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geoblocking

The Coronavirus Cover-Up: A Closer Look At Internet Censorship in China

I am writing this in transit between Helsinki and Vilnius. I’ve got a mask on, and it’s uncomfortable. But I shouldn’t complain – the mask itself was a godsend – given the nationwide shortage of masks, hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes in Singapore. 

My flight taking me from Singapore to Helsinki may as well have been a private jet for the number of people on board. One of the perks when travelling while the world is gearing up for a pandemic.

The coronavirus is quickly spreading through Asia, and onward into the US and Europe. 

What does this have to do with freedom of speech? Just about everything. 

Dr Li Wenling - the coronavirus whistleblower - is now dead.

I landed in Helsinki to the news of Dr Li Wenliang’s death. 

Dr Li was one of the first people who tried to issue the first warning about the coronavirus outbreak. 

On the 30th of December, he sent a message to fellow doctors in a medical-school alumni group. In this message, he warned his fellow medical practitioners that seven patients had been quarantined at Wuhan Central Hospital after coming down with a respiratory illness similar to the SARS coronavirus. 

Four days after this, he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau where he was coerced to sign a letter. This letter claimed that he was “making false comments”. 

 

According to the BBC, the letter he was told to sign read: 

“We solemnly warn you: if you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice – is that understood?”. 

Dr Li contracted the coronavirus himself, after treating people who had it.

After contracting the virus, Dr Li continued to post to his Weibo account. “I was wondering why [the government’s] official notices were still saying there was no human to human transmissions, and there were no healthcare workers infected,” Dr Li wrote on January 31 from his hospital bed.

Officials in Wuhan initially played down the threat and censored information on the spread of the disease. “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency”, Dr Li told the New York Times. Dr Li was one of the eight people arrested for speaking out on social media.

The death of Dr Li Wenliang is a heartbreaking moment for China and a neon sign pointing at the failure of Chinese leadership. 

The following are censorship instructions on how to deal with reporting on Dr Li’s death – issued to the media by the Chinese authorities.

The rapid-fire spread of the coronavirus in China, alongside with this sad event, is a clear example of how transparency and openness can save lives, while censorship can lead to global disaster. 

Keeping a deadly disease hidden from the public consciousness only lets it fester and spread silently. Censorship has fed this infection to pandemic proportions. 

The state of the internet in China

The internet first arrived in China as a tool for the emerging “socialist market economy”. In 1998 the Golden Shield project was created. The Golden Shield project was a database project which gave the Chinese government the power to not only access the records of each citizen but to delete any comments online that were considered harmful to the Chinese government. 

https://media.torproject.org/image/community-images/

The image above showcases a simplified topology of the great firewall of China.

In a white paper, released by the government of China, it clearly states that “within Chinese territory, the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected”. Here’s a direct link to a copy of the whitepaper.

I call bullshit. And so do a growing number of “dissidents” of the Chinese government. 

Looks like the citizens of China are finally getting woke - after decades of attempted brainwashing.

Government agencies have weakened the check-and-balance function that true journalism brings. “The local government’s tolerance level of different online voices is way too low,” wrote Hu Xijin on his social media – editor of the Global Times, a nationalist and party-controlled outlet.

“The current system looks so vibrant, yet it’s shattered completely by a government crisis…We gave up our rights in exchange for protection, but what kind of protection is it? Where will our long-lasting political apathy lead us” – writes a user on Chinese social media. This post was shared over 7000 times and liked 27,000 times. Then it was deleted [censored].

 

Zhang Ouya, a senior reporter at the state-run Hubei Daily wrote that “For Wuhan, please change the leadership immediately” – on his verified Weibo account. This post was shortly deleted, but not before a screenshot was circulated widely. This was followed by a leaked official document where the newspaper apologised to Wuhan officials with a promise that its staff would only post positive content. Only positive content – with a growing death count in China. 🙄🙄🙄

This outbreak is not only a national crisis – it’s a global health crisis with epic repercussions. On China Central Television, the state broadcaster shows a banquet held by leadership to celebrate the country’s successes. 

