A Few Notes On the Rupert Murdoch.
“For privacy to be widespread it must be part of a social contract. People must come and together deploy these systems for the common good. Privacy only extends so far as the cooperation of one’s fellows in society. We the Cypherpunks seek your questions and your concerns and hope we may engage you so that we do not deceive ourselves. We will not, however, be moved out of our course because some may disagree with our goals. The Cypherpunks are actively engaged in making the networks safer for privacy. Let us proceed together apace.” — — Eric Hughes, 1993.
It was in 1993, during a speech in London, when a triumphant 67 year old Rupert Murdoch announced to his audience of adoring fin slappers that “advances in the technology of communications have proved an unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes: Fax machines enable dissidents to bypass state-controlled print media; direct-dial telephone makes it difficult for a state to control interpersonal voice communication; and satellite broadcasting makes it possible for information-hungry residents of many closed societies to bypass state-controlled television channels.”
Three months prior to that ‘historic’ address, Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox Group would acquire the ailing Hong Kong based satellite television station StarTV for a ‘cool’ $525 million. Implied, and not particularly subtly so, in his speech at the company black-tie event in Whitehall then, was that Team Murdoch would surely abet the liberation of the hearts and the minds of millions of China’s citizens; yearning for the freedom, the pleasure, to watch television in defiance of a government that had only just very recently decided to welcome the Murdoch empire’s business.
As the story goes, like the foolhardy tourist who attempts to scale Pico de Orizaba wearing flip flops and a sombrero foam-dome, the multi-billionaire it seems presumed that he’d be able to ingratiate himself in China with relative ease, because this had proven to be the case for him in the UK, and that he could therefore antagonise China’s ruling party officials without fear of any meaningful attempts at reprisal. But their retaliation — which was very real, apparently — would set the tone and with that also many of the rules for the complicated working relationship that would protractedly unravel over the ensuing decade or so; in near-perfect Hausdorffian sync with his likewise unravelling marriage, Murdoch’s third, to Jinan-province born translator Wendi Deng.
China’s censors and state broadcasters were suitably enraged, suitably publicly enraged, by Murdoch’s speech; and this was only exacerbated when BBC World Service, which at the time featured on the StarTV broadcast schedule, aired an hour long special report about the bloody government crackdown on Tiananmen Square in June of 1989, as CNN’s livefeed rolled, followed by a tell-all documentary exploring amongst many, many other controversies, Mao Sedoung’s numerous alleged sexual prolictivities. The reports were broadcast via StarTV’s revolutionary transponders to what at that time remained only a miniscule proportion of China’s citizens on the mainland and yet the Prime Minister of the day, Li Peng, would issue an attempt at a blanket ban on the “distribution, installation and use of commercial satellite reception dishes” in response. Then, following various threats to Murdoch’s bottom line, BBC World Service was dropped from the Star TV lineup altogether. Instead of scrambling the signal in China — doing so was in 1993 already technologically feasible of course — so that StarTV could therefore continue to broadcast BBC World across its other signal jurisdictions in Asia, the media baron submitted to Beijing’s unnecessarily stringent demands, with admittedly very little ground left for him to stand upon. And so, fewer than six dreary earth months after its launch, BBC World Service was purged from the StarTV schedule, then quietly supplanted with a Mandarin language channel.
Murdoch would brush off the offending remarks that he made that day in an interview with Forbes a year later as being merely “a few standard cliches.” Allegedly, he was dumbfounded that what was essentially a corporate pep-talk had been met with such overreaction from China’s evidently worryingly paranoid ruling elite. Nevertheless, at the 11th annual John Bonython Lecture in Melbourne later in 1994 the multibillionaire would put it to his audience that the author and former BBC broadcaster George Orwell had underestimated the emancipatory power of technology, and that it’s progress since Orwell’s passing rendered all but impossible the dystopic future the author lays out for readers in 1984. On stage, Murdoch’s was a positive view, about how the ensuing “Century of Networking” would not only transform social, political and economic life for the better; it would also be incoercible to totalitarian power structures. That state or indeed even corporate power could potentially direct the technology, and then with that, the information flows too, was unfathomable somehow; presumably because it didn’t complement the yarn he was spinning that particular evening.
