The “splinternet” is already here

There is no question that the arrival of a fragmented and divided internet is now upon us. The “splinternet,” where cyberspace is controlled and regulated by different countries is no longer just a concept, but now a dangerous reality. With the future of the “World Wide Web” at stake, governments and advocates in support of a free and open internet have an obligation to stem the tide of authoritarian regimes isolating the web to control information and their populations.

Both China and Russia have been rapidly increasing their internet oversight, leading to increased digital authoritarianism. Earlier this month Russia announced a plan to disconnect the entire country from the internet to simulate an all-out cyberwar. And, last month China issued two new censorship rules, identifying 100 new categories of banned content and implementing mandatory reviews of all content posted on short video platforms.

While China and Russia may be two of the biggest internet disruptors, they are by no means the only ones. Cuban, Iranian and even Turkish politicians have begun pushing “information sovereignty,” a euphemism for replacing services provided by western internet companies with their own more limited but easier to control products. And a 2017 study found that numerous countries, including Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen have engaged in “substantial politically motivated filtering.”

This digital control has also spread beyond authoritarian regimes. Increasingly, there are more attempts to keep foreign nationals off certain web properties.

For example, digital content available to U.K. citizens via the BBC’s iPlayer is becoming increasingly unavailable to Germans. South Korea filters, censors and blocks news agencies belonging to North Korea. Never have so many governments, authoritarian and democratic, actively blocked internet access to their own nationals.

The consequences of the splinternet and digital authoritarianism stretch far beyond the populations of these individual countries.

Back in 2016, U.S. trade officials accused China’s Great Firewall of creating what foreign internet executives defined as a trade barrier. Through controlling the rules of the internet, the Chinese government has nurtured a trio of domestic internet giants, known as BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent), who are all in lock step with the government’s ultra-strict regime.

The super-apps that these internet giants produce, such as WeChat, are built for censorship. The result? According to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “the Chinese Firewall will lead to two distinct internets. The U.S. will dominate the western internet and China will dominate the internet for all of Asia.”

Surprisingly, U.S. companies are helping to facilitate this splinternet.

Google had spent decades attempting to break into the Chinese market but had difficulty coexisting with the Chinese government’s strict censorship and collection of data, so much so that in March 2010, Google chose to pull its search engines and other services out of China. However now, in 2019, Google has completely changed its tune.

Google has made censorship allowances through an entirely different Chinese internet platform called project Dragonfly . Dragonfly is a censored version of Google’s Western search platform, with the key difference being that it blocks results for sensitive public queries.

Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Google Inc., sits before the start of a House Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018. Pichai backed privacy legislation and denied the company is politically biased, according to a transcript of testimony he plans to deliver. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “people have the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Drafted in 1948, this declaration reflects the sentiment felt following World War II, when people worked to prevent authoritarian propaganda and censorship from ever taking hold the way it once did. And, while these words were written over 70 years ago, well before the age of the internet, this declaration challenges the very concept of the splinternet and the undemocratic digital boundaries we see developing today.

As the web becomes more splintered and information more controlled across the globe, we risk the deterioration of democratic systems, the corruption of free markets and further cyber misinformation campaigns. We must act now to save a free and open internet from censorship and international maneuvering before history is bound to repeat itself.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM – MAY 22: An Avaaz activist attends an anti-Facebook demonstration with cardboard cutouts of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, on which is written “Fix Fakebook”, in front of the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter on May 22, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium. Avaaz.org is an international non-governmental cybermilitating organization, founded in 2007. Presenting itself as a “supranational democratic movement,” it says it empowers citizens around the world to mobilize on various international issues, such as human rights, corruption or poverty. (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Ultimate Solution

Similar to the UDHR drafted in 1948, in 2016, the United Nations declared “online freedom” to be a fundamental human right that must be protected. While not legally binding, the motion passed with consensus, and therefore the UN was provided limited power to endorse an open internet (OI) system. Through selectively applying pressure on governments who are not compliant, the UN can now enforce digital human rights standards.

