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China’s government commands the “Great Firewall,” a sophisticated system of technology and people that blocks foreign websites, distorts online conversations, and punishes people for strays.
I spoke to my colleague Paul Mozurwho has written about technology and politics in China for years, what he called “firewalls big and small” by governments in China Myanmar, Russia, Uganda and other countries trying to varying degrees to control online activity.
Shira: Please explain China’s internet control system first.
Paul: It’s a combination of blocking almost every foreign website imaginable and providing an informational environment that reinforces what the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party can say about the world.
The controls are comprehensive. A huge government bureaucracy monitors online activity and an army of volunteers reports that content is being censored and helps spread positive messages about government initiatives. Businesses are tasked with pulling material off the internet and teams of engineers are dispatched to develop artificial intelligence tools to help. Contractors provide the labor for censorship on an industrial scale.
The newest phenomenon is that Internet police, Which detains people or investigates them if they are found to be routinely doing things like poking fun at China’s leader Xi Jinping online or raising sensitive political issues.
Is the firewall working?
Yes. It comes at the cost of government energy and money and the constant anger of a segment of the population, but it is extremely effective in shaping what many think.
Most people do not have time to evade the information environment in which they live and thus provide information about their worldview – especially during crises. The online manipulation during the early coronavirus outbreak was likely that largest censorship event in history.
How does other countries’ efforts to block some websites or control the Internet compare to the Great Firewall?
Iran and North Korea also have almost complete control over the Internet, Myanmar and Cambodia may try to do something similar.
However, it is difficult for every country to permanently block important social media websites and to censor the online statements – as our colleague Anton Troianovski did reported from Russia. There is a risk of angering citizens and isolating the economy, and the government risks missing out on its other priorities. It is also difficult to keep track of people’s attempts to conduct internet controls.
How has Myanmar tried to control people’s online activities?
Every morning people wake up and find new websites that they cannot access. At the moment it was pretty easy for people to bypass these blocks. The concern is that new technology from China might complete the blocks, although we haven’t seen any evidence of China’s involvement so far.
How do you explain that the people of Myanmar suffered from too little and too much internet restriction? First, the military Spreading online hatred against the country’s Rohingya Minority, and now it’s cutting off the internet.
Where democratic institutions are weak and the future of a country is challenged, powerful actors will both interrupt the flow of information when it suits them and use the internet to disseminate information on their behalf. China does both, and so does Myanmar. While it may seem contradictory, censorship and disinformation go hand in hand.
It is feared that China will make the technology and techniques of its internet manipulation system easily adaptable for other autocratic countries. Myanmar is important to watch because if the generals control the internet without decimating the economy, it can become a model for other authoritarian regimes.
Tip of the week
Three cheap and helpful technical devices
Flying cars are great, but sometimes it can be amazing to find technology that solves small problems. The New York Times personal tech columnist Brian X. Chen has three inexpensive tech helpers that we can try.
Sometimes cheap gizmos combined with human ingenuity are the most useful technologies. Here are three examples in the $ 15-30 range.
Bluetooth tracker like tile ($ 25): These tiny tags are meant to be attached to things that you misplace frequently, such as: B. your house keys and wallet so you can locate them with your phone. But with one a bit of imagination, bluetooth tracker can do much more.
I attach a tile to my disgustingly thin Apple TV remote that regularly disappears between the sofa cushions. I leave a tile in my checked bag so I can find it at the airport. And a friend who left a tile in her car was able to track down the thieves who stole it and pass that information on to law enforcement.
We have written extensively about the dangers that allow third parties to track our location, but privacy professionals do did not find any major concerns with the practices of Tile.
MyQ Smart garage door opener (27 USD): With this hub installed next to your existing garage door opener and connected to a home network, anyone can control the garage door with a phone app.
I found this gizmo surprisingly useful. Once when I wasn’t home my neighbor locked himself out of our building and I was able to let him in by using the app to open the garage door remotely. It’s also great that my wife and I don’t need separate remote controls when we pull our bikes out of the garage for a ride.
Internet-connected plugs such as TP-Links Kasa ($ 17): I use smart plugs to program a series of small tasks. I plan a grow light for my home-grown vegetables that switch off after 16 hours and program a kettle to boil water for coffee first thing in the morning.
Before we go …
A middle way to technical regulation is possible: Kashmir Hill wrote about Massachusetts, where a civil liberties activist and elected officials found a balance between banning facial recognition technology used by law enforcement agencies and allowing the police to run wild.
The internet never forgets: Liat Kaplan, who wrote a formerly anonymous celebrity blog in the 2010s, has concerns about “vengeful public disgrace disguised as social criticism”. Relatives, from internet culture writer Ryan Broderick:: “We cannot control how much of our lives online is near permanent, but we can learn to decide what is and is not worth dissecting.”
Sea turtles rescued from the recent freezing weather in Texas were released back to the Gulf of Mexico. There was a sea turtle slide!
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