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Friday, February 27, 2015

Should online pornography be banned?

Adults in Britain often appear to have differing attitudes when it comes to pornography. Many may shun it altogether. Others may occasionally buy a top shelf magazine or flick through late night adult programming on television. But for most people wanting to access pornography, the Internet has become the main medium to access such content.

But while there are easily applied and more robust controls concerning magazines, DVDs and broadcast content, there is almost no way to stop access to online pornography for children.

Such ease of access to pornography has prompted parents, politicians and even celebrities to call for curbs on what many say is a corrupting influence.

Restricting access

Whilst some websites showing adult content make an attempt to restrict access to under age persons the method employed simply requires the Internet user to press a button. Indeed most online pornography websites often 'trust' in the 'honesty' of a user to click a "Yes" or "No" to the question "Are you over 18" in order to access such sites or navigate away.

Such age verification in the form of asking site visitors whether they're old enough to legally access the content is pointless. How many lusty 13-year-olds are going to answer truthfully?

Should such simplistic hurdles be applied to television, magazines or DVD purchases there would quite rightly be a public outcry. Yet when there is ever the suggestion of tightening access to online pornography there are suggestions of censorship, an attack on freedom or that one is entering a nanny state.

Nonetheless there is a growing tide of discontent, especially amongst parents that little or nothing is being done to protect children from inappropriate online content.

Difficult task

It is no easy task to block such content. Various search engines offer sophisticated filtering methods to stop content getting through. This is not foolproof however, and does not stop a user entering a web address directly.

Both Google and Bing allow the setting of safe search filters though these may be circumvented simply by opening an 'incognito' window in the Chrome browser for example, or even using a different browser altogether.

To be truly effective pornography needs to be stopped even before it enters the home. Therefore some Internet Service Providers have begun to employ their own filtering and begun blocking content even before it arrives in someone's browser.

This opt-in approach has been suggested by the British prime minister David Cameron many times over the last few years [BBCGuardian]. But his proposal to force ISPs to block pornography by default was widely criticised by the tabloid press despite his claims that access to online pornography was "corroding childhood".

Even the more serious broadsheets labelled the move as "censorship creep" and questioned how far the restrictions might go [Guardian].

But while new laws forcing ISPs to block content were effectively shelved, some of Britain's top broadband providers have voluntarily decided to implement filters with customers needing to make a request to have them removed [tvnewswatch: UK govt reject Internet porn blocks].

ISPs begin opt-in approach

In January Sky announce it was to phase in filtering for all customers applying its so-called Sky Broadband Shield which would block all content deemed unsuitable for persons under the age of 13 [Sky / BBC / tvnewswatch: UK ISPs line up to block pornography].

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

Meanwhile BT said it was contacting its customers to ask them whether they want to have the tool introduced. Virgin Media, which was the last of the major UK ISPs to offer filtering tools, has yet to make the decision to apply them by default [BBC].

Websites change approach

It is not just the ISPs who are beginning to react to government and public concerns over pornography. Some web firms have also changed their approach to hosting such content.

In mid-February the search giant Google announced that it would ban pornographic content on its Blogger platform and make all sites containing such material private [BBC / Guardian / Telegraph / Daily Mail].

And within days of Google's announcement the forum website Reddit also said they would begin to clamp down on those that posted explicit images, though only those they deemed to be "stolen" and posted without the owner's consent [Telegraph / Daily Mail].

There has also been much debate as to whether Twitter, Flickr and Tumblr should also clean up their act. Google's decision to clean up Blogger reportedly prompted many sex bloggers to migrate to Tumblr which is already saturated with pornographic content [Mirror].  

Meanwhile there have been calls for Twitter to purge their platform of the pornography that accounts for more than 500,000 sexual images posted per day, according to a Channel 4 investigation [Channel Four News / Metro].

Twitter have said they have no plans to change their policy, and Google made a U-turn on their decision to ban adult content after what it called "a ton of feedback" [BBC].  

Difficult task

Removing such content from the web or effectively blocking access to it is far from easy.

Automatic filtering software may block most inappropriate material but some pictures may also slip through.