The first step would be to implement a transparent monitoring system which ensures that the full resources of the internet, and ability to operate on it, are easily accessible to all citizens. Countries such as North Korea, China, Iran and Syria, who block websites and filter email plus social media communication, would be encouraged to improve through the imposition of incentives and consequences.

All countries would be ranked on their achievement of multiple positive factors including open standards, lack of censorship, and low barriers to internet entry. A three tier open internet ranking system would divide all nations into Free, Partly Free or Not Free. The ultimate goal would be to have all countries gradually migrate towards the Free category, allowing all citizens full information across the WWW, equally free and open without constraints.

The second step would be for the UN to align itself much more closely with the largest western internet companies. Together they could jointly assemble detailed reports on each government’s efforts towards censorship creep and government overreach. The global tech companies are keenly aware of which specific countries are applying pressure for censorship and the restriction of digital speech. Together, the UN and global tech firms would prove strong adversaries, protecting the citizens of the world. Every individual in every country deserves to know what is truly happening in the world.

The Free countries with an open internet, zero undue regulation or censorship would have a clear path to tremendous economic prosperity. Countries who remain in the Not Free tier, attempting to impose their self-serving political and social values would find themselves completely isolated, visibly violating digital human rights law.

This is not a hollow threat. A completely closed off splinternet will inevitably lead a country to isolation, low growth rates, and stagnation.

Google employees can’t just walk away from ethical tradeoffs like Dragonfly

Let me blunt up front: I think Google should launch a censored search engine in China (albeit with careful organizational boundaries). And I think that Google employees who would undermine such a project need to step down and walk out the front door to opportunities more in line with their purported values.

I am reacting to Ryan Gallagher’s piece yesterday in The Intercept, in which his sources within the search giant have been tracking changes in the Project Dragonfly software repository, the code that would power a hypothetical Google search engine in China. As Gallagher wrote:

But Google executives, including CEO Sundar Pichai, refused both publicly and privately to completely rule out launching the censored search engine in the future. This led a group of concerned employees — who were themselves not directly involved with Dragonfly — to closely monitor the company’s internal systems for information about the project and circulate their findings on an internal messaging list.

Gallagher seemingly celebrates the guerrilla actions of these disaffected workers, but what confuses me is why these employees continue to work at Google at all? It’s one thing to vociferously argue against a business decision within the confines of a corporate campus; it is something completely else to regularly track activity and leak that to a journalist. When did Mountain View become Capitol Hill?

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At least some employees appear to be understanding that paradox and taking action. As Gallagher wrote:

The lack of clarity from management has resulted in Google losing skilled engineers and developers. In recent months, several Google employees have resigned in part due to Dragonfly and leadership’s handling of the project. The Intercept knows of six staff at the company, including two in senior positions, who have quit since December, and three others who are planning to follow them out the door.

If you disagree with the ethics of your company, the best course of action — particularly in the strongest employment economy in years — is to find a job more in line with your values.

Dragonfly and the intensifying ethical tradeoffs of tech

That said, these ethical tradeoffs are a pattern we are going to see more and more frequently in tech. The intellectual and ethical purity of the original internet as written by people like John Perry Barlow has been subsumed by the power politics of capitals like Washington, Beijing, and Brussels.

The internet as independence movement is 100% dead.

That makes the ethical terrain for Silicon Valley workers much more challenging to navigate. Everything is a compromise, in one way or another. Even the very act of creating value — arguably the most important feature of Silicon Valley’s startup ecosystem — has driven mass inequality, as we explored on Extra Crunch this weekend in an in-depth interview.

What’s worse is that product designers are losing their agency to even affect those tradeoffs. A decade or two ago, Google might have made something of a difference in the development of the Chinese internet. But today? It’s impossible for me to see how Google could convince the Chinese Communist Party of, well, pretty much anything.

