Week in Review: August 3, 2017

by Jeanette Si

Differences in Internet Affordability May Worsen Australia’s Digital Divide

A recent study found that while Australian Internet is becoming more accessible as a whole, marked differences still exist between how low-income and high-income populations access the Internet.

The Australian Digital Inclusion Index, released earlier this week, gives the country a yearly rating out of 100, with a perfect score representing “a hypothetically perfect level of access, affordability, and digital ability.” Australia’s current score, 56.5, is 3.8 points up from when the index was last updated in 2014.

However, when income differences are taken into account, Australia’s lowest income bracket (less than A$35,000 a year) has a score of only 41.1 while the highest income bracket (over A$150,000 a year) has a score of 68.1. This difference is largely due to the exponentially increasing demand for data; although the price of data is getting cheaper, Internet users now perform more data-intensive tasks that altogether outpace the cheapening of data.

And the increasing migration of essential services to the Internet has made it a resource that people cannot afford to live without. The Commonwealth Bureau of Communications and Arts Research estimates that the lowest income households in Australia spend 10% of their income on the Internet, while the wealthiest bracket only spends less than 2%.

What’s more, lower-income Internet users tend to only access Internet via mobile devices, which is “considerably more expensive than fixed broadband on a per gigabyte basis.” Right now, one in five Australians access the Internet solely from mobile devices.

Get the whole picture on Australian Internet with our dashboard

Putin Signs Bill Prohibiting Use of Virtual Private Networks

Following in China’s footsteps, President Vladimir Putin signed a bill this week prohibiting the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and other anonymizers in Russia.

This bill has already been approved by the Duma, the lower house of parliament, and effectively bans any technology that will allow Russian Internet users to browse the web anonymously. Now that it has approval from the president, it will take effect as law on November 1.

Lenold Levin, head of the Duma’s information policy committee, told the Russian state news agency RIA that the bill “was meant to prevent access to ‘unlawful content’ rather than restrict it from law-abiding citizens.” Human rights groups, however, argue that Russia’s wide net of censorship also blocks content that criticizes the government and that this act is merely a ploy to further silence dissent.

“Laws that criminalize the use of privacy-enhancing technologies like VPNs are incredibly dangerous and will restrict rights to privacy, free expression and access to information,” said Jim Killock, the executive director of the U.K. digital rights campaign Open Rights Group, to CNBC.

“This is the latest blow in an assault on online freedom which has seen critical sites blocked and social media users prosecuted solely for what they post online, under vaguely written anti-extremism legislation. The ban on VPNs takes this shameful campaign a whole step further,” says Amnesty International deputy director Denis Krivosheev in a statement.

Moscow’s latest move follows a series of Internet regulation measures passed by its close neighbor China banning the use of VPNs, tightening content regulations, and restricting social media use.

Apple and Amazon Cave to China’s Heightened Regulations on Internet

On the heels of Beijing’s newest set of Internet regulations, two large American companies are beginning to self-regulate their Chinese properties to adhere to the standards of Chinese Internet censors.

Apple has taken the lead in the process, preemptively removing apps from its App Store that can help users circumvent China’s Internet filtering. Reportedly, Apple has also planned to open up a new data center in China to store the information of Chinese Apple users.

The New York Times calls this a sign of “how deeply beholden the tech giant has become to Beijing,” drawing a contrast between Apple’s steadfast refusal when the FBI requested an iPhone backdoor for a criminal investigation and Apple’s relative lack of resistance to China.

Similarly, the Chinese operator of Amazon’s web services division, Beijing Sinnet Technology, sent out an email notice on August 1 telling its clients “to cease using any software that would allow Chinese to circumvent the country’s extensive system of internet blocks” or risk having services discontinued. Beijing Sinnet also said that it would “check routinely if any of [its] users use these softwares or store illegal content.”

New York Times analysts say that along with the passage of Beijing’s new Internet regulations, the administration has also “been more aggressive in pressuring [overseas] companies to make concessions,” leveraging the appeal of the lucrative and populous Chinese market to coerce companies into complying with its demands.