Global News Blog
More than 180 websites have been blacklisted and blocked under a restrictive new Internet law signed by President Vladimir Putin last July, which critics warn may be the start of a wider crackdown on free speech in Russian cyberspace.
The blacklist compiled by the Federal Surveillance Service for Mass Media and Communications (Roskomnadzor) is secret, but authorities insist its purpose is to eliminate extreme forms of "offensive" content, such as child pornography, or advocacy of racism, terrorism, drug use and other anti-social behaviors.
The list is constantly changing and expanding (Russian bloggers have posted an alleged copy of it here) and citizens can suggest new entries by logging into an official Roskomnadzor website.
But in its first two weeks of application, the law has produced a few high-profile casualties that critics say point to the fundamental weaknesses of a system that allows authorities to summarily shut down content without any need for a court order or reference to any supervisory body.
The definitions of "offensive content" are also murky, critics say, and could easily include political conversation that looks "extremist" to a policeman's eyes and other forms of commentary that might be simply misunderstood.
That criticism seems to have already been borne out. This week alone Roskomnadzor has closed down, among others, a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia of satire, which contained an article about how to make hemp (often associated with marijuana) soup; an online library, which included a copy of "The Anarchist's Cookbook," a 1970's American-authored manual for radicals; and a popular torrent-tracking website, on which users had apparently exchanged a file called "The Encyclopedia of Suicide."
The agency allowed those websites to reopen after the "offensive content" was pruned. But experts say those examples were hugely popular websites whose closure attracted immediate public attention and a storm of complaints; restoring service may not prove so easy for smaller victims of the law.
"The first several days of operation of this law have confirmed our worst fears," says Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and popular blogger.
"Roskomnadzor can shut down a site within 24 hours, without appealing to a court. But in order to restore a resource, one has to complain and go to court. Even so, the rules for getting back online are not at all clear ... As a result, big resources like YouTube, or internet encyclopedias, or social networks are all under threat. They have millions of users, and some of them are inevitably going to post something deemed offensive. That could lead to the closure of the whole portal," which will be disruptive even if it's temporary, he says.
The head of Roskomnadzor, Alexander Zharov, told journalists this week that big Russian social networks are scrambling to cooperate with the agency, rather than face the possibility of being axed.
"The response from national social networking sites has been comprehensive and constructive, we have no problems with them," Mr. Zharov said.
That worries many opposition-minded Russians, who recall that the protest movement, which erupted last December over alleged electoral fraud was largely self-organized by citizens who communicated through social networks like Facebook and the Russian-language VKontakte.
"The criteria of this law are too vague, and the way we've seen it applied already gives us no grounds for optimism," says Sergei Davidis, a lawyer and member of the Solidarnost opposition group.
"There is no presumption of innocence, since the decision [to censor] can be taken without a court order. And there is no independent supervision over our law enforcement agencies ... It's clear that under these conditions, and with the prohibit-first approach that authorities are taking, mistakes will be commonplace and the field of freedom will narrow further," he says.
In a comprehensive analysis of the new law, security experts Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan warn that Russian authorities are introducing DPI (deep packet inspection) technology, which creates the potential for unprecedented and total surveillance over all Internet activities.
"No Western democracy has yet implemented a dragnet black-box DPI surveillance system due to the crushing effect it would have on free speech and privacy," they quote Eric King, head of research at Privacy International, as saying. "DPI allows the state to peer into everyone’s internet traffic and read, copy, or even modify e-mails and webpages: We now know that such techniques were deployed in pre-revolutionary Tunisia. It can also compromise critical circumvention tools, tools that help citizens evade authoritarian internet controls in countries like Iran and China."
Experts also warn that the vastly expanded powers open new vistas for official coercion and corruption which, this being Russia, are almost certain to become part of daily practice.
"Imagine that some Internet business has a public forum, and somebody posts something 'offensive' there. It will immediately face the threat of closure," unless authorities are properly mollified, says Mr. Kozyrev.
"Basically, this law opens an enormous field for political pressure on one side, and corruption on the other. It combines an attack on freedom of thought with an assault on business. The situation is really alarming," he says.
