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Friday, January 23, 2015

UK ISPs line up to block pornography

UK broadband Internet provider Sky is to block adult content by default, unless users opt out.

The decision comes nearly two years after Prime Minister David Cameron put pressure on Internet service providers [ISPs] to make online filtering mandatory [BBC / BBC Q&A].

ISPs initially rejected the proposal and there was widespread criticism in the media. But with TalkTalk also reported to go the same route as Sky, the blocking of pornography and other adult content could become the norm.

Announcement

Sky announced it was to phase in the filtering in the coming months in a blog posted on its website https://corporate.sky.com/media-centre/our-blog/2015/sky-broadband-shield-rolling-out-to-all-our-customers  

Meanwhile TalkTalk said it too was following suit and apply a block to all users' accounts, unless they have already opted out of such blocks. Customers will then have to ask TalkTalk to allow pornographic websites to be visited through their Internet connection.

BT is also contacting its customers to ask them whether they want to have the tool introduced. Virgin also gives parents the option to turn on the free tools but keeps them off by default.

The filter enabled by TalkTalk's HomeSafe product can stop Internet connections from being used to access violent content and gambling websites, as well as pornography.

Big Brother or Nanny State

Some Internet users have criticised the move saying it was another move towards a more draconian state. "Britain is getting more like North Korea every day. What are they going to block next?" one comment read on the Daily Mail website

Others have also condemned the move as a danger to freedom of expression [Belfast Telegraph].

While there is undoubtedly some concerns over censorship, there is a change in mood not only from the government but also the Internet industry. In fact as early as 2013 Dido Harding, TalkTalk's chief executive, said that she supported such automatic blocks [Independent].

Some filtering will be tiered. For example Sky's Broadband Shield offers various levels of filtering from PG, 13, 18, customizable settings or none. With the new system the default will be set to the 13-year-old age rating which will block sites that deal with dating, file-sharing, violence, drugs, "criminal skills," suicide and self-harm, and pornography, and many more types of objectionable content.

It is not entirely clear how the ISP deals with enquiries made on search engines especially those that involve image searches [BBC].

However for a sense of how such filtering might work one need only look to China where ISPs as well as Internet companies are required to block, filter or censor objectionable content.

Internet blocking

China's Golden Shield Project - often referred to as the Great Fire Wall - is used to great effect in stopping access to content authorities deem sensitive. Indeed the GFW attempts to stop the spread of rumours, stifling protests and dissent. However it also plays a part in stemming the flow of online pornography.

Searching for the Chinese term Sèqíng [色情] or pornography on Baidu, China's top search engine, and there will be few salacious pictures shown in image searches. There may also be a message displayed stating that "According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not displayed".

Searches for inappropriate search terms may even result in 404 error pages or the Internet connection being reset, in other words cut off for a period of time.

Using foreign search engines will often be of little help since they may often be blocked whilst others such as Bing comply to local Chinese law.

Nonetheless filtering out specific content is an imprecise science. The Open Rights Group's Blocked project [www.blocked.org.uk] has shown that filters block all kinds of websites, including some that provide useful advice to children and young people says Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group. "Customers need to understand the implications of filters before deciding whether or not they want them."

Even in China some inappropriate images still get through whilst legitimate sites get blocked. And in the UK too reports suggest that legitimate sites are also being blocked by porn filters [Russia Today], whilst some fail to block unsavoury material [PCPro].

Andrew Ferguson, founder of broadband news site ThinkBroadband, said that parents should not rely solely on filters to protect their children from online nasties. "As ever the filters don't block all unsavoury material so are not a replacement for parenting and the embarrassing questions all parents have to face," he said.

Free choice

At present Internet users have a choice whether or not they want the censored Internet or the fully accessible one. But it may perhaps only be a matter of time before pornography and other 'objectionable content' becomes mandatory.

