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Web censorship: the net is closing in

Across the globe governments are monitoring and censoring access to the web. And if we’re not careful millions more people could find the internet fractured, fragmented and controlled by the state

Web censorship the net is closing in

Every state in the world has its own laws, cultural norms and accepted behaviours. As billions of people come online in the next decade, many will discover a newfound independence that will test these boundaries. Each state will attempt to regulate the internet, and shape it in its own image.

The majority of the world’s internet users encounter some form of censorship – also known by the euphemism “filtering” – but what that actually looks like depends on a country’s policies and its technological infrastructure. Not all or even most of that filtering is political censorship; progressive countries routinely block a modest number of sites, such as those featuring child pornography.

In some countries, there are several entry points for internet connectivity, and a handful of private telecommunications companies control them (with some regulation). In others, there is only one entry point, a nationalised internet service provider (ISP), through which all traffic flows. Filtering is relatively easy in the latter case, and more difficult in the former.

When technologists began to notice states regulating and projecting influence online, some warned against a “Balkanisation of the internet”, whereby national filtering and other restrictions would transform what was once the global internet into a connected series of nation-state networks. The web would fracture and fragment, and soon there would be a “Russian internet” and an “American internet” and so on, all coexisting and sometimes overlapping but, in important ways, separate. Information would largely flow within countries but not across them, due to filtering, language or even just user preference. The process would at first be barely perceptible to users, but it would fossilise over time and ultimately remake the internet.

It’s very likely that some version of the above scenario will occur, but the degree to which it does will greatly be determined by what happens in the next decade with newly connected states – which path they choose, whom they emulate and work together with.

The first stage of the process, aggressive and distinctive filtering, is under way. China is the world’s most active and enthusiastic filterer of information. Entire platforms that are hugely popular elsewhere in the world – Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter – are blocked by the Chinese government.

On the Chinese internet, you would be unable to find information about politically sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square protests, embarrassing information about the Chinese political leadership, the Tibetan rights movement and the Dalai Lama, or content related to human rights, political reform or sovereignty issues.

To the average Chinese user, this censorship is seamless – without prior knowledge of events or ideas, it would appear that they never existed.

China’s leadership doesn’t hesitate to defend its policies. In a white paper released in 2010, the government calls the internet “a crystallisation of human wisdom” but states that China’s “laws and regulations clearly prohibit the spread of information that contains contents subverting state power, undermining national unity [or] infringing upon national honour and interests.”

The next stage for many states will be collective editing, states forming communities of interest to edit the web together, based on shared values or geopolitics. For larger states, collaborations will legitimise their filtering efforts and deflect some unwanted attention (the “look, others are doing it too” excuse). For smaller states, alliances along these lines will be a low-cost way to curry favour with bigger players and gain technical skills that they might lack at home.

Collective editing may start with basic cultural agreements and shared antipathies among states, such as what religious minorities they dislike, how they view other parts of the world or what their cultural perspective is on historical figures such as Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong or Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Larger states are less likely to band together than smaller ones – they already have the technical capabilities – so it will be a fleet of smaller states, pooling their resources, that will find this method useful. If some member countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an association of former Soviet states, became fed up with Moscow’s insistence on standardising the Russian language across the region, they could join together to censor all Russian-language content from their national internets and thus limit their citizens’ exposure to Russia.

Ideology and religious morals are likely to be the strongest drivers of these collaborations. Imagine if a group of deeply conservative Sunni-majority countries – say, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and Mauritania – formed an online alliance and decided to build a “Sunni web”. While technically this Sunni web would still be part of the larger internet, it would become the main source of information, news, history and activity for citizens living in these countries. For years, the development and spread of the internet was highly determined by its English-only language standard, but the continued implementation of internationalised domain names (IDN), which allow people to use and access domain names written in non-Roman alphabet characters, is changing this. The creation of a Sunni web – indeed, all nationalised internets – becomes more likely if its users can access a version of the internet in their own language and script.