As a former student of elite Eton College – just like the current prime minister and generations of other senior figures in British public life – the new Archbishop of Canterbury comes with some impeccable establishment credentials.
While his mother had been Winston Churchill’s private secretary, business is also in the blood: He is the son of a businessman who traded in whiskey during America’s prohibition years and later worked for a company that survived the ban by selling communion wine.
A career in the oil industry beckoned and he spent 11 years in the sector as a senior executive, based in Paris and London. He worked on projects in the North Sea and the Niger Delta, gaining a familiarity that would come in useful in later years as a cleric traveling to the West African reaches of the Anglican Communion, Nigeria.
In 1983, his seven-month-old, first-born daughter was killed in a car crash, leading to "a very dark time" for him and his wife. But it also "bought us closer to God," he has said.
He left behind his career in business in 1987 to train an Anglican priest, later telling business magazine Money Marketing "I was unable to get away from a sense of God calling."
He became a deacon in 1992 after taking a degree in theology, serving later as a curate in the Coventry diocese and was made a rector in 1995 before being made a canon at Coventry Cathedral in 2002.
At Coventry, he was involved in international conflict resolution before becoming dean of Liverpool in 2007. He was elevated to the fourth most senior post in the Church of England in November 2011, when he became the bishop of Durham.
Endless and pointless meetings are by no means unique to China, as almost anybody who works in a large organization can attest.
But the Chinese Communist Party has refined the endless meeting to an exquisite level of pointlessness, and on Friday, when journalists were invited to sit in on “private” discussions among delegates to the 18th Party Congress, the phenomenon was on full display.
None of us had expected lively and spontaneous debate about the speech that party leader Hu Jintao had given on Thursday at the opening of the Congress. That is not the way things work here.
But there was no discussion of any description of the speech at any of the three gatherings that I attended in ornately decorated, thickly carpeted, marble pillared meeting rooms in the gigantic Great Hall of the People.
The Shanxi provincial delegation meeting seemed pretty typical. Thirty or so delegates were sat around a U-shaped table, and one by one they made their speeches.
'Yesterday, I heard Hu Jintao's report'
“Yesterday, I listened to Hu Jintao’s report and I found it very profound and very correct,” said Wu Huada, president of a coalmining company, before reading his prepared remarks about improved mine safety in Shanxi.
“I heard Hu Jintao’s report yesterday, and I firmly support this report,” said Niu Guodong, who introduced himself as a worker at the largest stainless steel factory in the world, and then read from a text explaining the energy saving measures the factory has introduced.
“Yesterday, I heard President Hu Jintao’s report and it expressed the will of people across the nation. I shall study it further,” promised Li Fei, a local party secretary, who then read her speech detailing the number of kilometers of road paved recently and the number of rural schools that had been remodeled in the county she rules.
All over the Great Hall of the People, in room after room, delegates were droning on about things their audiences knew already, or if they didn’t know, they evidently did not care about. Some stared into the middle distance; others pored over the speeches they themselves were about to make; some openly read a newspaper, or dozed.
The whole exercise appeared to strike them as a monumental waste of time; everything had been scripted in advance, and everyone had heard it all before.
Nor are these sorts of meeting uncommon in China. This was the cream of the Communist Party, but officials at all levels of the Chinese system spend huge amounts of time engaged in similar meetings.
It struck me that the progress China has made in so many spheres over the past 30 years is even more remarkable when you take into account that its successes have been achieved even though the people running the country waste so much of their time in endless and pointless meetings.
A Chinese colleague, however, had a more cynical take on what we were witnessing. “It just shows,” she said, “that the country goes on running perfectly well even without all these guys while they waste their time at meetings.”
What makes Wuxi even more striking is that the city fathers have pinned their hopes for the future on high tech. That means this is not the sort of town you imagine when you think, “5 million people in a Chinese city.” The air is breathable (indeed the authorities are decommissioning coal-fired power plants near the center of the city), the streets are broad, and many of the suburban districts look like a bucolic Google campus writ large.