Filters may also block legitimate websites too. Indeed since an automatic filter may not differentiate between the word 'sex' and a word containing the same three letters, some innocent websites have found themselves blocked.

A girl guides website in Essex was just one of many innocent websites blocked by BT's filters, presumably because of the word "girls" and "sex". Meanwhile Talk to Frank, a website that helps educate young people about drugs, was found blocked by mobile network Three [ExpertReviews]. 

In order to prevent overzealous blocking the British government is said to be drawing up a list of sites inadvertently blocked by such filters [BBC].

Many sites on the list are run by charities that aim to educate children and others about health, sex education and drugs issues.

By creating a so-called white list, alongside a black-list of websites, ISPs would be able to filter content more effectively.

But a problem still exists especially where inappropriate content is posted on social networks.

Recently it was discovered that hardcore pornography had been posted on YouTube and was effectively hidden from filters because those that posted the content used unusual keywords [Daily Mail].

Such issues are a major problem for web companies. As already discussed age verification is a nonsense unless qualified with appropriate identity checks which would likely draw criticism from privacy advocates.

And for companies themselves to vet every single post is an almost impossible task. Pictures are particularly difficult to filter out. Twitter for example would have to look through as many as 25 million images a day if it wanted to weed out sexual imagery and other offensive content.

Growing concerns

Kids and porn is an issue that's certainly not going away [Channel Four News]. And while parents are taking steps to prevent their children accessing such material, it's not just kids that are at risk.

In fact one top UK judge made headlines this year after saying that "extreme pornography" caused rapists and murderers to commit crimes.

Lord Chief Justice Thomas of Cwmgiedd made the comments after presiding over two disturbing criminal cases, where both defendants claimed extreme pornography had influenced their actions [Telegraph].

There are also concerns of a rise in so-called porn-addiction. It's a loaded subject. Opponents argue that it can ruin marriages, lead to sexual addiction or other unhealthy behaviours, and encourage sexual aggression. Advocates meanwhile insist that erotica can enhance sex lives, provide a safe recreational outlet and perhaps even reduce the incidence of sexual assault.

But there is a growing feeling that there is far too much pornography, both soft and hardcore, invading all corners of life.

One unlikely critic this week posted a video on YouTube describing pornography as "icebergs of filth floating through every house" due to the introduction of WiFi [Metro].

However, this wasn't a Tory MP or a message from a child protection society. This was a statement from comedian Russell Brand who likened pornography to a narcotic.

In the video, made for Fight The New Drug campaign "dedicated to educating and raising awareness on the harmful effects of pornography using only science, facts, and personal accounts," Brand discusses the pitfalls of pornography and why he would never watch it if he had full control over his body.

Whilst Brand stops short of calling for a ban on porn, he like many others raises the question concerning the saturation of sexual imagery in our society.

There is no immediate solution but it is perhaps clear that the war on pornography is heating up.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Shopping centre terror threat should be “taken seriously”

Lone wolf terrorists could be planning to target shopping centres in the West according to US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. But whilst he referred to the threat as something that should be "taken seriously", other officials have downplayed the warning as "not credible".

There appears also to be a clear security response to the threat which could leave potential targets even more vulnerable.

"New phase" of terrorism

Commenting on threats made by the Somali-based group al-Shabab, which released a video urging its followers to carry out attacks on shopping centres in the US, Canada and the UK, Johnson said the threat represented a "new phase" of terrorism.

Attacks on shopping malls are not unprecedented. The al Qaeda linked group Al-Shabab was responsible for the 2013 attack on Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi that killed 67 people [Wikipedia - Westgate shopping mall attack].

Naming targets

In the 77 minute video, the fighter - wearing a camouflage jacket with a headscarf covering his face - threatens action and refers to the group's 2013 siege on Kenya's Westgate Mall.

Specifically mentioned was the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, as a possible target, prompting the massive shopping centre to conduct two drills Monday. He also calls for attacks on several shopping centres in Europe including the Westfield shopping centres in Stratford, East London and White City in West London.