Certainly if China had its way much of the world would be applying similar Internet restrictions that it does on its own citizens [Does China Hope to Remap the Internet in its Own Image?]. In fact some have already speculated that China may have influenced the implementation of porn filtering being rolled out in the UK [AnimalNewYork].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, January 22, 2015

China’s economy slows as property prices slide

It was not a good week for China as new figures revealed economic growth had slowed to its weakest in 24 years, expanding 7.4% last year from 7.7% in 2013. Enviable by many other country's standards, but for China any slowdown could be disastrous if domestic spending does not keep afloat the economy as exports wane [BBC].

Property prices are already beginning to drop in a country where people buy housing stock as an investment rather than to live in. And the risk of a property bubble bursting is a very real danger.

The buying up of empty properties and leaving them empty has led to a massive increase in so-called ghost cities [CNN / Sky News].

Bursting bubbles

The situation could become very uncomfortable indeed. Not just for those with property investments who could lose millions. Even single-home owners may find themselves in negative equity. Such a bubble burst could dry up public confidence in spending which could lead to further economic woes [tvnewswatch: Will China's bubble burst as global economy slides? / Reuters / BBC]

There are few that would argue against the risks of a property bubble burst. But for China it would be particularly dangerous [FT].

For example, not only does the property market account for more than a sixth of the total GDP, property in the country is closely tied to various other sectors such as banking and construction [CNBC].

The real problem that is hindering banking is that property in China is used as the main form of collateral, and for the property market to collapse would mean default on loans that would have a trickling effect. Unlike other nations, Chinese private banks are closely tied to the government, often headed by ex-government officials and were used as key tools to implement their stimulus package in 2009. Being so closely tied to the government, while beneficial in backing, could in the same way turn parasitic should default on the big scale hit these banks that hold a majority of mortgages in the nation [SeekingAlpha].

"A property price crash in the world's second largest economy would have global implications," says Wells Fargo Securities economist Jay Bryson [Time].

But how bad could it be? There are some that suggest the results would not be as disastrous as doommongers predict. But there are some worse case scenarios that one cannot ignore.

Domino effect

A collapse in housing prices would result in fewer construction jobs, accounting for an estimated 60 million people in urban China. Jobless workers would of course spend less, which would mean goods and services the now-unemployed construction workers would normally purchase would not get bought.

If out-of-work construction workers reduce their spending on food and entertainment, the businesses that produce that food and entertainment will make less money and then some of their workers may face unemployment too.

Lower spending would mean people having less money in their paychecks, and the nation's GDP would suffer as a whole.

Moreover, if housing tanks, banks would see losses, resulting in the tightening of credit and fewer loans for people to start businesses. And as already stated, homeowners would spend less having found themselves in negative equity.

Countries outside China would also feel the pinch as export to the country dry up as demand would undoubtedly shrink.

"Don't lose sleep at night worrying about China," Bryson tells Time magazine. But nonetheless advises investors to "keep an eye on it." [Economist]


tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

China in spotlight over stealing US military secrets

China has strenuously denied it stole the designs for America's next generation fighter jet in the latest spat over cyberattacks for which it is often blamed.

"Groundless" accusations

China angrily refuted the allegations it had stolen US military secrets this week. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing was responding to the publication by German magazine Der Spiegel of new documents purportedly from NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

The ministry's spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters Monday, that he wondered if his country's accusers could produce any evidence to support their claims and said the accusations were "groundless" [FMPRC].

"Cyber attacks are hard to trace back and are usually committed across borders. This complexity means that it is extremely difficult to identify the source of the attacks," Hong said.

According to one document published by Der Spiegel, China stole "many terabytes of data" related to the United States F-35 fighter jet, including detailed engine schematics and radar design [CNN].

No comment from US

Whilst it was hardly unusual for China to refute allegations that it hacked US military computers to gain access to classified data, the US would neither confirm nor deny the allegations.

A Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren declined on Tuesday [20/01/2015] to discuss whether the Chinese had been able to obtain US military technology secrets.

"We never talk about cyber-intrusions and we don't comment on leaked information," he said [Washington Times].

China's latest statements on the Snowden leaks are a U-turn on previous communiques. Edward Snowden had become a cause célèbre in China, particularly for exposing the widespread NSA. spying program, Prism, in 2013.