Things are not necessarily what they seem, however.
The city’s shiniest success story, until recently, was Suntech, the biggest manufacturer of solar panels in the world. But the company has been hit hard by a downturn in the industry, and saddled with debt has been laying off workers in the past few months.
Still, Wushi has other strings to its bow. While many other Chinese cities have made a name for themselves on the strength of a particular product (“Yiwu – Sock Capital of the World”), Wuxi has broader appeal. For example it has focused on measuring instruments, which nowadays means digital measuring instruments, another high tech business with good export potential.
Once, the worst polluter in China
But all this represents a bid by the city to escape its nationwide image as one of the worst polluters in China. For Wuxi built its prosperity on thousands of chemical factories along the shore of Lake Tai, the third largest freshwater lake in China.
For years they have poured phosphates and other effluents into the lake, sucking out the oxygen and killing the fish and shrimp for which the lake was famous. In 2007 the waters of Lake Tai became so eutrophic they were covered with a thick layer of luminous green, foul smelling pond scum. More than 2 million people were deprived of cooking and drinking water for nearly a week. Each spring the scum re-forms, though rarely as badly as five years ago.
The local government has repeatedly promised to enforce stricter pollution controls, and repeatedly failed to do so, according to environmental nongovernmental organizations. In fact even as Lake Tai was fouling up in 2007, the best known local activist was being jailed for three years on what he insisted were trumped-up charges of fraud and blackmail. Since he got out of prison, reporting that he had been tortured, he has kept his mouth shut.
It is not hard to see why. The authorities in Wuxi want to present the world with a clean, modern, international image that will attract traders and investors. And anyone who threatens to sully that image by drawing attention to inconvenient truths had better watch out.
( Interested in more? Read Peter Ford's piece on China's reverse Brain drain here.)
• The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded travel in China for this project. Multimedia and reporter blogs about the project can be found on the Pulitzer Center website.
The controversial (more on that later) half-page ad in The Irish Times newspaper read: "Sorry Romney, you're not black or cool. We're paying out early on an Obama victory."
So, while Americans head to the polls to choose their next president, many people in Britain and Ireland can head to the cashier's window and pick up their winnings for choosing Obama for a second term. They won't be collecting much though, because with odds of 1/5 the firm only pays out 20 cents for every euro bet (plus gives gamblers their original stake back).
The total payout has been over $650,000, according to the betting outfit.
Anyone who fancies their chances in taking on the house and winning by betting on a Romney victory will win €3.50 (about $4.50) for every euro staked. Despite the early payout on Obama, a Romney win would mean a second payout — and big losses for the bookie.
The low odds on Obama winning coupled with high ones on a Romney victory indicate Paddy Power is confident of a Obama victory as it is unlikely the firm would stake millions on a one-off publicity stunt.
The bookmaker is no stranger to controversial ads designed to get the attention of the press and, perhaps intentionally, rile industry regulators. In fact, Paddy Power's marketing department appears to have something of a fixation with the 44th President of the United States.
When Obama visited Ireland in May 2011 Paddy Power re-branded thirteen of its shops as "Obama Power" and took bets on which pub the president would drink a pint of Guinness in, a traditional photo-op for visiting US presidents.
More darkly, in 2008 the firm was accused of taking bets that implied Obama would be assassinated, when it offered odds that the president would not complete his term in office.
The most recent ad has attracted the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland, standing accused of racism.
ASAI chief executive Frank Goodman said a single complaint about the ad had been lodged with the advertising industry's self-regulating body he heads.
"It's not causing widespread offense, but we're looking at it under [the rubric of] social responsibility," he said.
No one from Paddy Power was available for comment when The Christian Science Monitor called.
One of the clearest illustrations of “brain gain” in Poland comes from the southern city of Krakow which is experiencing a mini-boom in information technology – at a time when much of Europe’s tech scene is in a windless ocean.
The global reverse migration – turning brain drain to brain gain in many countries – is obvious here: Some 70 IT and multinational firms have opened, employing 20,000 skilled workers – Poles and foreigners alike. Cisco opened in May, and its 90-person staff will soon climb to 500. Google moved an R&D office here. State Street, Capgemeni and Lufthansa, Shell, Brown Brothers, and Philip Morris, to name a few, are all present.
