Joel Krahn/Yukon News ATCO Electric workers install power lines in downtown Whitehorse August 17.

The Kremlin, the Yukon News and your own private internet

Somebody’s watchin’ you

We learned this week that the Yukon News has been blocked in Russia. Our website seems to be on the blacklist maintained by Roskomnadzor, the Russian internet regulator who screens the web for content the regime deems morally or politically suspect.

The Yukon News is also not available in large parts of China, including Beijing, Shenzen, Inner Mongolia, Heilongjiang Province or Yunnan Province.

So the Yukon News joins the ranks of other newspapers and media outlets such as Reuters, New York Times and Wall Street Journal that have been blocked at one time or another in either China or Russia.

It’s nice to be noticed. But it’s a mystery how the News ended up on the censor’s list of website addresses. It could have been a link from another site that more directly offends the regime, a prank, or a mistake.

Or it could have been something we wrote. Did my column on Yamal’s Arctic tourism strategy give away too many secrets? Did our coverage of the Arctic Council touch a nerve? Maybe it was Kyle Carruthers’ recent column “The opinion page is supposed to be biased.” It was a great piece, but maybe someone in the Kremlin didn’t like all that talk about “free expression and open debate.”

BlockedinRussia.com is what we used to check our status in that country. The website is run by anonymous techies who claim to have “little robots located inside Russia that personally check every single site to confirm whether it is accessible or blocked.”

The group says its organizers are concerned about internet censorship in Putin’s Russia and that the project is “entirely supported by money we would otherwise have spent on vodka.”

BlockedinChina.net performs a similar service, and says that sites like the Yukon News may be blocked if they consist of “western news media, social networks, and sites built on user-generated content” as well as content deemed “vulgar, pornographic, paranormal, obscene, or violent.”

We are fortunate that we can read columns unfiltered by government censors.

But we shouldn’t get complacent. Russia and China control their citizens’ access to certain parts of the web with crude but obvious methods. Your internet, on the other hand, is also increasingly shaped and controlled for you, and often in sophisticated and subtle ways you may not be aware of.

Nearly everybody knows each person gets different ads on their webpages, based on their location, browsing history and other mysterious factors known only to the algorithms that serve up the ads.

Did you also know that websites might be offering you different prices than your friends and neighbours? Using big data, web vendors are getting increasingly savvy at predicting how sensitive you are to price. They can predict who will leave the site without buying, and offer a carefully calculated discount. Everyone else pays the higher list price.

Social media is an incredibly rich source of data about you that can be used to tailor what you see and don’t see on the internet. Political parties, including those in the Yukon, are increasingly using Facebook and other platforms to serve up micro-targeted messages. You may get an ad about the Peel in your feed, while your friend gets one about the economy.

Canadian politicians have been caught before having one position in French in Quebec and another in English in the rest of the country. Now they can have 36,665,268 different positions — one for each Canadian. And today there is no equivalent of the bilingual journalist to bring the contradictions to light. No one other than the political operatives involved can see what messages they sent each group.

All you can do personally is click on the “Why am I seeing this ad?” link, and speculate.

In the last Yukon election, I “liked” all the political parties on Facebook. In addition to alarming a few friends, this elicited the desired deluge of ads. But I could only see the ones aimed at people like me.

The Guardian, in the UK, went even further and asked all its readers to send in screenshots of political ads.

The Guardian’s study and a similar one by the Observer revealed some troubling practices. For example, the Tories appear to have quietly inundated the Welsh marginal constituency of Delyn with Facebook attack ads. A group using Facebook’s “Lookalike Audiences” platform to buy ads to encourage youth voting in the constituency noticed that the price per click surged from £1.08 to £3.40. Their ads were being drowned out. It was only by setting up dummy accounts with various demographic characteristics that they found out about the wave of Tory advertising.

Some call these “dark” ads since the existence of the campaign is not visible publicly, only to the audiences who get the ads. Such tactics are believed to have had major effects on the U.K. general election and the Brexit vote.

The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office is conducting an investigation into whether data privacy laws were broken (a bit late for the Brexit vote, of course). Other reports suggest the Trump campaign also used such techniques effectively. There are now reportedly teams of battle-hardened and unregulated international political data consultants working on campaigns from Romania to Kenya.

At the moment, it seems that the darks arts of censors and marketers are winning the battle. You are stuck in your own private internet, subtly manipulated by people who want you to buy certain things or vote certain ways.

Short of going off-grid, it is difficult for you as a regular citizen to control your data footprints across the web or know how what you see on your screen has been shaped by someone else’s algorithm.

Government privacy regulators are trying to catch up, but it is hard for them to be as nimble and innovative as internet entrepreneurs.

In the meantime, you should dial up your skepticism about what you see on your screen and think twice about sharing that alarming-sounding story from a news site you’ve never heard of. You may also want to educate yourself about the data you share. With the right tools, it is possible to increase your privacy. Using things like virtual private networks as well as privacy-oriented internet browsers and search engines can go a long way.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.

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