China Further Tightens Grip on the Internet

China Further Tightens Grip on the Internet
By ANDREW JACOBS
Jan 29 2015
<http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/30/world/asia/china-clamps-down-still-harder-on-internet-access.html>

BEIJING — Jing Yuechen, the founder of an Internet start-up here in the Chinese capital, has no interest in overthrowing the Communist Party. But these days she finds herself cursing the nation’s smothering cyberpolice as she tries — and fails — to browse photo-sharing websites like Flickr and struggles to stay in touch with the Facebook friends she has made during trips to France, India and Singapore.

Gmail has become almost impossible to use here, and in recent weeks the authorities have gummed up Astrill, the software Ms. Jing and countless others depended on to circumvent the Internet restrictions that Western security analysts refer to as the Great Firewall.

By interfering with Astrill and several other popular virtual private networks, or V.P.N.s, the government has complicated the lives of Chinese astronomers seeking the latest scientific data from abroad, graphic designers shopping for clip art on Shutterstock and students submitting online applications to American universities.

“If it was legal to protest and throw rotten eggs on the street, I’d definitely be up for that,” Ms. Jing, 25, said.

China has long had some of the world’s most onerous Internet restrictions. But until now, the authorities had effectively tolerated the proliferation of V.P.N.s as a lifeline for millions of people, from archaeologists to foreign investors, who rely heavily on less-fettered access to the Internet.

But earlier this week, after a number of V.P.N. companies, including StrongVPN and Golden Frog, complained that the Chinese government had disrupted their services with unprecedented sophistication, a senior official for the first time acknowledged its hand in the attacks and implicitly promised more of the same.

The move to disable some of the most widely used V.P.N.s has provoked a torrent of outrage among video artists, entrepreneurs and professors who complain that in its quest for so-called cybersovereignty — Beijing’s euphemism for online filtering — the Communist Party is stifling the innovation and productivity needed to revive the Chinese economy at a time of slowing growth.

“I need to stay tuned into the rest of the world,” said Henry Yang, 25, the international news editor of a state-owned media company who uses Facebook to follow American broadcasters. “I feel like we’re like frogs being slowly boiled in a pot.”

Multinational companies are also alarmed by the growing online constraints. Especially worrisome, they say, are new regulations that would force foreign technology and telecom companies to give the government “back doors” to their hardware and software and require them to store data within China.

Like their Chinese counterparts, Western business owners have been complaining about their inability to gain access to many Google services since the summer. A few weeks ago, China cut off the ability to receive Gmail on smartphones through third-party email services like Apple Mail or Microsoft Outlook.

The recent disabling of several widely used V.P.N.s has made it difficult for company employees to use collaborative programs like Google Docs, although some people have found workarounds — for the time being.

“One unfortunate result of excessive control over email and Internet traffic is the slowing down of legitimate commerce, and that is not something in China’s best interest,” said James Zimmerman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. “In order to attract and promote world-class commercial enterprises, the government needs to encourage the use of the Internet as a crucial medium for the sharing of information and ideas to promote economic growth and development.”

Chinese authorities have long had the ability to interfere with V.P.N.s, but their interest in disrupting such programs has mounted alongside the government’s drive for cybersovereignty, especially since President Xi Jinping came to power two years ago. Lu Wei, the propaganda official Mr. Xi appointed as Internet czar, has been unapologetic in promoting the notion that China has the right to block a wide array of online content.

A co-founder of Greatfire.org, which tracks online censorship in China, suggested the government had decided that soaring V.P.N. use among ordinary Chinese warranted a more aggressive attack on such software.

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The war on brains

[Note:  This item comes from friend Ed DeWath.  DLH]

The war on brains
By Mark Bourrie
Jan 26 2015
<http://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2015/01/26/the-war-on-brains.html>

Of all national assets, archives are the most precious. They are the gift of one generation to another and the extent of our care of them marks the extent of our civilization.

— Sir Arthur Doughty, former chief archivist of Canada

Maybe the muzzling of climate scientists did pay off for Harper and Tories who didn’t want Canadians to spend too much time thinking about the climate: from 2007 to 2012, the volume of media coverage of climate change issues fell by 80 per cent.