Praised by state media as "a bright idealistic young man", Snowden offered China the opportunity, enthusiastically seized upon, to expose what it saw as American hypocrisy over cyberespionage [Xinhua].

Indeed many Chinese officials had used the Snowden revelations as a defensive retort when American officials pressed China to end state-sponsored hacking.

But Beijing has not been so quick to embrace the latest batch of leaked NSA materials [NYT]. In fact there is scant mention of Edward Snowden or the F-35 fighter jet in Chinese state media at all.

Previous allegations

It is not the first time China has been accused of stealing US stealth jet technology.

In 2011 experts claimed China had stolen stealth fighter technology by smuggling parts of a downed F117 Nighthawk out of Serbia during the Balkans War [tvnewswatch: China stole stealth fighter technology]

The United States Air Force retired the F-117 on 22 April 2008, primarily due to the fielding of the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II.

But there are fears amongst some military personnel  that China's new Shenyang J-31 stealth fighter, that made its debut at the Zhuhai international airshow in December last year, could eventually become more than a match for American stealth fighters in battle [USNI].

The J-31 is China's latest stealth fighter and replaces the J-20 which itself was believed to have incorporated stolen US technology [Guardian / tvnewswatch: Chinas stealth fighter takes to air].

Growing military spend

As well as stealing technology, China is ploughing millions of dollars into its military year on year [tvnewswatch: China increase military to "win local wars"].

Whilst accusing the US of "warmongering" and interfering in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, China could also be criticised for its own aggressive stance in the region [tvnewswatch: China plays with fire as year of dragon looms]

Indeed the balance of military spending was by February 2014 tipping towards China [BBC].

Figures published by the IISS last year indicated that whilst the United States still topped the list with a military spend of $600 billion in 2013, China ranked second with a spending budget of some $112 billion.

However given the opaque nature of Chinese financial matters, there are complex debates about how far Beijing's figures encompass all of its defence-related spending. Indeed China's real military budget could be much higher than generally agreed.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, January 16, 2015

UK's Beagle 2 found on Mars

The missing Mars robot Beagle 2 has been found on the surface of Mars and is apparently intact. The discovery was made with the aid of new high-resolution images taken from orbit which have identified its landing location.

The UK-led probe had tried to make a soft touchdown on the surface of Mars on Christmas Day 2003, using parachutes and airbags. However, contact was lost with the probe and it was assumed it had either burned up in the atmosphere or been destroyed in a high-velocity impact. There were even some fanciful theories that Martian's had destroyed the probe [Anandtech forum]. 

The new pictures, acquired by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, appear to contradict all such theories however. Nonetheless, Professor Mark Sims, Beagle's mission manager from Leicester University said the real cause was still open to speculation. "The failure cause is pure speculation, but it could have been, and probably was, down to sheer bad luck - a heavy bounce perhaps distorting the structure as clearances on solar panel deployment weren't big; or a punctured and slowly leaking airbag not separating sufficiently from the lander, causing a hang-up in deployment," he told BBC News.

The discovery of Beagle 2 comes less than a year after the death of the probe's principal investigator, Colin Pillinger and just days after The Royal Society scientific institution announced an award in commemoration of the Professor.

More reports: NASA / HIRISE / Sky News / Telegraph / Daily Mail / Video - NASA / JPL

tvnewswatch, London, UK


Belgium terror raids leaves two dead & 15 arrested

Two jihadists have been shot dead during a raid in Belgium which authorities say was part of a major sweep across the country to thwart an imminent plan to launch terror attacks in the country.

Cross-border arrests

In a press conference on Friday morning police said that thirteen suspects had been arrested in Belgium, while a further two were arrested in France.

Authorities in Belgium said the planned attacks were imminent and that four AK-47s, a handgun, munitions and explosives, as well as police uniforms and a large amount of money, were seized during the raids

According to spokesman Eric Van Der Sypt, the terrorists had "the intention to kill several policemen in the street and at police commissariats [police stations]."

No link to Paris attacks

The raids came a little over a week after terrorists attacked the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. A total of 17 people were killed in those attacks including three police officers. The terrorists involved were later cornered and shot dead after a two day hunt.

