Here is a quick round-up of this week’s technology headlines and related stories you may have missed:
1. Chinese app takes its censorship on the road. Researchers at the Citizen Lab have discovered that messages sent on the Chinese social media, ecommerce and messaging platform WeChat that contain sensitive keywords are being censored even outside China’s borders. Messages that contain taboo keywords do not appear if sent to or from an account linked to a mainland Chinese phone number, even if users have switched to an international number. The censorship is particularly pronounced for WeChat users in group chat, where messages spread to more people faster. With 806 million monthly users, WeChat is the fourth-largest messaging service in the world, and Chinese users spend almost a third of their mobile online time using the app. It is not the first time that researchers have found Chinese technology platforms attempting to censor content beyond the Great Firewall. In 2015, Citizen Lab and UC Berkeley researchers uncovered the Great Cannon, a tool that China uses to block content it finds objectionable on the wider internet. For years, Chinese companies like Tencent, which owns WeChat, Alibaba, Xiaomi and Huawei have sought to broaden their appeal beyond China and gain a foothold in the West. This is unlikely to help.
2. This week in cyberattacks. There were three noteworthy cyber incidents this week. First, officials in Saudi Arabia confirmed that a variant of the Shamoon malware, which crippled tens of thousands of computers at Saudi Aramco in 2012 and believed to be the work of Iranian state-sponsored actors, has been targeting and wiping data from computers in the country’s transportation sector since mid-November. Second, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) announced that it uncovered a planned cyberattack on its banking system by a "foreign intelligence service." The statement comes after Russian banks were victims of a denial of service incident in November. According to Columbia’s Jason Healey, it is unlikely that the foreign intelligence service referenced by the FSB is a U.S. service responding to the Democratic National Committee compromise largely because of the possible blowback of such an attack against the U.S. financial system. Finally, nearly one million Germans lost internet access on Monday in what Deutsche Telekom suggests was a failed attempt to compromise routers to create a botnet. German officials did not attribute the incident, but warned that Russia was looking to interfere in the German elections scheduled for next year.
3. Progress on internet access in developing countries but affordability and speeds hamper adoption rates. The International Telecommunication Union released its annual report measuring the use of information and communication technology (ICT) around the world. Although every country has seen an increase in the use of ICTs when compared to last year, the increase masks great disparities in access to ICTs. Only 67 percent of rural populations are covered by mobile broadband networks, compared to 84 percent of the global population. Internet usage rates in the developed world are twice as high as in developing countries, which themselves have usage rates twice as high as in the least developed countries (LDCs). These same LDCs have seen a 20 percent drop in mobile-cellular prices, the largest decrease in the past five years. However, a large majority of LDCs still have broadband connection speeds below 1 Mbit/s. LDCs with mobile broadband connections have seen prices more than halve in the past four years, but affordability remains an issue: close to 20 percent of the population in these countries, on average, do not have a mobile phone, with greater numbers of women lacking access to a phone.
4. India’s new tax on all foreign digital goods. Since yesterday, Indians who use foreign websites to download digital content will pay a 15 percent service tax. The move is aimed to equalize a disparity between the way sales taxes are levied for domestic and foreign companies. Online purchases from domestic suppliers are already subject to the 15 percent tax, whereas foreign suppliers were not. Prior to the change, the ‘place of provision of service’ was defined as the location of the seller. Under the new rules, it will be defined as the location of the service recipient. The tax is quite broad-ranging, covering everything from cloud services and advertisements to music, movies, and ebooks.