The Hong Kong Protests and the Decentralization Imperative

tl;dr: the cat and mouse technology game of protesters vs. government in Hong Kong reminds us why a decentralized Internet is important to safeguard personal freedoms.

Many of the early social media evangelists (I was one of them) pointed to the Arab Spring as evidence of a “people-powered” movement.

The Social Media Revolution

Citizens of oppressive Arab regimes across the region used services like Facebook and Twitter to organize and to communicate with each other in opposition to the government.

There were plenty of reasons to believe that change was coming. Sadly, things didn’t work out too well as the governments started to crack down by censoring access to the tools that organizers were using. That tradition continues today.

The Mobile Phone as a Weapon of Revolution

All of this comes to mind because of an excellent report I read in the Exponential View newsletter called “Notes from the Middle Kingdom.”

A large part of the report was devoted to the protests in Hong Kong. There were two nuggets that I found particularly interesting.

Apparently, many of the protesters are using tools like the dating app Tinder, Telegram, AirDrop, Twitch, and Pokemon Go to communicate around government controls.

It’s a wonderful example of using peer-to-peer technologies to avoid centralized government control that suppresses freedoms of speech and assembly.

In another example of what could happen when access to technology is democratized, last month someone organized 600 drones in the sky above Shenzhen spelled out ‘I love HK. I love China.’ (Check out the video.)

The Decentralization Imperative

I was in Hong Kong in July of 1997 on the day when Britain formally handed control of the territory over to China. The promise then was “One Country, Two Systems.”

Even that day, people were skeptical that it would last. I know I was.

Of course, I don’t live there and I find it admirable and inspiring that the youth there are so committed to freedom and democracy that they are willing to put their lives on the line.

As a technophile, I am similarly inspired by the innovative uses of platforms like Tinder to achieve noble goals.

At the same time, the lesson of the Arab Spring is not lost on me.

There is still a choke point, which is Internet access. For now, the mobile phone operators and the wireless hot spots are controlled by a handful of companies.

If the Chinese government tells them to block access to Tinder or Pokemon Go, they can do it.

Sure, it becomes a cat and mouse game, but a centralized bottleneck of access to the Internet poses a never-ending threat to the protesters.

The alternative is a truly decentralized Internet with no chokepoints.

That’s not going to happen today, so VPNs will probably be the next escalation (probably already happened), giving the protesters some measure of security.

Even better, a decentralized VPN such as Mysterium to really provide security (for more, see this post).

The point of this post isn’t about VPNs, mobile phones, or even Hong Kong.

The point is to remind us that in an age of increasing digital dependence, “he who controls the keys, controls the castle.”

The castle is the Internet. The keys are the “on-ramps” of the mobile phone operators and wi-fi hotspots. Right now, the Chinese government controls those.

Until the day comes when the keys are part of the commons, our freedoms cannot be guaranteed.

Hong Kong is just giving us a sneak peek.

The Hong Kong Protests and the Decentralization Imperative was originally published in Data Driven Investor on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.