No link had been established with last week's attacks in Paris, Van Der Sypt said, adding that Belgium would seek the extradition of the two suspects arrested in France.

Ongoing threat

The latest developments have raised concerns about another possible terror attack in Europe. Belgian authorities said the raids Thursday, in which two suspects were killed, were part of an operation investigating a cell that included people coming back from Syria and that was about to carry out major terrorist attacks in Belgium.

One European official told CNN's terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank that investigators were working around the clock to learn about the potential attack plans of the returned ISIS fighters.

"This threat is not just about Belgium ... it's also other European countries as well," Cruickshank said.

Cyberattacks

As well as the threat of violence there has been an upsurge in cyberattacks. France has reportedly seen an unprecedented number of such attacks since the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks. More than 19,000 websites have experienced problems according to reports mostly relatively minor denial-of-service attacks [Sky News / CBS]

Meanwhile French police have arrested at least twelve suspects in connection with the 7th January terror attacks [BBC].

The attacks come as the UK prime minister and US president Barack Obama met to discuss measures to boost cyber security [Reuters / Guardian]

More reports: BBC /  Sky News / CNN / Independent

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Fear of terrorism prompts wave of censorship

Wednesday's attack on journalists, writers and cartoonists in a Paris office by terrorists purporting to be affiliated to Al Qaeda has shocked much of the world.

Attack on freedom

The attack on what many see as a right to free expression, freedom and free speech has also rallied a call, prompting thousands to come onto the streets in protest against the Islamic extremists.

One prominent symbol of defiance was the phrase "Je suis Charlie" which began to circulate on social media soon after the attacks which left 12 dead and 11 others injured.

The phrase first began trending on Twitter in response to the terrorists exclamation that they had "killed Charlie Hebdo" as they left the scene.

The response from ordinary citizens and others was "Non". Charlie Hebdo and the spirit of freedom, freedom of expression and free speech had not been killed. Charlie Hebdo was still alive, alive in the minds of those that proclaimed, "Je suis Charlie".

French media in particular took a similar line. For example, Liberation, a centre left paper, went to press with a black front page emblazoned only with the words "Nous sommes tous Charlie" - "We are all Charlie".

Self censorship

But while there was indeed strong sympathy and a solidarity expressed, worldwide, for those murdered as they sat in their office, few made the bold step of reproducing the cartoons which prompted the attacks.

The fear of reprisal attacks has prompted most papers and online around the globe to refrain from even showing partial clips of Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Indeed we're not all Charlie as so many have claimed. Few of us, and particularly the media, are that good, and even fewer are that brave. In fact many media outlets have yielded to the terrorist demands that insist open discussion, criticism and the lampooning of Mohammed and Islam be off limits.

The Associated Press has already begun the process of deleting all previously published Mohammed images [Daily Beast].

Criticism of Charlie Hebdo

Some editorials, rather than standing in solidarity with the likes of Charlie Hebdo have in fact called their decisions "stupid". In a response to the terror attack the Financial Times' Tony Barber wrote "common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark's Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid." [Reason].

Edits were later made to the piece, dropping the 'stupid' reference. Nonetheless is clear that many so called serious papers see Charlie Hebdo and other similar publications as infantile, school-boyish comics which have acted irresponsibly and have wrought what they sowed.

The "Je suis Charlie" proclamations were an admirable sentiment, resonant with the classic post-9/11 Le Monde cover "Nous sommes tous Americains." But it was also totally inaccurate, argued Matt Welch on the Hit and Run blog posted on Reason.com.

"Do you really wanna be Charlie Hebdo? Then get on out there, live and speak bravely. And God help you."

Indeed, it is just such fear that has prevented some papers from reproducing the covers of Charlie Hebdo in their coverage of the story.

Nearly every British paper has stopped short of printing the cartoons even to the extent of pixelating photographs of the offending magazine if shown in a picture of Charlie Hebdo staff. Others have instead opted for tightly cropping pictures [Daily Beast / Breitbart].

