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].


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, 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 [].

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

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A week of terror before Christmas

It's supposed to be the season of goodwill to all mankind. But instead of love and understanding the week prior to Christmas 2014 was marred with terror attacks and threats.

Terror at the coffee shop

The week of terror began in Sydney, Australia when a lone gunman, Man Haron Monis, took nine customers and eight employees hostage at the Lindt chocolate café in the heart of the central business district.

Early on, hostages were seen holding a jihadist black flag up against the window of the café, with the Islamic shahādah creed written on it in Arabic. Initially some media mistook it for the flag used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] which the gunman later demanded be brought to him during the siege. He had also demanded to talk to the Australian prime minister but he was conceded no demands and the siege came to a violent end after nearly 18 hours leaving the hostage taker and two others dead.

The crisis began at 09:44 local time on Monday 15th December [22:44 UTC, 14th December] but at around 02:00 on the 16th December, a "very loud bang" was heard and between five and seven additional hostages fled from the building prompting police and SWAT to storm the shop. Monis was declared killed in the ensuing gunfight and two of the hostages, Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old barrister, and 34-year-old Tori Johnson, the manager of the café, were also killed. Both were declared as heroes by the Australian media for their selfless actions which helped bring the siege to an end [Independent]. Tori Johnson was reportedly shot when trying to wrestle a gun from Sydney hostage-taker Monis as he appeared to fall asleep. Meanwhile Katrina Dawson was killed after trying to defend her pregnant colleague, Julie Taylor, according to reports.

The attack left Australia in shock. It had come only weeks after Australia had raised its alert level to "High" following a number of arrests related to a possible terror plot in September.

Authorities said that the suspects were planning random executions. Police said at the time that they had uncovered information that suggested Islamic extremists were plotting to capture members of the public, drape them in the Islamic State flag and behead them.

The "demonstration killings" would have been filmed and then posted on the Internet, according to Australian media reports. The raids, involving at least 800 heavily-armed officers, led to 15 arrests. [See also: tvnewswatch: ISIL censored videos still invoke fear / BBC / Sky News / CNN / ABC / Mashable ]

Monis did not get as far as executing his hostages, though he had earlier forced several of them to read statements which he then posted on the Internet. Despite only two deaths and a few slight injuries the attack left Australia in shock, compounded further by the fact it was the country's first major terror attack [Wikipedia].

School massacre

Barely had the dust settled in Sydney than terrorists launched a horrific attack on a school in Pakistan. Seven members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan [TTP] entered the school and opened fire on school staff and children. Of the 145 people killed, 132 were schoolchildren, ranging between eight and eighteen years of age.

The attack was widely condemned around the world by religious leaders and politicians alike. The attack also galvanised many people in Pakistan who called on their government to prevent further atrocities [Wikipedia].

Cyber attacks

At the end of the week came further cyber attacks on Sony Pictures along with threats of 9/11 style attacks on cinemas should they go ahead with the release of the satirical film lambasting the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

The Interview was pulled from cinemas prompting much criticism of Sony for giving into terrorism. However within days Sony declared they would not abandon the release and would look at different ways of distribution [BBC / Wikipedia].

Meanwhile President Barack Obama hinted at placing North Korea on the state terror list in response to the hacking attacks on Sony which have widely been blamed on the rogue state.

The war of words continued over the weekend with North Korea denying it was involved and calling for the US to take part in what it called a joint investigation into the cyberattacks.

Threats & responses

Following harsh criticism from the US president, North Korea upped its rhetoric warning of serious consequences should the US continue with its threats.

By late Sunday North Korea issued a new threat against the United States and accused President Barack Obama of "recklessly" spreading rumours that Pyongyang was behind last month's devastating cyberattack on Sony Pictures.

The long statement from the powerful National Defense Commission warned of strikes against the White House, Pentagon and "the whole US mainland, that cesspool of terrorism." [BBC / Guardian / Fox / Wikipedia]

Such rhetoric is nothing new from the small dictatorship. And its threats were largely ignored given the country's relatively small militaristic capability. While North Korea does possess nuclear weapons and a large standing army, it is mostly a threat to the local area rather than the US as a whole.

Meanwhile the US has few options itself. Obama's declaration that North Korea might be added to the list of states that support terrorism might prove difficult. Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba are currently  on the list. However a main criteria is that the State Department must determine that a country has repeatedly supported acts of international terrorism, a definition that traditionally has referred to violent, physical attacks rather than hacking.

Other options, which include sanctions targeting high-level North Korean officials and retaliatory cyberattacks, are limited. The US already has trade penalties in place and there is no appetite for military action especially in a region which is already very tense with ongoing disputes between China and its neighbours as well as continuing tensions between North and South Korea.

China for its part condemned the cyberattacks but sided with its North Korean ally saying there was no proof its neighbour was to blame [Reuters].