The Forum des Halles, a large underground shopping centre in Paris, and Les Quatre Temps in the north-western suburb of the city, were also specifically mentioned.

But other large shopping centres could also be at risk - indeed more so given they may be overlooked by security officials.

For example Lakeside shopping on the outskirts of London or Bluewater in Kent may be just as vulnerable. In fact Bluewater itself has been targeted before [Telegraph]. And in 2007 five men linked to al-Qaeda were jailed for life for a bomb plot targeting the shopping mall and other targets [BBC].

Threat "not credible"

But despite the drills and comments made by the US Homeland Security Secretary, some officials have expressed scepticism concerning al-Shabab's threat.

"Our view is it's propaganda," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said of the video. "There's not a credible threat against malls."

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security also dismissed an imminent threat saying on Sunday that so-called "homegrown violent extremists" were "not likely to respond immediately" to the weekend call for attacks [ABC].

Imminent or not, the potential threat has raised concerns about how to protect the public in such relatively soft targets as shopping malls.

Defence and self defence

The debate has focused particularly on guns and whether members of the public might seek to protect themselves by ignoring bans on concealed weapons in such places.

Ronald Noble, the secretary-general of Interpol noted two means of protecting people from mass shootings. "One is to say we want an armed citizenry; you can see the reason for that. Another is to say the enclaves [should be] so secure that in order to get into the soft target, you're going to have to pass through extraordinary security."

It i virtually impossible to stop killers from getting weapons, Noble says, adding that "you can't have armed police forces everywhere."

"It makes citizens question their views on gun control," he noted. "You have to ask yourself, 'Is an armed citizenry more necessary now than it was in the past, with an evolving threat of terrorism?'"

Since at least 1950, all but two public mass shootings in America have taken place where general citizens are banned from carrying guns. In Europe, there have been no exceptions. Every mass public shooting has occurred in a gun-free zone since the general public are mostly prohibited from owning such weapons.

But while there is a growing anti-gun lobby in America, and a blanket ban across much of Europe, John R. Lott Jr, a former chief economist for the United States Sentencing Commission and president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, suggests that gun free zones are a magnet for criminals and terrorists.

Lott points to a number of examples including the movie theatre shooting in the Aurora, Colorado, when  James Eagan Holmes burst in killing 12 people and injuring 70 others [Wikipedia - 2012 Aurora shooting].

Of seven theatres showing the "Batman" movie premiere within 20 minutes of the suspect's apartment, only one banned permitted concealed handguns. The suspect didn't go to the closest or the largest, Lott observes, but to the one that banned self-defence [Chicago Tribune - opinion].

America may be easier to convince, and some may simply change their habits, avoiding gun free zones or spending less time in them.

Europe 'vulnerable'

However, in Europe the public have no such luxury. In most European countries gun ownership is almost entirely banned and even those who are allowed to own them are not permitted to carry them in public. In Britain even the carrying of knives is banned.

Thus many European shopping malls are particularly soft targets for lone wolf terrorists who could carry out an attack with little or no fear of being stopped.

Whilst there is often an obvious security presence in British shopping malls, such personnel are armed with little more than a radio. Furthermore they are hardly experienced, or would unlikely be brave enough, to tackle a terrorist brandishing an AK-47.

Security response

As yet there has been no word on whether armed police might be deployed or stationed at such venues in Britain, although the police said they were aware of the video and in a process of assessing the contents.

In France the number of security guards at the two named shopping centres in Paris has been increased as a result of the video threats. And management at the two malls are said to be in permanent contact with police headquarters in Paris and the department of Haute-Seine as well as the interior ministry.

The Mall of America said it was also taking "extra security precautions" in light of the threat, though not all would be immediately visible.


More reports: BBC / Guardian / Telegraph / Daily Mail / The Local.fr / 

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, February 20, 2015

“Non-doms” & “buy-to-leave” investors are killing London

Vast swathes of London are being bought up by foreign investors and leaving parts of the capital like ghost town. And as populations dwindle in parts of the city, local businesses are seeing a decline in trade forcing some to shut up shop.

