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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
Astronomers find these five chapters to be a handy way of conceiving the universe's incredibly long lifespan.
- We're in the middle, or thereabouts, of the universe's Stelliferous era.
- If you think there's a lot going on out there now, the first era's drama makes things these days look pretty calm.
- Scientists attempt to understand the past and present by bringing together the last couple of centuries' major schools of thought.
The 5 eras of the universe<p>There are many ways to consider and discuss the past, present, and future of the universe, but one in particular has caught the fancy of many astronomers. First published in 1999 in their book <a href="https://amzn.to/2wFQLiL" target="_blank"><em>The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity</em></a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Adams" target="_blank">Fred Adams</a> and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_P._Laughlin" target="_blank">Gregory Laughlin</a> divided the universe's life story into five eras:</p><ul><li>Primordial era</li><li>Stellferous era</li><li>Degenerate era</li><li>Black Hole Era</li><li>Dark era</li></ul><p>The book was last updated according to current scientific understandings in 2013.</p><p>It's worth noting that not everyone is a subscriber to the book's structure. Popular astrophysics writer <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/ethansiegel/#30921c93683e" target="_blank">Ethan C. Siegel</a>, for example, published an article on <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2019/07/26/we-have-already-entered-the-sixth-and-final-era-of-our-universe/#7072d52d4e5d" target="_blank"><em>Medium</em></a> last June called "We Have Already Entered The Sixth And Final Era Of Our Universe." Nonetheless, many astronomers find the quintet a useful way of discuss such an extraordinarily vast amount of time.</p>
The Primordial era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEyMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjEzMjY1OX0.PRpvAoa99qwsDNprDme9tBWDim6mS7Mjx6IwF60fSN8/img.jpg?width=980" id="db4eb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0e568b0cc12ed624bb8d7e5ff45882bd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1049" />
Image source: Sagittarius Production/Shutterstock<p> This is where the universe begins, though what came before it and where it came from are certainly still up for discussion. It begins at the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. </p><p> For the first little, and we mean <em>very</em> little, bit of time, spacetime and the laws of physics are thought not yet to have existed. That weird, unknowable interval is the <a href="https://www.universeadventure.org/eras/era1-plankepoch.htm" target="_blank">Planck Epoch</a> that lasted for 10<sup>-44</sup> seconds, or 10 million of a trillion of a trillion of a trillionth of a second. Much of what we currently believe about the Planck Epoch eras is theoretical, based largely on a hybrid of general-relativity and quantum theories called quantum gravity. And it's all subject to revision. </p><p> That having been said, within a second after the Big Bang finished Big Banging, inflation began, a sudden ballooning of the universe into 100 trillion trillion times its original size. </p><p> Within minutes, the plasma began cooling, and subatomic particles began to form and stick together. In the 20 minutes after the Big Bang, atoms started forming in the super-hot, fusion-fired universe. Cooling proceeded apace, leaving us with a universe containing mostly 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, similar to that we see in the Sun today. Electrons gobbled up photons, leaving the universe opaque. </p><p> About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled enough that the first stable atoms capable of surviving began forming. With electrons thus occupied in atoms, photons were released as the background glow that astronomers detect today as cosmic background radiation. </p><p> Inflation is believed to have happened due to the remarkable overall consistency astronomers measure in cosmic background radiation. Astronomer <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGCVTSQw7WU" target="_blank">Phil Plait</a> suggests that inflation was like pulling on a bedsheet, suddenly pulling the universe's energy smooth. The smaller irregularities that survived eventually enlarged, pooling in denser areas of energy that served as seeds for star formation—their gravity pulled in dark matter and matter that eventually coalesced into the first stars. </p>
The Stelliferous era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEzNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMjA0OTcwMn0.GVCCFbBSsPdA1kciHivFfWlegOfKfXUfEtFKEF3otQg/img.jpg?width=980" id="bc650" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c8f86bf160ecdea6b330f818447393cd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="481" data-height="720" />