Within the Sunni web, the internet could be sharia-complicit: e-commerce and e-banking would look different, since no one would be allowed to charge interest; religious police might monitor online speech, working together with domestic law enforcement to report violations; websites with gay or lesbian content would be uniformly blocked; women’s movements online might somehow be curtailed; and ethnic and religious minority groups might find themselves closely monitored, restricted or even excluded. In this scenario, how possible it would be for a local tech-savvy citizen to circumvent this internet and reach the global world wide web depends on which country he lived in: Mauritania might not have the desire or capacity to stop him, but Saudi Arabia probably would. If the Mauritanian government became concerned that its users were bypassing the Sunni web, on the other hand, surely one of its new digital partners could help it build higher fences.

There will be some instances where autocratic and democratic nations edit the web together. Such a collaboration will typically happen when a weaker democracy is in a neighbourhood of stronger autocratic states that coerce it to make the same geopolitical compromises online that it makes in the physical world.

For example, Mongolia is a young democracy with an open internet, sandwiched between Russia and China – two large countries with their own unique and restrictive internet policies. The former Mongolian prime minister Sukhbaatar Batbold explained to us that he wants Mongolia, like any country, to have its own identity. This means, he said, it must have good relations with its neighbours to keep them from meddling in Mongolian affairs.

Iranian internet cafe

People use the internet in Tehran, Iran, where the government has spoken of creating its own ‘halal internet’. Photograph: Vahid Salemi/AP

A neutral stance of noninterference is more easily sustainable in the physical world. Virtual space significantly complicates this model. People sympathetic to opposition groups and ethnic minorities within China and Russia would look at Mongolia as an excellent place to congregate. Supporters of the Uighurs, Tibetans or Chechen rebels might seek to use Mongolia’s internet space as a base from which to mobilise, to wage online campaigns and build virtual movements. If that happened, the Mongolian government would no doubt feel the pressure from China and Russia, not just diplomatically but because its national infrastructure is not built to withstand a cyber assault from either neighbour. Seeking to please its neighbours and preserve its own physical and virtual sovereignty, Mongolia might find it necessary to abide by a Chinese or Russian mandate and filter internet content associated with hot-button issues.

What started as the world wide web will begin to look more like the world itself, full of internal divisions and divergent interests. Some form of visa requirement will emerge on the internet. This could be done quickly and electronically, as a method to contain the flow of information in both directions, requiring that users register and agree to certain conditions to access a country’s internet. Citizen engagement, international business operations and investigative reporting will all be seriously affected. This, along with internal restrictions of the internet, suggests a 21st-century equivalent of Japan’s famous sakoku (“locked country”) policy of near-total isolation enacted in the 17th century.

Some states may implement visa requirements as both a monitoring tool for international visitors and as a revenue-generating exercise – a small fee would be charged upon entering a country’s virtual space, even more if one’s online activities violated the terms of the visa. Virtual visas would appear in response to security threats related to cyber attacks; if your IP address (the unique number associated with each device on the internet) came from a blacklisted country, you would encounter heightened monitoring.

Under conditions like these, the world will see its first Internet asylum seeker. A dissident who can’t live freely under an autocratic Internet and is refused access to other states’ Internets will choose to seek physical asylum in another country to gain virtual freedom on its Internet. There could be a form of interim virtual asylum, where the host country would share sophisticated proxy and circumvention tools that would allow the dissident to connect outside.

Virtual asylum will not work, however, if the ultimate escalation occurs: the creation of an alternative domain name system (DNS), or even aggressive and ubiquitous tampering with it to advance state interests. Today, the internet as we know it uses the DNS to match computers and devices to relevant data sources, translating IP addresses (numbers) into readable names, with .edu, .com, .net suffixes, and vice versa. No government has yet achieved an alternative system, but if one succeeded in doing so, it would effectively unplug its population from the global internet and instead offer only a closed, national intranet. In technical terms, this would entail creating a censored gateway between a given country and the rest of the world, so that a human proxy could facilitate external data transmissions when absolutely necessary – for matters involving state resources, for instance.

