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Main article: Hong kong

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Google and Facebook turn their backs on undersea cable to China

21:54 | 6 February

Google and Facebook seem to have resigned themselves to losing part of the longest and highest profile internet cable they have invested in to date. In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission last week, the two companies requested permission to activate the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN) between the US and the Philippines and Taiwan, leaving its controversial Hong Kong and Chinese sections dormant.

Globally, around 380 submarine cables carry over 99.5 percent of all transoceanic data traffic. Every time you visit a foreign website or send an email abroad, you are using a fiber-optic cable on the seabed. Satellites, even large planned networks like SpaceX’s Starlink system, cannot move data as quickly and cheaply as underwater cables.

When it was announced in 2017, the 13,000-kilometer PLCN was touted as the first subsea cable directly connecting Hong Kong and the United States, allowing Google and Facebook to connect speedily and securely with data centers in Asia and unlock new markets. The 120 terabit-per-second cable was due to begin commercial operation in the summer of 2018. 

“PLCN will help connect US businesses and internet users with a strong and growing internet community in Asia,” they wrote. “PLCN will interconnect … with many of the existing and planned regional and international cables, thus providing additional transmission options in the event of disruptions to other systems, whether natural or manmade.”

Instead, it has been PLCN itself that has been disrupted, by an ongoing regulatory battle in the US that has become politicized by trade and technology spats with China.

Team Telecom, a shadowy US national security unit comprised of representatives from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice (including the FBI), is tasked with protecting America’s telecommunications systems, including international fiber optic cables. Its regulatory processes can be tortuously slow. Team Telecom took nearly seven years to decide whether to allow China Mobile, a state-owned company, access to the US telecoms market, before coming down against it in 2018 on the grounds of “substantial and serious national security and law enforcement risks.”

Although subsidiaries of Google and Facebook have been the public face of PLCN in filings to the FCC, four of the six fiber-optic pairs in the cable actually belong to a company called Pacific Light Data Communication (PLDC). When the project was first planned, PLDC was controlled by Wei Junkang, a Hong Kong businessman who had made his fortune in steel and real estate.

“It is just one of those moments where it is more difficult to land a cable, no matter who the Chinese partner is, because of the political situation.” – NYU professor Nicole Starosielski

In December 2017, Wei sold most of his stake in PLDC to Dr Peng Telecom & Media Group, a private broadband provider based in Beijing. That sent alarm bells ringing in Washington, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal last year. While Dr Peng is not itself state-owned or controlled, it works closely with Huawei, a telecoms company the Trump administration has accused of espionage and trade secret theft. Dr Peng has also worked on Chinese government projects, including a surveillance network for the Beijing police.  

PLCN has been legal limbo ever since, with Google complaining bitterly to the FCC about the expense of the ongoing uncertainty. In 2018, it wrote, “[any further holdup] would impose significant economic costs. Depending on the length of the delay, the financial viability of the project could be at risk.”

Google and Facebook finally secured special permission to lay the cable in US waters last year, and to construct, connect and temporarily test a cable landing station in Los Angeles. But while the network itself is now essentially complete, Team Telecom has yet to make a decision on whether data can start to flow through it. 

In the past, Team Telecom has permitted submarine cables, even from China, to land in the US, as long as the companies operating them signed what are called network security agreements. These agreements typically require network operations to be based in the US, using an approved list of equipment and staffed by security-screened personnel. Operators are obliged to block security threats from foreign powers, while complying with lawful surveillance requests from the US government.

In 2017, for example, Team Telecom gave the green light to the New Cross Pacific (NCP) cable directly connecting China and the US, despite it being part-owned by China Mobile, the state-owned company it later denied US access to on national security grounds.

“Normally there wouldn’t be so much fuss over a cable to China,” says Nicole Starosielski, a professor at New York University and author of The Undersea Network. “We’ve had cables to China for a long time and all of these networks interconnect, so even if they don’t land directly in China, they’re only a hop away. It is just one of those moments where it is more difficult to land a cable, no matter who the Chinese partner is, because of the political situation.”

In September, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), who sits on Senate committees for technology, communications and homeland security, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai urging him to block PLCN. “[PLCN] threatens the freedom of Hong Kong and our national security,” wrote Scott. “This project is backed by a Chinese partner, Dr Peng Telecom & Media Group Co., and would ultimately provide a direct link from China into Hong Kong … China has repeatedly shown it cannot be trusted … We cannot allow China expanded access to critical American information, even if funded by US companies.”

Google and Facebook saw the writing on the wall. On January 29 last week, representatives from the two companies – but not PLDC – met with FCC officials to propose a new approach. A filing, made the same day, requests permission to operate just the two PLCN fiber pairs owned by the American companies: Google’s link to Taiwan, and Facebook’s to the Philippines. 

“[Google] and [Facebook] are not aware of any national security issues associated with operation of US-Taiwan and US-Philippine segments,” reads the application. “For clarity, the [request] would not authorize any commercial traffic on the PLCN system to or from Hong Kong, nor any operation of the PLCN system by PLDC.”

The filling goes on to describe how each fiber pair has its own terminating equipment, with Google’s and Facebook’s connections arriving at Los Angeles in cages that are inaccessible to the other companies. “PLDC is contractually prohibited from using its participation interest in the system to interfere with the ownership or rights of use of the other parties,” it notes.

Neither company would comment directly on the new filing. A Google spokesperson told TechCrunch, “We have been working through established channels in order to obtain cable landing licenses for various undersea cables, and we will continue to abide by the decisions made by designated agencies in the locations where we operate.” 

A Facebook spokesperson said, “We are continuing to navigate through all the appropriate channels on licensing and permitting for a jointly-owned subsea cable between the US and Asia to provide fast and secure internet access to more people on both continents.”

“I think stripping out the controversial [Hong Kong] link will work,” says Starosielski. “But whenever one of these projects either gets thwarted, it sends a very strong message. If even Google and Facebook can’t get a cable through, there aren’t going to be a ton of other companies advancing new cable systems between the US and China now.”

Ironically, that means that US data to and from China will continue to flow over the NCP cable controlled by China Mobile – the only company that Team Telecom and the FCC have ever turned down on national security grounds.

 


0

Gift Guide: Essential security and privacy gifts to help protect your friends and family

00:37 | 28 November

 

There’s no such thing as perfect privacy or security, but there’s a lot you can do to lock down your online life. And the holiday season is a great time to encourage others to do the same. Some people are more likely to take security into their own hands if they’re given a nudge along the way.

Here we have a selection of gift ideas — from helpful security solutions to unique and interesting gadgets that will keep your information safe, but without breaking the bank.

A hardware security key for two-factor

Your online accounts have everything about you and you’d want to keep them safe. Two-factor authentication is great, but for the more security minded there’s an even stronger solution. A security key is a physical hardware key that’s even stronger than having a two-factor code going to your phone. These keys plug into your USB port on your computer (or the charger port on your phone) to prove to online services, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, that you are who you say you are. Google’s own data shows security keys offer near-unbeatable protection against even the most powerful and resourced nation-state hackers. Yubikeys are our favorite and come in all shapes and sizes. They’re also cheap. Google also has a range of its own branded Titan security keys, one of which also offers Bluetooth connectivity.

Price: from $20.
Available from: Yubico Store | Google Store

Webcam cover

Surveillance-focused malware, like remote access trojans, can infect computers and remotely switch on your webcam without your permission. Most computer webcams these days have an indicator light that shows you when the camera is active. But what if your camera is blocked, preventing any accidental exposure in the first place? Enter the simple but humble webcam blocker. It slides open when you need to access your camera, and slides to cover the lens when you don’t. Support local businesses and non-profits — you can search for unique and interesting webcam covers on Etsy

Price: from $5 – $10.
Available from: Etsy | Electronic Frontier Foundation

A microphone blocker

Now you have you webcam cover, what about your microphone? Just as hackers can tap into your webcam, they can also pick up on your audio. Microphone blockers contain a semiconductor that tricks your computer or device into thinking that it’s a working microphone, when in fact it’s not able to pick up any audio. Anyone hacking into your device won’t hear a thing. Some modern Macs already come with a new Apple T2 security chip which prevents hackers from snooping on your microphone when your laptop’s lid is shut. But a microphone blocker will work all the time, even when the lid is open.

Price: $6.99 – $16.99.
Available from: Nope Blocker | Mic Lock

A USB data blocker

You might have heard about “juice-jacking,” where hackers plant malicious implants in USB outlets, which steal a person’s device data when an unsuspecting victim plugs in. It’s a threat that’s almost unheard of, but proof-of-concepts have shown how easy it is to implant malicious components in legitimate-looking cables. A USB data blocker essentially acts as a data barrier, preventing any information going in or out of your device, while letting power through to charge your battery. They’re cheap but effective.

Price: from $6.99 and $11.49.
Available from: Amazon | SyncStop

A privacy screen for your computer or phone

How often have you seen someone’s private messages or document as you look over their shoulder, or see them in the next aisle over? Privacy screens can protect you from “visual hacking.” These screens make it near-impossible for anyone other than the device user to snoop at what you’re working on. And, you can get them for all kinds of devices and displays — including phones. But make sure you get the right size!

Price: from about $17.
Available from: Amazon

A password manager subscription

Password managers are a real lifesaver. One strong, unique password lets you into your entire bank of passwords. They’re great for storing your passwords, but also for encouraging you to use better, stronger, unique passwords. And because many are cross-platform, you can bring your passwords with you. Plenty of password managers exist — from LastPass, Lockbox, and Dashlane, to open-source versions like KeePass. Many are free, but a premium subscription often comes with benefits and better features. And if you’re a journalist, 1Password has a free subscription for you.

Price: Many free, premium offerings start at $35.88 – $44.28 annually
Available from: 1Password | LastPass | Dashlane | KeePass

Anti-surveillance clothing

Whether you’re lawfully protesting or just want to stay in “incognito mode,” there are — believe it or not — fashion lines that can help prevent facial recognition and other surveillance systems from identifying you. This clothing uses a kind of camouflage that confuses surveillance technology by giving them more interesting things to detect, like license plates and other detectable patterns.

Price: $35.99.
Available from: Adversarial Fashion

Pi-hole

Think of a Pi-hole as a “hardware ad-blocker.” A Pi-hole is a essentially a Raspberry Pi mini-computer that runs ad-blocking technology as a box that sits on your network. It means that everyone on your home network benefits from ad blocking. Ads may generate revenue for websites but online ads are notorious for tracking users across the web. Until ads can behave properly, a Pi-hole is a great way to capture and sinkhole bad ad traffic. The hardware may be cheap, but the ad-blocking software is free. Donations to the cause are welcome.

Price: From $35.
Available from: Pi-hole | Raspberry Pi

And finally, some light reading…

There are two must-read books this year. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s “Permanent Record” autobiography covers his time as he left the shadowy U.S. intelligence agency to Hong Kong, where he spilled thousands of highly classified government documents to reporters about the scope and scale of its massive global surveillance partnerships and programs. And, Andy Greenberg’s book on “Sandworm”, a beautifully written deep-dive into a group of Russian hackers blamed for the most disruptive cyberattack in history, NotPetya, This incredibly detailed investigative book leaves no stone unturned, unravelling the work of a highly secretive group that caused billions of dollars of damage.

Price: From $14.99.
Available from: Amazon (Permanent Record) | Amazon (Sandworm)

 


0

Alibaba’s shares climb almost 8% in their first morning of trading on the Hong Kong stock exchange

08:06 | 26 November

Alibaba share price increased as much as 7.7% during its first morning of trading on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Soon after the market opened, the shares climbed from their listing price of HKD $176 (a 2.9% discount from their closing price on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday) to HKD $189.50.

Each of Alibaba’s American depositary receipts on the NYSE is equivalent to about eight Hong Kong shares. Alibaba issued 500 million new ordinary shares for the secondary offering, plus an overallotment option for 75 million shares that will allow it to raise even more money if exercised. Its Hong Kong shares are trading under the ticker number 9988, a play on the words for “long-term prosperity” in Chinese.

Alibaba’s debut on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014 raised a total of $25 billion, making it the largest public offering in history. The company had initially considered holding its IPO in Hong Kong, but at the time, its stock exchange did not allow dual-class shares, a structure often used by tech startups because it allows holders of one class of shares to have more voting rights than common shareholders, ensuring companies continue to have control even after they go public.

Last year, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange changed its rules to accommodate dual-class share, enabling tech companies, including Meituan and Xiaomi, to debut there.

Listing on Hong Kong will also make it easier for more Chinese investors to buy and sell Alibaba shares, once it is included in the Stock Connect, a collaboration between the Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges.

This is not the first time Alibaba has had a presence on the Hong Kong stock market. In 2007, its B2B e-commerce platform, Alibaba.com, went public there, before the company took the unit private again in 2012.

Alibaba’s Hong Kong debut comes after months of tumultuous pro-democracy demonstrations (the stock exchange has stayed stable despite the protests), and the day after more than half the 452 seats up for vote in local district council elections flipped from pro-Beijing to pro-democracy candidates. Demonstrators have called for more transparency from the government and police, and the election results send a clear signal about public sentiment to chief executive Carrie Lam.

 


0

ByteDance denies it will go public in Hong Kong next quarter

08:40 | 29 October

ByteDance has responded to a report in the Financial Times that said the Chinese Internet startup plans to go public in Hong Kong as early as the first quarter of next year. “There is absolutely zero truth to the rumors that we plan to list in Hong Kong in Q1,” said a spokesperson for the company, the owner of TikTok.

The Financial Times reported that ByteDance, which was founded in 2012 and is backed by investors including SoftBank, is preparing for a public listing by retaining law firm K&L Gates and hiring a chief legal officer and former U.S. officials to help address concerns by U.S. lawmakers that TikTok can pose “national security risks,” such as being compelled to turn over data from American users to Chinese authorities.

Speculation that ByteDance is gearing up for an IPO started last year when it closed a $3 billion funding round that put its valuation between $75 billion to $78 billion, making it the world’s most valuable startup.

ByteDance’s apps also include Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, news app Toutiao and TopBuzz, a news aggregation app for the U.S. market that the Financial Times reports it is planning to sell as it prepares for an IPO.

In September, Reuters reported that ByteDance had made between $7 billion and $8.4 billion in revenue for the first half of the year and had posted a profit in June.

 


0

Apple’s China stance makes for strange political alliances, as AOC and Ted Cruz slam the company

03:26 | 19 October

In a rare instance of bipartisanship overcoming the rancorous discord that’s been the hallmark of the U.S. Congress, senators and sepresentatives issued a scathing rebuke to Apple for its decision to take down an app at the request of the Chinese government.

Signed by Senators Ron Wyden, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Congressional Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mike Gallagher and Tom Malinowski, the letter was written to “express… strong concern about Apple’s censorship of apps, including a prominent app used by protestors in Hong Kong, at the request of the Chinese government.”

In 2019, it seems the only things that can unite America’s clashing political factions are the decisions made by companies in one of its most powerful industries.

At the heart of the dispute is Apple’s decision to take down an app called HKMaps that was being used by citizens of the island territory to track police activity.

For several months protestors have been clashing with police in the tiny territory over what they see as the undue influence being exerted by China’s government in Beijing over the governance of Hong Kong. Citizens of the former British protectorate have enjoyed special privileges and rights not afforded to mainland Chinese citizens since the United Kingdom returned sovereignty over the region to China on July 1, 1997.

“Apple’s decision last week to accommodate the Chinese government by taking down HKMaps is deeply concerning,” the authors of the letter wrote. “We urge you in the strongest terms to reverse course, to demonstrate that Apple puts values above market access, and to stand with the brave men and women fighting for basic rights and dignity in Hong Kong.”

Apple has long positioned itself as a defender of human rights (including privacy and free speech)… in the United States. Abroad, the company’s record is not quite as spotless, especially when it comes to pressure from China, which is one of the company’s largest markets outside of the U.S.

Back in 2017, Apple capitulated to a request from the Chinese government that it remove all virtual private networking apps from the App Store. Those applications allowed Chinese users to circumvent the “Great Firewall” of China, which limits access to information to only that which is approved by the Chinese government and its censors.

Over 1,100 applications have been taken down by Apple at the request of the Chinese government, according to the organization GreatFire (whose data was cited in the Congressional letter). They include VPNs, and applications made for oppressed communities inside China’s borders (like Uighurs and Tibetans).

Apple isn’t the only company that’s come under fire from the Chinese government as part of their overall response to the unrest in Hong Kong. The National Basketball Association and the gaming company Blizzard have had their own run-ins resulting in self-censorship as a result of various public positions from employees or individuals affiliated with the sports franchises or gaming communities these companies represent.

However, Apple is the largest of these companies, and therefore the biggest target. The company’s stance indicates a willingness to accede to pressure in markets that it considers strategically important no matter how it positions itself at home.

The question is what will happen should regulators in the U.S. stop writing letters and start making legislative demands of their own.

 


0

Catalan separatists have tooled up with a decentralized app for civil disobedience

03:48 | 18 October

Is our age of ubiquitous smartphones and social media turning into an era of mass civil unrest? Two years after holding an independence referendum and unilaterally declaring independence in defiance of the Spanish state — then failing to gain recognition for la república and being forced to watch political leaders jailed or exiled — Catalonia’s secessionist movement has resurfaced with a major splash.

One of the first protest actions programmed by a new online activist group, calling itself Tsunami Democràtic, saw thousands of protestors coalescing on Barcelona airport Monday, in an attempt to shut it down. The protest didn’t quite do that but it did lead to major disruption, with roads blocked by human traffic as protestors walked down the highway and the cancelation of more than 100 flights, plus hours of delays for travellers arriving into El Prat.

For months leading up to a major Supreme Court verdict on the fate of imprisoned Catalan political leaders a ‘

‘ — as one local political science academic described them this week — has been preparing to reboot Catalonia’s independence movement by developing bespoke, decentralized high-tech protest tools.

A source with knowledge of Tsunami Democràtic, speaking to TechCrunch on condition of anonymity, told us that “high level developers” located all around the world are involved in the effort, divvying up coding tasks as per any large scale IT project and leveraging open source resources (such as the RetroShare node-based networking platform) to channel grassroots support for independence into a resilient campaign network that can’t be stopped by the arrest of a few leaders.

Demonstrators at the airport on Monday were responding directly to a call to blockade the main terminal posted to the group’s Telegram channel.

Additional waves of protest are being planned and programmed via a bespoke Tsunami Democràtic app that was also released this week for Android smartphones — as a sideload, not yet a Google Play download.

The app is intended to supplement mainstream social network platform broadcasts by mobilizing smaller, localized groups of supporters to carry out peaceful acts of civil disobedience all over Catalonia.

Our source walked us through the app, which requires location permission to function in order that administrators can map available human resources to co-ordinate protests. We’re told a user’s precise location is not shared but rather that an obfuscated, more fuzzy location marker gets sent. However the app’s source code has not yet been open sourced so users have to take such claims on trust (open sourcing is said to be the plan — but only once the app has been scrubbed of any identifying traces, per the source).

The app requires a QR code to be activated. This is a security measure intended to manage activation in stages, via trusted circles of acquaintances, to limit the risk of infiltration by state authorities. Though it feels a bit like a viral gamification tactic to encourage people to spread the word and generate publicity organically by asking their friends if they have a code or not.

new 04

Whatever it’s really for the chatter seems to be working. During our meeting over coffee we overheard a group of people sitting at another table talking about the app. And at the time of writing Tsunami Democràtic has announced 15,000 successful QR code activations so far. Though it’s not clear how successful the intended flashmob civil disobedience game-plan will be at this nascent stage.

Once activated, app users are asked to specify their availability (i.e. days and times of day) for carrying out civil disobedience actions. And to specify if they own certain mobility resources which could be utilized as part of a protest (e.g. car, scooter, bike, tractor).

Examples of potential actions described to us by our source were go-slows to bring traffic grinding to a halt and faux shopping sprees targeting supermarkets where activists could spend a few hours piling carts high with goods before leaving them abandoned in the store for someone else to clean up.

One actual early action carried out by activists from the group last month targeted a branch of the local CaixaBank with a masked protestor sit-in.

Our source said the intention is to include a pop-up in the app as a sort of contract of conscience which asks users to confirm participation in the organized chaos will be entirely peaceful. Here’s an example of what the comprometo looks like:

TD-app

Users are also asked to confirm both their intention to participate in a forthcoming action (meaning the app will capture attendance numbers for protests ahead of time) and to check in when they get there so its administrators can track actual participation in real-time.

The app doesn’t ask for any personal data during onboarding — there’s no account creation etc — although users are agreeing to their location being pervasively tracked.

And it’s at least possible that other personal data could be passed via, for example, a comment submission field that lets people send feedback on actions. Or if the app ends up recording other data via access to smartphone sensors.

The other key point is that users only see actions related to their stated availability and tracked location. So, from a protestor’s point of view, they see only a tiny piece of the Tsunami Democràtic protest program. The user view is decentralized and information is distributed strictly piecemeal, on a need to know basis.

Behind the scenes — where unknown administrators are accessing its data and devising and managing protest actions to distribute via the app — there may be an entirely centralized view of available human protest resources. But it’s not clear what the other side of the platform looks like. Our source was unable to show it to us or articulate what it looks like.

Certainly, administrators are in a position to cancel planned actions if, for example, there’s not enough participation — meaning they can invisibly manage external optics around engagement with the cause. Not enough foot soldiers for a planned protest? Just call it off quietly via the app.

Also not at all clear: Who the driving forces are behind the Tsunami Democràtic protest mask?

“There is no thinking brain, there are many brains,” a spokesman for the movement told the El Diario newspaper this week. But that does raise pretty major questions about democratic legitimacy. Because, well, if you’re claiming to be fighting for democracy by mobilizing popular support, and you’re doing it from inside a Western democracy, can you really claim that while your organization remains in the shadows?

Even if your aim is non-violent political protest, and your hierarchy is genuinely decentralized, which is the suggestive claim here, unless you’re offering transparency of structure so as to make your movement’s composition and administration visible to outside scrutiny (so that your claims of democratic legitimacy can be independently verified) then individual protestors (the app’s end users) just have to take your word for it.

End users who are being crowdsourced and coopted to act out via app instruction as if they’re pawns on a high tech chess board. They are also being asked (implicitly) to shoulder direct personal risk in order that a faceless movement generates bottom up political pressure.

So there’s a troubling contradiction here for a movement that has chosen to include the word ‘democractic’ in its name. (The brand is a reference to a phase used by jailed Catalan cultural leader, Jordi Cuixart.) Who or what is powering this wave?

Tsunami Democratic

We also now know all too well how the double-sided nature of platforms means these fast-flowing technosocial channels can easily be misappropriated by motivated interest groups to gamify and manipulate opinion (and even action) en masse. This has been made amply clear in recent years with political disinformation campaigns mushrooming into view all over the online place.

So while emoji-strewn political protest messages calling for people to mobilize at a particular street corner might seem a bit of harmless ‘Pokemon Go’-style urban fun, the upshot can — and this week has — been far less predictable and riskier than its gamified packaging might suggest.

Plenty of protests have gone off peacefully, certainly. Others — often those going on after dusk and late into the night — have devolved into ugly scenes and destructive clashes.

There is clearly a huge challenge for decentralized movements (and indeed technologies) when it comes to creating legitimate governance structures that don’t simply repeat the hierarchies of the existing (centralized) authorities and systems they’re seeking to challenge.

The anarchy-loving crypto community’s inability to coalesce around a way to progress with blockchain technology looks like its own self-defeating irony. A faceless movement fighting for ‘democracy’ from behind an app mask that allows its elite string-pullers and data crunchers to remain out of sight risks looking like another.

None of the protestors we’ve spoken to could say for sure who’s behind Tsunami Democràtic. One suggested it’s just “citizens” or else the same people who helped organize the 2017 Catalan independence referendum — managing the movement of ballot papers into and out of an unofficial network of polling stations so that votes could be collected and counted despite Spanish authorities’ best efforts to seize and destroy them.

There was also a sophisticated technology support effort at the time to support the vote and ensure information about polling stations remained available in the face of website takedowns by the Spanish state.

Our source was equally vague when asked who is behind the Tsunami Democràtic app. Which, if the decentralizing philosophy does indeed run right through the network — as a resilience strategy to protect its members from being ratted out to the police — is what you’d expected.

Any single node wouldn’t know or want to know much of other nodes. But that just leaves a vacuum at the core of the thing which looks alien to democratic enquiry.

One thing Tsunami Democràtic has been at pains to make plain in all (visible) communications to its supporters is that protests must be peaceful. But, again, while technology tools are great enablers it’s not always clear exactly what fire you’re lighting once momentum is pooled and channeled. And protests which started peacefully this week have devolved into running battles with police with missiles being thrown, fires lit and rubber bullets fired.

Some reports have suggested overly aggressive police response to crowds gathering has triggered and flipped otherwise calm protestors. What’s certain is there are injuries on both sides. Today almost 100 people were reported to have been hurt across three nights of protest action. A general strike and the biggest manifestation yet is planned for Friday in Barcelona. So the city is braced for more trouble as smartphone screens blink with fresh protest instructions.

image1 3

Social media is of course a conduit for very many things. At its most corporate and anodyne its stated mission can be expressed flavorlessly — as with Facebook’s claimed purpose of ‘connecting people’. (Though distracting and/or outraging is often closer to the mark.)

In practice, thanks to human nature — so that means political agendas, financial interests and all the rest of our various and frequently conflicting desires — all sorts of sparks can fly. None more visibly than during mass mobilizations where groups with a shared agenda rapidly come together to amplify a cause and agitate for change.

Even movements that start with the best intentions — and put their organizers and administration right out in the open for all to see and query — can lose control of outcomes.

Not least because malicious outsiders often seize the opportunity to blend in and act out, using the cover of an organized protest to create a violent disturbance. (And there have been some reports filtering across Catalan social media claiming right wing thugs have been causing trouble and that secret police are intentionally stirring things up to smear the movement.)

GettyImages 1181713368

BARCELONA, SPAIN – OCTOBER 17: Protesters take to the streets to demonstrate after the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced nine Catalan separatist leaders to between 9 and 13 years in prison for their role of the 2017 failed Catalan referendum on October 17, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

So if a highly charged political campaign is being masterminded and micromanaged remotely, by unknown entities shielded behind screens, there are many more questions we need to be asking about where the balance of risk and power lies, as well as whether a badge of ‘pro-democracy’ can really be justified.

For Tsunami Democràtic and Catalonia’s independence movement generally this week’s protests look to be just the start of a dug-in, tech-fuelled guerrilla campaign of civil disobedience — to try to force a change of political weather. Spain also has yet another general election looming so the timing offers the whiff of opportunity.

The El Prat blockade that kicked off the latest round of Catalan unrest seemed intended to be a flashy opening drama. To mirror and reference the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong — which made the international airport there a focal point for its own protests, occupying the terminal building and disrupting flights in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to their plight.

In a further parallel with protests in Hong Kong a crowdsourced map similar to HKmaps.live — the app that dynamically maps street closures and police presence by overlaying emoji onto a city view — is also being prepared for Catalonia by those involved in the pro-independence movement.

At the time of writing a handful of emoji helicopters, road blocks and vans are visible on a map of Barcelona. Tapping on an emoji brings up dated details such as what a police van was doing and whether it had a camera. A verified status suggests multiple reports will be required before an icon is displayed. We understand people will be able to report street activity for live-mapping via a Telegram bot.

Catmap

Screenshot of Catalan live map for crowdsourcing street intel

Our source suggested police presence on the map might be depicted by chick emojis. Aka Piolín: The Spanish name for the Loony Tunes cartoon character Tweety Pie — a reference to a colorfully decorated cruise ship used to house scores of Spanish national police in Barcelona harbor during the 2017 referendum, providing instant meme material. Though the test version we’ve seen seems to be using a mixture of dogs and chicks.

Along with the Tsunami Democràtic app the live map means there will soon be two bespoke tools supporting a campaign of civil disobedience whose unknown organizers clearly hope will go the distance.

As we’ve said, the identities of the people coordinating the rebooted movement remain unclear. It’s also unclear who if anyone is financing it.

Our source suggested technical resources to run and maintain the apps are being crowdsourced by volunteers. But some commentators argue that a source of funding would be needed to support everything that’s being delivered, technically and logistically. The app certainly seems far more sophisticated than a weekend project job.

There has been some high level public expressions of support for Tsunami Democràtic — such as from former Barcelona football club trainer, Pep Guardiola, who this week put out a video badged with the Tsunami D logo in which he defends the democratic right to assembly and protest, warning that free speech is being threatened and claiming “Spain is experiencing a drift towards authoritarianism”. So wealthy backers of Catalan independence aren’t exactly hard to find.

Whoever is involved behind the scenes — whether with financing or just technical and organization support — it’s clear that ‘free’ protest energy is being liberally donated to the cause by a highly engaged population of pro-independence supporters.

Grassroots support for Catalan independence is both plentiful, highly engaged, geographically dispersed and cuts across generations — sometimes in surprising ways. One mother we spoke to who said she was too ill to go to Monday’s airport protest recounted her disappointment when her teenage kids told her they weren’t going because they wanted to finish their homework.

Very many protestors did go though, answering calls to action in their messaging apps or via the printable posters made available online by Tsunami Democràtic which some street protestors have been pictured holding.

Thousands of demonstrators occupied the main Barcelona airport terminal building, sat and sang protest songs, daubed quasi apologetic messages on the windows in English (saying a lack of democracy is worse than missing a flight), and faced off to lines of police in riot gear — including units of Spanish national police discharging rubber bullets. One protestor was later reported by local press to have lost an eye.

‘It’s time to make our voice heard in the world,’ runs Tsunami Democràtic’s message on Telegram calling for a blockade of the airport. It then sets out the objective (an airport shut down) and instructs supporters that all forms of transport are “valid” to further the mission of disrupting business as usual. ‘Share and see you all at T1!’ it ends. Around 240,000 people saw the instruction, per Telegram’s ephemeral view counts.

GettyImages 1176009080

Demonstrators during a protest against the jailing of Catalan separatists at El Prat airport in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (Photo by Iranzu Larrasoana Oneca/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Later the same evening the channel sent another message instructing protestors to call it a night. ‘Today we have been a tsunami,’ it reads in Catalan. ‘We will make every victory a mobilization. We have started a cycle of non-violent, civil disobedience.’ At the time of writing that follow-on missive has registered 300k+ views.

While Tsunami Democràtic is just one of multiple pro-independence groups arranging and mobilizing regional protests — such as the CDRs, aka Comites de Defensa de la Republica, which have been blocking highways in Catalonia for the past two years — it’s quickly garnered majority momentum since quietly uncloaking this summer.

Its Telegram channel — which was only created in August — has piled on followers in recent weeks. Other pro-independence groups are also sharing news and distributing plans over Telegram’s platform and, more widely, on social media outlets such as twitter. Though none has amassed such a big following, nor indeed with such viral speed.

Even Anonymous Catalonia’s Telegram channel, which has been putting out a steady stream of unfiltered crowdsourced protest content this week — replete with videos of burning bins, siren blaring police vans and scattering crowds, interspersed with photos of empty roads (successful blockades) and the odd rubber bullet wound — only has a ‘mere’ 100k+ subscribers.

And while Facebook-owned WhatsApp was a major first source of protest messaging around the 2017 Catalan referendum, with Telegram just coming on stream as an alternative for trying to communicate out of sight of the Spanish state, the protest mobilization baton appears to have been passed more fully to Telegram now.

Perhaps that’s partly due to an element of mistrust around mainstream platforms controlled by tech giants who might be leant on by states to block content (Tsunami Democràtic has said it doesn’t yet have an iOS version of its app, despite many requests for one, because the ‘politics of the App Store is very restrictive’ — making a direct reference to Apple pulling the HKmaps app from its store). Whereas Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, is famously resistant to authoritarian state power.

Though, most likely, it’s a result of some powerful tools Telegram provides for managing and moderating channels.

The upshot is Telegram’s messaging platform has enjoyed a surge in downloads in Spain during this month’s regional unrest — as WhatsApp-loving locals flirt with a rival platform also in response to calls from their political channels to get on Telegram for detailed instructions of the next demo.

Per App Annie, Telegram has leapt up the top free downloads charts for Google Play in Spain — rising from eleventh place into the third spot this month. While, for iOS, it’s holding steady in the top free downloads slot.

Also growing in parallel: Unrest on Catalonia’s streets.

Since Monday’s airport protest tensions have certainly escalated. Roads across the region have been blockaded. Street furniture and vehicles torched. DIY missiles thrown at charging police.

By Thursday morning there were reports of police firing teargas and police vehicles being driven at high speed around protesting crowds of youths. Two people were reported run over.