The latest victim to the growing trend of "buy-to-leave" was one of London's best loved French restaurants, Racine, which finally shut its doors after a little over 12 years serving up such classics as côte de boeuf with Béarnaise sauce and veal chop and Roquefort butter.

Despite being a favourite of the singer Bryan Ferry and the American actor and producer Harvey Keitel, such kudos was not enough to pay the bills. Owner and chef patron Henry Harris said he had made the decision largely because of a falling clientele as well as rising rents and other costs.

"Non-doms" and "buy-to-leave" investors

"The non-doms have bought up large chunks of central London and then only live here for certain months of the year," Harris says. "It is very noticeable in Knightsbridge and South Kensington" which he describes as resembling a ghost town.

So-called non-doms, or non-domiciled residents, have changed the face of London and other parts of the country. There is also the so-called "buy-to-leave" investor who is helping create ghost towns.

According to research consultancy Molior, in developments of more than 20 units across London, over 70% of new-build sales in the £10,700 to £16,000 per square metre range were to investors, with some "held as permanently available hotel suites" by the owners.

Some property investments are even making money for their owners before they've even been built. A flat in Battersea in West London made the headlines in November after it was revealed to have been bought for £1 million in the spring but was later put on the market for £1.5 million less than 8 months later despite not even being built.

Rising property prices

The effects of all this buying up is not only creating ghost towns, it's also driving up property prices for ordinary Londoners who are struggling to find affordable homes in the capital.

And as property prices rise many families are finding themselves unable to climb aboard the property ladder. This has in turn increased the numbers of people on council house waiting lists.

Tackling the problem

The situation concerning housing has become so serious that it is likely to become a key issue in the upcoming general election in May.

There are concerns about private rental costs and a lack of housing stock, particularly council housing. But despite such concerns, none of the political parties have made housing central to their campaign.

Nonetheless there are indications that both central and local government are beginning to take notice of the effects foreign investors are having on the property market.

Wealthy foreigners who are long-term residents of the UK may now face an annual charge of up to £90,000 and higher taxes on homes held through companies after chancellor George Osborne said they should pay "a fair contribution".

However there are fears that this could scare off much needed foreign investment. Indeed, the number of non-dom residents dropped by almost 16,000 in the year following the Labour government's announcement of a plan to bring in a £30,000 levy in 2008.

Some local authorities are also beginning to act against so-called "buy-to-leave" investors. One London council plans to impose heavy restrictions on any new property purchased solely as an investment and left unoccupied, with punitive consequences if breached.

There is even a threat of jail for transgressors. Under the proposals, put forward by Islington council, property found to be unoccupied for more than three months would be subject to legal action leading to injunctions, the breaking of which could lead to a fine, the seizure of the empty property or even prison.

However critics say the proposals are merely a cosmetic exercise, designed to look enticing to voters. Moreover, given the rules will only apply to new homes the fear is that existing properties will become even more desirable and push prices higher and further out of reach.

Growing problem

With an ever growing number of people migrating further away from London due to rising property prices in the capital, something needs to be done at a state level rather than at local level.

Whilst there is a shortage of hard evidence, the indications are that "buy to leave" is an issue. It may however be localised to certain areas and associated with certain types of property, specifically city centre apartment blocks. Indeed it is mainly confined to large cities.

There are around 635,000 empty homes in Britain according to the latest statistics from the government, and around 72,100 in London alone. Many have been bought up by Chinese, Arab and Russian investors.

But while the UK government says it is committed to helping local people bring empty homes back into use, it has not announced specific measures to deal with so-called "buy to leave" properties.

Of course property might be left for any number of reasons. But all such situations should be tackled lest many parts of the country be left virtual ghost towns and could have a detrimental effect upon investors too. After all who would want to buy an apartment or house in an area where few people live and where all the shops have shut?

Further reading: propertyinvestmentsuk / Buy to Leave Empty [PDF] / BBC / Guardian / FT / Telegraph / Standard / New Statesman / Guardian / Standard / Sky News / Sky News / BBC documentary Inside Out / Inside Out clip [YouTube]

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Outrage after ISIL burns Jordanian pilot to death

There has been shock, outrage and condemnation after Islamic State militants released a video that showed the barbaric murder of a Jordanian pilot. But the horrific killing has not managed to bring all nations together in a united effort to destroy the terror group.