Image source: Casey Horner/unsplash<p>The era we know, the age of stars, in which most matter existing in the universe takes the form of stars and galaxies during this active period. </p><p>A star is formed when a gas pocket becomes denser and denser until it, and matter nearby, collapse in on itself, producing enough heat to trigger nuclear fusion in its core, the source of most of the universe's energy now. The first stars were immense, eventually exploding as supernovas, forming many more, smaller stars. These coalesced, thanks to gravity, into galaxies.</p><p>One axiom of the Stelliferous era is that the bigger the star, the more quickly it burns through its energy, and then dies, typically in just a couple of million years. Smaller stars that consume energy more slowly stay active longer. In any event, stars — and galaxies — are coming and going all the time in this era, burning out and colliding.</p><p>Scientists predict that our Milky Way galaxy, for example, will crash into and combine with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy in about 4 billion years to form a new one astronomers are calling the Milkomeda galaxy.</p><p>Our solar system may actually survive that merger, amazingly, but don't get too complacent. About a billion years later, the Sun will start running out of hydrogen and begin enlarging into its red giant phase, eventually subsuming Earth and its companions, before shrining down to a white dwarf star.</p>
The Degenerate era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTk3NDQyN30.gy4__ALBQrdbdm-byW5gQoaGNvFTuxP5KLYxEMBImNc/img.jpg?width=980" id="77f72" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="08bb56ea9fde2cee02d63ed472d79ca3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="810" />
Image source: Diego Barucco/Shutterstock/Big Think<p>Next up is the Degenerate era, which will begin about 1 quintillion years after the Big Bang, and last until 1 duodecillion after it. This is the period during which the remains of stars we see today will dominate the universe. Were we to look up — we'll assuredly be outta here long before then — we'd see a much darker sky with just a handful of dim pinpoints of light remaining: <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/evaporating-giant-exoplanet-white-dwarf-star" target="_blank">white dwarfs</a>, <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/new-observations-where-stars-end-and-brown-dwarfs-begin" target="_blank">brown dwarfs</a>, and <a href="https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/definition-what-is-a-neutron-star" target="_blank">neutron stars</a>. These"degenerate stars" are much cooler and less light-emitting than what we see up there now. Occasionally, star corpses will pair off into orbital death spirals that result in a brief flash of energy as they collide, and their combined mass may become low-wattage stars that will last for a little while in cosmic-timescale terms. But mostly the skies will be be bereft of light in the visible spectrum.</p><p>During this era, small brown dwarfs will wind up holding most of the available hydrogen, and black holes will grow and grow and grow, fed on stellar remains. With so little hydrogen around for the formation of new stars, the universe will grow duller and duller, colder and colder.</p><p>And then the protons, having been around since the beginning of the universe will start dying off, dissolving matter, leaving behind a universe of subatomic particles, unclaimed radiation…and black holes.</p>
The Black Hole era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjE0OTQ2MX0.ifwOQJgU0uItiSRg9z8IxFD9jmfXlfrw6Jc1y-22FuQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="103ea" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f0e6a71dacf95ee780dd7a1eadde288d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1400" data-height="787" />
Image source: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock/Big Think<p> For a considerable length of time, black holes will dominate the universe, pulling in what mass and energy still remain. </p><p> Eventually, though, black holes evaporate, albeit super-slowly, leaking small bits of their contents as they do. Plait estimates that a small black hole 50 times the mass of the sun would take about 10<sup>68</sup> years to dissipate. A massive one? A 1 followed by 92 zeros. </p><p> When a black hole finally drips to its last drop, a small pop of light occurs letting out some of the only remaining energy in the universe. At that point, at 10<sup>92</sup>, the universe will be pretty much history, containing only low-energy, very weak subatomic particles and photons. </p>
The Dark Era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE5NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Mzg5OTEyMH0.AwiPRGJlGIcQjjSoRLi6V3g5klRYtxQJIpHFgZdZkuo/img.jpg?width=980" id="60c77" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7a857fb7f0d85cf4a248dbb3350a6e1c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="810" />
Image source: Big Think<p>We can sum this up pretty easily. Lights out. Forever.</p>
Dr. Katie Mack explains what dark energy is and two ways it could one day destroy the universe.
- The universe is expanding faster and faster. Whether this acceleration will end in a Big Rip or will reverse and contract into a Big Crunch is not yet understood, and neither is the invisible force causing that expansion: dark energy.
- Physicist Dr. Katie Mack explains the difference between dark matter, dark energy, and phantom dark energy, and shares what scientists think the mysterious force is, its effect on space, and how, billions of years from now, it could cause peak cosmic destruction.
- The Big Rip seems more probable than a Big Crunch at this point in time, but scientists still have much to learn before they can determine the ultimate fate of the universe. "If we figure out what [dark energy is] doing, if we figure out what it's made of, how it's going to change in the future, then we will have a much better idea for how the universe will end," says Mack.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty