Week in Review: November 18, 2016

by Priscilla Guo

Russia Blocks LinkedIn

On Nov. 17, Russia’s communications authority Roskomnadzor informed the media that within the next twenty-four hours, LinkedIn would be blocked in the country. LinkedIn, a social network for business professionals, was recently acquired by Microsoft for $26.2 billion. Russian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were forced to comply in the time frame or else they faced severe fines and potentially blocks of service in the country. On Nov. 18, any attempt to access the LinkedIn website via MTS, Vimpelcom, and other Russian telecoms were met with a restricted access message. In October, LinkedIn was found by Russian courts to have violated a 2014 law passed by Vladimir Putin that required social networks with Russian users to store at least six months of data on servers on Russian soil. The company’s appeal in Moscow City Court on Nov. 10 was rejected. According to the Kremlin, the purpose of the law is to ensure that data on Russian consumers is protected. LinkedIn was being investigated in particular due to the millions of LinkedIn passwords that were hacked in 2012. The Kremlin denies any practice of online censorship. The Washington Post reports that the law was a response to the growing power of social media in aiding the organization of political dissidence in Russia. Internet expert and blogger Anton Nossik told Reuters that “the aim of this law is to create (another) quasi-legal pretext to close Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and all other services.” Author of “The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and New Online Revolutionaries” Andrei Soldatov stated that the purpose of the law is surveillance, which would allow the Russian government to take down political dissidence. There are over 6 million registered LinkedIn users in Russia. Soldatov claims that the modest size of the company allows it to set an example for the data localization. Although LinkedIn rarely contains any political activity on the site, the blocking of LinkedIn in the country establishes a precedent for a new restrictive environment in Russia. At the moment, Facebook and Twitter store their user data out of the country and Apple and Google have complied with Russia’s requests.

Facebook Expands Free Basics and the Walled Garden of Internet

According to Facebook’s latest Q3 earnings call, the company’s Free Basics Internet service has helped 40 million people get online. The company has announced that it will be expanding its Free Basics internet service to Americans, as it continues to push adoption in other countries around the world. Originally known as Internet.org, Free Basics aims to give people, without internet, access to a select group of websites, including Messenger and Wikipedia, at no charge. However, the company has received criticism for its curation of specific online services in the program. Essentially, Wired argues that the Internet should not just be Facebook for low-income consumers. There are a number of potential harms associated with the Walled Garden that Free Basics would create. Through Free Basics, Wired contends that Facebook is able to control the free flow of information and exercise censorship over content. Foreign Policy notes that the collaborations with governments to expand Free Basics should give the public pause. It creates a two-tiered Internet, that gives dictators “a version of the Internet they can influence, if not totally control.” According to Mashable, there is a huge need for an unrestricted Internet among poorer populations in sub-Saharan Africa because an open Internet allows people to discover new information and innovate. “For every 1000 new subscribers to broadband internet, 80 new jobs are created.”

Communication Apps Put Internet Freedom in Peril

The 2016 Freedom on the Net paper, produced by Freedom House, reports that Internet freedom around the world has declined for its sixth consecutive year. Two-thirds (67%) of global users live in countries that censor any criticism of government, military, or ruling family. NPR describes the shift in the past four years: “In 2013, it was a rise in surveillance. In 2014, governments shifted more from behind-the-scenes control to overt repression and arrests. In 2015, it was more of the same, plus a push against encryption.” Now in 2016, governments increasingly rely on social media and communication applications to stifle public dissent and quash anti-government protests. Of the 65 countries surveyed for the study, 24 governments impeded access to social media and communication tools and 15 governments tried to shut down access to the Internet itself or mobile phone networks. WhatsApp was the single most blocked communication tool across the world and the most arrests from online activity occurred against Facebook users. The reasons that governments have shifted their focus to censoring communication applications are the encryption and text & audiovisual calling functions. These platforms have become nearly ubiquitous in sharing information and content within populations. Furthermore, the security features of these services makes them a target. Blocking these communication pathways has significantly removed expressions of dissent against authoritarian governments on the Internet.

SpaceX Aims to Become Satellite Internet Provider

On Wednesday, November 16, SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission to launch 4,425 satellites into low-Earth orbits, which range from 715 miles to 823 miles above earth. SpaceX will begin with a fleet of 800 satellites by approximately 2019 and gradually build up to the proposed 4,425 satellites. The objective of the satellite launch is to create a global, high-speed Internet network. The reason why the satellites would be operating at low orbits is to greatly reduce latency, which is affected by the distance between the Earth and the satellites. The low orbit would reduce the latency to between 25 and 35 ms, similar to ground Internet services, whilst current satellite systems have latencies of 600 ms or more. Furthermore, SpaceX promises to provide higher bandwidth of up to 1Gbps per user. In 2015, the company received $1 billion in funding from Google and Fidelity Investments for the project. It’s unclear as to why CEO Elon Musk is looking to provide such a network. TechCrunch speculates that SpaceX could be laying the foundations for an internet service on Mars. In order for SpaceX to launch such satellites, the FCC must grant SpaceX approval to use the wireless airwaves that would power the network. Along with SpaceX, OneWeb, a startup backed by Airbus and Virgin, and Boeing are competing to bring internet satellites into orbit and get access to these airwaves. OneWeb announced that it would be bringing its satellites into orbit by the year 2020.