OPINION: Thought Control and telecom companies

Manolo Quezon - The Explainer

Posted at Jan 17 2017 05:23 AM

Michael Anti’s Ted Talk on the Great Firewall of China

From vicious online behavior—call it Digital Maoism or Gamergate—to populism as pointed out by Human Rights Watch, the wild, wild web is joined at the hip with leaders and movements who are effectively using humans and software to control thought.

Leaders have tried to do this before, but this was before the age of the cellphone and the internet.

When Ferdinand Marcos proclaimed martial law, he accompanied his proclamation with a battery of official issuances to ensure any and all opposition would lack a leg to stand on. Among them were Letter of Instruction No. 1, to shut down media companies; General Order No. 1, instructing the armed forces to arrest any individual he ordered arrested, and any person(s) he or the authorities decided had committed rebellion, sedition, graft and corruption, robbery, terrorism, tax evasion, use or distribution of drugs, or “crimes against public morals.”  

In addition, General Order No. 3 put every government employee on notice they their jobs would continue to exist solely at the president’s discretion; and that the judiciary was prohibited from entertaining any legal challenges to martial law. Then he ordered a curfew (General Order No. 4), banned rallies or strikes (General Order No. 5), reorganized the entire executive branch (Presidential Decree No. 1), and later, made “rumor-mongering” a crime (Presidential Decree No. 90). 

So, every possible avenue of resistance and challenge was firmly closed off; and here catch-alls are useful, such as Marcos’ use of “crimes against public morals” as a justification for arrest, because people are conditioned to accord some respect to holding independent views and being critical of the powers-that-be. Most people are not conditioned to question public morals however different their private behavior may be.

So, what bayonets and decrees could accomplish in the past requires something else entirely in the modern world. Some principles, however, endure: the best defense, of course, is a good offense. 

China has been thinking about this for years. In 1996, Wei Jincheng published an article, “Information War: A New Form of People’s War” in the Liberation Army Daily of the People’s Republic of China. You’ve seen article after article on how this thinking has been implemented over the years: from internet espionage, to online brigades to push the party line, and most of all, in the Great Firewall of China which aims to keep China in splendid isolation from those aspects of the rest of the world the party considers dangerous.

I’ve been wondering when the growing warmth of official relations with China would bring with it the technology to implement a domestic version of the Great Firewall of China, the juiciest technology-transfer of all. It seems we might be poised to find out. 

The rather weird blocking of access to adult websites makes me think something’s afoot. First of all, let me explain why it seems rather weird. As Cosmopolitan Philippines recently reported, the ban somehow doesn’t seem to exist. And yet, as initial reports asserted, some people said it had been put in place. Even weirder yet, officials have confirmed it exists and that it’s justified (the law being bandied about, Republic Act 9775 prohibits and penalizes child pornography: the real question is, if the sites allegedly banned featured child porn, do you think it would take the Philippines to block them? They would have been nuked long ago).

The clincher, it seems to me, is at the tail end of the Cosmo article: “There are people who say that some Internet service providers are cutting off access to porn sites especially on low bandwidth allocation prepaid long-term evolution (LTE) accounts.”

In other words, too many people spending too much time on the net viewing “adult entertainment” are draining the coffers of some telecoms companies and so they’ve banned access to the sites using the law as an excuse. On the other hand, after the story broke, the National Telecommunications Commission said it had ordered 21 sites to be taken down–but passed the buck to the Philippine National Police—which raises questions on whether sites ought to be banned on the say-so of the authorities without, say, some sort of hearing at least and upon orders of a court, preferably. After all, the law itself is specific.

THE INTERNET PROVIDERS 

Which, to me, goes to the heart of the matter. Quite a few commentators online have pointed out that banning such sites today can easily lead to banning all sorts of other content in the future on the basis of “values” or “morals.” Check my example above of how Marcos did the same thing to lump together political dissent with smut and subject dissenters and porn rags to the same draconian institutions.

If any Great Firewall is to be installed, it will require first and foremost the cooperation and acceptance of internet providers. And as we will see, this is a situation the internet providers created and by so doing, they are now vulnerable to official pressure.