“Chinese social media are full of anger, not because there was no censorship on this topic, but despite strong censorship, it is still possible that the censorship will suddenly increase again, as part of an effort to control the narrative,” said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. Critics are finding new ways to dodge censors, referring to Xi Jingping, China’s top leader as “Trump” and/or comparing the coronavirus outbreak to the Chernobyl catastrophe. 

This week, police in the port city of Tianjin detained a man for 10 days for “maliciously publishing aggressive, insulting speech against medical personnel”. He had been critical of the response to the coronavirus outbreak in a WeChat group he shared with his friends.

China’s online censorship system, unaffectionately known as the Great Firewall, is also censoring any information the Chinese government deems a rumour.

What is classified as a rumour?

 

  • Posts of families with infected members seeking help
  • Posts by people living in quarantined cities documenting their daily lives
  • Posts criticising the way the Chinese government is handling this outbreak

The Chinese government has even announced that anyone attempting to disrupt social order by posting information with sources that are not from state-run media, will face three to seven years in jail. What the actual …fudge.

This censorship is not just a problem for Chinese citizens. It affects us all.

The World Health Organisation has declared a global health emergency. As the coronavirus spreads it becomes clear that one governments’ actions can have a global impact. 

A choke-hold on transparency, openness and the free flow of information does not just affect the country being censored. This is one of the reasons we must take a global stance against internet censorship as more and more countries draw borders around the flow of information.

China may be one of the worst offenders but it’s not alone. 

The internet as a means for openness and transparency

This is a very personal cause for me. I grew up in a country where freedom of speech wasn’t a given. The soft power that countries with authoritarian and totalitarian governments have increasingly global impact at the speed at which globalisation is moving. 

This is one of the many reasons I wake up every day to work on Mysterium Network. You can’t put a price on the work that our community is doing to ensure an open internet for all. It’s not just so you can stream shows you like, it could save lives, prevent pandemics and overthrow totalitarian governments. 

Mysterium Network is building a permissionless and distributed virtual private network. Mysterium Network will allow end-users in heavily censored regions access to the open internet.

Our network is for the people, by the people. What do we mean by that? Most nodes in our network [nodes provide IPs that open up the internet for end-users using MysteriumVPN] are residential IPs, meaning they are run in the homes by our community of hacktivists across the globe.

Join us on our mission to open the internet for all. Run a node.

In a region with internet censorship? Give MysteriumVPN a whirl – it’s free while we’re in the testing phase.

Geoblocking; its impact on free speech to free movies online

We’ve all been there; “this content is unavailable in your country.” 

For many, geoblocking is an everyday inconvenience. For others, it’s a disguised form of censorship. This widely accepted practice allows companies to restrict access to their service based purely on your location. 

While this is generally for the sake of copyright and basic economics, in some extreme cases, it’s a violation of our human rights – such as the right to access information freely.

When the internet turns against you

Just imagine if the next time you went out to see a movie, you and your fellow viewers were each charged different ticket prices depending on your nationality. This is essentially what’s at play with geoblocking – location-based discrimination. And it’s happening to you every time you shop, stream or browse online. 

From Apple to small ecommerce stores, businesses the world over are varying their prices based on what they expect you to afford. Prices may even change depending on what time of day it is or the temperature outside. The digital economy has made it easy for companies to collect this data, later used to exploit your spending habits or socio-economic status. Even if you’re just a few suburbs apart, what price you pay may be vastly different to someone else in your own city. 

Last year, laws were introduced by the Council of the European Union to protect consumers from this kind of discrimination “based on customers’ nationality, place of residence or place of establishment.”

And while these anti-geoblocking regulations may be one initiative for tearing down these digital walls, there’s little to get excited about. These regulations only apply to businesses selling goods and services, but not online content more broadly. And ultimately, it’s up to the governments of its member states to enforce – so it might as well be optional. 