Previous video style

This was not a simple video of Jihad John ranting in the desert that the terror group had previously released. The new video was something entirely different from what had been seen before.

Previous execution videos released by ISIL usually consisted of a short propaganda message followed by a statement by both the victim and an ISIL militant who  has become known as Jihad John.

After the political rant Jihad John would raise his knife to the hostage's throat at which point the video would fade to black. The only confirmation the hostage had indeed been killed was a subsequent shot showing the decapitated victim.

These videos, despite holding back on the actual execution itself, were extremely shocking and prompted a severe response from the West to degrade and destroy the terror group.

There have been successes in terms of degrading ISIL, but the terror group remains strong and they continue to taunt their enemies with execution videos.

Japanese hostages killed

The latest series of such video taunts were the murders of two Japanese citizens. Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto [BBC].

Their killings prompted anger in Japan and from the Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who said Japan "would not give in to terrorism" and that he would expand his support to countries fighting ISIL.

Each video has come with demands. Some have merely come with a demand for the West to stop their attacks. But recently the terror group has changed tack and demanded large sums of money or the release of terror suspects.

Refusal to give in to demands

Japan refused to bow to ISIL's demand for money and Jordan similarly backed down from a prisoner exchange. There had been calls from Jordan for ISIL to offer evidence their captured airman was still alive before negotiating any prisoner swap.

However no evidence was forthcoming, and it is believed the Jordanian pilot had already been killed weeks before demands were even made to Jordan.

The brutality of his death has enflamed Jordanians, some of whom have questioned the country's role in the US led war on ISIL.

Professional video production

The slickly produced video was far removed from previous releases. This was a 25 minute propaganda film, in Arabic, aimed primarily at the Jordanian people.

Complete with hi-tech graphics, music and tight editing, this was produced almost to Hollywood standards.

But this went beyond the the kinds of propaganda seen in the past. In the 1940s the Nazis used film to dramatic effect, to garner support for the party and to stir up emotions.

One such film was The Eternal Jew [Video] which likened Jews to rats. This was shocking in its time and went far beyond Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda film Triumph of the Will [Video].

China has used propaganda films to push its message about Tibet claiming that its 'liberation' was to save the territory from serfdom [Video].

The propaganda now emanating from groups such as ISIL is in a different league altogether. Less intellectually constructed, propaganda films coming from terror groups tend to veer more towards shock value.

Media battle

Ayman al-Zawahiri,  the current leader of al-Qaeda, is quoted as saying that "We are in a media battle for the hearts and minds of our umma [community] of Muslims."

In this battle, media has been exploited extensively by terror groups. In the Iraq war hostages found themselves the unwitting stars of execution videos which were little more than short clips showing the victim being forced to read a statement before being killed, usually by a cut to the throat.

ISIL have gone further, with slick editing, video graphics and a well constructed script. But the core of the videos have centred around the shock of a hostage being murdered.

New low

The latest video hit a new low as the terror group set fire to a captured airman. Held in a cage, the man is doused in petrol before a masked ISIL militant ignites it. The horror, which lasts several minutes, and filmed from several angles plays out to Islamic music whilst the screams of the victim are heard in the background.

As he collapses to his death a digger then drops hardcore upon the cage burying the victim. The video then fades to a graphic calling for other 'crusaders' to be put to death.

Media reaction

Most Western media have stopped short of showing the video or even still images, not wanting to air the terror propaganda. CNN, the BBC, Sky News and Al Jazeera all made the decision not to show any images, though in Jordan clips from the film were shown repeatedly on news broadcasts prompting anger and revenge for the abhorrent murder. Fox News also made the decision to post the entire video on its website [Guardian].

Newspapers took a different tack with some showing images of the Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh prior to his execution, though none showed his actual immolation.

The Daily Mail described the killing as "22 minutes of sickening savagery" adding that the "execution video has reached a truly depraved new low" [Daily Mail].

Of the video Piers Morgan said, "It was just as repulsive and sickening" and "truly the worst thing I have ever had to witness." [Daily Mail].

Morgan says he was "glad" to have watched it. Glad because it had revealed "exactly what these monsters are capable of", that they "have no limits, no humanity, no semblance of any kind of soul."

"Sadists"

It reinforced and affirmed, if there were any doubt remaining, that these were "utter sadists".

"We all have to feel the same kind of unquantifiable, collective horror everyone felt when the full scale of the Nazi concentration camps was revealed," Morgan writes.

Hitler's Nazis and ISIL shared similar aspirations and values, he further asserts. "And as with the Nazis, the world must now come together to rout and destroy them."

Fear and anger

There is certainly a boiling anger. But there appears to be no cohesive plan [CNN]. Indeed some countries appear to have given into the fear as it emerges the UAE halted airstrikes after the capture of the Jordanian pilot [Guardian].

One academic has described ISIL's latest propaganda video as part of an asymmetry of fear [BBC]. Questions abound over how or why ISIL could do this. To understand their mindset requires a brief examination of Islamic, or Sharia, law.

Eye for an eye

ISIL believes in a principle known as "qisas" which, in its broadest terms, is the law of equal retaliation. Put another way, it is the Islamic equivalent of "lex talionis", or the doctrine of an eye for an eye.

Jordan retaliated in kind as it put to death the very individuals that ISIL had demanded be released [BBC]. But there are fears, especially in the West, that by going down such a route lowers themselves to the same standards of the enemy.

But as the psychological war and barbarism continues there is no clear consensus with how to deal with the threat. Jordan has vowed an "earth-shattering" response, and Safi al-Kasasbeh, the pilot's father, has called for the Jordanian government to do "more than just executing prisoners".

The blood of his son was the blood of the nation, he said, "and the blood of the nation must be avenged." He also called for ISIL to be eliminated completely.

Weakening coalition

There are few that would disagree with his call. But despite recent terror attacks seen in Australia, France and elsewhere, there is little stomach for an all out war against ISIL.

PM David Cameron would face a difficult task convincing the British public to launch an invasion, and it might well amount to political suicide in an election year. Barack Obama too would be reticent as the US also approaches the 2016 election. There are also concerns that some Arab partners are reticent in bolstering any military efforts.

The question facing everyone is how bad does ISIL's brutality have to get before the fight becomes more than a few targeted drone strikes.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Friday, January 30, 2015

China: business challenges & tightening grip on net

China is facing economic and business challenges as overspending and overbuilding take its toll. The country also faces a battle placating tech companies and the country's 640 million Internet users as it introduces more draconian regulations.

Threat to growth

China may have become the world's largest economy - by some standards -  but a credit-fuelled construction binge threatens its future growth.

China's official growth rate of 7.4% in 2014 was at its slowest pace since 1990, a time when the country still faced sanctions in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

The International Monetary Fund has lowered its growth forecast for China for 2015 from 7.1% to 6.8% and predicts the country's gross domestic product will grow slower than India next year for the first time in decades.

The effects of a China slowdown could spread far beyond China's borders. The "slowdown in China could turn into a disorderly unwinding of financial vulnerabilities with considerable implications for the global economy," the World Bank warned this month.

Global impacts

In fact there are already signs of an impact reflected in global commodity prices, including oil, and in the stuttering performance of economies in Brazil, Germany, Australia and much of Asia, which are all increasingly reliant on Chinese demand.

Overspending, especially at a local level, and often overlooked by Beijing has not helped matters. Building projects, funded by enormous loans, have certainly kept China's economy moving. It has kept millions in work too from construction workers to their suppliers and support industries. But the chickens may be coming home to roost, since all debts have to be repaid. In essence spending to control debt is unsustainable [WSJ / FT].

"Intrusive" rules on foreign firms

While China sits back to take stock on its growing debt and slowing economy it has another challenge. Newly implemented regulations require technology firms such as Cisco or Microsoft to hand over source code and incorporate backdoors in products supplied to China's banking and financial industry.

The US Chamber of Commerce and other groups have called the rules "intrusive" and business groups are now seeking "urgent discussions" with the Chinese authorities.

The new rules, laid out in a 22-page document approved at the end of 2014, also require firms to submit to invasive audits and are just latest in a series of policies designed to strengthen cybersecurity in China.

But many tech companies are not comfortable with the new rules, which many see as yet more protectionist measures designed to oust foreign competition.

The US Chamber of Commerce has called for "urgent discussion and dialogue" about what they said was a "growing trend" toward policies that cite cybersecurity in requiring companies to use only technology products and services developed and controlled by Chinese firms [NYT / BBC / Guardian / WSJ].

Caught between a Rock and a Hard Place

Many Western tech companies might well baulk at revealing their source code and other data. But to not do so risks losing a market worth billions of dollars.

According to the American market research firm the International Data Corporation [IDC] China was expected to spend some $465 billion in 2015 on information and communications technology and that the expansion of China's tech market would account for 43% of the worldwide tech-sector growth.

And according to Frank Gens, the IDC's chief analyst, the main driver of ICT spending growth was the sheer size of China's market and its growing number of Internet users estimated in 2015 to be around 680 million, more than two-and-a-half times the number of users in the United States.

Tough challenges

But foreign firms doing business in China face other headaches too as authorities tighten Internet censorship.

In the last few months there have been sporadic several turnings of the screw with Google's GMail and other Internet services being almost completely blocked,

But authorities ramped up censorship even more this week as they began to target VPN's, or Virtual Private Networks, which many people and businesses use to circumvent Internet blocks.

Slowing legitimate commerce

"One unfortunate result of excessive control over email and Internet traffic is the slowing down of legitimate commerce, and that is not something in China's best interest," said James Zimmerman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. "In order to attract and promote world-class commercial enterprises, the government needs to encourage the use of the Internet as a crucial medium for the sharing of information and ideas to promote economic growth and development."

However China seems unrepentant and appears to ignore any criticism of its control of the Internet. In fact one official claimed the blocking of VPNs was to do with "Internet safety" [China Daily].  

Wen Ku, a top official from the ministry, said that VPN providers must abide by Chinese laws to operate in the country and reiterated the government's commitment to the 'healthy development of the internet sector'. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has requested that VPN providers register with the government agency. However given that the main function of a VPN is to circumvent the Great Firewall, this seems unlikely and indeed none have done so thus far [CNN / NYT / Time].

In November last year China blocked access to hundreds of websites just days before they held the World Internet Conference [Guardian]. 

Premier Li Keqiang seemingly did not see the irony nor the contradictions as he hailed the Internet as one of the greatest inventions in human history and claimed China was a lucrative market for all the global Internet giants [Xinhua].

The stifling of the Internet hasn't just angered expats and foreign businesses, it is also annoying Chinese students, academics and researchers who say their work is directly affected by the blocks.

In recent weeks, a number of Chinese academics have gone online to express their frustrations, particularly over their inability to reach Google Scholar, a search engine that provides links to millions of scholarly papers from around the world.

"Living in the Middle Ages"

"It's like we're living in the Middle Ages," Zhang Qian, a naval historian, complained on the microblog service Sina Weibo.

Meanwhile a biologist also criticised the policy of blocking VPNs and legitimate websites. "For a nation that professes to respect science and wants to promote scientific learning, such barriers suggest little respect for the people actually engaged in science."

This week Zhang Jianguo, director of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, bemoaned the nation's shortage of scientists and technology entrepreneurs and beckoned foreign experts to come to China [China Daily].

But the very nature of China's Internet may dissuade many expats form relocating, Avery Goldstein, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Pennsylvania, says. Indeed, the growing online constraints could also compel ambitious young Chinese studying abroad to look elsewhere for jobs.

China has yet to see an exodus of experts or businesses thus far. Nor are there obvious signs of a slow down of foreign experts heading to the country. But should online restrictions worsen that situation may change and may slow China's economy further still.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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