GettyImages 1176406411

Anti-riot police officers shoot against protesters after a demonstration called by the local Republic Defence Committees (CDR) in Barcelona on October 17, 2019. – After years of peaceful separatist demonstrations, violence finally exploded on the Catalan streets this week, led by activists frustrated by the political paralysis and infuriated by the Supreme Court’s conviction of nine of its leaders over a failed independence bid. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP) (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)

Helicopters have become a routine sound ripping up the urban night sky. While the tally of injury counts continues rising on both sides. And all the while there are countless videos circulating on social media to be sifted through to reinforce your own point of view — screening looping clashes between protestors and baton wielding police. One video doing the rounds last night appeared to show protestors targeting a police helicopter with fireworks. Russian propaganda outlets have of course been

.

The trigger for a return to waves of technology-fuelled civil disobedience — as were also seen across Catalonia around the time of the 2017 referendum — are lengthy prison terms handed down by Spain’s Supreme Court on Monday. Twelve political and civic society leaders involved in the referendum were convicted, nine on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. None were found guilty of the more serious charge of rebellion — but the sentences were still harsh, ranging from 13 years to nine.

The jailed leaders — dubbed presos polítics (aka political prisoners) by Catalan society, which liberally deploys yellow looped-ribbons as a solidarity symbol in support of the presos — had already spent almost two years in prison without bail.

A report this week in El Diario, citing a source in Tsunami Democràtic, suggests the activist movement was established in response to a growing feeling across the region’s independence movement that a new way of mobilizing and carrying out protests was needed in the wake of the failed 2017 independence bid.

The expected draconian Supreme Court verdict marked a natural start-date for the reboot.

A reboot has been necessary because, with so many of its figureheads in prison — and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont in exile in Brussels — there has been something of a leadership vacuum for the secessionist cause.

That coupled with a sense of persecution at the hands of a centralized state which suspended Catalonia’s regional autonomy in the wake of the illegal referendum, invoking a ‘nuclear option’ constitutional provision to dismiss the government and call fresh elections, likely explains why the revived independence movement has been taking inspiration from blockchain-style decentralization.

Our source also told us blockchain thinking has informed the design and structure of the app.

Discussing the developers who have pulled the app together they said it’s not only a passionately engaged Catalan techie diaspora, donating their time and expertise to help civic society respond to what’s seen as long-standing political persecution, but — more generally — coders and technologists with an interest in participating in what they hope will be the largest experiment in participatory democracy and peaceful civil disobedience.

The source pointed to research conducted by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, who found non-violent, civil disobedience campaigns to be a far more powerful way of shaping world politics than violence. She also found such campaigns need engage only 3.5% of the population to succeed. And at 300k+ subscribers Tsunami Democràtic’s Telegram channel may have already passed that threshold, given the population of Catalonia is only around 7.6M.

It sounds like some of the developers helping the movement are being enticed by the prospect of applying powerful mobile platform technologies to a strong political cause as a way to stress testing democratic structures — and perhaps play at reconfiguring them. If the tools are successful at capturing intention and sustaining action and so engaging and activating citizens in a long term political campaign.

We’re told the stated intention to open source the app is also a goal in order to make it available for other causes to pick up and use to press for change. Which does start to sound a little bit like regime change as a service…

Stepping back, there is also a question of whether micromanaged civic disobedience is philosophically different to more organic expressions of discontent.

There is an element of non-violent protest being weaponized against an opponent when you’re running it via an app. Because the participants are being remotely controlled and coordinated at a distance, at the same time as ubiquitous location-sensitive mobile technologies mean the way in which the controlling entity speaks to them can be precisely targeted to push their buttons and nudge action.

Yes, it’s true that the right to peaceful assembly and protest is a cornerstone of democracy. Nor is it exactly a new phenomenon that mobile technology has facilitated this democratic expression. In journalist Giles Tremlett’s travelogue book about his adopted country, Ghosts of Spain, he recounts how in the days following the 2004 Madrid train bombings anonymous text messages started to spread via mobile phone — leading to mass, spontaneous street demonstrations.

At the time there were conflicting reports of who was responsible for the bombings, as the government sought to blame the Basque terrorist group ETA for what would turn out to be the work of Islamic terrorists. Right on the eve of an election voters in Spain were faced with a crucial political decision — having just learnt that the police had in fact arrested three Moroccans for the bomb attacks, suggesting the government had been lying.

“A new political phenomenon was born that day — the instant text message demonstration,” Tremlett writes. “Anonymous text messages began to fly from mobile phone to mobile phone. They became known as the pásalo messages, because each ended with an exhortation to ‘Pass it on’. It was like chain mail, but instant.”

More than fifteen years on from those early days of consumer mobile technology and SMS text messaging, instant now means so much more than it did — with almost everyone in a wealthy Western region like Catalonia carrying a powerful, Internet-connected computer and streaming videocamera in their pocket.

Modern mobile technology turns humans into high tech data nodes, capable of receiving and transmitting information. So a protestor now can not only opt in to instructions for a targeted action but respond and receive feedback in a way that makes them feel personally empowered.

From one perspective, what’s emerging from high tech ‘push button’ smartphone-enabled protest movements, like we’re now seeing in Catalonia and Hong Kong, might seem to represent the start of a new model for democratic participation — as the old order of representative democracy fails to keep pace with changing political tastes and desires, just as governments can’t keep up technologically.

But the risk is it’s just a technological elite in the regime-change driving seat. Which sums to governance not by established democratic processes but via the interests of a privileged elite with the wealth and expertise to hack the system and create new ones that can mobilize citizens to act like pawns.

Established democratic processes may indeed be flawed and in need of a degree of reform but they have also been developed and stress-tested over generations. Which means they have layers of accountability checks and balances baked in to try to balance out competing interests.

Throwing all that out in favor of a ‘democracy app’ sounds like the sort of disruption Facebook has turned into an infamous dark art.

For individual protestors, then, who are participating as willing pawns in this platform-enabled protest, you might call it selfie-style self-determination; they get to feel active and present; they experience the spectacle of political action which can be instantly and conveniently snapped for channel sharing with other mobilized friends who then reflect social validation back. But by doing all that they’re also giving up their agency.

Because all this ‘protest’ action is flowing across the surface of an asymmetric platform. The infrastructure natively cloaks any centralized interests and at very least allows opaque forces to push a cause at cheap scale.

“I felt so small,” one young female protestor told us, recounting via WhatsApp audio message, what had gone down during a protest action in Barcelona yesterday evening. Things started out fun and peaceful, with participants encouraged to toss toilet rolls up in the air — because, per the organizer’s messaging, ‘there’s a lot of shit to clean up’ — but events took a different turn later, as protestors moved to another location and some began trying to break into a police building.