Yes, much of geoblocking comes down to basic economics. But the web was not designed to be segmented this way. It was designed to create a global village, where a user in Tibet had precisely the rights and opportunities as someone in Toronto. In an age where we’re supposedly more equal and connected than ever before, it’s a shame we can’t do better.

We’re still a long way from the equalized cyber utopia the internet promised us in the nineties.

Copyright, or wrong?

Some films and TV shows costs hundreds of millions to make. To their producers, these pieces of content are considered investments, which we help pay off everytime we pay to watch them. 

But digital piracy has become a huge problem worldwide, taking a huge cut out of their studio’s profits. Tens of billions of visits were made to media piracy sites worldwide in 2018 alone. If you can watch movies online for free, then why would you pay to see it in the cinema, or subscribe to a streaming service?

This unfortunate trend means the lifecycle of these films become shorter once they leave the cinema. In response, studios have begun selling their movies through on-demand streaming services like Apple’s iTunes store and Amazon Prime. These platforms can also sell ad space, milking more money out of their advertising space. 

But every market demands different content. What is a hit in some parts of the world is a flop in others. And with so much money at stake each time a film is created, studios enforce strict copyright laws to ensure they maximise the return on their investment. Each content-deal is carefully negotiated by territory. Studios charge outlets like Netflix far more to offer certain titles in some countries than others. This is why geoblocking has become such an effective method for honouring these copyright laws and agreements. 

Yet in today’s attention economy, the ultimate goal is to get as many eyes on a piece of content as possible. The more eyes, the more content can claim to be worth in ad revenue. If you geoblock something that a customer is willing to pay for with their potentially undivided attention, you may be sabotaging a potential revenue stream. This kind of thinking is surprisingly alien to those stuck in the ages of traditional television.

In fact, reports suggest that removing “unjustified geoblocking…could foster growth and increase consumer choice throughout the internal market.”

Free streaming - or freedom of speech?

Geoblocking is an inconvenience for those of us fortunate enough to access most content online. In some parts of the world, its use is far more sinister. Governments are even forcibly removing content from streaming services to aid their political agendas. 

In Turkey, for example, streaming services were previously allowed to operate outside the country’s censorship rules. But since September, every streaming service will now have to apply for a license which complies with government enforced internet regulation. The aim is to inhibit dissent, in all its digital forms. 

Content providers must now “navigate different political and moral landscapes” as calls for censorship expand worldwide. With a flick of a switch, businesses can willingly convene with oppressive regimes to prevent free access to information. Geoblocking has no longer become a method for business, but a veiled form of censorship. 

Our constant battle for free speech has become more obvious in the digital world. The open sharing of ideas built the privileged world we live in. Companies should be encouraging, not hindering, the flow of cultural and artistic exports around the world. In fact, this 2018 annual SEC report lists both censorship and “the need to adapt content… for specific cultural and language differences” as a commercial risk for these entertainment businesses.   

But more importantly, if we shelter society from alternative or diverse ways of thinking, we risk a cultural vacuum where nothing is challenged or changed. If censorship had its way, the civil rights movement would never have happened and we may still be convinced that the Sun orbits the Earth

The bird is the not the word

Geoblocking can also serve as a tool of government oppression, putting a chokehold on democracy. A prominent example is Turkey, where the government demanded that Twitter withhold hundreds of accounts affiliated with voices opposing the current regime.  

Similar injustices included blocking Twitter entirely just two weeks before the 2014 general election, and later again in the wake of a coup attempt against the Turkish president.

In his words;

“We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”

Situations like these, in many ways, say more about the alarming power of the big media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter than anything else. They’ve become as influential as a utility company. When paired with an unscrupulous government, the internet’s potential for fostering free, diverse discourse is starting to dwindle.  

When it comes to protecting free speech and human rights, the internet has the ability to be the world’s superhero.  

But this kind of geoblocking, and censorship more generally, is very much now the kryptonite slowly killing this hope.