Just recently Manuel V. Pangilinan announced that Globe had overtaken Smart in terms of market share (though both telecoms firms have worked together to preserve their collective hold on the market, resulting in what is proving to be the litmus test for the country’s new Competition Commission). Smart’s lost 7.8 million customers over the past two years, nearly 5 million of them since 2015 alone, with Globe gaining a net total of 12.2 million customers.

Rahul Bhatia’s fascinating longform Guardian piece, The inside story of Facebook’s biggest setback, tackles Globe and Smart in terms of Facebook, which helps to explain two things. First, one reason Globe overtook Smart, and second, how Facebook used the telecoms companies here to put in place what would, in turn, become the first phase of national Thought Control on the part of political operatives.

Here’s what happened. When China banned Facebook, the company had to seek new markets to keep growing in the face of a saturated market in the West. In 2010, it launched a project codenamed Apollo to focus on the Philippines, Latin America, Africa and India, where telecoms companies would be convinced to provide free Facebook to cellphone users who lacked data plans.

Bhatia reported that “The initial financial sacrifice, Facebook told the phone companies, was an investment – giving customers a small taste of the internet would convince them to start paying to access everything the web had to offer.” 

Facebook convinced Globe to try it out, and as the report continued, “The best proof of this proposition came in the Philippines, where Facebook partnered with Globe – the smaller of the country’s two dominant mobile companies – which trailed its rival’s market share by 20 percentage points. Globe’s user numbers surged, and within 15 months, it had overtaken its rival, thanks to the enormous lure of free access to Facebook. ‘It all started with the free Facebook promo,’ one Filipino stock analyst told a local business newspaper.” Initial Philippine results in 2014 then convinced Mark Zuckerberg to set his sights on India.

KEYBOARD WARRIORS

But as the numbers show, it was in 2015 that the big payoff came for Globe, and it’s no coincidence that in that same year, as campaigns geared up for battle in 2016, the keyboard warrior phenomenon –which had made its debut in 2010 but on a far smaller scale and mainly as an incubator for testing messages that had to cross over to mass media to have any real impact—was felt. And in a big way.

Media, foreign and domestic, has covered all this, in what has proven to be the first phase of Thought Control: the use of web brigades. See articles here in ABS-CBN Online, in The Philippine Daily Inquirer, in The Business Mirror and most extensively, Rappler; some journalists are writing about it on their lonesome, like Raissa Robles; abroad, see The New Republic (you can also listen to the author discuss his article on WNYC’s The Takeaway podcast), the BBC, and commentaries inevitable bring up keyboard warriors as part of the state apparat even the staid Straits Times (a good word, don’t you think, considering it’s the Russians who seem to have perfected the organization and methods of web brigades? See The Guardian).

So, to review, search for market share led Globe to partner with Facebook. This created the right combination of technological innovation and market-creation to carve out a much bigger field of battle that the enterprising could seize early on, and dominate (one day, hopefully someone will write how the #AlDub phenomenon at around the same time revealed the potential of online mobilization: showbiz and politics are two sides of the same coin, after all). It caused a political earthquake leaving Facebook and Globe laughing all the way to the bank.

But as both Globe and Facebook have found out, there can be consequences. Facebook stonewalled locally on whether its algorithms (see Rappler’s report) and human interventions have been thoroughly gamed (or, as The Verge looked into it, whether moderation simply brings up a whole set of messy problems on its own). In its home country, however, in the end, it has had to grudgingly make some concessions to public alarm over the proliferation of fake news.

Having arrived at a successful strategy does not mean being wedded to that strategy forever. You have to continue evolving. This brings us to the second phase of Thought Control: filters, to limit access to such sites as may be considered at first, morally objectionable. Then what is morally objectionable can be lumped together with what is politically objectionable. In the name of “values” and “the people.”

The highest value of a company, of course, is profit. Its people are its shareholders and to a lesser extent, its employees. Having helped create the situation where organized gangs patrol to push the party line in ways that have gamed the system for reporting abuse, and where usage equals income, it cannot limit use. Therefore it becomes a target for the organized gangs, especially if they claim to represent public opinion. Add to this the regulatory powers of the state, and the state can make or break the future of a company. So, if it is told that it must subject online traffic to filters, how can it say no?

But, in the meantime, you can condition everyone else to what’s to come by testing the waters. Block some sites! Alarm? Over what? What sites? No one was blocked. Or were they? Who knows. But the idea has been introduced, and can now germinate. 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.