The hopeful call Krakow a small Silicon Valley of Central Europe. And the buzz here is a magnet for brain gain: It’s a small oasis of Polish bohemia with 14 colleges and universities, and a bar-arts-and-film scene, and – not destroyed like Warsaw in World War II – it retains its Austro-Hungarian architectural charm. ( Continue… )
The US presidential campaign kept a laser focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs” that left environmentalists wondering if anyone still cares about the condition of the planet. A remarkable photo essay in the Daily Mail puts the need for economic development versus the preservation of wild places in high relief. Aerial photos of the mining of tar sands in northern Alberta – the world’s third-largest oil reserve – reveal how a landscape of what was once lush green forests, an area larger than England, is being turned into an oily, nightmarish desert.
Boreal forest in Canada is disappearing at a rate second only to that of the deforestation of the Amazon. The operation provides thousands of jobs, huge tax revenues for Canada, and a potential oil supply for the United States from a friendly neighbor. But the photos are a reminder to those who live far from this strip mining of what is being lost. “The tar sands should be classified as an act of ecocide and rendered illegal under international law. This is, in effect, a crime against humanity,” argues one environmentalist.
Where is the environmental proof?
Environmentalists decry how climate change skeptics ignore or try to discredit copious scientific evidence indicating that human-induced climate change is taking place. But environmentalist Fred Pearce says that on other issues the environmental movement needs to make sure it isn’t itself turning a blind eye to scientific evidence.
Many environmentalists strongly oppose genetically modified crops, nuclear power, and shale gas development (so-called fracking) but can’t show solid science to back up their opposition, says Mr. Pearce in an essay at Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “[T]he voices of those with genuine environmental credentials, but who take a different view [on these issues], are being drowned out by sometimes abusive and irrational argument,” he says.
“[T]he environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than any other thing we’ve been wrong about,” he quotes Stewart Brand as saying. While many people have a visceral fear of invisible nuclear radiation, nuclear power has a better safety record than many think. Fracking to release natural gas presents significant environmental hazards, but it is far preferable to burning coal, Pearce says, and natural gas can serve as a valuable bridge until the use of alternative fuels can be ramped up.
Kindness found in creatures
Animal lovers have no trouble attributing acts of kindness, selflessness, or compassion to nonhumans. But scientists and philosophers have been skeptical, worrying that these attitudes are one example of “anthropomorphism,” attributing human characteristics to animals or inanimate things.
In an essay titled “The kindness of beasts” in Aeon, a digital magazine of ideas and culture, Mark Rowlands, a professor of philosophy at the University of Miami says, “A growing number of animal scientists, however, are going over to the dark side, and at least flirting with the idea that animals can act morally.”
Among the cases he cites is that of Binti Jua, a gorilla who lived at the Brookfield Zoo near Chicago. In 1996 she “came to the aid of a three-year-old boy who had climbed on to the wall of the gorilla enclosure and fallen five meters [15 feet] onto the concrete floor below. Binti Jua lifted the unconscious boy, gently cradled him in her arms, and growled warnings at other gorillas that tried to get close. Then, while her own infant clung to her back, she carried the boy to the zoo staff waiting at an access gate.”
Even lab rats won’t push a lever that delivers food to them if it causes a painful electrical shock to other rats, Mr. Rowlands says.
“When a chimpanzee gives what appears to be a consoling hug to its fellow ... then, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the working hypothesis should be that the chimpanzee is motivated by the same sorts of emotions as a human would be in the same sort of situation,” he says.
We can relieve you of that
Ken Cage had quickly grown tired of being an ordinary “repo man,” taking back cars and TVs from blue-collar folks hit hard by the economic downturn. So he went upscale and decided to take on deadbeat rich folks who had made a killing in finance and real estate but could no longer pay for their expensive toys.
