TMCnet Feature
March 01, 2019

Privately-Owned Internet: A Cyber Nightmare

Even the most libertarian societies need laws and boundaries, and most would agree that this applies to the free land of the Internet. No cyberbullying, no pirating, no buying and selling of illicit substances, we believe that restrictions should be put in place to maintain order, and ultimately, serve the people as part of the social contract. But when compliance requirements were erected to enable totalitarian control and government surveillance, the internet is robbed of its capacity to be a level playing field for people around the world.

Nowhere is compliance issues more evident than in totalitarian states and vicious dictatorships.  China’s social credit system punishes citizens for stepping out of line. This might sound like something out of the dystopian Netflix show “Black Mirror”, but for some this is the stark reality they live in.

 China isn’t alone though.  Saudi Arabia is quick to ban any media that calls out the ruling regime, and North Korea has executed people for viewing unauthorized internet content.

 If you think that the United States is out of the picture, you’d be surprised that numerous American companies such as Google and Airbnb aid totalitarian governments in maintaining a tight grip over its citizens.  To U.S. tech giants, business is business.  According to a report from the Verge in November, if the price to pay to tap into China’s market is to collect, store and report data of local users, they’re happy to oblige even when it means burying the country’s internet freedom. 

Saudi Arabia and Netflix: Criticism Not Allowed

American comedian and political commentator Hasan Minhaj ran into quite a problem with the Saudi Arabian government with his show on Netflix, titled “Patriot Act”, a show that explores the depths of politics and the inner-workings of every country in the spotlight. Unfortunately for Minhaj, he would land himself and his show into hot water with Saudi Arabia after certain comments were made towards Saudi’s regime and their cover-up over Khashoggi’s murder.

Saudi Arabia revolted by banning the episode from the country, censoring the valid complaints Minhaj presented in the episode.  While Netflix’s content is technically unrestricted by the country, the company agreed to take it down to avoid further penalty, and in doing so, aided political censorship.  Fortunately, citizens of Saudi Arabia can still watch the episode on Minhaj’s YouTube (News - Alert) channel, where it has not been removed yet.  Alternatively, citizens who wish to access Patriot Act or other sensitive content can use a Netflix VPN to bypass content blocks and remain discrete with advanced traffic encryption.

Search Engines and China: A Symbiotic Relationship

The amount of information Google holds of the world’s internet-browsing population is astronomical, and this unique edge is what China hopes to tap into for its own gain.

A couple years ago, rumors had it that Google was creating a specialized search engine for China.  A search engine that would censor everything that China deems excessive, inappropriate and politically sensitive.  What exactly would this entail?  According to a Google executive, the project known as “Project Dragonfly” would blacklist websites dealing with religion, democracy, human rights, and a lot more. Project Dragonfly would be a definite blow to freedom of internet use in China. 

The censorship epidemic does not end here. Google isn’t the only corporation helping to censor search engines in China.  Bing, a search engine powered by Microsoft (News - Alert), has historically been censoring search results of sensitive topics like the Dalai Lama, the Tiananmen Massacre, anything to do with Taiwan’s independence, and any other topic deemed politically sensitive. With Google and Bing’s help, China will have no issue wiping the governments’ misdeeds off the face of the country and denying its people of the truth. 

Data Retention Policies: Trading User Privacy for Business

Companies are subject to a multitude of restrictions and requirements from the Chinese government when they enter its domestic market, one of which is to store data locally. Domestic users’ data must be stored exclusively within the country. Companies must also maintain full data transparency and allow official access.

Apple (News - Alert) was one of them. For a while, Apple had no issues in China, but once iCloud was in the picture at scale, their iCloud partner, GCBD had to cut a deal with a state-run corporation.  With this collaboration in place, iCloud’s data had to be stored locally at China Telecom (News - Alert).  According to the Verge’s report cited above, Apple and GCBD surrendered Chinese users’ private data along with the encryption keys needed to access them.

AirBnB was faced with the same fate. The company ended up storing their data locally to continue business in China.  But instead of China Telecom, Evernote migrated every byte of data to Tencent, a prominent Chinese tech company.

Is doing business with the Chinese worth giving up trusting users’ privacy? These industry leaders seem to think so.  In exchange for the opportunity to sell to 1.4 billion Chinese, big tech names like Apple, AirBnB, and Evernote have no problem following suit.  As more businesses move into China, the problem shall snowball. 

Compliance: A Complicated Rule

Beyond local data storage and retention, Apple was also asked to take down certain apps from its app store. 

Not only was Apple was forced to remove all gambling apps, but VPNs were also banned from the shelves. This means iPhone (News - Alert) users would not be able to download VPNs through App Store. ExpressVPN, a leading VPN provider, claims that they were deeply troubled to see Apple aiding China’s censorship efforts.

It’s not just the action that was unfortunate, but the precedent it sends through China.  This cyber purge showed the iron fist that the government has and uses.  The state showed that they will do whatever it needs to do to keep the people away from outside influence, free speech and civil liberties.

The Internet is growing by the day, and with it, its reach and influence.  As time goes by, citizens need to be reminded that the Internet has become a minefield.  The Internet is used for great things, but people and governments will find ways to exploit it or keep it locked away.  We can’t outrun censorship or data collection, but we can fight against it.  Activism is censored in the cyber realm, but they can’t censor it in real life.  The Internet and the power that comes with it belongs to the people, not just the governments.

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