What you need to know
GitHub, a generally apolitical platform for developers to discuss and collaborate on engineering projects, has fallen victim to Chinese internet trolls due to a Notepad++ update named "Free Uyghur."
Technology companies around the globe have recently found themselves tangled in a geopolitical minefield. On Tuesday, October 29, open-source code editor Notepad++ released an updated version titled “Free Uyghur.” Almost immediately after the release, the GitHub issues page for Notepad++ began attracting insults and spam from Chinese accounts.
The Chinese cyberattack on Notepad++ and GitHub is the latest among a recent string of attacks on social platforms like Twitter, Reddit, and Telegram. But this was the first attack on GitHub, a generally apolitical community where developers discuss and collaborate on engineering projects, unlike the previous attacks on regular social media platforms that have been frequently dealing with swarms of internet trolls.
Don Ho, the lead developer of Notepad++, said a similar scenario had happened in 2008 when he released a "Boycott GO in Beijing" update.
"However, I didn't expect this event to be amplified by their vandalism — that's good for the Uyghur people to get more attention," Ho told The News Lens.
The Free Uyghur edition by Notepad++ is an attempt to raise awareness about the million Uyghurs currently detained in the Chinese “re-education camps” in Xinjiang. Since its release, hundreds of angry comments in English and Chinese flooded Notepad++ issues page on GitHub.
“Talking about politics is exactly what software and commercial companies generally try to avoid. The problem is, if we don’t deal with politics, politics will deal with us,” Notepad++ said in a statement announcing the release of the Free Uyghur edition.
“China’s territorial integrity is inviolable,” a user named haowidesky wrote, while another user commenting in simplified Chinese asked how many rocket missiles Taiwan can sustain.
Notepad++ isn’t the first to trigger Chinese outrage, and it won't be the last. But as more platforms discover armies of internet trolls using their services, platforms themselves are increasingly under pressure to weigh the consequences and take action. For example, Apple recently removed the HKmap.live app that helped Hong Kong protesters to track police movements, citing concerns that it "had endangered law enforcement and residents." To further appease China, Apple has also removed the Taiwanese flag emoji for users in Hong Kong and Macau.
It’s too soon to tell if the Notepad++ incident is significant enough to cause the Chinese government to block GitHub, as GitHub has become the de-facto platform for hosting open-source software projects, a critical asset to have if China plans to take advantage of open-source software developed in other countries. Conversely, American companies are often conflicted about taking action against Chinese nationalism, making divestment over political flashpoints a difficult proposition. For U.S. companies like Apple with much of their manufacturing and supply lines intertwined in China, there are more economic incentives for them to bow to the Chinese Communist Party.
But to the Chinese government, blocking Github carries an economic cost greater than that of blocking social media like Facebook and Twitter. The Chinese government tried blocking Github in 2013, prompting sharp criticism from Kai-fu Lee, the head of Google China at the time and a current Chinese venture capital technology celebrity. "Blocking GitHub is unjustifiable, and will only derail the nation's programmers from the world, while bringing about a loss in competitiveness and insight," Lee said.
The race for technological supremacy between China and the United States is no longer about who can engineer, build, and market better products, but also a competition of ideologies and dubious geopolitical boundaries that are harder to define online.
Recent attempts have been made to moderate the rampant disinformation campaigns. Twitter, for instance, has banned all political advertising globally in order to lessen the impact of political actors paying money to amplify their political message. On the contrary, Facebook has taken a more hands-off approach, even refusing to fact check advertisements from politicians.
Erik Martin, a former policy advisor for the Obama administration and researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, said corporations often have the responsibility to take a moral or political stance both online and offline.
“Imagining that the Internet and the services we use on it should be free of political conflict isn't just wishful thinking, it's irresponsible. Silence and inaction are often the enablers of abuse, and that doesn't change in our increasingly online world,” Martin told The News Lens.
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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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