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This story, from Andrew McLaughlin, illustrates both the political power of the internet to discomfort governments, and the enduring power of governments to shut down the internet when it suits them.

As recently as a week ago, Egypt‘s internet was extraordinary in the Arab world for its freedom. For more than a decade, the regime has adhered to a hands-off policy, leaving unblocked everything from rumours about President Hosni Mubarak’s health to videos of police beatings. Unlike most of its regional neighbours and other authoritarian regimes, Egypt’s government never built or required sophisticated technical infrastructures of censorship. (Of course, the country has hardly been a paradise of free expression: the state security forces have vigorously suppressed dissent through surveillance, arbitrary detentions and relentless intimidation of writers and editors.)

Partly as a result of its liberal policies, Egypt became a hub for internet and mobile network investment, home to a thriving and competitive communications sector that pioneered free dial-up services, achieved impressive rates of access and use, and offered speedy wireless and broadband networks at relatively low prices. Indeed, Egypt is today one of the major crossing points for the underwater fibre-optic cables that interconnect the regions of the globe.

But last Thursday, the Mubarak regime shattered a decade’s worth of accomplishment by issuing the order to shut down the mobile networks and internet links. Since the internet age dawned in the early 90s, no widely connected country had disconnected itself entirely. The starkness and suddenness of Egypt’s reversal – from unrestricted to unreachable – marks one of the many tragedies of the Mubarak regime’s brutal and hamfisted response to last week’s emergence of citizen protests.

The internet cutoff shows how the details of infrastructure matter. Despite having no large-scale or centralised censorship apparatus, Egypt was still able to shut down its communications in a matter of minutes. This was possible because Egypt permitted only three wireless carriers to operate, and required all internet service providers (ISPs) to funnel their traffic through a handful of international links. Confronted with mass demonstrations and fearful about a populace able to organise itself, the government had to order fewer than a dozen companies to shut down their networks and disconnect their routers from the global internet.

The blackout has proved increasingly ineffective. A handful of networks have remained connected, including one independent ISP, the country’s academic and research network, and a few major banks, businesses and government institutions. Whether these reflect deliberate defiance, privileged connections, or tactical exceptions –one might imagine, for example, that members of Mubarak’s family and inner circle would want to have Internet access to move money, buy tickets, or make hotel reservations abroad — is as yet unknown.

Moreover, innovative Egyptians are finding ways to overcome the block. They are relaying information by voice, exploiting small and unnoticed openings in the digital firewall, and dusting off old modems to tap foreign dial-up services.

For democracies, one lesson here is clear: diversity and complexity in our network architectures is a very good thing. Likewise, enforcement of public policies such as network neutrality – the principle that access providers should not be permitted to control what their customers can do online – are important to prevent networks from installing tools and capabilities that could be abused in moments of crisis. For dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, however, the lesson will be quite the opposite.

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Google is extending its reach ‘upwards’ and ‘backwards’. The ‘upwards’ direction is into ‘the cloud’, as it encourages us to store our data and software offsite on its remote servers, instead of in our homes and offices. The ‘backwards’ direction is into cultural history, as it becomes the market leader in scanning, storing and analysing the trillions of words that have been written since the dawn of history.

"The Cloud"

There are some wonderful possibilities and one or two dangers in all this. Charles Arthur reports on some of the dangers.

Google’s new cloud computing ChromeOS looks like a plan “to push people into careless computing” by forcing them to store their data in the cloud rather than on machines directly under their control, warns Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and creator of the operating system GNU.

Two years ago Stallman, a computing veteran who is a strong advocate of free software via his Free Software Foundation, warned that making extensive use of cloud computing was “worse than stupidity” because it meant a loss of control of data.

Now he says he is increasingly concerned about the release by Google of its ChromeOS operating system, which is based on GNU/Linux and designed to store the minimum possible data locally. Instead it relies on a data connection to link to Google’s “cloud” of servers, which are at unknown locations, to store documents and other information.

The risks include loss of legal rights to data if it is stored on a company’s machine’s rather than your own, Stallman points out: “In the US, you even lose legal rights if you store your data in a company’s machines instead of your own. The police need to present you with a search warrant to get your data from you; but if they are stored in a company’s server, the police can get it without showing you anything. They may not even have to give the company a search warrant.”

“I think that marketers like “cloud computing” because it is devoid of substantive meaning. The term’s meaning is not substance, it’s an attitude: ‘Let any Tom, Dick and Harry hold your data, let any Tom, Dick and Harry do your computing for you (and control it).’ Perhaps the term ‘careless computing’ would suit it better.”

He sees a creeping problem: “I suppose many people will continue moving towards careless computing, because there’s a sucker born every minute. The US government may try to encourage people to place their data where the US government can seize it without showing them a search warrant, rather than in their own property. However, as long as enough of us continue keeping our data under our own control, we can still do so. And we had better do so, or the option may disappear.”

It might sound a bit paranoid, but remember that Amazon recently removed Wikileaks from its cloud computing on the grounds that they had breached its terms and conditions.

Alok Jha, more positively, writes about the new science of ‘culturomics’ that has emerged to analyse the vast databases of newly scanned literature.

How many words in the English language never make it into dictionaries? How has the nature of fame changed in the past 200 years? How do scientists and actors compare in their impact on popular culture?

These are just some of the questions that researchers and members of the public can now answer using a new online tool developed by Google with the help of scientists at Harvard University. The massive searchable database is being hailed as the key to a new era of research in the humanities, linguistics and social sciences that has been dubbed “culturomics”.