There is an incredible arrogance that a product decision made at Google these days will somehow affect the course of Chinese civilization. As Gallagher concluded his piece:

If Google is still developing the censored search engine, [Anna Bacciarelli, a technology researcher at Amnesty International] said, “it’s not only failing on its human rights responsibilities but ignoring the hundreds of Google employees, more than 70 human rights organizations, and hundreds of thousands of campaign supporters around the world who have all called on the company to respect human rights and drop Dragonfly.”

“Respect human rights” by not offering a censored search product in a country where every other search engine already has the same censorship? What exactly is Google pioneering here? How does its entry negatively affect anything or further deny human rights?

China is now the world’s largest internet userbase, and Google ignores it at its peril. I want Google services in China, if only because I trust Google far more than other companies (American or Chinese) to try to push toward openness even in a closed system. Maybe it will censor slightly less than its competitors — and isn’t that what progress looks like?

Technology in this context isn’t about disruption or liberation but about the margin: it’s the tweaks in aggregate that might one day make a difference.

Yes, there are huge implications for execution. Creating an independent operating unit with its own P&L and separately reported financials would be critical to ensure that Chinese censorship policies don’t seep into Google’s main search product in the West. Thankfully, Alphabet is already setup to do just that.

I am a resolute defender of human rights, but the world is the world. China’s government has incredible control over its internet, and those constraints are unlikely to relax in the short-to-medium term. Google can be “pure” and just ignore the largest internet market in the world, but that seems like a seriously naive tradeoff. Far better to engage and try to find venues to push for openness, even if it will be mostly unsuccessful.

Like that strategy or hate it, but these sorts of compromises are increasingly the future for Silicon Valley. In this way, the tech industry is joining the ranks of pretty much every other industry in the economy. Changing the world sometimes means playing by unfair and dubious rules.

Obsessions

  • Perhaps some more challenges around data usage and algorithmic accountability
  • We have a bit of a theme around emerging markets, macroeconomics, and the next set of users to join the internet.
  • More discussion of megaprojects, infrastructure, and “why can’t we build things”

Thanks

To every member of Extra Crunch: thank you. You allow us to get off the ad-laden media churn conveyor belt and spend quality time on amazing ideas, people, and companies. If I can ever be of assistance, hit reply, or send an email to [email protected].

This newsletter is written with the assistance of Arman Tabatabai from New York

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Russia plans to test a kill switch that disconnects the country from the internet

As a cyber-defensive measure, the Russian government will reportedly perform a trial run of a measure that would effectively cut the country off from the rest of the world’s web.

Last year, Russia introduced its Digital Economy National Program, a plan that would require Russian internet providers to remain functional in the event the country was cut off from worldwide internet. Under this plan, Russian ISPs would redirect web traffic to routing points within the country and rely on its own copy of the Domain Name System (DNS), the directory of domains and addresses that underpins the global internet.

The test run could be useful to the country for a few reasons. Primarily, Russia aims to simulate the drastic measures it would take in the case of some kind of cyber threat to its national security. But for a country notorious for its restrictive environment for individual and press freedom, the test may also be a useful way to see how the country could wield a more closely held internet to control its own people and guard against foreign interests.

The extreme measure, if successful, would allow Russia to effectively operate its own state-controlled internet and cut itself off from the world as it sees fit. While the test date is not yet known, it’s expected to happen before April 1 of this year, the last day for lawmakers to propose amendments to the Digital Economy National Program.

Vietnam threatens to penalize Facebook for breaking its draconian cybersecurity law

Well, that didn’t take long. We’re less than ten days into 2019 and already Vietnam is aiming threats at Facebook after it violating its draconian cybersecurity law which came into force on January 1.

The U.S. social network stands accused of allowing users in Vietnam to post “slanderous content, anti-government sentiment and libel and defamation of individuals, organisations and state agencies,” according to a report from state-controlled media Vietnam News.

The content is said to have been flagged to Facebook which, reports say, has “delayed removing” it.

