As protests continue to mar the procession of the Olympic torch on its journey to Beijing, questions are being asked about the way China and other authoritarian regimes are employing technology to quell disquiet and impose order within their cyber-communities.
Leading the way is an interesting article in Information Week that sets out to highlight the rise of what it calls "Repression 2.0". This is loosely translated as the way in which repressive regimes around the world are using ever more sophisticated methods of technology to instil fear and obedience in their population, both online and on the streets.
Whereas Repression 1.0 sought only to censor what was deemed inappropriate by any given regime, Repression 2.0 raises the bar by seeking to actively watch what people are doing. Or at the very least, to make them believe that they are being watched.
Another Chinese tactic is said to be the sending out of regular reminders and notes to susceptible members of the population, students for example, saying that their computers need new "security software" installing. Whether the actual software is installed or not isn't really the point - the point is that the user thinks it has.
Although China and other authoritarian regimes realise that they are unable to monitor every single packet of data travelling across their networks, the internet and other technologies provide them with the necessary tools to try and convince web-users that their every move can and is being monitored.
According to the article, the most basic method of online oppression in China is the compulsory registration of all internet sessions. Regardless of whether they take place in a private home or an internet café, all internet users must register with a government-supplied ID, so that their browsing history can be traced.
Other notable tactics employed in China range from the deployment of cartoon cops that spring out of some pre-loaded web pages like an annoying rollover-ad to remind the user to “respect online laws and regulations by regulating themselves”.
Online character assassination
When regimes find that their multi-layered attempts at stifling dissent fail to control the internet-using habits of some citizens, they are increasingly learning the subtle arts of online character assassination.
The Church of Scientology regularly uses this very method when dealing with its critics and refers to it as ‘fair game’. It appears that some governments looking to discredit the opinions of internal dissidents have now adopted this practice of spreading misinformation, usually about their character, sexual orientation or religious beliefs.
And the use of technology to facilitate behavioural control doesn’t just extend to online users either. Recently, there have been reported cases of Tibetan mobile phone users receiving unsolicited SMS texts with messages like "obey the law" and "follow the rules". Although these messages were sent anonymously, everyone who received one know exactly where they were from.
As the Information Week article so neatly sums up, spreading fear is easy and the internet only makes it easier.