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China’s ‘splinternet’ will create a state-controlled alternative cyberspace | Flavia Kenyon

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Cyberspace is one huge, unregulated mess. A virtual wild west where sophisticated criminal gangs ply their trade alongside multinational companies, spy agencies, activists, celebrity influencers – and nation states. The question of who governs it is one of the biggest of our time.

Britain needs to be, if not quite ruling the waves, at least a global force for good in the expanding virtual world. The issue has never been so pressing. Six years ago, I acted for a coder in the biggest cyberfraud phishing case in the UK. The malware my client and others created was so sophisticated that the police could not decode it but were able to show it was used for fraud. The financial data harvested was stored on two servers, one in France and one in the US, and the lack of international cooperation meant law enforcement never got their hands on it.

The case is almost ancient history in cyber terms. Today, that same sort of malware is being used on a previously unimaginable scale in ransomware attacks targeting national infrastructures, such as the US oil pipeline operator Colonial last month, the NHS in 2017, and even the city of Baltimore.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary and the nearest we have to a cyber minister, signalled his determination to make Britain a global tech superpower, protecting the most vulnerable countries in the world, during a landmark cyber summit in London in May. But the signs are there that his government hugely underestimates the scariest cyber scenario of all: the possible fragmentation of the internet.

Raab said that Britain must shape cyberspace according to “our values”, while preventing China, Russia and others from “filling the multilateral vacuum”. What does he mean? It all sounds so abstract, so removed from our daily lives.

What he is referring to is the invisible battle for control of cyberspace and the ideological imperative that we, the liberal democracies, emerge triumphant, to imbue the rest of the world with “our values”.

As part of that mission, Raab announced a £22m investment in a British-funded cyber-operations hub in Africa, hoping that the continent might be charmed into playing cyber ally. The bad news is, Africa has already found a partner.

It has been showered with Chinese investment for decades. As I write, Beijing is planning to lay undersea cables along Africa’s western and eastern coasts to provide internet access to previously neglected towns and villages. Connectivity sounds like progress, and many in Africa are understandably pleased.

But here’s the problem: the Chinese are building their own internet, in a potential fragmentation that has been called the “splinternet”, an alternative cyberspace in which Britain does not even get a look in, unless invited. Many developing countries are likely to sign up to it.

The Chinese version of cyberspace would be separate and ideologically distinct. Beijing is not interested in improving the existing internet in an interoperable and open way, or helping the world become more resilient to cyber-attacks. It is engaged in creating a completely different digital architecture, complete with its own ideological governance and values – and incompatible with our own.

In building this architecture, the Chinese have turned to an unlikely freedom-loving technology: blockchain. It’s a word that baffles many people. But it’s simply a decentralised, digital network made up of blocks of data stored on nodes – and all our laptops could be nodes linked in a chain, which means we are all connected without censorship or interruption.

Part of the attraction of blockchain is supposed to be that it is a peer-to-peer system with no intermediaries and, crucially, no central power. But China plans to subvert that because the Chinese state would own the blockchain, and have its agents operating each node. The Chinese Communist party would have the power to monitor every communication in perpetuity.

The blockchain would become a superpowered tracking device and a warehouse of data on an unimaginable scale. How is Britain’s African cyberhub going to help prevent all that?

Any country signing up to China’s splinternet would almost certainly expose its people to the same levels of state control. For some leaders, that would be tolerated as a byproduct of China’s technological benevolence, as Beijing hands out free internet to Africa. To others, it would be welcomed as an opportunity to subjugate their own people. It would, in effect, herald the beginning of a new cold war-style split, not between east and west, but between an open and free internet, and one used to control and oppress.

It’s a grim vision, but one which China seems to be embracing with determination. Another manifestation is its potential for fiscal surveillance, by way of its new digital currency, the state-backed, digital yuan, controlled by the People’s Bank of China.

Raab’s vision of Britain “shaping cyberspace according to our values” is laudable, but in such a swiftly fragmenting cyber landscape, in which China has the tools and the desire to dominate the world community, he is in danger of sounding rather quaint.

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Polish state has ‘blood on its hands’ after death of woman refused an abortion | Abortion

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The family of a Polish woman who died on Tuesday after doctors refused to perform an abortion when the foetus’s heart stopped beating have accused the government of having “blood on their hands”.

The woman, identified only as Agnieszka T, was said to have been in the first trimester of a twin pregnancy when she was admitted to the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital in Częstochowa on 21 December. Her death comes a year after Poland introduced one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.

According to a statement released by relatives, the 37-year-old was experiencing pain when she arrived at the hospital but was “fully conscious and in good physical shape”.

The first foetus died in the womb on 23 December, but doctors refused to remove it, quoting the current abortion legislation, and Agnieszka’s family claim “her state quickly deteriorated”. The hospital waited until the heartbeat of the second twin also stopped a week later, and then waited a further two days before terminating the pregnancy on 31 December.

Agnieszka died on 25 January after weeks of deteriorating health. Her family suspect that she died as a result of septic shock, but the hospital did not identify the cause of her death in statement issued on Wednesday.

“This is proof of the fact that the current government has blood on their hands,” the woman’s family said in a statement on Facebook. The family also uploaded distressing footage of Agnieszka in poor health shortly before she died.