Help us sink the Censorship - the power of the free VPN

It’s unlikely that governments and media platforms will support an open internet. If we’re to figure out this mess, our only hope is to find our own ways of circumventing unethical geoblocking and creating an internet that we all deserve. 

The world is well aware of this too. In fact, one quarter of the world has used a VPN in the last month. Looking at the leading markets of VPN usage, Asia Pacific leads the demand. This is closely followed by countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia (no surprises there). Wherever there is high tech and low freedom, demand for VPNs blossom. 

In today’s world VPNs are essential for online security and privacy. But the risks that occur with your typical VPN are more apparent than ever. 

Enter the decentralized VPN. While your typical centralized VPN will merely morph your current IP address into a new one, a decentralized VPN uses layered protection protocols to hide both your identity and location from any geoblockers or prying eyes. Doing this adds an extra layer of security and privacy; previously one’s only option was for our identities to pass through a centralized VPN, having them store our information in the process. This process meant that our identities were, all too often, protected by unreliable security measures

When you use a decentralized VPN, the service is powered entirely by other web users like you. Each person can rent out their IP address and bandwidth to others in this P2P network and earn crypto in exchange. Due to its distributed infrastructure, none of your data can be physically stored anywhere, and all traffic being routed through these personal nodes is heavily encrypted. 

The more nodes that join help increase the network’s speed and efficiency. So by simply offering up your spare bandwidth, you enable fellow Mysterium users to browse freely, avoiding geoblockers and every other force that quashes a free and open internet.

 The more nodes we run, the freer and more private our online lives become. It’s that simple.

We already have 812 nodes in our network and we’re growing fast. Check out our network dashboard to see all our nodes around the world

Find out if you’re eligible to become a node get paid for your excess internet.

What happened to the Internet?

In its very early days, the Internet was decentralised. It was a public place where computers spoke to each other directly. Anyone could build upon open protocols that were governed by a small community of users — just like Mysterium Network (sign up for our closed node runner pilot).

This accessibility invited companies to contribute, to experiment, and develop fast. Direct peer to peer file sharing was born during this time, in the late 90s. The first Internet businesses began to emerge, and they soon abandoned the open protocol design in place of their own centralized alternatives.

The Internet today is now governed by a handful of these businesses. Tech empires — Google, Amazon, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook — with their privately owned servers and infrastructure power the web for everyone. With this power comes unchallenged and uncapped control. If the Internet were a nation state, it would not be a democracy.

“If the Internet were a nation state, it would not be a democracy.”

While they operate mostly in the online domain, the decisions and actions of these tech giants affect our privacy, security, our access to information and to each other. Their carefully programmed algorithms design our world view, and most of our news is filtered through very few platforms. We can only trust that Google will act ethically as a gatekeeper to the world’s information. Facebook has already betrayed our trust, yet we continue to log in each day without any reasonable alternative. The internet, which is “owned” by no one, has been monopolised.

Governments and their agencies have attempted to exert some sort of influence and keep these companies in check. Legislations like the GDPR are meant to protect us, but the laws which govern the privacy of our personal data have largely benefited corporate needs.

“We pay Internet Service Providers to get us online, yet they continue to sabotage our privacy in exchange for greater returns.”

The trouble with centralisation

The flaws with a centralised internet are deeply embedded within its infrastructure:

  1. Servers are vulnerable to hacks or network failure
  2. Our personal data is readily available for advertisers
  3. Content is blocked or censored against our will.

“We have normalised the trading of our privacy in exchange for convenient services”

We pay Internet Service Providers to get us online, yet they continue to sabotage our privacy in exchange for greater returns. Your every email, purchase, google search, upload and friend request is translated into data that is collected and stored in their centralised servers. All this personal information is monetised without your knowledge, your online habits and movements sold to advertisers and businesses who thrive off our profiles. Just this week, Bloomberg reported that businesses can buy information about our locations and movements with ease.

