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The Long Arm Of China's Internet Police
What is the Big Idea?
Earlier this month, 20-year-old student Tsering Kyi emerged from a public restroom at a produce market in Tibet, soaked in gasoline and with a defiant fist in the air, lit herself on fire. She was protesting a policy change at Maqu County Tibetan Middle School, in Gansu Province, for switching to Chinese from Tibetan as the language of instruction.
She died on the spot. This act of self-immolation - one of 29 in the last year, seven of which were in the last three weeks - made headlines on Friday in The New York Times. But most ordinary people living in China will never hear about it.
The police on the scene took her body back the restroom, collected everyone's cellphones and methodically deleted all photographs of the incident. China's state media, Xinhua news agency reported that the girl suffered from mental instability after hitting her head on a radiator.
What is the Signifiance?
This is the Chinese government's first line of defense when it comes to information censorship on topics that range from the Dalai Lama to Ai Weiwei. But it takes more than a few plain clothes police officers to help the government manage controversial stories from leaking to the media. It takes an army.
The Chinese government employs over 40,000 people to monitor the Internet, according to reports by human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Freedom House. Some say the actual number is much higher, as most of the workload is outsourced to private companies. With the help of China’s private sector, the number of people monitoring China’s Internet could be in the hundreds of thousands, according to Sarah Cook, a researcher at Freedom House.
Internet companies like Baidu, China’s answer to Google, have a staff whose sole responsibility is to scan for and delete content that the government doesn’t like. Microblogging sites like Weibo and social networking sites like RenRen perform the same function. In 2010, about 60,000 websites containing “harmful materials” were shut down and about 350 million photographs, videos and articles were deleted. While the 40,000 employed to watch the Internet do remove content, their primary focus is to find and arrest Internet users who utilize the Web as a tool to promote dissent.
To call China’s online community it an “Internet” is a misnomer. China’s Internet functions more like an Intranet, as the government has systematically blocked Websites like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and overseas Chinese news sites. They do this by blocking IP addresses. And even if a website was not blocked, URL links with key words like “Tibet” or “Dalai Lama” are prohibited, making it impossible for Internet users to find information on these topics. Key words are regularly updated and cycled out as international news evolves. Most recently, words like “occupy” and “jasmine” were blocked in response to the protests in the US and the Middle East. Popular international sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were forced behind the Great Firewall in 2009. This created a market for alternatives like Baidu, Weibo and RenRen, all of which are given directives by the central government on what kind of content to censor. The government issues business licenses based on company owners’ willingness to comply with censorship rules. Google was kicked out of China in 2010 because of their failure to adhere to China’s censorship policies. They did this by refusing to block prohibited Websites and as a result their Internet content provider licenses were terminated.
Uprisings in the Middle East didn’t help matters for Chinese Internet users. In the wake of Tunisia’s uprisings, Chinese activists used the Internet to organize their own pro-democracy protests in February 2011. They called it the Jasmine Revolution. The police arrested scores of protesters and banned the word “jasmine” on microblogging sites which quickly thwarted the movement and kept word from spreading. In response to mounting fears of a revolution, at least three of the nine top communist party leaders paid visits to Internet companies like Baidu and Tencent, the creators of the instant messaging site QQ, to deliver a message of their own: uphold harmoniousness and stability. According to state media reports, Liu Qi, the secretary of the Beijing Municipality Party Committee instructed Internet companies to step up their efforts to put an end to what they consider as fake information.
For Internet users, “harmony” is now a euphemism for censorship, according to Cook. It’s not uncommon for someone to say they’ve been “harmonized” to mean they’ve been censored when they notice a blog post or comment they wrote was deleted. The fact that Internet users have created a code language to communicate shows they are on to their censors.
“What you now see is people finding clever ways to protest censorship itself,” said Cook. “The Chinese Communist Party isn’t going to censor the word ‘harmony’ because it’s one of their catch phrases.”
“River crab,” the homonym for harmony is a pun used to mock the government’s need for a “harmonious society.” Playing with homonyms, a practice commonly used for Chinese New Year, is now being used to evade censors. Recently, Internet users replaced a common vulgarity that was banned from the Internet with the words “grass mud horse” as a homonym to communicate the same message.
The activist community in China is growing, according to Cook and they’re typically tech savvy enough to engage with online tools to spread their agenda. While the exact number is impossible to measure, the government’s clamp down is a reflection of their growing fear of increased online activism. With the turnover of China's top leadership later this year and the politically sensitive events that will ensue, it is unlikely that the government's grip on censorship will loosen any time soon.
“The CCP is very insecure and very paranoid,” said Cook.
A report issued by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in October said they intend to increase regulation of social networking and instant messaging tools and punish those who spread “harmful information.” Officials at that time discussed having bloggers register their real names and identification numbers instead of the fake handles currently in use. This went into effect and the deadline for Weibo users to register their real identity was this month.