The database comprises more than 5m books – both fiction and non-fiction – published between 1800 and 2000, representing around 4% of all the books ever printed. Dr Jean-Baptiste Michel and Dr Erez Lieberman Aiden of Harvard University have developed the search tool, which they say will give researchers the ability to quantify a huge range of cultural trends in history.

“Interest in computational approaches to the humanities and social sciences dates back to the 1950s,” said Michel, a psychologist in Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. “But attempts to introduce quantitative methods into the study of culture have been hampered by the lack of suitable data. We now have a massive dataset, available through an interface that is user-friendly and freely available to anyone.”

What can it actually do? Just take two examples. First, an analysis of the changing nature of fame over the last two centuries.

By looking at the frequency of famous people’s names in literature, they showed that celebrities born in the mid-20th century tended to be younger and more famous than those of the 19th century, but their fame lasted for a shorter period of time. By 1950, celebrities were achieving fame, on average, when they were 29, compared with 43 for celebrities around 1800. “People are getting more famous than ever before,” wrote the researchers, “but are being forgotten more rapidly than ever.”

Another example: tracking censorship across different cultures.

The database can also identify patterns of censorship in the literature of individual countries. The Jewish artist Marc Chagall, for example, was mentioned only once in the entire German literature from 1936 to 1944, even though his appearance in English-language books grew around fivefold in the same period. There is also evidence of censorship in Chinese literature when it comes to Tiananmen Square and in Russian books with regard to Leon Trotsky.

Google will know us better than we know ourselves. Although that is probably already true just from its analysis of what we have searched for over the last few months.

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map — nov 28 by theogeo.

Two fascinating stories about China appeared in the press today – both of them, by coincidence, touching on her relationship with the West and her openness to outsiders.

First, a 400 year-old Chinese map went on display yesterday at the Library of Congress in Washington. It’s the first Chinese map to combine both eastern and western cartography, and hence the first to show China in relation to the Americas. Who was it created by? An Italian Jesuit missionary called Matteo Ricci:

One of the first westerners to live in what is now Beijing in the early 1600s, Ricci was famed for introducing western science to China, where he created the map in 1602 at the request of Emperor Wanli.

Shown publicly for the first time in North America, the map provides an impressively detailed vision of the different regions of the world with pictures and annotations.

Africa is noted as having the world’s highest mountain and longest river, while Florida is identified as “the Land of Flowers”. A description of North America mentions “humped oxen” or bison and wild horses, and there is even a reference to the little-known region of “Ka-na-ta”.

Ricci, revered and buried in his adopted home, provided a brief description of the discovery of the Americas. “In olden days, nobody had ever known that there were such places as North and South America or Magellanica,” he wrote, using a label that early mapmakers gave to Australia and Antarctica. “But a hundred years ago, Europeans came sailing in their ships to parts of the sea coast, and so discovered them.”

Ricci went to China with an open mind and an open heart, deeply sensitive to Chinese culture and sensibilities. At the same time, he was unembarrassed to share his own culture with the Chinese – whether scientific, religious, or cartographical… and the Chinese were remarkably open to this.

The second story is about Google’s recent decision to take the gloves off and remove the censorship it previously imposed on its own Chinese search engine. The fear now is that the Chinese authorities will pull the plug:

Google, the world’s leading search engine, has thrown down the gauntlet to China by saying it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service.

The internet giant said the decision followed a cyber attack it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists.

The move follows a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year, which has seen sites and social networking services hosted overseas blocked – including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – and the closure of many sites at home. Chinese authorities ­criticised Google for supplying “vulgar” content in results.

Google acknowledged that the decision “may well mean” the closure of Google.cn and its offices in China.

That is an understatement, given that it had to agree to censor sensitive material – such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – to launch Google.cn.

“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

My great-grandfather (my father’s father’s father) was a Chinese cloth merchant who converted to Christianity when he was on his travels round southern China in the late 1800s. So when my grandfather eventually settled with his family in Sheffield in the 1930s he was already a Christian, and had a bridge between his own culture and the largely Anglican culture into which he arrived. I often wonder who converted my great-grandfather, what kind of Christian community he encountered on his travels, and what the historical roots of their own Christian life were.

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Astroturf Couture by {platinum}.Does the internet expand the possibilities for political freedom? Or does it actually allow oppressive regimes to take more and more control of the flow of information in society?

I learnt a new verb yesterday: to astroturf. This means, apparently, to add comments onto blogs and social networking sites, in the hope of influencing the discussions and the whole cultural environment – all the time disguising your real identity and subversive intentions. I presume the reference is to the inherent fakery of getting rid of your real mulchy soil and grass and replacing it with plastic turf.

Bryan Appleyard writes about all this in the Sunday Times. Here are the key passages that recount the progressive ways in which the internet can become hijacked by those in power:

There have been three phases of state control of the internet. First came the “great firewall” of China. You simply block access to sites regarded as sensitive. But everybody knows you’re doing it.

So phase two involves selective blocking — known as “just in time attacks”. A site may go down as a protest is being organised. It’s a network problem, claim your goons. Also in phase two are vague regulations that allow your police to press charges no one quite understands. And there’s the blackmailing of internet companies — basically you push them out of business unless they block sites or hand over information. More crudely, as in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, there is the threat of prison.

Now, it’s phase three, which is much more sinister. In China this phase is represented by the so-called 50 cent army — people who, for a tiny sum of money, go out and “astroturf” blogs or Twitter.

Astroturfing means placing comments while concealing who is behind them. So pro-Chinese comments and posts are frequently placed by government proxies. The freedom of the internet is used against itself. Even in liberal democracies this means internet content may turn out to be pure propaganda. It cannot be a replacement for old-fashioned politics.

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