These servers are regularly hacked and sensitive data leaked, often without real consequence. In 2018 alone, over one billion people were victim to these data breaches. You may have been affected without knowing (but you can check using certain tools, including this one).

What’s more concerning is the ease with which governments can access this same information. Tech companies allow the NSA to access their servers and collect data through formalised arrangements. The UK’s Snoopers Charter grants the government the right to legally monitor the internet usage of its citizens.

We have normalised the trading of our privacy in exchange for convenient services, forgetting that it is a basic human right. The UN urges the protection of our privacy and anonymity online to evade the grasp of “broad and intrusive government surveillance.”

Part of the Charter of Human Rights is the fundamental right of freedom of expression, which encompasses the freedom to “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Yet many jurisdictions around the world confine their citizens within digital walls, inhibiting the free flow of truths and voices. This online censorship erodes democracy and equality in the real world.

The Web3 revolution starts with you

We’re now entering a new era of the internet, one which honours its original, decentralised roots.

“To decentralise the internet is to democratise it”

New technology offers us an opportunity to re-engineer the foundations of the web today; it withdraws commercial influence and government control, distributing this power among users instead. To decentralise the internet is to democratise it — to break apart the infrastructure of a corporately managed internet, and assign this responsibility to us.

Blockchain has already begun facilitating this through its democratic and self-governing architecture. Instead of centralised servers, we can create peer to peer systems which allow people, not business, to securely store and share information online.

Anyone can be a part of this decentralised system. Your computer becomes a node, acting as a miniature server. This means it can help power the entire network by directly sharing its excess resources, such as bandwidth or processing power. We can do this without any kind of official host or authority at all — and be paid for it. The bigger this distributed network grows, the stronger and faster it becomes, and a bandwidth marketplace can flourish.

An internet powered by people is the next stage of its technological and social evolution. An ambitious few have already started to jumpstart this transformation. The creator and “father” of the Internet himself, Tim Berners-Lee, is now the co-lead of the Decentralized Information Group at MIT, working to reverse the trend of centralisation and restore “net neutrality”.

“An internet powered by people is the next stage of its technological and social evolution.”

Momentum is building. Countless other entrepreneurial teams around the world are building the decentralised applications (dApps) and open-source tools which will empower a global community of users to govern and sustain the internet.

What can a node network “do”? A dVPN use case

A strong node network can solve the failings of our centralised internet. One of its many real-world applications is in being the foundation of a strong, community-run VPN.

Think of a VPN as a failsafe against the various threats which undermine an open and democratic internet. It allows you to connect to servers located around the world, hiding your IP address and identity — a technological remedy for censorship, surveillance and firewalls.

Yet common VPNs utilise servers that are centrally owned and run by businesses, and they can store logs of all your traffic without anyone knowing. You have to trust that they won’t do anything with this data, nor that they’ll hand it over to authorities if asked to. While some of your data may be encrypted, lots of it can still be revealed.

We can instead leverage decentralised networks so that your encrypted data is sharded into separate pieces and filtered in an unrecognisable form through a distributed node network — without the possibility of being traced or censored. A single node will never be able to identify you or your online activities, nor can authorities and third parties.

In its decentralised form, a VPN pays people (nodes) for providing the service. And as with a decentralised internet, a decentralised VPN has no single point of failure or attack, making it more robust than centralised options. It creates a secure and accessible online space, enhances user privacy in the truest sense, and is strengthened by the mutual trust and shared interests of a global community looking out for each other.

Become a Mysterium Node Runner

https://mysterium.network/node/

Decentralisation still has a way to go. It may take decades for the internet to migrate onto a P2P network, but we are already crafting the tools to make it a reality. We can rewire the internet so that it becomes a public domain once again — a space for new ideas, collaboration and connection.

This is just the beginning. You can help us democratise the web, one node at a time.

Join our node pilot by downloading our node for Windows, Mac and Raspberry Pi.

Please beware of scams. We will never ask you for your private keys.

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