Week in Review: June 8, 2017

by Jeanette Si

Chinese Social Media Platform Undergoes “Systems Upgrade” on Tiananmen Date

Users of Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblogging hub, experienced limited posting functionality from June 3 to June 5.

During this period, domestic users within mainland China were unable to edit their profiles or reply to comments with visuals, while overseas users were barred from posting pictures and videos.

Weibo attributes the limitations to a “systems upgrade,” but most netizens understood that this was a move to censor democracy activists from posting on June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989. The protest is still a banned topic in China, with search engines censoring key terms related to the protest such as “June Fourth,” “Tiananmen massacre,” and “Zhao Ziyang.”

Many users expressed annoyance and anger at the block, with posts describing it as an “online massacre” and China as a country “with only 364 days.” In years past, other Chinese social media (such as WeChat) have been known for mass post deletions and blocking known activist accounts around this sensitive date.

Curious about the state of China’s Internet? Check out IM’s curated China Dashboard here

Internet Companies Plan “Day of Action” to Protest Anti-Net Neutrality Measures 

On July 12, several well-known websites including Amazon, Kickstarter, Etsy, and Reddit will update their appearances to raise awareness about the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) pending revocations of pro-net neutrality regulations.

These revocations, once in effect, will give Internet providers the ability to block and slow websites or charge users a fee for access to specific websites -- all actions prohibited under current regulations.

Proponents of these revocations claim that the regulations in question are “stifling” and “preven[t] Internet providers from finding new ways of making money” in a digitally-driven environment. Opponents point to the possibility that “free speech, competition, and innovation” on the Internet may be compromised.

Battle for the Net, a website dedicated to the protest, states that the day of action will provide “tools for everyone to make it super easy [...] to take action” against the FCC’s revocations. 

Ethiopia Shuts Down Internet for Academic Examinations

The Ethiopian government has mandated a national Internet blackout lasting from May 31 to June 8 in the interest of academic integrity during its nationwide examinations.

These exams govern acceptances into universities and vocational programs, and received major attention last year when exam questions were leaked on the Internet during the testing period. This year’s Internet block is aimed at “preventing a repeat,” said Mohammed Seid, public relations director of Ethiopia’s Office for Government Communications Affairs.

However, the Internet shutdown is not absolute. A select population still had access to the Internet, namely diplomats, banking and other essential service outfits, and those who own the advanced technology to access the Internet via VPN.

The Addis Standard writes that this essentially limited Internet access to the privileged, those who were “fortunate enough to have been employed at foreign organizations” or “ha[d] the means to pay extremely high amount[s] of money to access Wi-Fi networks at luxury hotels.”

The Internet penetration rate in Ethiopia is only 2.9%. See this and more with IM’s curated Ethiopia Dashboard here

Theresa May Calls for Social Media Companies to Create Police “Backdoors” 

In the wake of the Manchester and London Bridge terrorist attacks, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May wants popular social media platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp to create a backdoor accessible to legal authorities for tracking potentially suspicious messages.

Because many messaging services now use encryption so that even they cannot read what is sent between users, May’s proposed backdoor would allow the police to bypass encryption and read users’ messages directly.

If put into effect, this backdoor would be a step up from the Snooper’s Bill passed after the attack on Parisian magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. According to this bill, Internet and phone companies must “store everyone’s web-browsing histories for 12 months, and give police, security services, and agencies, access to the data” when requested.

May’s request resembles the FBI’s demands towards Apple after the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack. Apple had refused to undo its own lock on the perpetrator’s iPhone for the authorities, and the FBI eventually retracted its demands after finding a third party that could unlock the phone.