A truck arrived from a side street being driven by protestors who used it to blockade the entrance to the building to try to stop police getting out. Police warning shots were fired into the air. Then the Spanish national police turned up, driving towards the crowd at high speed and coming armed with rubber not foam bullets.

Faced with a more aggressive police presence the crowd tried to disperse — creating a frightening crush in which she was caught up. “I was getting crushed all the time. It wasn’t fun,” she told us. “We moved away but there was a huge mass of people being crushed the whole time.”

“What was truly scary weren’t the crowds or the bullets, it was not knowing what was going on,” she added.

Yet, despite the fear and uncertainty, she was back out on the streets to protest again the next night — armed  with a smartphone.

Enric Luján, a PhD student and adjunct professor in political science at the University of Barcelona — and also the guy whose

fingers the forces behind the Tsunami Democràtic app as a “technological elite” — argues that the movement has essentially created a “human botnet”. This feels like a questionable capability for a pro-democracy movement when combined with its own paradoxically closed structure.

“The intention appears to be to group a mass movement under a label which, paradoxically, is opaque, which carries the real risk of a lack of internal democracy,” Luján tells TechCrunch. “There is a basic paradox in Tsunami Democràtic. That it’s a pro-democracy movement where: 1) the ‘core’ that decides actions is not accessible to other supporters; 2) it has the word ‘Democràtic’ in its name but its protocols as an organization are extremely vertical and are in the hands of an elite that decides the objectives and defines the timing of mobilization; 3) it’s ‘deterritorialized’ with respect to the local reality (unlike the CDRs): opacity and verticality would allow them to lead the entire effort from outside the country.”

Luján believes the movement is essentially a continuation of the same organizing forces which drove support for pro-independence political parties around the 2017 referendum — such as the Catalan cultural organization Òmnium — now coming back together after a period of “strategic readjustment”.

“Shortly after the conclusion of the referendum, through the arrest of its political leaders, the independence movement was ‘decapitated’ and there were months of political paralysis,” he says, arguing that this explains the focus on applying mobile technology in a way that allows for completely anonymous orchestration of protests, as a strategy to protect itself from further arrests.

“This strategic option, of course, entails lack of public scrutiny of the debates and decisions, which is a problem and involves treating people as ‘pawns’ or ‘human botnets’ acting under your direction,” he adds.

He is also critical of the group not having opened the app’s code which has made it difficult to understand exactly how user data is being handled by the app and whether or not there are any security flaws. Essentially, there is no simple way for outsiders to validate trustworthiness.

His analysis of the app’s APK raises further questions. Luján says he believes it also requests microphone permissions in addition to location and camera access (the latter for reading the QR code).

Our source told us that as far as they are aware the app does not access the microphone by default. Though screenshots of requested permissions which have circulated on social media show a toggle where microphone access seems as if it can be enabled.

And, as Luján points out, the prospect of a powerful and opaque entity with access to the real-time location of thousands of people plus the ability to remotely activate smartphone cameras and microphones to surveil people’s surroundings does sound pretty close to the plot of a Black Mirror episode…

Asked whether he believes we’re seeing an emergent model for a more participatory, grassroots form of democracy enabled by modern mobile technologies or a powerful techie elite playing at reconfiguring existing power structures by building and distributing systems that keep them shielded from democratic view where they can nudge others to spread their message, he says he leans towards the latter.

“It’s a movement with an elite leadership that seems to have had a clear timetable for months. It remains to be seen what they’ll be able to do. But it is clearly not spontaneous (the domain of the website was registered in July) and the application needed months to develop,” he notes. “I am not clear that it can be or was ‘crowdsourced’ — as far as I know, there was no campaign to finance Tsunami or their technological solutions.”

“Release the code,” he adds. “I don’t understand why they haven’t released it. Promising it is easy and is what you expect if you want to present yourself with a minimum of transparency, but there is no defined deadline to do so. For now we have to work with the APK, which is more cumbersome to understand how the app works and how it uses and moves user data.”

“I imagine it is so the police cannot investigate thoroughly, but it also means others lose the possibility of better understanding how a product that’s been designed by people who rely on anonymity works, and have to rely that the elite technologists in charge of developing the app have not committed any security breach.”

So, here too, more questions and more uncertainty.

 


0

Booqed, a Hong Kong-based platform for on-demand work spaces, raises $1.675 million in seed funding

10:47 | 16 October

Booqed, a Hong Kong-based platform for booking short-term work spaces, announced today that it has raised $1.675 million in seed funding. Participants included Colliers International, the commercial real-estate management company, Techstars and Lazard Korea.

The company participated in Proptech Accelerator, the Toronto-based accelerator program for property and real estate startups run by Colliers and Techstars, in 2018.

Launched in September 2016, Booqed currently has 1,600 listings for spaces in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Singapore. It will use its seed round on product roll-outs, marketing and hiring. The platform differentiates from co-working spaces and companies like WeWork because its inventory consists of underused spaces in existing commercial properties, giving property owners and managers to way to make money instead of letting them sit empty.

Booking times can be as short as an hour or as long as several months, and listings include offices and meeting rooms, event spaces, retail stores and studios. Most of the startup’s customers are corporate clients that need to book venues or work spaces for traveling employees.

 


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Apple pulls HKmap from App Store, the day after Chinese state media criticized its “unwise and reckless decision” to approve it

09:32 | 10 October

Less than a day after Apple was criticized by Chinese state media for allowing HKmap in the App Store, the crowdsourced map app said it had been delisted. Its removal comes less than a week after Apple reversed its initial decision to reject the app, which provides information about the location of pro-democracy demonstrations, street closures and police activity (its website is still available).

After Apple allowed HKmap into the App Store, an article in the China Daily, a newspaper owned by the Communist Party of China, criticized the company, claiming that it enabled “rioters in Hong Kong to go on violent acts,” and adding that “Business is business, and politics is politics…Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision.”

While the Chinese government has labeled protestors as violent, including through coordinated campaigns on social media, human rights groups like Amnesty International have documented multiple instances of police abuse against protestors.

HKmap’s creators tweeted the Apple claimed it endangered law enforcement and residents, and said they disagreed.

The app’s developers added that “there is 0 evidence to support CSTCB’s [the Hong Kong Police Force’s Cyber Security and Technology Crime Bureau] accusation that HKmap App has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement.” They also noted that other apps containing crowdsourced information and public postings, including Waze, which is used by commuters to avoid traffic cameras and police, are still allowed on the App Store.

“The quoted Apple’s App Store Review Guideline is vague, does that include user-generated contents? We are sure there are contents ‘solicit, promote, or encourage criminal activity in Facebook, Instagram, Safari, Telegram, Twitter, Waze, Whatsapp, etc. at some point in time,” wrote HKmap’s developers.