“The Luxury Repo Men,” by Matthew Teague, in Bloomberg Businessweek tells how Mr. Cage and his team have taken back everything from yachts to a $20 million personal jet to a racehorse from the once nouveau riche. The work can be hazardous: Cage and his crew took back a jet from a former pro football player who body-slammed Cage’s pilot when he tried to enter the cockpit.
Cage’s high-end repo company, the International Recovery & Remarketing Group, expects to recover items worth a total of $100 million in 2012. Perhaps his strangest case? Finding a missing 1953 Tri-Pacer airplane. He tracked it down to a steakhouse in Cleveland – where it was hanging from the ceiling.
The people who run the “Wuxi 530” program said they were happy enough to show me around and talk about their work, but they needed permission from the city’s (Communist Party controlled) Foreign Affairs Office.
And that, strangely, was not forthcoming. The Foreign Affairs Office, which oversees city officials’ contacts with foreigners, told my would-be hosts that “it is not suggested to arrange this planned visit in a sensitive moment.” It was “strongly recommended” that I change my schedule.
The “sensitive moment” could only refer to the ruling Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress, even though that meeting was not due to be held for at least a month after my planned visit, and in Beijing, 1,000 kilometers (some 621 miles) away from Wuxi. But I knew from experience that this was not the sort of ruling that you bother to challenge outright, even if it made no apparent sense.
I went to Wuxi anyway, of course. If a reporter in China did only what the authorities suggested he do he would never write anything. I could not meet the people running the returnee program – they would have got into trouble if they had seen me – but I could talk to independent businessmen who had benefited from it.
And it was while I was talking to them that I got an inkling of why, perhaps, city government officials had wanted to keep me out of Wuxi.
Because it transpired that a large proportion of the companies that returnees have set up in Wuxi have failed. And if there is one thing that Chinese officials hate to acknowledge, it is failure.
No matter that large proportions of start-up companies all over the world fail. As many as 40 percent of startups in the United States quickly go bankrupt, according to Harvard Business School research.
The big difference is that in the US this is not a cause for shame, but regarded as a natural result of the risks that small entrepreneurs take. In China it is seen as a reflection – and a poor one – on the officials who sponsored the entrepreneurs.
I could not find out exactly how many of the businesses launched through the Wuxi incentive program had gone bust. The program managers were not allowed to talk to me, and the city government refused to do so. The businessmen with whom I talked suggested, anecdotally, that around half of their peers had given up within a year or two.
This is not surprising to anyone anywhere in the world familiar with the pitfalls of starting a small business. But the official Chinese attitude is indicative of a deeper mindset that may prove an obstacle in the long term to the country’s ambitions to boost innovation by tempting home people with experience abroad.
Cutting-edge scientists and hi-tech entrepreneurs in the US and Europe are accustomed to taking risks, and accustomed to shrugging off initial failure as par for the course. Their funders and their investors share that outlook.
In China, failure implies a shameful loss of face; only in rare circumstances will an official risk it. And that may explain why the very best Chinese scientists, and the very brightest entrepreneurs, are not coming home.
• The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting funded travel in China for this project. Multimedia and reporter blogs about the project can be found on the Pulitzer Center website.
US President Barack Obama’s reelection bid is preoccupying the people in Nyang’oma Kogelo, his Kenyan father’s home village, as challenger Mitt Romney’s run is invigorating Mormons in the East African country.
Mr. Romney’s candidatcy has thrust the Christian group into the spotlight here, with its leaders on Monday unveiling a website called Kenya Mormon Newsroom to help answer questions ignited by the American political process. Leaders say the church maintains a firm political neutrality.
“In the most recent past, questions have been asked about who we are. The reasons is we have a member of the church running as president of the United State of America,” said Elder Hesbon Usi, an official here with the Mormons' Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. “Since people do not have the right source of information and truth they are looking for, a lot tend to go to other websites that are misleading. They get information that is not correct.”
Elder Thomas Hatch, a former Utah state senator who now serves as the church’s deputy director of public affairs for the region, said questions the church has encountered have prompted leaders to share more through a network of websites.