That violates the law which — passed last June — broadly forbids internet users from organizing with, or training, others for anti-state purposes, spreading false information, and undermining the nation state’s achievements or solidarity, according to reports at the time. It also requires foreign internet companies to operate a local office and store user information on Vietnamese soil. That’s something neither Google nor Facebook has complied with, despite the Vietnamese government’s recent claim that the former is investigating a local office launch.

In addition, the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information (ABEI) claimed Facebook had violated online advertising rules by allowing accounts to promote fraudulent products and scams, while it is considering penalties for failure to pay tax. The Vietnamese report claimed some $235 million was spent on Facebook ads in 2018, with $152.1 million going to Google.

Facebook responded by clarifying its existing channels for reporting illegal content.

“We have a clear process for governments to report illegal content to us, and we review all these requests against our terms of service and local law. We are transparent about the content restrictions we make in accordance with local law in our Transparency Report,” a Facebook representative told TechCrunch in a statement.

TechCrunch understands that the company is in contact with the Vietnamese government and it intends to review content flagged as illegal before making a decision.

Vietnamese media reports claim that Facebook has already told the government that the content in question doesn’t violate its community standards.

It looks likely that the new law will see contact from Vietnamese government censors spike, but Facebook has acted on content before. The company latest transparency report covers the first half of 2018 and it shows that received 12 requests for data in Vietnam, granting just two. Facebook confirmed it has previously taken action on content that has included the alleged illegal sale of regulated products, trade of wildlife, and efforts to impersonate an individual.

Facebook did not respond to the tax liability claim.

The company previously indicated its concern at the cybersecurity law via Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) — a group that represents the social media giant as well as Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Line and others — which cautioned that the regulations would negatively impact Vietnam.

“The provisions for data localization, controls on content that affect free speech, and local office requirements will undoubtedly hinder the nation’s fourth Industrial Revolution ambitions to achieve GDP and job growth,” AIC wrote in a statement in June.

“Unfortunately, these provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam,” it added.

Vietnam is increasingly gaining a reputation as a growing market for startups, but the cybersecurity act threatens to impact that. One key issue is that the broad terms appear to give the government signficant scope to remove content that it deems offensive.

“This decision has potentially devastating consequences for freedom of expression in Vietnam. In the country’s deeply repressive climate, the online space was a relative refuge where people could go to share ideas and opinions with less fear of censure by the authorities,” said Amnesty International.

Vietnam News reports that the authorities are continuing to collect evidence against Facebook.

“If Facebook did not take positive steps, Vietnamese regulators would apply necessary economic and technical measures to ensure a clean and healthy network environment,” the ABEI is reported to have said.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks publicly for the first time about its censored China search engine

Commenting publicly for the first time about Google’s censored search engine for China, CEO Sundar Pichai said onstage at the WIRED 25 summit in San Francisco that the company is taking “a longer-term view” about the country. Codenamed Project Dragonfly, the controversial development has been public knowledge since a report in August by the Intercept, generating significant backlash, with several employees resigning in protest.

Google did not confirm Project Dragonfly’s existence until its chief privacy officer, Keith Enright, spoke at a Senate hearing last month. Even then, Enright did not provide much information about the project, so this means Pichai’s comments at WIRED 25 are the most detailed ones made officially by Google’s leadership so far.

Even before Project Dragonfly was revealed by The Intercept, Google had already been quietly working on a strategy to re-enter China, including launching (or re-launching) apps through third-party Android stores (Google Play is not available in China) and working with partners like Xiaomi and Huawei to introduce its ARCore technology for augmented and virtual reality there. Pichai said Google has not decided if it will actually launch Project Dragonfly in China, but if it does, the search engine’s biggest competition would be Baidu.

Pichai said that Chinese tech innovations means it’s time for Google to get an understanding of the market from the inside out. “It’s a wonderful, innovative market. We wanted to learn what it would look like if we were in China, so that’s what we built internally,” adding that “given how important the market is and how many users there are, we feel obliged to think hard about this problem and take a longer-term view.”