When the Harper government held closed-door meetings to talk about ways to cut Environment Canada’s budget by $60 million in the 2012 federal budget, Harper’s team made sure communications specialists were in the room. Records labelled “secret advice to the minister” were part of 500 pages of briefing material prepared for a new deputy minister when she arrived at Environment Canada a few months after the meetings.

“Strategists from the communication branch were involved in Environment Canada’s deliberations on its contribution to the deficit action reduction plan from the beginning,” said the records, released through Access to Information. They also showed that Environment Canada’s human resources branch managers stayed in touch with both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office.

“That sounds a bit backwards to me,” Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents about 60,000 government scientists and professionals, told Postmedia journalist Mike De Souza. “It’s wrong for communications people to be involved in deciding what decisions to make. Communications people are there to communicate the decisions after they’re made. It seems the government is just being political rather than [doing] what’s in the best interests of Canadians.”

The Harper government is especially sensitive about any scientific research that shows the extraction of oil from the bitumen sands of northern Alberta is a threat to the environment or to people. Environment Canada researchers Derek Muir and Jane Kirk agreed with findings by University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler that contaminants are accumulating in snow near the oilsands quarries. While the university scientists could discuss their findings with the media, the government scientists could not.

The University of Alberta scientists’ report was presented in November 2011 at a conference in Boston of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. “[Environment Canada’s] research conducted during winter 2010–11 confirms results already published by the University of Alberta that show contaminants in snow in the oilsands area,” an Environment Canada memorandum admitted, but the authors of the document warned: “If scientists are approached for interviews at the conference, the EC [Environment Canada] communications policy will be followed by referring the journalist to the media relations . . . phone number. An appropriate spokesperson will then be identified depending on journalist questions.”

The document was obtained through Access to Information by Postmedia’s Mike De Souza, who had been bird-dogging the government on its cover-up of data that might cause trouble for oil extraction companies. (Their problem was solved when De Souza was laid off in 2014, when Postmedia shut down its Ottawa bureau. The Postmedia chain no longer has a full-time environment reporter on Parliament Hill.)

Environment Canada scientists were told to say, “I am a scientist. I’m not in a position to answer that question, but I’d be happy to refer you to an appropriate spokesperson.” The official line was: “We are comparing the levels of contamination we found in our work to other studies and find that other studies report both higher and lower levels. These efforts will allow us to better understand deposition patterns and levels of oilsands related contaminants with a view to better identify their sources and ecological risks.”

By the sixth year of the Harper regime, most scientists knew it was foolish and dangerous to try to buck the system. The Index on Censorship took a survey of 4,000 Canadian scientists in 2013. Only 14 per cent said they felt they would be able to share a concern about public health and safety, or a threat to the environment, without fear of retaliation or censure from their department or agency.

Once the Harper government had scientists under its control, it went after their research libraries. First, Health Canada turned over its interlibrary loan system to a company called Infotrieve. Every time a researcher wanted material from a scientific journal article, a book from a university library or a publication from a federal or provincial agency, Infotrieve billed the scientist’s department. To save money and aggravation, some research scientists started borrowing university library cards from co-op students and friends who taught in universities so they could get the interlibrary loan material for free. Others had to ask friends working for private companies to get government-owned research material for them.

[snip]

Peer-to-peer lending heralds mortgages without banks

[Note:  This item comes from reader Randall Head.  DLH]

Peer-to-peer lending heralds mortgages without banks
Crowdsourced loans and peer-to-peer lending are cutting banks out of the mortgage market – and this is just the start
By Chris Baraniuk
Jan 23 2015
<http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22530052.400-peertopeer-lending-heralds-mortgages-without-banks.html>

NEED a mortgage? In the near future you may find yourself canvassing strangers online for a loan instead of your bank. The rise of a new kind of crowdfunding website is opening up the potential for everyone to take part in – and profit from – financial services, without a bank in sight.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) lending, which connects those who need money with those looking to grow their own, has enjoyed a dramatic rise in popularity in recent years, fuelled by a shortage of credit at one end and lacklustre interest rates at the other.

