Knowing Algorithms: Repression in Cyberspace

The nose of the camel is in the tent. Earlier this week, New Scientist published a report about the National Security Agency’s program to track citizens posting on internet websites. Maybe it doesn’t look like a big deal right now. But what happens when a country does not protect privacy and freedom?

The human rights organization Amnesty International has been following a new threat to freedom, internet censorship, and tracks how internet users are spied on, controlled and locked up around the world for opposing repressive regimes.

In China, Shi Tao sent an Email to a US site telling them about the Chinese government’ s warnings against reporting on the Tiananmen Square anniversary demonstrations. But that didn’t sit well with the Chinese Government, and Shi Tao was arrested. How did they catch him? Yahoo turned him in, and even provided evidence against him at his trial.

One year later he was in court, where account-holder information provided by Yahoo’s Chinese partner company was used as evidence to convict him.

Like other firms keen for a slice of the lucrative Chinese market, Yahoo is widely reported to have signed the Chinese authorities’ Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Internet Industry, effectively agreeing to implement web censorship. While the company has been quick to condemn the punishment of people for free expression, it has supplied information to the Chinese government that has led to prosecution in such cases.

Now Shi Tao, an Amnesty prisoner of conscience, is doing forced labour under harsh conditions in Chishan prison, in the central province of Hunan. His wife has endured frequent harassment and interrogation by the authorities and her workplace has put pressure on her to divorce Shi. His mother, father and uncle have all been watched and harassed at work and at home.

If you live in China, you can’t access Amnesty International’s website. Likewise, if you do a search that includes the words ‘human rights’, ‘democracy’ or ‘Taiwan independence,’ filters will block any websites containing those phrases. Chinese websites must register and a quarter of them have been shut down by authorities.

And in a true echo of Orwell’s Big Brother, cameras are being installed in many internet cafes to monitor all those entering.

In the city of Shenzhen, two cartoon police characters are displayed on all computer screens as a reminder to users that they are being watched and should not search for banned sites or topics…

Yahoo is not the only company cooperating with abuses. In Israel, Microsoft cooperated with authorities to presecute nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu for communicating with foreign journalists. Vanunu was in prison for more than 18 years but has been released on the condition he does not leave Israel or talk to foreign reporters. Microsoft’s evidence may put him back in jail.

Bloggers have been imprisoned in Tunisia, Vietnam and Iran . Iranian blogger Sayed Ahmad Sayed Sigarchi is reported to have received 30 lashes in Tabriz prison last October while serving a four-month sentence. He was convicted of ‘insulting the leader and senior officials’ and making ‘propaganda against the system.’

The Open Net Initiative tracks cyberspace abuses of freedom on a country by country basis. One of the most flagrant uses of the internet to stifle the political process was in the Belarus election. In the pre-election report, the Open Net Initiative documented distributed denial of service (DDOS) against the challenging political party, and in the after election report also reported campaign disruption.

Some other interesting stuff out there about web censorship:
has started a campaign to put fragments of censored material on other websites
has found a way to circumvent China censorship.
Human Rights Watch cannot be accessed from some countries.

Right now the government is only reading your blogs, but what will happen next?  “You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your resumé,” says the New Scientist article. “People don’t realise you get Googled just to get a job interview these days.”

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