Broadcast media

It's not just the print media. Broadcast media have also veered away from showing the Charlie Hebdo front covers. CNN was somewhat vague concerning the reason behind its censoring of the images but released a statement saying, "As this distressing story continues to evolve we are actively discussing the best way of addressing the key issues and images across all of our platforms. Those conversations will continue throughout the day and beyond as the story develops." [Variety]

It wasn't just CNN. Despite hours of blanket coverage of the attack on Charlie Hebdo offices, there was barely a glimpse of the offending magazine on the BBC News channel, Sky News or other news channels [Mediaite / Slate / Politico / Haaretz].

There were some who made the brave decision however. The French paper L'Echo ran with a black front page with the central headline "Tous des Charlie" [All Charlie] surrounded by a border made up of Charlie Hebdo front pages, more than half featuring the controversial depiction of Mohammed.

The German publication the Berlin BZ went further covering both its front and back pages with 33 Charlie Hebdo cartoons alongside the headline Vive la liberté [Long live freedom].

Some online publications ran with a retrospective of some of Charlie Hebdo's notable front pages. Amongst them were Time, Bloomberg and Mashable.

Graphic images

Whilst news media were concerned over the publication satirical cartoons, many were not perturbed in reproducing graphic images of a French policeman being shot dead by Islamic terrorists on the streets of Paris.

The images grabbed from a video and posted to YouTube showed the armed terrorists shoot the wounded police officer as he lay on the ground before they calmly made their way to a vehicle and drove off.

Papers around the globe published the picture of the gunman shooting the policeman. Some pixelated the face of the officer, but others showed the photograph uncensored.

The irony of the killing was that the policeman was himself a Muslim, named by authorities as 42-year-old Ahmed Merabet.

Charlie Hebdo's remaining editorial staff say they will publish as normal next week in defiance of the terror threats and murder of 12 of its employees. But despite the anger and rhetoric expressed by much of the Western media, it seems fear and terrorist threats has dictated editorial decisions elsewhere.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Barbarism in Paris leaves 12 dead at Charlie Hebdo office

France has been rocked by a terror attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo which has left at least 12 dead and dozens of others injured, many seriously.

Coordinated attack

The story broke shortly after 11:00 GMT, less than an hour after the "carefully coordinated attack" began.

Reports indicated that three masked men stormed the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Rue Nicolas Appert in Paris at about 11:00 CET [GMT +1]. Witnesses said the gunmen entered the building and began shooting with automatic weapons.

The attackers were said to have shouted Allahu Akbah [God is Great] and "Nous avons venger le prophète Mohammed" [We have avenged the prophet Mohammed] whilst slaughtering staff who were attending an editorial meeting.

The next edition was believed to have been a special edition focused on Sharia law and staff were said to have been discussing the details when the gunmen burst in, calling staff by name before shooting them.

Police killed

As the attackers left the building two police officers were shot. One video posted to YouTube showed one gunman shooting an injured policeman lying on the ground at point blank range with an AK47 leaving the officer dead.

The video then showed two of the gunmen calmly making their way to their vehicle, a black Citroen DS, and driving off. One of the attackers could be seen picking up a training show which fell from the car before getting in and it is believed the perpetrators later changed into casual clothing before dumping the vehicle.

Soon after the attack eyewitness accounts emerged. One Charlie Hebdu employee said she had let two gunmen in as she was exiting the building to pick up her daughter from nursery school. They claimed they were from Al Qaeda before they shot at her colleagues, she said.

Targeted killings

Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Corinne "Coco" Rey was quoted by French newspaper L'Humanite as saying: "I had gone to collect my daughter from day care and as I arrived in front of the door of the paper's building two hooded and armed men threatened us. They wanted to go inside, to go upstairs. I entered the code. They fired on Wolinski, Cabu ... it lasted five minutes ... I sheltered under a desk... They spoke perfect French... claimed to be from Al Qaeda." [Daily Mail]

Soon after the attack French President Francois Hollande attended the scene and spoke to journalists. Hollande said the security level in Paris had been raised after the attack and described it "as an act of extreme barbarism".