After the termination of the pregnancy a priest was summoned by the hospital staff to perform a funeral for the twins, Agnieszka’s family said.

Her death follows that of a woman known as Izabela last September, who died after being denied medical intervention when her waters broke in the 22nd week of her pregnancy. Her family claim the 30-year-old was denied an abortion or caesarean section and that the hospital cited the country’s abortion laws. An investigation found “medical malpractice” led to Izabela’s death and the hospital was fined.

Agnieszka’s family claim that contact with the hospital was very poor and that the hospital refused to share the results of Agnieszka’s medical tests citing confidentiality guidelines. They say the doctors “insinuated” that Agnieszka’s rapidly deteriorating state could be caused by BSE, commonly known as “mad cow disease”, or Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) and suggested she ate raw meat. The hospital did not reference this claim in their statement.

According to the statement from the hospital, Agnieszka tested positive for Covid before her death, although she tested negative twice when first admitted. “We stress that the hospital staff did all the necessary actions to save the patient,” the statement read. It is not clear whether an autopsy has been ordered.

Agnieszka is survived by her husband and three children.

The Guardian has contacted the Blessed Virgin Mary hospital for comment.

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Biden threatens US blacklisting of Putin

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US president Joe Biden said Tuesday “Yes, I would see that” when asked by reporters if the US would blacklist Russian president Valdimir Putin if he invaded Ukraine. It would be the “largest invasion since World War Two” and would “change the world”, Biden said. The UK and US were also “in discussions” on disconnecting Russia from the Swift international payments system, British prime minister Boris Johnson also said Tuesday.

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Planned change to Kenya’s forest act threatens vital habitats, say activists | Global development

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Environmentalists are deeply concerned by the Kenyan government’s move to allow boundary changes to protected forests, watering down the powers of conservation authorities.

The forest conservation and management (amendment) bill 2021 seeks to delete clause 34(2) from the 2016 act, which makes it mandatory for authorities to veto anyone trying to alter forest boundaries. The same clause protects forests from actions that put rare, threatened or endangered species at risk.

Tabled by the National Assembly’s procedure committee, the amendment would weaken the role of Kenya Forest Service, mandated to protect all public forests, allowing politicians to decide who can change forest boundaries.

In an election year, many have read the proposal, due to be debated at the end of the month, as politically motivated.

The committee’s memorandum to MPs said current laws “unnecessarily limit the rights of any Kenyan to petition parliament” as provided for in the constitution.

An indigenous tree stands in habitat destroyed by charcoal makers
An indigenous tree, believed by local people to be ancient, stands in an area destroyed by charcoal makers in Nyakweri forest, Narok county, Kenya. Photograph: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty

But conservationists have said this would be a serious setback for the country, which was seeking to increase forest cover to 10% of land by 2022, up from 7.4%. Forest authorities said the move puts endangered species at risk, as well as clearing the way for unscrupulous individuals to encroach into forests that, according to a 2014 government paper, have been shrinking at a rate of 50,000 hectares (124,000 acres) annually.

“I am astounded any right-thinking person would consider submitting or supporting such an amendment,” said Paula Kahumbu, chief executive at WildlifeDirect, a conservation NGO. “It will open the door to forest destruction after decades of hard work by agencies, communities and NGOs to increase forest cover, as committed to in our constitution. One can only read mischief in such a motion, with elections around the corner.”

A mural of Prof Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace prize winner by Pius Kiio Kitheka also known as Waji Dice.
A mural of Nobel Peace prize winner, Wangari Maathai, who campaigned to protect Kenya’s forests. Photograph: Boniface Muthoni/SOPA/Rex/Shutterstock

Kahumbu added: “At risk are indigenous forests and the biodiversity therein, the integrity of our water towers, generation of hydropower and productivity of our farms. The environmental experts of Kenya and the conservation community call on all citizens of Kenya to reach out to their MPs to wholeheartedly and aggressively reject this heinous bill.”

She said the amendment would destroy the legacy of Wangari Maathai, the late environmentalist and Nobel Peace prize winner, who was once attacked and seriously wounded as she led a tree-planting exercise in Nairobi’s Karura Forest.

In a tweet, Christian Lambrechts, executive director at Rhino Ark said: “Considering what Kenya has lost in the past, any change that weakens, rather than strengthens the mechanisms to protect our forests, is ill-advised.”

Rhino Ark has been spearheading an initiative to put up electric fences around Kenya’s public forests to hamper poachers and illegal incursions.

Dickson Kaelo, head of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, said the move by parliament is intended to “give legitimacy” to those who would destroy Kenya’s biodiversity.

“This is a well-calculated move to open the doors for forest excisions and allocation to private persons for development, and may even be a means to normalise current excisions. It is a threat to our forests coming at a time when we have a low forest coverage and a high risk of climate crisis-induced vulnerabilities. We call upon parliament to reject the amendment,” said Kaelo.

Protecting forests from developers has been a daunting task in Kenya.

Last July, Joannah Stutchbury, a prominent environmental activist, was killed near her home in Nairobi after her protracted opposition to attempts by powerful businessmen to build on Kiambu forest near the capital, Nairobi.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has yet to fulfil a promise to catch her killers.



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