The trend began in earnest when sites like Zopa began helping people secure personal loans through crowdsourced funding. But now an increasing number of peer-to-peer investors are looking to get a slice of the property market.

The system works by allowing people from all walks of life to pool their money and act as a lender to a home buyer. Investors sign up through a website where loan requests are published alongside details about the applicant. Once you have decided who to lend money to, you can invest as little as £100 in the mortgage. In the UK, there are rarely limits on the maximum investment you can make, and interest is typically paid back to you monthly. Regulatory oversight for the area is growing too, with bodies such as the P2P Finance Association now enforcing rules on its members.

Growing enthusiasm for the model is giving the companies who manage peer-to-peer lending arrangements big ideas. “P2P is a large part of the current strategy, but it’s really about opening up the mortgage market to be accessible purely online for people,” says Ian Thomas, co-founder of LendInvest.com, which offers P2P mortgages. “That’s the real power of what we’ve created.”

LendInvest users can choose from a range of high interest, short-term loans requested by residential and commercial mortgage seekers. Loan repayments net those investors a monthly fee, which the company says sits at an average of around 6.5 per cent.

Danny Cox, a spokesman for financial services company Hargreaves and Lansdown, says that the UK’s rock-bottom interest rates since 2009 have encouraged the rise of such “alternative finance”. This is now leading some to question the need for banks for certain financial transactions. “The amount of money spent on P2P is still small, a little over a billion pounds in the UK, though the market is growing very rapidly,” Cox says.

There are risks, however. Cox points out that commercial properties generally carry a higher risk of buyers defaulting on their payments. “The key to the continued success of P2P is the correct assessment of risk,” he says.

If P2P firms aren’t transparent about the risks facing investors, that could create a situation in which expected returns fail to materialise. Some also worry that the credit score demands on P2P borrowers might be relaxed to encourage market growth.

Crowdfunding is also making it easier for investors to enter the buy-to-let market (BTL) without needing to buy a property outright (see “Buying houses by the brick”).

Last year, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) expressed concern about the “liquidity shock” that BTL crowdfunding posed to the housing market by making the purchase of a share in a house “as easy as ordering a book on Amazon”.

An internal paper shared with New Scientist estimates that if 5 per cent of household savings in the UK were invested in these schemes, it would add an extra £50 billion to the country’s housing market over three years, probably exacerbating house price volatility. As well as the danger that greater access to property investment collectives will drive houses prices even higher, the RICS report notes that the schemes will require policymakers to rethink how they manage the property market.

[snip]

Incredible video shows how Space X plans to land largest rocket in the world

Incredible video shows how Space X plans to land largest rocket in the world
By Dante D’Orazio
Feb 1 2015
<http://www.theverge.com/2015/2/1/7957585/how-space-x-plans-to-land-largest-rocket-in-the-world>

You know what’s cooler than a gigantic rocket? A gigantic rocket that can land itself. Elon Musk’s Space X released a new video this week demonstrating just what it plans to do with its upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket, which is set to launch for the first time later this year.

In essence, the rocket is three of the company’s current Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. The result is a rocket that can carry over 115,000 pounds (53,000 kg) — the equivalent of a fully-loaded Boeing 737 passenger jet — to low-earth orbit. When it flies later this year, the Falcon Heavy will be the world’s most powerful rocket. Only the Saturn V rocket, which was retired in 1973 after sending Apollo missions to the moon, was more powerful.

Powerful enough to carry a fully-loaded 737 jet

But what’s even more impressive is that Space X wants the Falcon Heavy to land itself. The company has been testing the concept for the past couple of years with its Grasshopper rockets, and more recently, the Falcon 9-R, which exploded spectacularly earlier this month during one such test. Landing the first stage rockets of the Falcon Heavy will require not just one landing, but three — one for each rocket booster. By saving the first-stage rockets, Space X hopes to cut costs and promote accelerated launch schedules.

