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September 12, 2019

What Hong Kong Protesters Can Teach Us About Tech for Democracy

Hong Kong protesters and their use of technology for democracy has sparked some hope for the fledgling tech industry. As more Chinese citizens find out how to use a China proxy to circumvent the Great Firewall of China, Internet access might become the tipping point for freedom of speech in a country criticized for sending millions of Uyghurs to concentration camps.

The Tech Industry Under Scrutiny

The last couple of years have been tumultuous for the tech industry, and that’s putting it mildly. Prior to 2016, there were some nascent concerns about social media, but these largely centered around privacy and child protection issues. That all changed at the end of 2016.

Facebook’s (News - Alert) behavior during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election came under intense scrutiny following reports that Russia had used the platform as part of an election interference campaign. Gradually, it emerged that Facebook had, to some extent, knowingly acted as a staging platform for a GRU (Russian special forces) psyops campaign targeting American voters.

This was soon followed by a series of related revelations that other prominent social media platforms, notably Twitter, YouTube (News - Alert), and Reddit, had also been used (and continue to be used) to spread propaganda and fake news. The debate about how best to rein in the power of these private entities must now take place in an environment where said entities wield a staggering amount of influence, both socially and politically.

The genie, as many have pointed out, is well and truly out of the bottle. Out of the bottle and circling overhead shaking her head in disbelief.

The entire tech industry is now under scrutiny and issues that were previously academic concerns are now being treated with the urgency that they deserve.

Hong Kong

The ongoing democracy protests in Hong Kong have taken the world and the Chinese government by surprise. What started as anger over an extradition bill has grown into a much broader movement seeking to restore the autonomy and way of life that Hong Kong was guaranteed until 2047, under the one country two systems principle agreed with the British in exchange for the peaceful return of the then colony to China.

While some commentators have pointed to similarities with the Tiananmen Square massacre, there are some important differences. Hong Kong is not Beijing, it is a province on the periphery of Chinese territory and, so far, most mainland Chinese appear to be on the government's side. It is unlikely that the CCP will unleash the PLA on the streets of Hong Kong unless they feel forced - they don’t want another Tiananmen Square either.

The Role of Tech in Global Politics

China today has access to tools and technology that didn’t exist in 1989. Google (News - Alert) recently announced that it had shut down more than 200 YouTube channels that were spreading propaganda and fake news about the protests. Google described these channels as part of a “coordinated” attempt to muddy the waters and poison the discourse around the protests.

Governments are increasingly using social media as an influence tool, with both Russia and China leading the world in this new digital battleground. It isn’t just authoritarian regimes that are using tech to undermine democracy, though. After India took the unprecedented step of revoking Kashmir’s special status, it pre-emptively cut Kashmiri access to the internet and other communications networks.

It isn’t just Google that has taken action. In fact, in announcing the closure of the channels, Google made reference to similar measures that have recently been taken by Twitter (News - Alert) and Facebook on their platforms. Google didn’t go as far in assigning blame as the other two, both of whom affirmed that they believed the campaign to be a state-backed operation. Nor would Google elaborate on the exact nature of the content or what its motivations were.

Tech for Good

From IBM (News - Alert) doing business with the Nazis, and directly facilitating the Holocaust, to the myriad European cybersecurity firms selling tools of oppression to despotic regimes around the world, the tech industry has rarely had any qualms about how its creations are used. But technology is a tool like any other and while there is no excuse for some of the tech industry’s behavior, technology can also be used for good.

While mainland Chinese seems to largely be on the side of the government, some have shown solidarity with Hong Kong. This is a potentially dangerous act in an totalitarian country like China, which takes surveillance of its citizens to terrifying new heights. Internet access and consumption of news media are tightly controlled in the communist state, meaning that the majority of mainland news outlets have either not reported on the protests, or have described them as “dangerous rioters” instigated by “black hands” and “foreign forces”.

But not every mainlander believes this to be a foreign-led color revolution. China’s censors have been working non-stop to keep Weibo and We Chat, two of the biggest social media services in China, free from any photos or other information about the protests that don’t align with the official story.

Despite all these efforts, some news and other media have made it through the Great Firewall, with WeChat users finding creative ways of smuggling images through. In some cases, simply rotating them is enough to fool the automatic filters. Similarly, Chinese netizens have taken to referring to Hong Kong as ‘the Pearl of the Orient’ - its colonial-era nickname.

Tools of Defiance

The protesters themselves have been finding creative ways of using technology to protect themselves and their identities. Perhaps the most obvious example of this are the umbrellas that have become ubiquitous in regional protests. Umbrellas were first used as a means of shielding protesters from facial recognition systems, and later protecting them from rubber bullets and tear gas.

Protesters in these latest protests have also been shining laser pointers at cameras to blind them and prevent them from using facial recognition to identify individual protesters. There have been some reports that laser pointers have also been used by protesters to protect themselves from police and other hostile actors who have thrown things down on them from above. The protesters have even worked out how to neutralize tear gas canisters quickly, provided they have the right supplies on hand.

Other ways that they have found of organizing themselves under the radar include using Tinder and Pokemon Go to coordinate with one another. In some cases, they have even used Apple’s AirDrop feature to send messages to one another that can’t be intercepted by the Chinese government or Hong Kong police.

VPNs have been common in Hong Kong for some time now. They are even used on the mainland sometimes, although they are technically illegal for Chinese citizens. VPNs and proxies enable Hong Kongers to communicate with the mainland without fear of being tracked.

Last time Hong Kong saw these kinds of protests was in 2014. During those protests, the unsung hero was an off-the-grid smartphone app called FireChat.

FireChat is unique in that it doesn’t rely on the usual internet or phone networks. Instead, devices with the FireChat app can connect to one another over Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Unlike traditional networks, that perform best with fewer people using them, FireChat works better when there are more people connected together.

Protesters initially began using it because protest locations were so crowded that phone networks would slow to a crawl. FireChat doesn’t depend on these data networks and so while the app's creators initially struggled to keep up with its newfound popularity, the app became an essential part for any protesters kit within weeks. FireChat also continued to work after the government shut off internet access.

Technology is a tool and, like any tool, it can be used for good or for evil. However, corporations and governments certainly can be good or evil and it is vital that they are held to account for the way that they use the technology available to them. The impact technology has on the world depends entirely on who is using it.

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