Pro-democracy demonstrations began in March to protest a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China, but have grown to encompass additional demands that center on Hong Kong’s ability to safeguard rights, including freedom of press and speech, under the “one country, two systems” policy that has been in place since it was returned from British rule to China in 1997.

This is the latest in several decisions made by Apple that have concerned pro-democracy observers and appear designed to appease the government of China, its third-biggest market by sales. Two years ago, it removed VPN apps from its App Store in China and within the last week has removed the Taiwan flag emoji from the iOS keyboard in Hong Kong and the app version of Quartz from the Hong Kong App Store, reportedly because of its protest coverage.

TechCrunch has contacted Apple for comment.

 


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China attacks Apple for allowing Hong Kong crowdsourced police activity app

13:41 | 9 October

Apple’s decision to greenlight an app called HKmaps, which is being used by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong to crowdsource information about street closures and police presence, is attracting the ire of the Chinese government.

An article in Chinese state mouthpiece, China Daily, attacks the iPhone maker for reversing an earlier decision not to allow the app to be listed on the iOS App Store — claiming the app is “allowing the rioters in Hong Kong to go on violent acts” (via The Guardian).

HKmaps uses emoji to denote live police and protest activity around Hong Kong, as reported by users.

The former British colony is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China that’s been able to maintain certain economic and and political freedoms since reunification with China — under the one country, two systems principle. But earlier this year pro-democracy protests broke out after the Hong Kong government sought to pass legislation that would allow for extradition to mainland China. It’s policing around those on-going protests that’s being made visible on HKmaps.

The app’s developer denies the map enables illegal activity,

its function is “for info” purposes only — to allow residents to move freely around the city by being able to avoid protest flash-points. But the Chinese government is branding it “toxic”.

“Business is business, and politics is politics. Nobody wants to drag Apple into the lingering unrest in Hong Kong. But people have reason to assume that Apple is mixing business with politics, and even illegal acts. Apple has to think about the consequences of its unwise and reckless decision,” the China Daily writer warns in a not-so-veiled threat about continued access to the Chinese market.

“Providing a gateway for ‘toxic apps’ is hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, twisting the facts of Hong Kong affairs, and against the views and principles of the Chinese people,” it goes on. “Apple and other corporations should be able to discern right from wrong. They also need to know that only the prosperity of China and China’s Hong Kong will bring them a broader and more sustainable market.”

The article takes further aim at Apple — claiming it reinstated a song which advocates for independence for Hong Kong and had previously been removed from its music store.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment.

A few days ago the company was getting flak from the other direction as Western commentators

to express incredulity over its decision, at the app review stage, not to allow HKmaps on its store. The app’s developer said Apple App Store reviewers had rejected it citing the reasoning as “the app allowed users to evade law enforcement”.

Yet, as many

at the time, the Google-owned Waze app literally describes its function as “avoid police” if you take the trouble to read its iOS listing. So it looked like a crystal-clear case of double standards by Cupertino. And, most awkwardly for Apple, as if the US tech giant was siding with the Chinese state against Hong Kong as concerned residents fight for their autonomy and call for democracy.

We asked Apple about its decision to reject the app at the App Store review stage last week. It did not provide any comment but a couple of days afterwards a spokesman pointed us to an “update” — where the developer tweeted that the iOS version was “Approved, comming soon!” [sic].

At the time of writing the iOS app remains available on the App Store but the episode highlights the tricky trade-offs Apple is facing by operating in the Chinese market — a choice that risks denting its reputation for highly polished corporate values.

The size of the China market is such that just “economical deceleration” can — and has — put a serious dent in Apple’s bottom line. If the company were to exit — or be ejected — from the market entirely there would be no way for it to cushion the blow for shareholders. Yet with a premium brand so bound up with ethical claims to champion and defend fundamental human rights like privacy Apple risks being pinned between a rock and a hard place as an increasingly powerful China flexes more political and economic muscle.

Wider trade tensions between the US and China are also creating further instability, causing major operating headaches for Chinese tech giant Huawei — with the Trump administration pressuring allies to freeze it out of 5G networks and leaning on US companies not to provide services to Chinese firms (leading to question marks over whether Huawei’s smartphones can continue using Google’s Android OS, and suggestions it might seek to deploy its own OS).

The going is certainly getting tougher for tech businesses working from East to West. But it also remains to be seen how sustainable Apple’s West-to-East democratic balancing act can be given heightened and escalating geopolitical tensions.

 


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The Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association warns that restricting online access would be ruinous for the region

08:58 | 29 August

After Hong Kong’s leader suggested she may invoke emergency powers that could potentially include limiting Internet access, one of city’s biggest industry groups warned that “any such restrictions, however slight originally, would start the end of the open Internet of Hong Kong.”

While talking to reporters on Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam suggested the government may use the Emergency Regulations Ordinance in response to ongoing anti-government demonstrations. The law, which has not been used in more than half a century, would give the government a sweeping array of powers, including the ability to restrict or censor publications and communications. In contrast to China’s “Great Firewall” and routine government censorship of internet services, Hong Kong’s internet is currently open and mostly unrestricted, with the exception of laws to prevent online crime, copyright infringements and the spread of obscene material like child pornography.

In an “urgent statement” addressed to Hong Kong’s Executive Council, the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association (HKISPA) said that because of technology like VPNs, the cloud and cryptographies, the only way to “effectively and meaningfully block any services” would entail putting all of Hong Kong’s internet behind a large-scale surveillance firewall. The association added that this would have huge economic and social consequences and deter international organizations from doing business in Hong Kong.

Furthermore, restricting the internet in Hong Kong would also have implications in the rest of the region, including in mainland China, the HKISPA added. There are currently 18 international cable systems that land, or will land, in Hong Kong, making it a major telecommunications hub. Blocking one application means users will move onto another application, creating a cascading effect that will continue until all of Hong Kong is behind a firewall, the association warned.

In its statement, the HKISPA wrote that “the lifeline of Hong Kong’s Internet industry relies in large part on the open network,” adding “Hong Kong is the largest core node of Asia’s optical fiber network and hosts the biggest Internet exchange in the region, and it is now home to 100+ data centers operated by local and international companies, and it transits 80%+ of traffic for mainland China.”

“All these successes rely on the openness of Hong Kong’s network,” the HKISPA continued. “Such restrictions imposed by executive orders would completely ruin the uniqueness and value of Hong Kong as a telecommunications hub, a pillar of success as an international financial centre.”

The HKISPA urged the government to consult the industry and “society at large” before placing any restrictions in place. “The HKISPA strongly opposes selective blocking of Internet Services without consensus of the community,” it said.

 


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