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.” 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.” 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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

During our recent conversation, John Nicholson showed me snapshots of his time working on the Yukon riverboats 70 years ago. (Michael Gates)
History Hunter: Yukon man relives the riverboat days after seven decades

John Nicholson took summer work on Yukon steamers in the 1950s

A city map shows the property at 107 Range Road. The zoning is now in place for developers to proceed with plans for a Dairy Queen drive-thru. If plans proceed on schedule the new restaurant is anticipated to open in October. (Cyrstal Schick/Yukon News)
October opening eyed for Dairy Queen

Will depend on everything going according to plan

NDP candidate Annie Blake, left, and Liberal incumbent Pauline Frost. (Submitted photos)
Official recount confirms tie vote in Vuntut Gwitchin riding

Both candidates Pauline Frost and Annie Blake are still standing with 78 votes each

Artist’s rendering of a Dairy Queen drive-thru. At its April 13 meeting, Whitehorse city council approved a zoning change to allow a drive-thru at 107 Range Road. Developers sought the change to build a Dairy Queen there. (Submitted)
Drive-thru approved by Whitehorse city council at 107 Range Road

Rezoning could pave the way for a Dairy Queen


Wyatt’s World for April 14, 2021.… Continue reading

Joel Krahn/ Hikers traverse the Chilkoot Trail in September 2015. Alaska side.
The Canadian side of the Chilkoot Trail will open for summer

The Canadian side of the Chilkoot Trail will open for summer Parks… Continue reading

École Whitehorse Elementary Grade 7 students Yumi Traynor and Oscar Wolosewich participated in the Civix Student Vote in Whitehorse on April 12. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Yukon Student Vote chooses Yukon Party government; NDP take popular vote

The initiative is organized by national non-profit CIVIX

Yvonne Clarke is the newly elected Yukon Party MLA for Porter Creek Centre. (Submitted/Yukon Party)
Yvonne Clarke elected as first Filipina MLA in the Yukon Legislative Assembly

Clarke beat incumbent Liberal Paolo Gallina in Porter Creek Centre

Emily Tredger at NDP election night headquarters after winning the Whitehorse Centre riding. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Emily Tredger takes Whitehorse Centre for NDP

MLA-elect ready to get to work in new role

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Two new cases of COVID-19 variant identified in territory

“If variants were to get out of control in the Yukon, the impact could be serious.”

Today’s Mailbox: Rent freezes and the youth vote

Dear Editor, I read the article regarding the recommendations by the Yukon… Continue reading

Point-in-Time homeless count planned this month

Volunteers will count those in shelters, short-term housing and without shelter in a 24-hour period.

The Yukon’s new ATIPP Act came into effect on April 1. Yukoners can submit ATIPP requests online or at the Legislative Assembly building. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)
New ATIPP Act in effect as of April 1

The changes promise increased government transparency

Most Read