China has shut down or revoked the licenses of 13,000 websites since 2015 for violating the country's internet rules, state media reported Sunday. The news comes as the Communist country continues to strengthen its already tight regulation of the internet, a move which critics say has picked up pace since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Platforms have also closed nearly 10 million internet accounts for "violating service protocol", the official news agency said Sunday, likely referring to social media accounts.
"These moves have a powerful deterrent effect," Xinhua quoted Wang Shengjun, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), as saying. Despite being home to the world's largest number of internet users, a 2015 report by US think tank Freedom House found that the country had the most restrictive online use policies of 65 nations it studied, ranking below Iran and Syria. This year alone, it has enacted new rules requiring foreign tech companies to store user data inside the country, imposed fresh content restrictions, and made it increasingly difficult to use software tools that allow users to circumvent censors.
Google, Facebook, Twitter and The New York Times are all blocked in China, among countless other foreign websites. Beijing strictly defends what it calls "cyber sovereignty" and maintains that its various forms of web censorship -- collectively known as "The Great Firewall" -- are necessary for protecting its national security. Within China, websites must register with authorities and are responsible for "ensuring the legality of any information" posted on their platforms, according to regulations in force since 2000.
When their content runs afoul of authorities, they can be shutdown or fined. One way to bypass the strictly controlled domestic internet is by using a virtual private network (VPN) which can allow users to access the unfiltered global internet. But here too authorities have cracked down.
Earlier this week, Wu Xiangyang from the southern Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for selling a VPN service on Alibaba's Taobao and other marketplaces.
Two Romanian nationals have been arrested and charged with hacking into computer systems which controlled surveillance cameras for the Metropolitan Police Department in the US capital earlier this year, officials said Thursday. A criminal complaint unsealed in Washington said the two -- Mihai Alexandru Isvanca, 25, and Eveline Cismaru, 28 -- were arrested in Bucharest on December 15 and charged with conspiracy and various forms of computer fraud. The Justice Department said the pair managed to disable 123 of the police department's 187 outdoor surveillance cameras in early January by infecting computer systems with ransomware -- an effort "to extort money" in exchange for unlocking the computer, according to an affidavit filed in court.
The case "was of the highest priority" because it impacted efforts to plan security ahead of the 2017 presidential inauguration, according to officials.
The Secret Service and other agencies "quickly ensured that the surveillance camera system was secure and operational" and the investigation found no security threats as a result of the scheme.
Isvanca remains in custody in Romania and Cismaru is on house arrest there pending further legal proceedings, the Justice Department said.
US intelligence chiefs on Thursday sounded the alarm about the imminent expiration of a law that allows them to spy on overseas web users, and called on Congress to renew it immediately. “If Congress fails to reauthorize this authority, the Intelligence Community will lose valuable foreign intelligence information, and the resulting intelligence gaps will make it easier for terrorists, weapons proliferators, malicious cyber actors, and other foreign adversaries to plan attacks against our citizens and allies without detection,” the intelligence chiefs said in an open letter to Congress. The letter was signed by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI chief Christopher Wray and the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) Michael Rogers.
The law they want extended, known as Article 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), is set to expire at the end of the year, and Congress is preparing a temporary extension until January 19 as part of a short-term budget bill which will fund the federal government. The House of Representatives was due to vote on the budget later Thursday, with a deadline to pass it by midnight Friday. The Senate will vote on it after that.
The law allows US intel agencies to spy on internet users abroad, including on platforms like Facebook and Skype. Congress initially passed the law in 2008 and renewed it in 2012, for five years. “Short-term extensions are not the long-term answer either, as they fail to provide certainty, and will create needless and wasteful operational complications,” said the intelligence heads in their statement.
Most members of Congress support renewing the law on the grounds of combating terrorism, but some on the far right and left have joined forces to try to restrict it, citing concerns that US citizens could be caught up in the overseas spying program.
By law, communications by US citizens cannot be legally intercepted and used except with a judge’s warrant, unlike foreigners living overseas who do not benefit from the same constitutional protections as Americans.