Internet Censorship

We are entering the twilight years of a “free” Internet. An Internet where anyone can post anything, and anyone can find it and read it. The continued existence of this online freedom, with all “the good, the bad and the ugly” that it produces, faces a range of threats.

The big social networks like “Google, Face Book and Twitter” are censoring what people can read and “kicking” more and more users “off” their sites. The freedom the Internet gives is becoming freedom for these big companies to “spy” on users and control “freedom of speech.” But one of the biggest “threats” to the Internet comes from governments.

Authoritarian governments have always tried to “control” what people say. If individuals can plan and “organize” freely, they can plan to “overthrow” the government. Dictators also tend to “control” the press. But that’s much less “effective” if citizens can get “online” to post the truth.

The sun set on Internet “freedom” in China a long time ago. China is now bidding to “control” crucial pieces of Internet “infrastructure” far beyond its borders. The Russian government passed a new law that will “tighten the noose” on Internet freedom there. The European Union is “weaponizing” its power to regulate the Internet. The end of the Internet as we know it is nigh.

Nearly 1 billion people use the Internet in China, but their Internet is not our Internet. The government “blocks” most foreign websites. Sites that are allowed, but based outside of China, “load” more slowly. And the government monitors what you look at online: “Google, Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia” are all blocked. Some companies have much more “restricted” versions of their sites available. It’s all part of what senior fellow Elizabeth Economy, from the “Council on Foreign Relations” called “the largest and most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world.” In 2013, experts estimated over 2 million were employed in “online censorship” reading and deleting social media posts.

Chinese leaders have proved so successful at “blocking” news it doesn’t want their people to see, that this “expertise” has become one of the latest “Made in China” exports.

“China, in other words, appears to be floating the first competitive alternative to the open Internet—a model that it is steadily proliferating around the world,” Samm Sacks, of the “Center for Strategic and International Studies” wrote in the Atlantic last year. “As that model spreads, whether through Beijing’s own efforts or through the model’s inherent appeal for certain developing countries with more similarities to China than the West, we cannot take for granted that the Internet will remain a place of free expression where open markets can flourish.”

“Chinese partners like Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt engage in aggressive online content control,” wrote Sacks. Foreign Policy wrote last year, “Across sub-Saharan Africa, free expression is being unjustly curtailed, and the Internet is increasingly being used by authorities to censor and surveil citizens.” Often Chinese experts make it possible. Beginning in 2015, China helped Tanzania build its own “Great Internet Firewall.”

Recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law calling on Russia to develop its own Internet. Under this setup, Russia should be able to completely disconnect itself from the World Wide Web—but have all websites within Russia continue to function. “The new law would provide for central control of all Internet traffic, and in essence, remove the need for data to be sent to and received from overseas servers,” explained Forbes. “This control would clearly introduce traffic monitoring and stark censorship of sites that could be visited by Russian users.”

The Russian government already blocks websites, though not quite on the same scale as China. What this new law is attempting, however, is even more ambitious. “No country has ever tried to build its own Internet architecture before,” wrote Time. “Even China, the world leader when it comes to Internet censorship, has built its ‘Great Firewall’ on the existing global DNS (Domain Name System) filtering traffic, but is still part of the same worldwide addressing system.”

Because it is so ambitious, Russia’s attempt may fail. But former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has warned that the Internet could “split” in two within 10 to 15 years. One version would be “free and open” and centered on America. Another would be “heavily restricted” and led by China and Russia.

Underlying these “fears” is the fact that China is literally “building” a new Internet. The quest of Chinese firm Huawei to build “5G Internet” across the world is the most visible “manifestation” of this.

5G (fifth generation) Internet “infrastructure” is a major upgrade that “transmits” information much more rapidly. A mobile phone on 5G is expected to have an average “download” speed of 1 GBps, faster than your top-of-the-line current home “fiber optic” connection.

It can also handle more “connected” devices. So it will become the backbone of the “Internet of things.” As cars, roads and even fridges all begin to talk to each other, they’ll be doing it largely through the 5G network.

“We think the stakes couldn’t be higher with regard to 5G technology, because of all of the things we build out over the coming years on top of that tech,” Rob Strayer, the deputy assistant secretary for cyber and international communications at the United States State Department, told BBC. “This is truly a monumental decision being made now.”

Huawei is the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturer, and like all big Chinese companies, it is “controlled” by the Chinese government. The Central Intelligence Agency claims that Huawei receives money from China’s security services. Despite this, it will be building much of the 5G infrastructure. Europe is seriously “considering” using Huawei. Even the United Kingdom has “decided” to use Huawei, though it will “jeopardize” close security relations with the U.S.

But this isn’t the only piece of Chinese control infrastructure. As part of its “Belt and Road Initiative”, China is building and upgrading “networks” all across central Asia. A Pentagon report in January warned that this “Digital Silk Road” project could “enable politically motivated censorship.”

Huawei is also “moving” out to sea. Huawei Marine has worked on over 100 undersea cable projects, becoming the world’s fourth-largest “undersea cable company.”

“While the U.S. wages a high-profile campaign to exclude China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from next-generation mobile networks over fears of espionage, the company is embedding itself into undersea cable networks that ferry nearly all of the world’s Internet data,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

It warned that American officials “say the company’s knowledge of and access to undersea cables could allow China to attach devices that divert or monitor data traffic—or, in a conflict, to sever links to entire nations. Such interference could be done remotely ….”

Britain’s national security adviser, Mark Sedwill, warned in 2017 that attacks on these cables could have “the same effect as used to be achieved in, say, World War II by bombing the London docks or taking out a power station.”

China, with all its experience “spying” on the Internet use of its 1.4 billion citizens, could soon “spy” on the world.

In March 2015, China unveiled its  new “great cannon”weapon. Its first target was“Virtual Private Network” (VPN) websites that helped Chinese Internet users get “around” its firewall. The cannon “weaponized” China’s 800 million Internet users. It took users of “Baidu”, China’s equivalent of Google, and directed them to the target websites. Before long, these sites were “flooded” with more traffic than they could handle, and “knocked” offline.

In his book “The Great Firewall of China”, James Griffiths describes this as a crucial moment “when the architects of the Great Firewall turned their attention to the rest of the world, unwilling to tolerate challenges to their dominance wherever they came from.”

“It was a message,” writes Griffiths, “a new front in China’s war on the Internet.”

Already companies have to be very careful about what they do online. Last year, an employee running the Marriott International Twitter account “liked” a tweet from Friends of Tibet, a Tibetan separatist group. It seemed a reasonable thing to do. The group had “praised” Marriott for listing Tibet as a “separate” country from China.

The Chinese government responded by “blocking” Marriott’s website and mobile app for a week. Marriott caved. They fired the employee and posted a groveling tweet.

“Marriott International respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We don’t support separatist groups that subvert the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. We sincerely apologize for any actions that may have suggested otherwise.”

With China “controlling” more and more of the Internet, will this “offensive” action continue? How long before large companies no longer “host” content that China disagrees with?

WordPress is “banned” in China. Could China start targeting “weblogs” like ours beyond their borders?

We’re moving into a time of “authoritarian rulers” who won’t allow free speech, “online or off.”

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