While no one outside of China’s top leadership knows what prompted this crack down, experts suspect it stems from the popular uprisings in the Middle East. The government proposed to further regulate state owned social networking sites, microblogs and instant messaging systems by punishing those who spread information that threatens the Chinese Communist Party’s stronghold. Also, in October, China submitted a resolution to the United Nations General Assembly, asking for the right to control their own Internet without interference from other countries.
Chinese written laws aren’t helping either. Article 35 of the Chinese constitution guarantees free speech, assembly, association and publication. But these rights are second to national interest. At least 70 people were jailed for Internet violations in 2010, according to reports by Reporters Without Borders. Once detained, offenders are subjected to abuse and torture.
When confronted with these findings, the government toed the party line and said they support the “sound development of the Internet and protects citizens’ freedom of expression in accordance with the law.” But there’s a catch.
“China follows the universal practice by administering the Internet in conformity with the law, with a view to safeguarding public interests,” said Yuanchun Ma, a spokesperson at the Chinese consulate in New York City.
Safeguarding these interests don’t come cheap.
“So much of the censorship relates to things that have a real impact on people’s livelihoods,” said Cook. “The societal and human cost of censorship is heartbreaking.”
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
New study analyzes gravitational waves to confirm the late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- A new paper confirms Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- The researchers used gravitational wave data to prove the theorem.
- The data came from Caltech and MIT's Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
The late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem is correct, a new study shows. Scientists used gravitational waves to prove the famous British physicist's idea, which may lead to uncovering more underlying laws of the universe.
The theorem, elaborated by Hawking in 1971, uses Einstein's theory of general relativity as a springboard to conclude that it is not possible for the surface area of a black hole to become smaller over time. The theorem parallels the second law of thermodynamics that says the entropy (disorder) of a closed system can't decrease over time. Since the entropy of a black hole is proportional to its surface area, both must continue to increase.
As a black hole gobbles up more matter, its mass and surface area grow. But as it grows, it also spins faster, which decreases its surface area. Hawking's theorem maintains that the increase in surface area that comes from the added mass would always be larger than the decrease in surface area because of the added spin.
Will Farr, one of the co-authors of the study that was published in Physical Review Letters, said their finding demonstrates that "black hole areas are something fundamental and important." His colleague Maximiliano Isi agreed in an interview with Live Science: "Black holes have an entropy, and it's proportional to their area. It's not just a funny coincidence, it's a deep fact about the world that they reveal."
What are gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are "ripples" in spacetime, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, that are created by very violent processes happening in space. Einstein showed that very massive, accelerating space objects like neutron stars or black holes that orbit each other could cause disturbances in spacetime. Like the ripples produced by tossing a rock into a lake, they would bring about "waves" of spacetime that would spread in all directions.
As LIGO shared, "These cosmic ripples would travel at the speed of light, carrying with them information about their origins, as well as clues to the nature of gravity itself."
The gravitational waves discovered by LIGO's 3,000-kilometer-long laser beam, which can detect the smallest distortions in spacetime, were generated 1.3 billion years ago by two giant black holes that were quickly spiraling toward each other.
What Stephen Hawking would have discovered if he lived longer | NASA's Michelle Thaller | Big Think www.youtube.com
Confirming Hawking's black hole area theorem
The researchers separated the signal into two parts, depending on whether it was from before or after the black holes merged. This allowed them to figure out the mass and spin of the original black holes as well as the mass and spin of the merged black hole. With this information, they calculated the surface areas of the black holes before and after the merger.
"As they spin around each other faster and faster, the gravitational waves increase in amplitude more and more until they eventually plunge into each other — making this big burst of waves," Isi elaborated. "What you're left with is a new black hole that's in this excited state, which you can then study by analyzing how it's vibrating. It's like if you ping a bell, the specific pitches and durations it rings with will tell you the structure of that bell, and also what it's made out of."
The surface area of the resulting black holes was larger than the combined area of the original black holes. This conformed to Hawking's area law.
As a form of civil disobedience, hacking can help make the world a better place.
- Hackers' motivations range from altruistic to nihilistic.
- Altruistic hackers expose injustices, while nihilistic ones make society more dangerous.
- The line between ethical and unethical hacking is not always clear.
The following is an excerpt from Coding Democracy by Maureen Webb. Reprinted with Permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2020.
As people begin to hack more concertedly at the structures of the status quo, the reactions of those who benefit from things as they are will become more fierce and more punitive, at least until the "hackers" succeed in shifting the relevant power relationships. We know this from the history of social movements. At the dawning of the digital age, farmers who hack tractors will be ruthlessly punished.
Somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that hackers are engaged in a whole range of acts, from the altruistic to the plainly nihilistic and dangerous. On the altruistic side of the continuum, they are creating free software (GNU/Linux and other software under GPL licenses), Creative Commons (Creative Commons licensing), and Open Access (designing digital interfaces to make public records and publicly funded research accessible). They are hacking surveillance and monopoly power (creating privacy tools, alternative services, cooperative platforms, and a new decentralized internet) and electoral politics and decision making (Cinque Stelle, En Comú, Ethelo, Liquid Democracy, and PartidoX). They have engaged in stunts to expose the technical flaws in voting, communications, and security systems widely used by, or imposed on, the public (by playing chess with Germany's election voting machines, hacking the German Bildschirmtext system, and stealing ministers' biometric identifiers). They have punished shady contractors like HackingTeam, HBGary, and Stratfor, spilling their corporate dealings and personal information across the internet. They have exposed the corruption of oligarchs, politicians, and hegemons (through the Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, and Xnet).
More notoriously, they have coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to retaliate against corporate and government conduct (such as the Anonymous DDoS that protested PayPal's boycott of WikiLeaks; the ingenious use of the Internet of Things to DDoS Amazon; and the shutdown of US and Canadian government IT systems). They have hacked into databases (Manning and Snowden), leaked state secrets (Manning, Snowden, and WikiLeaks), and, in doing so, betrayed their own governments (Manning betrayed US war secrets, and Snowden betrayed US security secrets). They have interfered with elections (such as the hack and leak of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the 2016 US election) and sown disinformation (the Russian hacking of US social media). They have interfered with property rights in order to assert user ownership, self-determination, and free software's four freedoms (farmers have hacked DRM code to repair their tractors, and Geohot unlocked the iPhone and hacked the Samsung phone to allow users administrator-level access to their devices) and to assert open access to publicly funded research. They have created black markets to evade state justice systems (such as Silk Road on the dark web) and cryptocurrencies that could undermine state-regulated monetary systems. They have meddled in geopolitics as free agents (Anonymous and the Arab Spring, and Julian Assange and his conduct with the Trump campaign). They have mucked around in and could potentially impair or shut down critical infrastructure. (The notorious "WANK worm" attack on NASA is an early, notorious, example, but hackers could potentially target banking systems, stock exchanges, electrical grids, telecommunications systems, air traffic control, chemical plants, nuclear plants, and even military "doomsday machines.")
It is impossible to calculate where these acts nudge us as a species. Some uses of hacking — such as the malicious, nihilistic hacking that harms critical infrastructure and threatens lives, and the hacking in cyberwarfare that injures the critical interests of other countries and undermines their democratic processes — are abhorrent and cannot be defended. The unfolding digital era looks very grim when one considers the threat this kind of hacking poses to peace and democracy combined with the dystopian direction states and corporations are going with digital tech.
But somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries, less corrupt and unfair economic systems, wiser public uses of digital tech, more self-determination for the ordinary user, fairer commercial contracts, better conditions for innovation and creativity, more decentralized and robust infrastructure systems, and an abolition of doomsday machines. In short, some hacking might move us toward a digital world in which there are more rather than fewer democratic, humanist outcomes.
It is not clear where the line between "good" and "bad" hacking should be drawn or how to regulate it wisely in every instance. Citizens should inform themselves and begin to consider this line-drawing seriously, however, since we will be grappling intensely with it for the next century or more. My personal view is that digital tech should not be used for everything. I think we should go back to simpler ways of running electrical grids and elections, for example. Systems are more resilient when they are not wholly digital and when they are smaller, more local, and modular. Consumers should have analogue options for things like fridges and cars, and design priorities for household goods should be durability and clean energy use, not interconnectedness.
In setting legal standards, prohibiting something and enforcing the prohibition are two different things. Sometimes a desired social norm can be struck by prohibiting a thing and not enforcing it strenuously. And the law can also recognize the constructive role that civil disobedience plays in the evolution of social norms, through prosecutorial discretion and judicial discretion in sentencing.
Wau Holland told the young hackers at the Paradiso that the Chaos Computer Club was "not just a bunch of techno freaks: we've been thinking about the social consequences of technology from the very beginning." Societies themselves, however, are generally just beginning to grapple with the social consequences of digital technology and with how to characterize the various acts performed by hackers, morally and legally. Each act raises a set of complex questions. Societies' responses will be part of the dialectic that determines where we end up. Should these various hacker acts be treated as incidents of public service, free speech, free association, legitimate protest, civil disobedience, and harmless pranksterism? Or should they be treated as trespass, tortious interference, intellectual property infringement, theft, fraud, conspiracy, extortion, espionage, terrorism, and treason? I invite you to think about this as you consider how hacking has been treated by societies to date.