Hatch says Mormons would relish the idea of a Romney presidency, hoping it would bring the church out of obscurity. However, he cautioned that there could be many downsides as well as upsides, since presidents have to make tough decisions.
“If Mr. Romney is seen as a Mormon president, there could be retaliation by other countries against our church and missions,” he says.
Meanwhile, in Nyang’oma Kogelo, the western Kenyan village that is home to the president's step-grandmother, Sarah Obama, the community is organizing daily prayers for Obama, with special prayers reported in churches and mosques. Often gathering in small groups to listen to news and discussions on FM radios from mobile phones, the residents say they have learned Obama was facing a stiff challenge.
“We would like to organize bigger meetings to show support, but we fear the security is not good. Terrorists may attack us because of our Obama links. The threats and attacks in Kenya make use very cautious,” says Vitalis Ogombe, the chairman of a community group called the Obama Kogelo Cultural Committee.
For them, the interest in the American election is driven by pride more than economic or material gains, since Obama is viewed as a grandson there.
“We are proud because we have seen he can make a good global leader. People now know us globally because of him. We are praying that he continues,” says Mr. Ogombe.
But since Obama’s election in 2008, Kogelo can also count material gains. Electricity has been installed in the area and infrastructure improved. Micro-finance organizations and nongovernmental organizations have also moved here to help improve the community’s living standards. The local people say they are better since he became president.
For Jesse Mugambi of the University of Nairobi, America foreign policy on Africa remains the same, irrespective of whoever is the "boss."
“The voters out there will decide what is good for them, and Kenyans will put up with whoever wins. That is what democracy demands,” he says.
Some analysts have also considered an Obama loss. Charles Onyango-Obbo, in an opinion in the Daily Nation today, analyzed why an Obama loss would be good for him and the world.
“Obama has the energy and smarts to be an influential international citizen and non-state actor to join Clinton and Gates as the non-white face at the top of international NGO priesthood. To do that, he has first to lose the election,” wrote Mr. Onyango-Obbo.
IN PICTURES: Campaign photography: the art of standing out
Take me back to the days of carrier pigeons and cleft sticks.
I have just spent an entire day wrestling with my computer and my Internet connection, and I have a strong suspicion that I have been wrestling too, at a distance, with an agent of the Chinese government who has been doing his or her best to frustrate me.
In order to access the Web freely from China, you need what is called a Virtual Private Network, which jumps the Great Firewall erected by Chinese censors. Mine expired the other day, so I needed to re-install it.
That proved unusually difficult, even with online help from the company selling me the VPN, and it became clear that something was just not right.
My suspicions were heightened by the fact that I, like many other journalists, have recently received emails with Trojan horse malware (malicious code that looks like a legitimate file but in fact gives a hacker access to a computer) in their attachments. Cyber analysts who inspected them have warned that the attachments appear to come from state-sponsored hackers.
The last time this happened to me was during the Tibetan riots in 2008, when the authorities were very, very nervous about foreign journalists and began interfering directly with our communications. (That is over and above the normal surveillance to which our emails and phone calls are subject.)
Today we are at another highly sensitive political juncture, 10 days away from the 18th congress of the ruling Communist Party, which is due to anoint a new generation of leaders. But there are signs of a continuing power struggle at the very top of the party, suggesting that the government system is a good deal less stable than Beijing would like us to believe.
There came a moment this afternoon, when the VPN would not install, when a Microsoft update would not install, and when a virus detector would not install, that I came to believe I was in direct contact with my persecutor.
I was on the “Sophos” virus detector’s webpage, seeking to download the tool. Each time I clicked on “download,” I got the standard message when the censors have banned a site: “Internet Explorer cannot display the webpage.” But the page itself was not blocked and after a few tries I found I was being cut off even before my cursor reached the “download” button.
It was just as if somebody was watching my screen and interrupting me as I was on the point of doing what I wanted to.
I have no idea how possible this is, but tend to take the advice of my Chinese assistant. “There is nothing a hacker cannot do,” she has decided. “Why don’t you try again when ‘they’ have gone off duty?”
So I’ll be back in the office at midnight, and hope that “they” do not work 24/7…