China’s head honcho when it comes to censorship recently stepped down. This being China, no-one seems to know whether he was effectively sacked, or asked to move to a new bigger and better role. But what we do know is that things aren’t going to get any better for those inside the Great Firewall.
Over the past three years, Lu Wei has been a constant thorn in the side of rights groups, diplomats and Silicon Valley bosses. His aggressive defence of China’s sovereign right to do with its internet what it sees fit – most notably at the laughably titled World Internet Conference in Wuzhen – has been jarring at times. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) he headed up also runs root CA and .cn operator the Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). As such, it was blamed by Google last year for issuing unauthorized TLS certificates for several of its domains, which were subsequently used in man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks.
Even more damning, the CAC was accused of launching Man in the Middle attacks on Outlook users last year in response to its migration to HTTPS, which the authorities can’t monitor. And then it was pegged for a DDoS attack on anti-censorship organisation Greatfire.org – a constant thorn in the side of the authorities in Beijing.
I spoke to Greatfire.org co-founder Charlie Smith about the reasons for and implications of Lu’s departure.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? We probably just had the quietest anniversary of Tiananmen [Square massacre] yet, in terms of online dissent and discussion. There is more censorship in general. Less circumvention because of a crackdown on VPNs. And fewer foreign companies are trying to challenge the status quo,” he told me via email.
“We know controlling the medium is pretty near the top of [president] Xi Jinping’s agenda. So why make a change now? The timing likely indicates that this was a planned and not a rash decision. There was no need to unsettle things before the 4 June anniversary and the change happens well before the next ‘World’ Internet Conference in Wuzhen.”
Smith went on to argue that, even though Lu presided over an unprecedented crack down on internet freedom – primarily through a new regulation banning the spread of “rumours” online – he didn’t go far enough.
“Lu was not perfect. As we have shown, it is impossible to completely block all information for those inside China,” Smith continued. “Maybe in this regard, Lu was being blamed and Xi decided he wanted somebody who can get the job done. Maybe Xi was upset about being ‘vilified as a murder suspect’ and could not comprehend why Lu Wei was unable to scrub information from the Chinese internet.”
Lu’s removal, if that is what it was, may also have been an attempt by Xi at curbing his growing influence – after all, propaganda is at the heart of the Party’s power and everyone inside knows it. His replacement, Xu Lin, is a Xi Jinping acolyte and one time deputy secretary of Tibet’s Shigatse Prefecture who will certainly toe the presidential line.
As Smith put it, “if Xu Lin fails to quell ‘rumours and slander’ Xi does not have to second-guess whether or not Xu is doing everything within his power to stop these attacks.”
So what prospects for the future? Pretty grim if you’re inside China and are a fan of human rights and internet freedom.
Beijing was one of a few countries – Russia, India, Indonesia included – that voted against a non-binding resolution at the UN this week stating all individuals must be afforded the same rights online as offline and that the universal right to freedom of expression should be upheld online.
As Smith said, if Xu Lin “handles information control on the Chinese internet the same way the authorities handle information control in Tibet then the situation could even get worse.”
There is some hope for businesses and individuals which need to leap the Great Firewall.
The hope is that it will encourage greater use of VPNs and help developers improve their circumvention products, as well as provide a much needed additional source of revenue for Greatfire.
The concern is that if it gets popular enough, Beijing will do all it can to put it out of action.
Over on The Register I’ve been following quite closely the carve up of Myamar (Burma) by international technology giants.
This deceptively massive country bordering China, Thailand, India and Laos, has of course only recently opened its doors to the global community after decades of self-imposed exile thanks to rule by a military junta.
So Myanmar not only offers tech firms a market of 60 million+ users to tap, but also offers rich business opportunities for infrastructure providers and could even serve as an outsourcing destination in the years to come.
An IDC report from last year, Myanmar ICT Market 2012–2016 Forecast and Analysis, predicts 15 per cent year-on-year growth in IT spending in 2012, with the market to reach $268.45m (£172.9m) by 2016.
One of the biggest opportunities lies in the telecoms space where global operators have been eyeing up the two licenses set to be awarded this month. However, the decision – due to take place today – was postponed at the last minute until lawmakers pass a new telecommunications law, still be being drafted.
It emerged that an emergency statement was submitted by a telecoms committee urging lawmakers to favour local joint ventures over global bids.
Whether this ends up scuppering the ambitions of France Telecom, Qatar Telecom, Singtel, Telenor and others remains to be seen, but it must be said that some operators are walking a fine line in getting stuck into the country before human rights concerns have been fully allayed.
Human Rights Watch, for example, has been lobbying telcos to boycott the country until legislation is passed which does better to outlaw things like mass surveillance and hardline censorship.
In fact, Vodafone and China Mobile withdrew their joint bid last month, in what some think was a decision influenced by Myanmar’s current failure to protect online freedoms.
John Morrison executive director of the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB), told me that if nothing else, the recent NSA debacle has shown that even in western democracies, telcos are vulnerable to mass surveillance requests from governments.
“Given Myanmar’s human rights record it is all the more important that the companies that secure the license to operate in the country do so in a way that respects privacy and free expression,” he added.
“As Myanmar continues political and economic reforms, it should work towards making telecommunications technology a tool for advancing human rights, including guarding against hate speech that incites violence.”
Time will tell whether Myanmar can make a stable transition from repressive hermit state to 21st century Asian tiger, but if it does, technology will be a major driving force.