Even though it follows China’s strict censorship laws, Pichai claimed that Project Dragonfly will still be able to answer “well over 99% of the queries” put to it and that “there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what’s available.”

Google once operated a censored search engine in China at Google.cn, but pulled out of the country in 2010. At the time, Google said its decision was prompted by a “sophisticated cyber attack originating from China” that targeted human rights activists, and the country’s efforts to “further limit free speech on the web in China” by blocking websites like Googe Docs, Blogger, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

For its critics, Project Dragonfly’s existence means Google has reneged on the values it avowed nine years ago. While onstage at WIRED 25, however, Pichai said working on a search engine is in line with the company’s mission to “provide information to everyone,” noting that China contains about 20% of the world’s population.

Google only embarked on Project Dragonfly after much deliberation, he said. “People don’t understand fully, but you’re always balancing a set of values” when entering new countries,” adding “but we also follow the rule of law in every country.”

Myanmar jails Reuters reporters who uncovered military atrocity

Reporting the news isn’t illegal, unless you’re in Myanmar. The Southeast Asian country this week sentenced two reporters from Reuters to seven years in jail in response to an investigative report that uncovered atrocities committed against Rohingya Muslims by the army.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the two Reuters staffers, have been in custody since December. They were arrested for possession of official government documents which had been given to them by a member of the police force as part of the investigation. That puts them in violation of the colonial-time Official Secrets Act which bars civilians from accessing government information.

The landmark decision has been derided worldwide. Critics argue that the Reuters reporters are being made an example of because they surfaced the untold story of an atrocity that involved the military, which controlled Myanmar for nearly 50 years until general elections were introduced in 2015.

The ethnic tension for the Rohingya in Myanmar has gained global awareness in recent years, but less is known about the role that the military has played in both escalated tensions and also through outright atrocities. The Reuters report which the duo contributed to detailed how members of the army, alongside Buddhist villagers, killed 10 Rohingya men in a coastal village.

“Today’s appalling verdict has condemned two innocent men to years behind bars. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo face lengthy jail terms simply because they dared to ask uncomfortable questions about military atrocities in Rakhine State. These convictions must be quashed, and both men immediately and unconditionally released,” Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Director of Crisis Response, said in a statement.

“The outrageous convictions of the Reuters journalists show Myanmar courts’ willingness to muzzle those reporting on military atrocities. These sentences mark a new low for press freedom and further backsliding on rights under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government,” said Bill Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director.

Some Infowars tweets vanished today, but Twitter didn’t remove them

A handful of tweets and videos that appear to have been cited in the choice to remove Alex Jones from Facebook and YouTube vanished from Twitter on Thursday after being called out in a CNN piece focused on the company’s hypocrisy.

Twitter confirmed to TechCrunch that it did not remove the tweets in question and that someone affiliated with Alex Jones and Infowars or with access to those accounts is behind the removal. The tweets in question spanned the Infowars brand, including accusations that Sandy Hook was staged by crisis actors, slurs against transgender people and a video asserting that Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg is a Nazi.

All of the tweets CNN linked are no longer available, suggesting that Jones might be trying to walk a narrow line on the platform, keeping most of the Infowars content up even as users and reporters surface some of its most objectionable moments. We reached out to Infowars for the reasoning behind taking down the posts and will update this story when we hear more.

On Wednesday in an internal memo that was later tweeted, Twitter’s VP of trust & safety made the claim that if Jones had posted the same content on Twitter that had resulted in action on other platforms, Twitter would have acted, too.

“… At least some of the content Alex Jones published on other platforms (e.g. Facebook and YouTube) that led them to taking enforcement actions against him would also have violated our policies had he posted it on Twitter,” Twitter’s Del Harvey said. “Had he done so, we would have taken action against him as well.”

