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China mobile

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel learned the wrong lessons from China

The Information has a story on Snapchat’s recent stumbles around it’s new app, which users have largely hated.  Because that story is paywalled, I’ll link to a Gizmodo article that has some of the coverage without a paywall. The interesting part for me is learning that CEO Evan Spiegel was visiting China (which is blocking Snapchat AFAIK) and started the redesign based on information he learned from his China visit.

Inspired by apps he’d seen in that country [China], Mr. Spiegel wanted to create a new version separating users’ friends’ content from the professional media. Each category would be sorted by an algorithm rather than Snapchat’s existing chronological feed.

Spiegel, who is only 27, and has had apparently limited experience in China, made the critical error of taking a trend from one market [China] and applying it to another market [Snapchat’s home market] without considering all of the cultural and market differences between the two. I think it is a good lesson to illuminate the differences between China and non-China markets. What works in China often does not directly work in non-China markets, and the opposite is often also true, either due to Chinese government censorship or market differences. That Spiegel is the CEO enabled him to push through this redesign without understanding this shows his naivete wrt both China and how international markets are different. Visiting China a few times a year and then basing drastic changes on your successful app from that limited understanding- just about anyone who had more than cursory experience in China could have seen this disaster coming. It is an expensive lesson for Spiegel and the Snapchat team and a good lesson for those of us who care to learn.

Categories
China Internet

thoughts on Opera’s new VPN features from China

Living as I do in Shanghai (i.e. behind the Great Firewall), and having spent a decade at Mozilla in the browser segment of the technology world, these recent moves by Opera to add VPN features to their browser and to smartphones themselves are very interesting and leave me with a number of questions around data privacy and corporate governance in China.

In April of 2016, Opera added a VPN feature in their browser such that you could route traffic from that one app through Opera’s servers. This month, in May, Opera has released an iOS app which purportedly routes all of your iphone traffic through their servers. This came from Opera’s acquisition of SurfEasy in 2015. I have downloaded both and have tested both and they work as advertised.

This VPN feature is a very smart move by Opera. VPNs are a key feature for many users around the world who need them for various reasons such as using blocked services from China, for watching your Netflix account if you are overseas, more private browsing, etc. More and more web sites and services are using geo-ip checks to prevent fraud and abuse and as such VPNs will only become more important. For those of us in China, VPN access is a regular discussion (whether our VPNs are working well, etc.)

The VPN feature is also a smart move by Opera because browsers are largely interchangeable these days, so having this feature in place is a large differentiation. (One of Chrome’s key differentiation features is their automated translation, which is not easily or cheaply copied.) Commercial VPN services average around $5/mo. but Opera can lower costs of running this feature because they do this already for their Opera Mini service.

It also has been reported that in February of 2016, Opera has been sold to a Chinese consortium including Qihoo 360 (a notorious firm led by an iconoclastic entrepreneur- a longer discussion for a different blog post), Internet firm Beijing Kunlun and investment group Golden Brick and Yonglian. If Opera is now a “Chinese” company (and I don’t know that the deal has closed yet but am writing with the assumption that it will), how will that affect their strategy vis-à-vis these VPN features/products?

If “Foreign-run” VPNs are illegal (at least as reported by the Global Times) in China (as far as I know, even though they are widely used, even recently in public by Fang Binxing the ‘architect’ of the Great Firewall himself) does it matter that a new Chinese consortium is providing a VPN to any user of the Opera browser or to any iPhone user (including the millions of iPhone users in China?) More importantly, to run a VPN is to be able to see the traffic you are routing. Yes, traffic hidden via https is hidden but urls are not. So ‘Opera China’ will have an intimate view of the traffic of their VPN users worldwide, but also specifically of those within China.