French lone wolf attacks

The attacks continued until only days before Christmas. In France President urged the public to keep calm after an apparent terror attack in which a man yelling "God is great" in Arabic drove into a crowd of shoppers in Dijon injuring 11, two seriously [BBC]. 

It followed another attack in which a man attacked police officers with a large knife. Police in central France shot dead the man who wielded the knife while shouting "God is great!" [BBC]

On Monday police were investigating yet another incident in which a van was driven into pedestrians at a Christmas market in Nantes. Ten people were reported to have been injured, five seriously [BBC / Daily Mail].

The same day a garbage truck "drove at speed" through shoppers in central Glasgow in Scotland, killing 6 and injuring several others. The police said the cause of the crash was not immediately clear, but said it was not a terrorism-related incident, and "nothing more sinister" than a fatal traffic accident. However, given the fact that it bore a striking similarity to the incidents in France there was some initial speculation the crash might have been a deliberate attack [Daily Mail].

North Korea hit by retaliatory outages

Meanwhile, North Korea found itself under cyberattack with its Internet services brought down for several hours on Monday. Officials in Washington would not comment on any US involvement in the outages, however the White House had earlier said it would launch a proportional response to a cyberattack on Sony Pictures [BBC].

The outage came within hours of another cyberattack which was also blamed on North Korea. In the latest breach, designs and manuals of a South Korean nuclear plant were leaked, although the reactors' innermost networks were not compromised.

Calls for calm

After the spate of recent attacks politicians have called on the general public to remain calm. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Tuesday that security would be stepped up and asked that people not "give into fear" [SMH].

However, it will be difficult to take such advice especially given the the seriousness of the recent attacks. The ongoing threat seemed clear as Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said there had been a "heightened level of terror chatter" since the siege at a Sydney cafe last week, hardly the pre-message one wants to hear [BBC].

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

UK: Cost of living falls as fuel & food prices drop

Christmas 2014 is proving to be a much cheaper for many consumers as lower fuel prices has also brought down the price of other commodities including food and other goods.

Cut price fuel

Supermarkets have led the way in cutting the cost of petrol at the pumps. In September, Asda's petrol price was as high as 126.7p a litre, with diesel at 129.7p a litre. However recent reductions have seen Asda customers paying no more than 110.7p a litre for petrol, with the company's diesel costing 117.7p a litre.

Other outlets have also slashed prices. In January was diesel was priced between 134.9p and 142.9p a litre at many forecourts. However, there are few outlets charging more than 130.9p a litre with petrol prices significantly cheaper.

According to the RAC the average price for a litre of petrol was currently 116.9p, nearly 14p a litre cheaper than at the start of the year. Meanwhile, diesel was nearly 16p cheaper at 122.33p a litre now, compared to an average price of 138.24p in January.

£1 a litre predicted

But prices could fall even further with some suggesting that petrol may drop to only a pound per litre.

The RAC has said that petrol could dip below £1 a litre in the new year, which would take prices at the pumps to their lowest level since the end of May 2009. Not everyone is so optimistic. AA president Edmund King was more cautious saying crude prices would need to drop significantly to bring forecourt prices so low. "With duty on each litre of fuel at 57.95p and VAT around 20p, plus the pound at its lowest level against the dollar for three months, it would take another almighty drop in crude prices to reach £1 a litre at the pumps."

"Drivers would love to see £1 per litre but a white Christmas might be a better bet at the moment. However, for canny drivers there are still variations in pump prices of up to 5p litre in the same town. So shop around and make the most of the lower prices."

The Petrol Retailers' Association have also dashed such hopes with chairman Brian Madderson saying the notion of £1 a litre "stretching imagination too much."

"Oil would have to fall to $25 a barrel for us to get to £1 a litre, when even the Saudis would wince. I would be very surprised if we saw it fall below $50 a barrel, even in the best case," Madderson added.

Nonetheless, there have been dramatic falls in the price of crude over the past few months. Oil has fallen by more than 46% from a high of $115.06 a barrel in June. The slide is a result of a plentiful supply of oil from the US, where shale oil produced by fracking has transformed output, and from the mainly Middle East Opec group of oil producers, led by Saudi Arabia, which have refused to reduce production to push up the price.

Motorists have certainly seen the effect of lower fuel prices. "Filling up the car is dramatically cheaper than a few months ago," one driver filling up his Jeep at a Texaco service station said. "Back in June it cost me over £70 for full tank but now it's closer to £50."

Effects on inflation, prices

The falling price of petrol is has had a knock on effect in other areas. Economists believe the lower oil prices will contribute to a fall in inflation.

Tumbling oil prices, cheaper petrol and falling food costs has already pushed inflation to its lowest level in more than a decade in November.