On Thursday, CNN called Twitter’s bluff. The news site found that the same content that got Jones and Infowars booted from other platforms “were still live on Twitter as of the time this article was published,” according to CNN.

In spite of the missing tweets, at the time of writing, the accounts of both Infowars and Alex Jones remained online and tweeting. In fact, just 30 minutes ago, Infowars accused former president Obama of a “deep state” scheme to purge Infowars from tech platforms.

Wikipedia goes dark in Spanish, Italian ahead of key EU vote on copyright

Wikipedia’s Italian and Spanish language versions have temporarily shut off access to their respective versions of the free online encyclopedia in Europe to protest against controversial components of a copyright reform package ahead of a key vote in the EU parliament tomorrow.

The protest follows a vote by the EU parliament’s legal affairs committee last month which backed the reforms — including the two most controversial elements: Article 13, which makes platforms directly liable for copyright infringements by their users — pushing them towards pre-filtering all content uploads, with all the associated potential chilling effects for free expression; and Article 11, which targets news aggregator business models by creating a neighboring right for snippets of journalistic content — aka ‘the link tax’, as critics dub it.

Visitors to Wikipedia in many parts of the EU (and further afield) are met with a banner which urges them to defend the open Internet against the controversial proposal by calling their MEP to voice their opposition to a measure critics describe as ‘censorship machines’, warning it will “weaken the values, culture and ecosystem on which Wikipedia is based”.

Clicking on a button to ‘call your MEP’ links through to anti-Article 13 campaign website, saveyourinternet.eu, where users can search for the phone number of their MEP and/or send an email to protest against the measure. The initiative is backed by a large coalition of digital and civil rights groups  — including the EFF, the Open Rights Group, and the Center for Democracy & Technology.

In a longer letter to visitors explaining its action, the Spanish Wikipedia community writes that: “If the proposal were approved in its current version, actions such as sharing a news item on social networks or accessing it through a search engine would become more complicated on the Internet; Wikipedia itself would be at risk.”

The Spanish language version of Wikipedia will remain dark throughout the EU parliament vote — which is due to take place at 10 o’clock (UTC) on July 5.

“We want to continue offering an open, free, collaborative and free work with verifiable content. We call on all members of the European Parliament to vote against the current text, to open it up for discussion and to consider the numerous proposals of the Wikimedia movement to protect access to knowledge; among them, the elimination of articles 11 and 13, the extension of the freedom of panorama to the whole EU and the preservation of the public domain,” it adds.

The Italian language version of Wikipedia went dark yesterday.

While the protest banners about the reform are appearing widely across Wikipedia, the decisions to block out encyclopedia content are less widespread — and are being taken by each local community of editors.

As you’d expect, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has been a very vocal critic of Article 13 — including lashing out at whoever was in control of the European Commission’s Twitter feed yesterday when they tried to suggest that online encyclopedias will not be affected by the proposal — by suggesting they would not be “considered” to be giving access to “large amounts of unauthorised protected content” by claiming most of their content would fall outside the scope of the law because it’s covered by Creative Commons licenses. (An interpretation of the proposed rules that anti-Article 13 campaigners dispute.)

And the commissioners drafting this portion of the directive do appear to have been mostly intending to regulate YouTube — which has been a target for record industry ire in recent years, over the relatively small royalties paid to artists vs streaming music services.

But critics argue this is a wrongheaded, sledgehammer-to-crack a nut approach to lawmaking — which will have the unintended consequence of damaging free expression and access to information online.

Wales shot back at the EC’s tweet — saying it’s “deeply inappropriate for the European Commission to be lobbying publicly and misleading the public in this way”.

A little later in the same Twitter thread, as more users had joined the argument, he added: “The Wikipedia community is not so narrow minded as to let the rest of the Internet suffer just because we are big enough that they try to throw us a bone. Justice matters.”

The EU parliament will vote as a whole tomorrow — when we’ll find out whether or not MEPs have been swayed by this latest #SaveYourInternet campaign.