While the computer-illustrated video may seem like little more than science fiction at this point, Space X has demonstrated that it’s close to landing rockets after launching their payloads. Despite the explosion during testing this month, the Falcon 9-R did navigate its way back from the upper reaches of the atmosphere to a tiny, 300-by-100-foot barge off the coast of Florida. According to Elon Musk, had it not run out of hydraulic fuel right before landing, the rocket may have survived the trip.

Microsoft to Invest in Rogue Android Startup Cyanogen

[Note:  This item comes from friend Bob Frankston.  DLH]

Microsoft to Invest in Rogue Android Startup Cyanogen
By ROLFE WINKLER and SHIRA OVIDE
Jan 29 2015
<http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2015/01/29/microsoft-to-invest-in-rogue-android-startup-cyanogen/>

Microsoft is investing in a hot startup that’s trying to weaken Google’s hold over Android.

People familiar with the matter say Microsoft is putting money into Cyanogen, which is building a version of the Android mobile-operating system outside of Google’s auspices.

Microsoft would be a minority investor in a roughly $70 million round of equity financing that values Cyanogen in the high hundreds of millions, one of the people said. The person said the financing round could grow with other strategic investors that have expressed interest in Cyanogen because they’re also eager to diminish Google’s control over Android. The identity of the other potential investors couldn’t be learned.

Spokespeople for Microsoft and Cyanogen declined to comment.

The investment would be unusual, because Microsoft offers its own Windows Phone mobile operating system. But Windows Phone has only about 3% market share, which may be prompting Microsoft to consider unconventional steps.

Android was intended as an “open source” operating system that hardware makers can deploy in their devices for free. Yet Google has frustrated manufacturers in recent years by requiring them to feature Google apps and set Google search as the default for users, in exchange for access to the search engine, YouTube, or the millions of apps in its Play Store.

Such restrictions make it harder for apps that compete with Google’s to win distribution on Android devices. For Microsoft, that means less exposure for its Bing search engine, which is up against Google search. It also could limit growth of other Microsoft software products.

Cyanogen offers an alternate version of the Android mobile operating system free of such restrictions. The 80-person company claims to have a volunteer army of 9,000 software developers working on its own version of Android.

“We’re going to take Android away from Google,” said Kirt McMaster, Cyanogen’s chief executive, in a brief interview last week. The next day, at an industry event sponsored by tech news service The Information, McMaster said Cyanogen had raised $100 million to date. Previously the company had disclosed that it raised $30 million of funding. The company spokeswoman declined to make McMaster available for this story.

McMaster said more than 50 million people use a version of the Cyanogen Android operating system, most of whom have installed it in place of their phone’s initial operating system.

To spread adoption more quickly, Cyanogen is working on deals with hardware makers to install the software on their devices. It recently signed a deal with Indian smartphone maker Micromax to ship handsets with Cyanogen’s software and is close to announcing more such deals, say people familiar with the matter.

A third mobile ecosystem as an alternative to rivals Google and Apple could help Microsoft better distribute its apps and services on smartphones.

[snip]

The government loves the policy ‘technology for me but not for thee’

The government loves the policy ‘technology for me but not for thee’
From drones to other tracking technologies, law enforcement increasingly wants to keep their toys to themselves – and to do so with no oversight
By Trevor Timm
Jan 31 2015
<http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/31/the-government-loves-the-policy-technology-for-me-but-not-for-thee>

Three seemingly unrelated events explain a lot about the federal government’s complicated and hypocritical reaction to the proliferation of drones and other technology – technology they love to use to track millions of citizens but to which they don’t want citizens to have access.

First, a drunk intelligence agency employee crashed a two-foot toy drone into the White House lawn at 3am earlier this week, while the Federal Aviation Administration banned drones from flying over the Super Bowl on Sunday in Arizona. Then, police started loudly complaining about a traffic app called Waze that also alerts travelers about the location of police cars operating speed traps.