Confirmed dead

Several well known French cartoonists were confirmed killed in the gun attack. Amongst them were Jean Cabut (13 January 1938 – 7 January 2015), better known as Cabu, a French comic strip artist and caricaturist. Stéphane Charbonnier (21 August 1967 – 7 January 2015), known as Charb, a French caricaturist and journalist, and was also declared dead as was Georges Wolinski (28 June 1934 – 7 January 2015) another cartoonist and comic book creator. Fifty-six-year-old French caricaturist Bernard Verlhac, who used the pseudonym Tignous, was also killed along with another colleague economist, writer and journalist Bernard Maris, who was aged 68.

Of the twelve confirmed dead two policemen were also killed including one from the Service de la protection [SDLP], a unit within the French National Police which is responsible for the protection of French and foreign dignitaries and the provision of technical security support.

Controversial publication

According to reports there had been a continued police presence outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo following continued threats against staff at the magazine and a firebomb attack in 2011.

The magazine had courted much controversy over the years, particularly with religious groups which it often lampooned and satirized. Portrayals of the prophet Mohammed had drawn particular ire and criticism from Islamic groups and there had been a number of threats made by terror organisations.

Investigation

The attackers' car was later found in northern suburbs of Paris near the Port de Pantin Metro station, a less than 20 minute journey by car from the Charlie Hebdo offices in the Boulevard Richard Lenoir. More than 3,000 police were drafted in to hunt down the men but the task may prove to be impossible.

This was arguably the worst terror attack France has ever known, and the sheer barbarism of the attack will have shocked the country to its core. Whilst there were signs that Islamic extremism was growing especially given recent attacks on police and shoppers over Christmas, the nature of the Paris attack may have grave repercussions.

The reality of the events has been even more shocking given the videos and pictures posted on social media. One video posted on YouTube showed one injured officer shot dead as he lay injured on the ground.

Condemnation

Whilst Muslim leaders condemned the attacks, there may well be a backlash against the Muslim population. One French imam labelled those that died as "martyrs for liberty" while French President called the attack on both France, liberty and freedom of speech.

World leaders also stood out in condemnation. The British Prime Minister David Cameron added his voice, saying, "The murders in Paris are sickening."

"We stand with the French people in the fight against terror and defending the freedom of the press."

In the US President Barack Obama condemned the "horrific shooting". In a written statement he said, "France is America's oldest ally, and has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States in the fight against terrorists who threaten our shared security and the world."

"Time and again, the French people have stood up for the universal values that generations of our people have defended." the President added.

Later US Secretary of State John Kerry gave an address in both English and French offering further solidarity and condolences.

"Free expression and a free press are core values. They are universal principles that can be attacked, but never eradicated," Kerry said. "Today's murders are part of a large confrontation...between civilisation itself, and those opposed to the civilised world."

Charlie is not dead

However, life will not be quite the same in France which has experienced a big wake up call. As far as the future for Charlie Hebdo is concerned, it may well continue. The terrorists ran from the scene triumphantly shouting they had killed Charlie Hebdo. But in defiance the phrase "Je Suis Charlie" has trended across social networks. And late Wednesday the Charlie Hebdo website was itself back online after reportedly being down following the attack in Paris. It showed a single image "Je Suis Charlie".



Wikipedia / BBC / Sky News / CNN / France24 / Daily Mail / WSJ

French media: Le Monde / Le Figaro / Liberation / Le Parisien / Paris Match

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

China in 2014 - Repression, protests, terrorism & purges

2014 saw President Xi Jinping forcefully drive China towards being an economic and geopolitical superpower. However, Xi has also brought with him a new authoritarianism, crushing further human rights in the country [tvnewswatch]. 

2014 was marred by several terror attacks. In March, a group of knife-wielding men attacked commuters at Kunming railway station, killing 31 people and wounding 141 [tvnewswatch]. More terror attacks followed throughout the year including an attack on an Urumqi market in May which left 31 dead [Wikipedia / tvnewswatch]. It was in essence the beginning of China's own War on Terror [tvnewswatch]. The attacks prompted an increased security response especially in the capital Beijing [tvnewswatch].

May saw the FBI indict five Chinese military personnel for computer hacking [tvnewswatch].