It’s the most extreme version of what technologists call a walled garden. On the internet, a walled garden refers to a browsing environment that controls a user’s access to information and services online. (This concept is not limited to discussions of censorship; AOL and CompuServe, internet giants for a time, both started as walled gardens.) For the full effect of disconnection, the government would also instruct the routers to fail to advertise the IP addresses of websites – unlike DNS names, IP addresses are immutably tied to the sites themselves – which would have the effect of putting those websites on a very distant island, utterly unreachable. Whatever content existed on this national network would circulate only internally, trapped like a cluster of bubbles in a computer screen saver, and any attempts to reach users on this network from the outside would meet a hard stop. With the flip of a switch, an entire country would simply disappear from the internet.

This is not as crazy as it sounds. It was first reported in 2011 that the Iranian government’s plan to build a “halal internet” was under way, and the regime’s December 2012 launch of Mehr, its own version of YouTube with “government-approved videos“, demonstrated that it was serious about the project. Details of the plan remained hazy but, according to Iranian government officials, in the first phase the national “clean” internet would exist in tandem with the global internet for Iranians (heavily censored as it is), then it would come to replace the global internet altogether. The government and affiliated institutions would provide the content for the national intranet, either gathering it from the global web and scrubbing it, or creating it manually. All activity on the network would be closely monitored. Iran’s head of economic affairs told the country’s state-run news agency that they hoped their halal internet would come to replace the web in other Muslim countries, too – at least those with Farsi speakers. Pakistan has pledged to build something similar.

It is possible that Iran’s threat is merely a hoax. How exactly the state intends to proceed with this project is unclear both technically and politically. How would it avoid enraging the sizable chunk of its population that has access to the internet? Some believe it would be impossible to fully disconnect Iran from the global internet because of its broad economic reliance on external connections. Others speculate that, if it wasn’t able to build an alternative root system, Iran could pioneer a dual-internet model that other repressive states would want to follow. Whichever route Iran chooses, if it is successful in this endeavour, its halal internet would surpass the “great firewall of China” as the single most extreme version of information censorship in history. It would change the internet as we know it.

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/

Science & Technology

UK abandons Huawei equipment in 5G networks

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will succumb to the pressure of deputies from the Conservative Party headed by him and, starting next year, will prohibit the use of equipment of the Chinese company Huawei in the deployment of 5G networks in the kingdom.

According to the publication, a ban on the use of equipment of the Chinese company in the kingdom may enter into force in 2021

This was reported by the newspaper The Daily Telegraph, according to which the decision of the government can be announced on Tuesday.

The publication writes that on Monday 60 conservative deputies called on the prime minister to indicate the date of refusal of the equipment of the Chinese corporation, and without delaying the matter. According to the article, Johnson discussed this issue on July 13 with the Minister of Digital Technologies, Culture, Media and Sports of the United Kingdom, Oliver Dowden. On Tuesday, this topic will be submitted to the National Security Council, which will make the final decision on the future of Huawei in the organization of the new generation of British telecommunication networks. Immediately after this, Dowden should talk about the position of the government during his speech in parliament.

As the publication clarifies, opponents of cooperation with a Chinese company from among the Tories do not doubt their victory. Otherwise, they threatened to vote against the government telecommunications bill. Considering that the ruling party’s superiority in the House of Commons is about 80 votes, it is possible that they would be able, with the help of other deputies, to achieve the task and reconsider the January decision of the Cabinet of Ministers. Then the British government, despite warnings from the United States, agreed to restrict Huawei to deploy 5G networks in the kingdom at a level of no more than 35%, with tight controls and outside the “critical critical national infrastructure” facilities.

US President Donald Trump warned the British leadership that the cooperation of the kingdom with Huawei threatens the country’s security. The American side pointed out that the use of equipment of the corporation of China in the British infrastructure could impede the exchange of information through the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

In the United States itself, Huawei has been charged with 23 counts against Huawei, its subsidiaries, as well as its chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, including industrial espionage and violation of US sanctions against Iran. Washington, waging a trade war with Beijing, calls on its allies to abandon Huawei equipment. Huawei Corporation was founded in 1987. It produces telecommunications equipment, as well as consumer devices, smartphones. The company’s products and services are available in more than 170 countries. She denies all of Washington’s accusations.

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Science & Technology

Facebook patented hand tracking system

Facebook patented hand tracking with finger emitters.