Facebook’s policy on white supremacy plays right into a racist agenda

In an ongoing series over at Motherboard, we’re learning quite a bit about how Facebook polices hate speech and hate organizations on its platform. Historically, the company has been far less than transparent about its often inconsistent censorship practices, even as white supremacist content — and plenty of other forms of hate targeted at marginalized groups — runs rampant on the platform.

Now we know more about why. For one, according to a series of internal slides on white supremacy, Facebook walks a fine line that arguably doesn’t exist at all. According to these post-Charlottesville training documents, the company opted to officially differentiate between white nationalism and white supremacy, allowing the former and forbidding the latter.

White nationalism gets the green light

Facebook appears to take the distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy seriously, but many white nationalists don’t, opting only for the slightly more benign term to soften their image. This is a well-documented phenomenon, as anyone who has spent time in these online circles can attest. It’s also the first sentence in the Anti Defamation League (ADL) entry on white nationalism:

“White nationalism is a term that originated among white supremacists as a euphemism for white supremacy.

“Eventually, some white supremacists tried to distinguish it further by using it to refer to a form of white supremacy that emphasizes defining a country or region by white racial identity and which seeks to promote the interests of whites exclusively, typically at the expense of people of other backgrounds.”

As Motherboard reports, Facebook notes “overlaps with white nationalism/separatism” as a challenge in its relevant training notes section for white supremacy, adding that “Media reports also use the terms interchangeably (for example referring to David Duke as white supremacist even though he doesn’t explicitly identify himself as one).”

Facebook’s own articulation of white supremacy offers considerable concessions:

“Although there doesn’t seem to be total agreement among academics on whether white supremacy always implies racial hatred, the fact that it is based on a racist premise is widely acknowledged.” [original emphasis]

Most of Facebook’s slides on hate speech and hate groups read like an embarrassingly simplistic Cliff’s Notes, lacking nuance and revealing the company’s apparently slapdash approach to the issue of racial hate. Tellingly, some portions of Facebook’s training text copy Wikipedia’s own language verbatim.

Here are the first few sentences of the Wikipedia entry on white supremacy:

“White supremacy or white supremacism is a racist ideology based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore white people should be dominant over other races.

White supremacy has roots in scientific racism and it often relies on pseudoscientific arguments. Like most similar movements such as neo-Nazism, white supremacists typically oppose members of other races as well as Jews.”

Facebook’s training note on white supremacy, with differences bolded:

White supremacy or white supremacism is a racist ideology based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore white people should be dominant over other races. White supremacy has roots in scientific racism and it often relies on pseudoscientific arguments. Like most similar movements such as neo-Nazism, white supremacists typically oppose people of color, Jews and non-Protestants.

Facebook slides recreated by Motherboard

Bafflingly, Facebook also notes that “White nationalism and calling for an exclusively white state is not a violation for our policy unless it explicitly excludes other PCs [protected characteristics]” which by definition, a white state does.

According to slides recreated by Motherboard, Facebook asserts that “we don’t allow praise, support and representation of white supremacy as an ideology” but stipulates that it does “allow praise, support and representation” for both white nationalism and white separatism. [Again, emphasis theirs]

Facebook further clarifies:

“By the same token, we allow to call for the creation of white ethno-states (e.g. “The US should be a white-only nation”).

White supremacy vs. white nationalism

By failing to recognize the political motivations behind white nationalism as an identity, Facebook legitimates white nationalism as something meaningfully distinct from white supremacy. While not all white nationalists call for the dream of a white ethnostate to be achieved through racial domination — and arguably the two could be studied distinctly from a purely academic perspective — they have far more in common than they have differences. Even with such thin sourcing, Facebook has devoted a surprising amount of language to differentiating the two.

In grappling with this question after Charlottesville, the Associated Press offered this clarification for its own coverage:

“For many people the terms can be used almost interchangeably. Both terms describe groups that favor whites and support discrimination by race.”