Security tightened in the run up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre [tvnewswatch]. 

In July, China finally confirmed the widely-anticipated news that former security chief Zhou Yongkang was being investigated for "serious disciplinary violations". He was later arrested and expelled from the Communist Party [BBC]. August saw China tightening policies over the use of foreign tech, banning government departments from using Windows 8 and foreign anti-virus software [tvnewswatch]. There was increased censorship throughout 2014 which culminated in almost total block on Google services [tvnewswatch]. 2014 was also a year of protest with weeks of demonstrations in Hong Kong calling for universal suffrage [tvnewswatch]. The protests eventually dwindled with no clear winners, though Beijing was certainly rattled [tvnewswatch].

[Other reports: BBC / NPR / Guardian / CNN]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

China blocks Gmail, breaks WTO rules

Gmail became almost completely inaccessible within China over Christmas with blocks apparently being placed on mobile apps in addition to the blocks that were already in place on the web version of Google's email service. 

The blocking of foreign Internet services is nothing new in China which has often clamped down on services it deems to be a threat to its national security or a bad influence on society. But the downing of the world's most popular email service has created a stir and raised concerns in many quarters.

Previous blocks

YouTube was blocked in early 2009 after a video purporting to show Chinese police beating Tibetan monks was posted on the video-hosting website. Twitter was blocked later in the same year and other social networks including Facebook have also been closed off to Chinese Internet users.

Google has had a particularly hard time with not only its video-hosting website being blocked but also many of its other products falling foul of the censors. Blogger has been inaccessible for nearly six years while Google Maps, Google Drive [formerly Docs] and Google Search have been hit intermittently over the past 5 years.

The problems intensified in 2010 when Google moved its search engine to Hong Kong after a spat with Chinese authorities concerning censorship and an attempted hack on its systems.

In the past year almost all of Google's services have become inaccessible, although Gmail has mostly been left alone. However in the past few months web users have found Gmail difficult to access. Those using apps on smartphones and tablets seemed unaffected.

Christmas shutdown

But all that changed over the festive period when virtually all access to Gmail became impossible.

Google's Transparency Report, which shows real-time traffic to Google services, displayed a sharp dropoff in traffic to Gmail from China on Friday 26th December. And according to Google, there were no problems in its system. "We've checked and there's nothing wrong on our end," a Singapore-based spokesman for Google said in an email [Guardian].

Denials

Meanwhile China's Foreign Ministry denied any involvement. Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she did not know anything about Gmail being blocked, adding the government was committed to providing a good business environment for foreign investors.

"China has consistently had a welcoming and supportive attitude towards foreign investors doing legitimate business here," she said. "We will, as always, provide an open, transparent and good environment for foreign companies in China." [Reuters]

In a wordy OpEd published in the state run Global Times, there was a broad sense of denial that China was involved in blocking Gmail whilst criticising Western media for pointing a finger at Chinese authorities. Such blame was far too simplistic, the Global Times insisted.

The article insinuated that Google itself might be responsible for the disruption. However, whilst not admitting to China blocking the service, the Global Times said that should the service be censored then "users need to accept the reality of Gmail being suspended in China". [Global Times]

Muscle flexing

There are fears that China is becoming more aggressive as its economy grows. Due to its growing importance in the world economy, few countries or companies are willing to openly criticise China.

"I think the government is just trying to further eliminate Google's presence in China and even weaken its market overseas," said a member of GreatFire.org, a China-based freedom of speech advocacy group. "Imagine if Gmail users might not get through to Chinese clients. Many people outside China might be forced to switch away from Gmail."

Breaking WTO rules

Such a prospect raises many concerns. The so-called Great Firewall now blocks more than 18,000 websites operated across the planet, and is patrolled by tens of thousands of cyber-sentries, according to scholars in the United States and Europe who closely track Beijing's Internet security structures [The Diplomat].

These same experts also assert that many of China's digital barricades violate World Trade Organization rules, and believe that the US and the EU should challenge Beijing before the WTO's dispute resolution council.

When it comes to trade, China has walked carefully, and at every turn attempted to pave the way with its own interests in mind. In 2001 China joined the World Trade Organization, a body that intends to supervise and liberalize international trade. With its entry into the WTO China spoke of a "win-win" and "all-win" situation for China as well as for the rest of the world [WTO]. 

However, China had already spoken of its intention of reshaping the organisation it wanted to join. Indeed at one particularly contentious point in its negotiations to enter the WTO, the Chinese ambassador reportedly thundered, "We know we have to play the game your way now, but in ten years we will set the rules!" [IIE]

It's now more than a decade since that boastful statement, and China is now beginning to make good on its threat.

The walling off of foreign Internet services in favour of its own home-grown, albeit self-censored platforms contravenes WTO principles on free trade and open market access, says Aynne Kokas, an expert on Chinese Internet policies at Rice University in Texas.

Indeed, while China prevents its 600 million Internet users from joining the global Facebook generation its own rising powers on the Web are not only free to operate across the US, but also have raised more than $40 billion on US stock exchanges [The Diplomat].

The WTO and its member states could bring China to task on such matters. However while stakes are high should it be given an ultimatum, the likelihood seems somewhat remote.

Last straw

The block on Gmail could prove to be the last straw and may prompt calls for representations be made to the Chinese government, despite their denials of blocking the service.

The outcry over the latest blockage was swift and angry with business travellers complaining they would no longer be able to access email while in China without jumping through hoops. Their Chinese counterparts have also complained that it will now be more difficult to conduct business internationally [CNN].

For US and European companies hoping to do business in the world's second largest economy, Beijing's approach presents a series of tough choices.

Companies that resist Beijing's censorship, as Google has done, are often punished as a result. Of major US social media platforms, only LinkedIn has been allowed to operate in China, and only after it agreed to block content [CNN / BBC / Guardian / Daily Mail / FTStraits Times].

Gradual restoration of Gmail

On Tuesday there were signs that the block on the world's largest Internet service was being lifted. Users of Gmail via POP and IMAP servers, who had been frustrated for days trying to send and receive email, suddenly saw their inboxes full again, though some were still reporting delays in receiving emails and others said that their service had not returned [FT].  

Whilst the recent Google block may have been a flash in the pan, it is a worrisome sign that networks outside the West cannot be relied upon. Russia is also flexing its muscles and has recently passed a law which forces data about its citizens to be held on local servers. The move has already prompted Google to pull its engineers out of the country and stirred fears of a wider exodus of engineering talent.

Disclosures of widespread Internet surveillance by the National Security Agency has not helped matters. Moreover many countries cite the revelations concerning the NSA, made public by Edward Snowden, as reason to  justify blocks to the free flow of information online. It has also weakened US calls for more liberal policies. "We have lost a lot of moral authority," says Milton Mueller, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University.

Nonetheless, governments and companies in the West must stand up to the growing bullying and protectionism displayed by the likes of China and Russia. Albert Einstein once said, "The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it."

Should the West continue to kowtow to China and others whilst they ride roughshod over WTO rules and other international norms, the situation will only worsen. Indeed in years to come the West may find itself in a position where it has no leverage or influence.

Shaping the Internet

China, in particular, has already put the concept of Internet sovereignty on the table. The proposal refers to the idea that a country has the right to control Internet activity within its own borders, and it is what China refers to as a natural extension of a nation-state's authority to handle its own domestic and foreign affairs [people.com.cn].

Lu Wei, the head of the State Internet Information Office and the director of a powerful cybersecurity strategy group comprised of China's top leaders, has been actively promoting China's plan [Huffington Post].

It is a project that some have speculated China has been planning for some time. Indeed, Internet sovereignty may be just the beginning. There are those who suspect China is planning to remap the Internet in its own image [Does China Hope to Remap the Internet in its Own Image? / Journal of International Media & Entertainment Law PDF]  

Wikipedia: Internet censorship in China / Censorship in ChinaWebsites blocked in China

See also: tvnewswatch: tit-for-tat builds in China trade wars / tvnewswatch: When Google departs China / tvnewswatch: Risks of tech-business in China / tvnewswatch: Trade wars and Internet blocks


tvnewswatch, London, UK