"social order" laws sure are convenient for authoritarians

Cambodia is among the several countries using the pandemic to crack down on free speech and dissent. Human Rights Watch has been documenting cases of people who express fear about the virus or criticize the government’s response being detained and forced to sign pledges that they will stop spreading fake news. Naturally, government critics are the ones criticizing the government. 

Now, it’s taking the next logical step: building a China-style firewall. Here’s Coda on the newly proposed “National Internet Gateway”: 

The gateway will be managed by one or more government-appointed operators who will collaborate with state institutions such as the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications, the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia. The operator will have the authority “to take actions in blocking and disconnecting all network connections that affect safety, national revenue, social order, dignity, culture, traditions and customs.”

. . .

Technology experts fear the decree will be used to block online criticism of the government. “While the authorities have said this is primarily due to tax reasons and stopping disinformation about Covid-19, it could also be used for more nefarious purposes, i.e. blocking sites which could have content that would be critical of the government,” Marc Einstein, chief analyst at Tokyo-based IT research and consultancy firm ITR told me during a telephone call.

Lumping in reasonable things like online safety and tax collection with the nebulous “social order” is a classic tactic in these situations. Protests disrupt the social order don’t they? After all, isn’t that usually the point of protesting? 

This is hardly the first time despotic governments have looked to China’s firewall for inspiration. In 2018 Reuters reported on the trend

Freedom House research director Adrian Shahbaz said that governments had begun justifying increased censorship and diminished digital privacy protections by saying the policies combat the spread of fake news and help catch criminals.

In effect, countries are using the curbs to violate human rights, he said.

Freedom House said China has been leading the charge. It has hosted seminars on cyberspace management since early 2017 with representatives from 36 out of 65 countries tracked by Freedom House, including nations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The 65 countries represent 87 percent of the world’s internet users, the group said.

Discussions with Chinese officials preceded new cybersecurity measures in Vietnam, Uganda and Tanzania over the last year, Freedom House said after reviewing Chinese state media articles and government press releases.

Meanwhile, Chinese technology companies have provided or are set to provide internet equipment to at least 38 of the tracked countries and artificial intelligence systems for law enforcement in 18 countries, the report said.

Catching criminals and combating the spread of fake news sounds great! 

If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a recent Washington Post editorial on the subject: China is exporting its digital authoritarianism

In this NYT op-ed justifying China’s clamp down on democracy, the Hong Kong Executive Council gave away the game for its draconian national security law: 

(I’m setting aside the fact that the NYT even published this.) 

By keeping this definition intentionally vague, it gives the government incredible discretion over what activities are illegal. 

By the way, Sarah is a great follow if you are interested in free speech issues around the world. We recorded a podcast on the topic together last month. 

FinCEN day finally came. Everyone’s heard of the FinCEN files by now, and I imagine there are endless stories that will trickle out as journalists pore over the leaked financial data. 

Here’s a few reactions that went against the grain that I think are worth signal boosting here. 

From my boss Jerry Brito’s newsletter

The only thing that’s interesting to me about this story is how the media is reacting to the leaks. Imagine if every communications company in the U.S., from AT&T and T-Mobile to Twitter to Gmail to Facebook, had to keep a record of every private conversation between their customers and had to file “suspicious conversation reports” with the government whenever some chat seemed fishy. Do you think BuzzFeed’s reaction to a leak of such reports would be, “Wow, the mass surveillance regime the government has over all Americans’ conversations isn’t very effective, and these companies are profiting from conversations between criminals”?

When it comes to money and banks, however, many (including the Fourth Estate it seems) give up any concern over individual privacy or the extent of government surveillance power. The frog has been boiled, it seems, 

A thread from our friends at The Modern Money Network: 

One from my colleague Andrea O’ Sullivan, in Reason:

It's a bit strange that while Ed Snowden's revelations of major communications surveillance programs were met with mass outrage and years of discussion, these "FinCEN files" exposing our inefficient financial surveillance programs barely received mention. And when the media did discuss the FinCEN files, it was mostly to criticize banks for allowing these transactions to go through.

And another from Open Privacy: 

Protests continue in Belarus as the illegitimate election is rammed through. The regime is attempting to clamp down on resistance via increasingly draconian measures. 

A non-profit named BYSOL is helping people who have lost their jobs due to protest activities $1,500 a month, paid in bitcoin. 

Coindesk reports

BYSOL chose bitcoin as a way to transfer funds as other ways are under the total control of the government, Russian-language publication Forklog reported. The name of the fund is an abbreviation: BY (Belarus country code) + SOLidarity.  

Yaroslav Likhachevskiy is one of the founders of BYSOL and the CEO of Deepdee, a Belarussian-Dutch startup that develops AI solutions for health care. He told CoinDesk that bitcoin is the only payment method that can’t be controlled by the authorities. The regime is strictly monitoring bank transfers and can freeze funds related to protest activities.

Belarus law enforcement is paying particular attention to any money transfers by people and entities related to BYSOL, Likhachevskiy said. He shared with CoinDesk an order issued by the Belarus Ministry of Interior, which told the country’s banks to disclose information about all transactions related to Likhachevskiy and other people helping BYSOL. 

Likhachevskiy said he was once a crypto skeptic, but now he believes bitcoin can really be helpful.  

This is an excellent example of a case where the state is abusing its policing powers over the bank system to suppress dissent, so dodging them is clearly justified. 

A Palestinian activist and former hijacker named Leila Khaled was set to give a Zoom webinar talk through San Francisco State University. Israeli and Jewish groups protested the event, eventually pressuring Zoom to cancel it altogether.  

It worked. Then Facebook and Youtube blocked the event as well. 

Look, I’m not going to defend what this person did. But it’s worth pointing out that our platforms blocked an academic conference with someone deeply embroiled in one of the world’s most important issues. They did this to protect themselves from risk. That’s worrying. 

This rat is kind of a fun story

But I’ve since learned that it’s not only fun but relevant to my work! The non-profit the rat works for takes cryptocurrency donations. So go support the hero rat. 

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