It may be hard to remember now, but the number one privacy issue in America before Edward Snowden came along was invasive police drones, which sparked broad left-right coalitions in state governments across the country. The NSA’s repeated invasions of Americans’ privacy replaced drones on the front pages, but that hasn’t stopped law enforcement from trying to acquire the technology or the federal government from trying to warn of the vast dangers of civilians doing the same thing.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service are using the White House incident to raise alarms about supposed terrorists using widely-available commercial drones to carry out some sort of terrorist attack, according to The New York Times – nevermind that the drone that crashed at the White House was much too small to do so.

That fits directly into federal and local police’s long-standing “technology for me but not for thee” policy: DHS has issued dire warnings about the threat of a terrorist attack from civilian drones, while also providing police all over the country much more sophisticated drone technology than the public has. DHS spends millions of dollars to “facilitate and accelerate the adoption” of drones by police agencies, much like they underwrite the militarization of the same local police forces. Many of these drones can potentially spy on people from long distances, carry infrared cameras that can see through walls, intercept cell phone data or wifi signals, and otherwise act as the ultimate surveillance devices.

(It’s also ironic that DHS is calling drones a new threat to public safety and warning of their potential use in a terrorist attack when the US government’s much larger, much more sophisticated military drones have been killing people overseas. American drones have created a state of terror for civilians in places like Yemen and Pakistan, who fear they may be mistaken for a terrorist and killed – as has happened many times in the past few years.)

But hobby drone enthusiasts didn’t even have to wait for even more restrictive commercial drone regulations at the administration’s behest, since DIJ – the Chinese manufacturer which makes the Phantom quadcopter that crashed near the White House – said that they would send a mandatory software update to all its drones technically prohibiting them from flying DC airspace. As EFF’s Parker Higgins wrote, “No matter where you stand on drones, this leap from ‘regulation is needed’ to ‘mandatory firmware update’ is chilling. Today it’s drone makers disabling flight in certain cities. Tomorrow, anything with a networked computer: cars, hearing aids, you name it.”

[snip]

Comcast now has more than half of all US broadband customers

Comcast now has more than half of all US broadband customers
Under new 25Mbps broadband definition, Comcast has 56% market share.
By Jon Brodkin
Jan 30 2015
<http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/01/comcast-now-has-more-than-half-of-all-us-broadband-customers/>

Comcast’s broadband market share just got a huge bump.

Yesterday, the FCC decided to raise minimum broadband speeds from 4Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream to 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream, over the objections of the cable industry, which has argued that it faces serious competition from DSL.

Comcast, the nation’s largest Internet service provider, dominates the country at the higher speeds, in large part because today’s DSL networks can’t keep pace with cable. According to the company’s filings with the Federal Communications Commission, Comcast has more than half of all the customers in the United States with home Internet connections of at least 25Mbps.

Comcast detailed the numbers in a December 2014 filing on its proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable. The filing discusses the company’s pre- and post-merger market shares at various Internet speeds. (The Wall Street Journal had a story on the filing yesterday.)

Under the 25Mbps threshold, Comcast will have “56.8 percent [market share] excluding mobile broadband and 44.7 percent including mobile broadband” after the merger, the filing says. But that is barely changed from today because “less than one tenth of TWC customers enjoy speeds at or above 25 Mbps, whereas more than half of Comcast customers enjoy such speeds.”

“Comcast’s national share [will] only increase[e] by one percent due to the transaction under this definition of broadband,” Comcast said. These figures include all 25Mbps and higher downstream connections regardless of upstream speed because of data limitations.

Comcast’s share is smaller under the lower definitions of broadband, the speeds that DSL can provide. At 3Mbps down and 768Kbps up, the post-merger Comcast would have 37 percent of the national market excluding mobile broadband and 13.7 percent including mobile broadband. At 10Mbps downstream (with no upstream restrictions), the post-merger Comcast would have 42.1 percent excluding mobile broadband and 22.2 percent including mobile broadband. This is “an increase of approximately 12 percent and 7 percent, respectively,” Comcast wrote.

The data Comcast uses comes from an FCC report relying on data from December 2013, so things might have changed a bit since then.

[snip]