I’ve been in the technology industry long enough to know that the vast majority of users care mainly about free services and are quick to give up privacy for free services (see any service that is ad-based.) If you care about your own data privacy, but require VPN services, know that Opera is (will be?) a Chinese entity. With the well-documented increasing pressure the Chinese government is putting on media both online and offline (the April 2016 shutting down of Apple’s media offerings in China is only the most recent and high-profile action) it is unclear to me whether to trust Opera’s VPN services moving forward.

Commercial VPN providers regularly post information about whether they “keep logs” and Torrentfreak has compiled information about popular VPN services. Opera will need to share information about their VPN data-handling practices in the near future to assuage the privacy-paranoid among their users.

Thanks to MB, DG, DL, and CP for their feedback for this piece. All errors are mine alone.

Categories
China Internet mobile News Personal

Little Rice – Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream by Clay Shirky

When we moved to Shanghai earlier this year, I did not know that Clay Shirky had moved to China over a year ago to teach at NYU Shanghai. Clay has a new book out: Little Rice – Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream

When I heard that Bernard Leong was going to visit Shanghai, I worked to get Clay onto Bernard’s Analyse.asia podcast and this is the result.

Categories
China Internet News

The Economist on the Internet in China

Gady Epstein, who is the China Correspondent for The Economist has put together a large 14-page special report on the Internet in China. I strongly recommend it.

Gady was also on this week’s Sinica Podcast talking about this special report, which I also strongly recommend: Gady Epstein on The Internet (in China)

Special report: China and the internet

China’s internet: A giant cage
The internet was expected to help democratise China. Instead, it has enabled the authoritarian state to get a firmer grip, says Gady Epstein. But for how long?

The machinery of control: Cat and mouse
How China makes sure its internet abides by the rules

Microblogs: Small beginnings
Microblogs are a potentially powerful force for change, but they have to tread carefully

The Great Firewall: The art of concealment
Chinese screening of online material from abroad is becoming ever more sophisticated

E-commerce: Ours, all ours
A wealth of internet businesses with Chinese characteristics

Cyber-hacking: Masters of the cyber-universe
China’s state-sponsored hackers are ubiquitous—and totally unabashed

Internet controls in other countries: To each their own
China’s model for controlling the internet is being adopted elsewhere

Assessing the effects: A curse disguised as a blessing?
The internet may be delaying the radical changes China needs

Shutting down the internet: Thou shalt not kill
Turning off the entire internet is a nuclear option best not exercised

Categories
China Internet News

Richard Clarke doesn’t understand the Internet

Richard A. Clarke, the special adviser to the president for cybersecurity from 2001 to 2003, has an important op-ed in the NY Times today.

How China Steals Our Secrets

Clarke basically laments the state of US cyber security (who uses this “cyber” word besides the US govt.?) in regards to the incessant hacking of US businesses by Chinese hackers. Clarke believes that giving the Department of Homeland Security the ability to:

inspect what enters and exits the United States in cyberspace.

And under the Intelligence Act, the president could issue a finding that would authorize agencies to scan Internet traffic outside the United States and seize sensitive files stolen from within our borders. “

If this proposal is not basically an identical copy of what the Chinese government has set up in with their Great Firewall of China, I don’t know what it is.

US businesses need to take responsibility for securing their own servers, documents and networks. That they have not done so to date is their own fault.

The proposal to give the US government the right/ability to scan/filter the Internet is not only like trying to filter the entire ocean to catch a few fish (i.e. the wrong way to do it), it’s also asking the government to provide Internet security for US commercial businesses (which they should do on their own, not on the US taxpayer’s dime.)

A future that Richard Clarke wants for the US is a mirror image of what China has created today with the Internet in China. That he does not see the irony in this vision is probably the most troubling aspect of his op-ed as well as his “special adviser to the president for cybersecurity” role.

The US government needs experts who understand the Internet in roles like these, not people like Clarke, who clearly do not understand how the Internet works. And US businesses need to take their network security seriously. Focus on securing your networks, not just next quarter’s profit margins, and you’ll see less successful hacking.