The AP also mentions the “subtle difference” that white supremacists believe whites to be superior.

For white nationalists, that attitude at times appears more implicit than explicit but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. From my own reading and considerable hours spent immersed online in white nationalist groups and forums, there is massive observable ideological overlap between the two groups. The instances in which white supremacists and white nationalists truly espouse wholly distinct ideologies are rare.

Further, it’s impossible to ignore that violence against non-whites is a central thread running throughout white nationalism, whether stated or implied. Imagining a white ethnostate that does not directly come about at the cost of the safety, wellbeing and financial security of racial minorities is pure fantasy — a fantasy Facebook is apparently content to entertain in pretending that the “white state” would not “explicitly exclude” anyone based on the protected characteristic of race.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) defines white nationalism in similarly broad strokes, tying it directly to white supremacy and stating that “white nationalist groups espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focusing on the alleged inferiority of nonwhites.”

The SPLC, an organization devoted to studying hate, explains the expedient fallacy of the white ethnostate as a nonviolent goal:

“These racist aspirations are most commonly articulated as the desire to form a white ethnostate — a calculated idiom favored by white nationalists in order to obscure the inherent violence of such a radical project. Appeals for the white ethnostate are often disingenuously couched in proclamations of love for members of their own race, rather than hatred for others.”

Apparently, Facebook ignored most dissenting definitions linking white nationalist goals directly to white supremacy. Naively or not, the company bought into white supremacy’s slightly more palatable public-facing image in shaping its policy platforms. In sourcing its policies, Facebook was apparently content to pick and choose which points supported its decision to allow white nationalism on its platform while supposedly casting out white supremacy.

“White nationalist groups espouse white separatism and white supremacy,” the Wikipedia page that Facebook drew from states. “Critics argue that the term ‘white nationalism’ and ideas such as white pride exist solely to provide a sanitized public face for white supremacy, and that most white nationalist groups promote racial violence.”

Sadly, for anyone who has watched many virulent strains of racism flourish and even organize on Facebook, the company’s shoddily crafted internal guidance on white supremacy comes as little surprise. Nor does the fact that the company failed to dedicate even a sliver of its considerable resources to understanding the nuance of white supremacist movements, aims and language.

We reached out to Facebook to see if these alarmingly reductive policies on racial hate have evolved in recent months (these materials are less than a year old), but the company only pointed us to the broad public-facing  “Community Standards.” Any further detail on the actual implementation of policies around hate remains opaque.

Though it may have learned some harsh lessons in 2018, for Facebook, opacity is always the best policy.

Telegram blocked in Iran as the government orders telecoms to cut off access

As Moscow erupts in protests over its own ban, Iran’s judiciary has just ordered the nation’s telecommunications providers to block Telegram . According to the Wall Street Journal, Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency stated that the decision was issued via a court ruling in Tehran. An estimated 40 million Iranians — half of the country’s population — use Telegram to communicate.

“Considering various complaints against Telegram social networking app by Iranian citizens, and based on the demand of security organisations for confronting the illegal activities of Telegram, the judiciary has banned its usage in Iran,” Iranian state TV reported, according to Reuters.

As of Monday, Telegram appears to still be functioning in the country following the court order. When the ban is executed, the popular messaging app will join the ranks of Facebook and Twitter, two other social media platforms banned in Iran. Government employees were ordered to quit the app earlier this month and the Iranian government launched its own Telegram competitor, a messaging app called Soroush, last week.

In January, Iran temporarily restricted Telegram access, ostensibly to quell anti-government demonstrations. When bans have occurred in the past, tech-savvy Iranians have turned to proxy services and other tools to keep connected.

In the past, Iran has suggested that it would allow Telegram and other messaging apps to operate domestically if they transferred their data servers into the country rather than storing data abroad. Given that such a move would meaningfully compromise a messaging app’s privacy in such a restrictive country — something Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov isn’t keen on — Iran will pursue control of the  messaging service with an outright ban instead.