Facebook Technologies / USPTO, 2020

Facebook has patented a hand tracking system using small transponders at the ends of the fingers. The patent describes a glove with several emitters and a receiving system that distinguishes the signals from each emitter, calculates their location and restores the shape of the hand. The Patently Apple website drew attention to the patent.

Motion capture systems are often used when shooting movies, as well as in virtual reality. There are several standard tracking methods. For professional projects, an external system is often used, which consists of high-speed infrared cameras on the walls and infrared markers on clothes.

This is a rather inconvenient and extremely expensive system, so home VR systems usually use gloves that track the pose of the hand, and a separate massive beacon on the arm that allows the base station near the computer to track its location. Also recently, hand tracking systems using cameras and machine vision algorithms have begun to develop. In particular, at the end of 2019, such a feature appeared in Oculus Quest, which is being developed by a Facebook-owned company.

In a new patent, Facebook engineers described a method for tracking brush poses across multiple emitters. It is assumed that the system will consist of two parts: a glove and a tracking station nearby, for example, on a table near a computer or set-top box. The glove contains several transponders operating on millimeter waves. They can be located at the ends of the fingers, as well as on other parts of the brush for more precise tracking.

System diagram Facebook Technologies / USPTO, 2020

The tracking station has several antennas. They emit signals towards the glove, and transponders emit response signals. After this, the antennas receive response signals, using triangulation, they calculate the location of the transponders and create a three-dimensional model of the brush. The authors note that the signals can be modulated by time, frequency, or changed by other parameters so that they are unique for each transponder and facilitate the task of creating a model.

Glove diagram with transponders Facebook Technologies / USPTO, 2020

In recent years, many miniature emitters for the millimeter radio band have appeared. Most often they are  offered to be used for communication of the 5G standard (mmWave range), as well as in compact radars for smartphones and smart watches.

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Science & Technology

Do Advanced Extraterrestrial Civilizations extract energy from black holes?

Researchers from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Glasgow in the UK have proven a half-century hypothesis that suggests that technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations could potentially extract energy from spinning black holes. An article by researchers is published in the journal Nature Physics.

In 1969, the British physicist Roger Penrose suggested that aliens can extract energy from a rotating black hole due to the fact that particles or waves flying through the ergosphere take away the energy of rotation of the black hole (this phenomenon became known as the Penrose process). 

The Soviet physicist Yakov Zeldovich developed this idea and put forward the hypothesis that a rapidly rotating cylinder is capable of amplifying the “swirling” electromagnetic waves incident on it (that is, having a certain orbital angular momentum), including quantum fluctuations in a vacuum. 

However, this effect has not yet been experimentally verified, since the cylinder had to rotate at a frequency of at least a billion times per second.

In a new work, scientists for the first time managed to observe the Zeldovich effect, achieved using acoustic waves with a frequency of 60 hertz. 

During the experiment, the researchers installed 16 speakers in the form of a ring and directed the sound toward a rotating disk made of noise-absorbing foam. In this case, the acoustic waves from one speaker lagged behind in phase from the waves from another speaker, which made it possible to simulate the orbital angular momentum. Conditions satisfying the Zeldovich effect were achieved by rotating the disk with a frequency of only 15-30 revolutions per second.

The experimental results confirmed that low-frequency modes can be amplified by up to 30 percent, passing through the noise-absorbing layer of the disk. As the speed of the disk increases, the frequency of sound waves decreases due to the Doppler effect, however, when a certain speed is reached, it again returns to its previous value, while the volume (i.e. the amplitude) increases. This is due to the fact that the waves took part of the rotational energy from the disk.

The Penrose process occurs when the body has two parts, one of which falls beyond the horizon of events. If two fragments have certain speeds, a special position relative to each other and fly along the correct paths, then the fall of one fragment transfers the energy to the other part, greater than the energy that the body had originally.

 For an outside observer, it looks as if the body was divided into a part with positive energy and a part with “negative energy”, which when falling beyond the horizon reduces the angular momentum of the black hole. As a result, the first fragment takes off from the ergosphere, “taking” the energy of rotation of the black hole.

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