In a welcome boost in the run up to Christmas, shoppers are finding extra benefits of falling oil prices. With shipping and manufacturing costs down, so the prices of goods in the shops have fallen.

Indeed some experts suggest that households in Britain could continue to benefit from falling inflation in the coming months, with some predicting that price rises, as measured by the consumer prices index (CPI), could fall to 0.5% next month. This would represent the joint lowest rate of inflation since records began in 1989.

November's figures showed food and non-alcoholic beverages fell by 1.7% on last year, the steepest drop since June 2002. Meanwhile according to figures published by the British Retail Consortium food prices have fallen for the first time in at least eight years, promising lower bills at Christmas and into the New Year for many shoppers.

The drop in prices comes amid fierce competition between all the major supermarkets under pressure from German brands Aldi and Lidl.

The two German supermarkets now command a record 8.6% slice of the supermarket sector. Sales at Aldi soared by 22.3% on last year, while Lidl saw an 18.3% surge. Asda, Morrisons and Sainsbury's have suffered declines though the more upmarket supermarket Waitrose has enjoyed a 6% rise in sales, extending a run of growth dating back to February 2009.

In order to entice customers big supermarkets are bombarding families with money off vouchers for food and fuel in a bid to get them through the doors.

Consumers have also benefitted from a flurry of pre-Christmas sales. Black Friday and Cyber Monday kicked things off in early December but some retailers have continued to slash prices further as the festive season approaches.

There are certainly bargains to be had with technology goods in particular being sold at knock-down prices. For those with surplus cash there isn't a better time to spend.

With unemployment also falling and new data suggesting much of the Eurozone economy growing there will be many having something to celebrate as 2015 approaches.

Not everyone is benefiting from lower oil prices however. Venezuela loses around $700 million for every dollar drop on the price of a barrel of oil. Russia has also lost out too. Russia requires oil to be set at around $110 per barrel just to balance its economy. Sanctions, low oil prices and other factors have severely impacted on Russia over the last year and attempts to support the financial system has resulted in higher interest rates and rising prices.

Reports: Sky News / BBC / Daily Mail / This is Money / Telegraph / This is Money / Scotsman / Daily Mail / NYT

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Saturday, December 13, 2014

New laws are breaking up the Internet

There has been a continuing debate as to whether the spelling of the Internet should have an initial capital letter. Given that in general terms there is only one Internet the argument is surely academic, and ICANN - the body that dishes out web addresses - seems to have the opinion that the Internet is a proper noun.

But there is a gradual erosion of the Internet as more and more countries apply restrictions which are effectively creating many different internets and even intranets.

China, Iran, Cuba and North Korea are often cited when it comes to Internet restrictions. But there are a growing number of western democracies that are also imposing restrictions.

"Right to be forgotten"

In the past year Europe has seen dramatic changes to what might be searchable on the web after a so-called "right to be forgotten", ruling imposed by the European Parliament, forced search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing to remove links from search results about aggrieved individuals.

The issue arose from the desires of some individuals to "determine the development of his life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past."

However, the law has essentially created a two tier internet where those outside Europe can search for something that is unsearchable within the EU [Wikipedia]

Copyright issues

In the last few months legislators in parts of Europe focused on Google News which they said infringed the copyright of publishers. The search giant eventually decided to stop publishing such snippets in October [WSJ]. But while Google certainly benefits from its news portal, so too do publisher since traffic is often directed to their site from the Google News page.

Indeed Germany's biggest news publisher Axel Springer has since scrapped a move to block Google from running snippets of articles from its newspapers, after finding that traffic to its sites had plunged.

A Google spokesman in Germany praised the turnaround and said, "The decision shows that Google is making a significant contribution to the economic success of news publishers." [Reuters

While German publications made a U-turn in Spain legislators brought in new laws which forced

This week Google will shut down its Spanish News service in response to a new law that obliges anyone to pay publications for displaying even the smallest snippet of an article [BBC].

Spanish publishers angry

Whilst lawmakers may be happy at their victory, Spanish publications may see a sharp decline in web traffic. In fact such a prospect has already prompted Spanish newspapers to beg their government to drop the proposals which come into force in January 2015.

Following Google's announcement that it would shut down its Spanish version of Google News, the Spanish Newspaper Publishers' Association [AEDE] issued a statement saying that Google News was "not just the closure of another service given its dominant market position" but recognised that Google's decision "will undoubtedly have a negative impact on citizens and Spanish businesses".

"Given the dominant position of Google [which in Spain controls almost all of the searches in the market and is an authentic gateway to the Internet], AEDE requires the intervention of Spanish and community authorities, and competition authorities, to effectively protect the rights of citizens and companies". [The Spain Report / TechDirt]

Google maintains that it makes no money directly from its news aggregator which shows no advertising. Where it may make money is through adsense advertisements shown on the news websites to which it directs its users.

"This new legislation requires every Spanish publication to charge services like Google News for showing even the smallest snippet from their publications, whether they want to or not. As Google News itself makes no money [we do not show any advertising on the site] this new approach is simply not sustainable," the tech company said in a statement.

Google may lose out since traffic to Spanish news sites will undoubtedly decline. However, the news websites themselves may also a markedly downward decline in revenue. It could be devastating to such websites as those who pay to advertise directly on the said website withdraw from any commercial deals it may have with publications. After all paying to advertise on a site that gets little traffic would make no financial sense.

The Spanish legal move has been branded a "suicide pact" which "invited Google to pull the trigger" by some web commentators [The Spain Report]. Others have called Google's response has been referred to as a "thermonuclear response", but understandable given the circumstances. Furthermore there are fears the Spanish law could even affect the likes of Facebook and Twitter [The Spain Report].

Russia targets western tech companies

Meanwhile in Russia new laws targeting foreign tech companies looks set to change the way Russians use the web forever.

The new law, which bans companies from storing data about its citizens on servers outside Russia, may see its Internet users effectively banned from using the likes of Google services, Facebook, Skype, Adobe Photoshop and even the buying of airline tickets from foreign carriers.

Google has already responded saying that it plans to move engineers out of its office in Russia. Whilst the firm said it "remains committed" to Google users in the country the move will likely have a dramatic effect on the way the company operates inside Russia.

Should other companies obey the letter of the law it would deprive Russians of the opportunity to use Facebook or even buy plane tickets from foreign airlines through their websites. And whilst tech companies have been vague in their response to the new legislation it is clear the Internet won't be quite the same as other tech firms announced their departure.

Adobe Systems, maker of Photoshop and other popular software, announced that it was closing its Russia office [Vedomosti].

Microsoft has yet to make any announcement on how the new laws may affect its Russian user base, however given that Skype also keeps its users' personal data on servers outside Russia, Russian citizens may also be deprived of the popular Internet telephone service [BBC / Bloomberg / Economic Times / Guardian].

Brave new world

And in another step toward the construction of a Chinese-style Great Firewall, communications providers may soon be required to install filtering equipment.

Whilst VPNs [Virtual Private Networks], Tor networks and other circumvention methods are usually used by people in places like China to avoid Internet censorship and by dissidents wishing to avoid state surveillance.

However such software may become the norm, even in European countries, if such trends as seen in Germany, Spain and Russia continue.

What was once a single unified Internet is fast becoming a string of internets and intranets which are far from free and unified.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

Monday, December 01, 2014

All change for Dartford River Crossing tolls

One of the most congested bottlenecks on the M25 may become a little more free-flowing as it dispenses with physical toll booths in favour of an online payments system.

While the switch-over may not have come so smoothly as traffic was rerouted several miles whilst the toll booths were removed, first indications seemed to show that traffic was far less congested as vehicles crossed the Dartford River Crossing on Monday morning.

The new payment system at the Dartford Crossing came into force at 06:00 GMT, replacing the toll booths on the Kent side of the crossing. The current 27-lane system will be replaced by four express-ways in each direction and lanes to help turn away vehicles unsuitable for the tunnels.

Charging is enforced through the use of an Automatic Number Plate Recognition system which logs vehicle details with those which have paid. It is similar to a system already used to police London's Congestion Charge.

However, while congestion may have decreased, charges have increased overnight with car drivers now being charged £2.50, a hike of 50 pence.

The charge for goods two-axle heavy good vehicles including vans has risen by 50p to £3 whilst multi-axle good vehicles will now be charged £6, a rise of £1.

As an incentive to register with the Dartford River Crossing website, drivers using a pre-paid account will save up to one third. Motorists can also pay at some newsagents or through a dedicated telephone service.

However, those who don't pay are liable to receive a hefty penalty. Anyone not having paid by midnight on the day after making a crossing will receive a penalty charge of £70 which must be paid within 28 days. It's reduced to £35 if paid within 14 days and increased to £105 if unpaid.

There is some concern that foreign drivers will escape being charged, though the Highways Agency says it has plans in place to chase up people in other countries.

There has also been some worries expressed by some motorists who have said they have had difficulty registering on the Dartford Crossing website. Others have said the new system assumed all motorists have Internet access. Indeed, whilst there are other ways to pay the toll, finding information without Internet access is difficult.

The news Dartford Crossing toll changes came into force on the same day the government announced a £15 billion investment in England's road network [BBC / Sky News].

For those using the river crossing payments can be made by one of several methods

Alternatively, motorists can set up a pre-pay account now and receive savings of up to one-third on every crossing made during the charging hours [06:00 – 22:00]  [BBC]

tvnewswatch, London, UK