrowed from the successful Tunisian revolt, were blocked on sites similar to Twitter and on Internet search engines, while cellphone users were unable to send out text messages to multiple recipients. A heavy police presence was reported in several Chinese cities. In recent days, more than a dozen lawyers and rights activists have been rounded up, and more than 80 dissidents have reportedly been placed under varying forms of house arrest.
We are part of an ongoing conversation with Amartya Sen, Randy Spence and others on the freedom-enhancing possibilities of ICTs in general (including the question of whether the conventional Internet is better than the mobile Internet in this respect). Looks like it is a bigger conversation. Last week Morazov’s book was reviewed, this week Clayton Shirky enters the fray. Second, his essay distinguishes between short-term goals and long-term objectives. Most debates over cyberspace versus sovereignty get bogged down by looking for immediate effects.