Sixteen years after the Bonython lecture, in an op-ed for the News Corp owned broadsheet The Australian in December 2010, Julian Assange would, under unknown levels of duress, praise Murdoch and his daddy for their transformative contributions to journalism; situating Murdoch Inc.’s tech-driven modus operandi broadly with his own: “The British tried to shut him up but Keith Murdoch would not be silenced and his efforts led to the termination of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. Nearly a century later, WikiLeaks is also fearlessly publishing facts that need to be made public…WikiLeaks was created around these core values. The idea, conceived in Australia, was to use internet technologies in new ways to report the truth…We are the underdogs.”
For all of the fleeting or abiding admiration that Murdoch’s words may have invoked at the time, within days of the Bonython lecture the multibillionaire was to be found in Kuala Lumpur schmoozing with Malaysia’s leaders, offering to them the very same block signal technology that Li Peng had forbidden Murdoch from utilising to save BBC World Service a year earlier. A media off-switch. One designed specifically to pacify an authoritarian regime’s prerequisites.
But when Murdoch said that “satellite broadcasting makes it possible for information-hungry residents of many closed societies to bypass state-controlled television channels” he wasn’t actually wrong. Because what is true, and always will be when something is in demand and then abruptly outlawed is, to play on Jeff Goldblum in the first Jurassic Park film: Crime, it finds a way.
A satellite piracy ring would envelop in China soon after the ban, and then naturally some — but not all, and perhaps not even most of the actors involved were actually government officials operating through their localised ‘satellites’: police and willing civilians to obfuscate the earthly crimes, and then cyber security specialists to obfuscate the one or indeed the many in ‘cyberspace’. Over time, the web has streamlined the dissemination of pirated software & goods to global mass markets, and so as per the convenient rationalisation of state and major corporate security enforcement teams the monetised codebreaker, the criminalised hacker necessitated deployment of geared-up intelligence agencies, specialist police units and private security firms to monitor and ideally to co-opt as many of them as possible. Combatting piracy thus quickly became a, if not the, Ministry of State Security’s focal strategy to justify the expansion of its cybersecurity internet mainframe; so too it’s army of online agents.
Privately sanctioned personnel, including those working within the security divisions of cybersecurity services like Murdoch’s now former business venture NDS Group, StarTV’s conditional access encryption provider, would often simultaneously engage in technically criminal activity and prevention. Working with the ruling jurisdiction’s security divisions at points, and then against them at others. Because if you hadn’t yet noticed, it’s all different but the same. China’s piracy quotient, according to the Software Publishers 68 Association report presuming that it accurately reflects anything, ranges between 77% and 96%. The country regularly tops the list of the world’s largest piracy economies, but why is piracy sooooooo consistently pervasive there? The People’s Police, Ministry of State Security and the People’s Armed Police Force, one of the world’s most militarised police forces, roughly on par with the US, have combined been seemingly powerless against the piracy economy burgeoning to the extent that it has done in China. Which surely means that piracy is unofficial policy; perhaps even that a lot of people are not great at their jobs.
NDS Group employed a number of former state intelligence officers: Reuvan Hasak, a former Deputy Chief of Shin Bet, for example, and then former Kroll investigator and Metropolitan Police Chief Ray Adams — who at one point had been in charge of the scandal-stricken investigation into the murder of British teenager Stephan Lawrence because as it turned out, he was friends with one of the suspect’s fathers — was appointed head of NDS Europe by Rupert Murdoch personally in 1996. The impact these appointments would have on the culture at NDS and the Pay TV industry more broadly cannot be overstated. Nor should Murdoch’s specific intention, or at least his tacit acceptance, alongside other powerful people, some more powerful than him, granted, that was going to be the case.
But then it was a telecommunications arms race from the very beginning, really. In 1988, Turing Award winning cryptologist Adi Shamir, creator of the ‘Shamir’s Secret Sharing’ algorithm (a man who, according to a few quite possibly unreliable online sources is now also a billionaire because of this) approached Murdoch with a blueprint to build a conditional access system for his new Sky television venture. Shamir’s blueprint became the NDS “smart code” cards. Microchips on the smart-cards were programmed with layers of algorithms that functioned as sleepless electronic gatekeepers, so that only paying StarTV customers were able unlock the signal with the key code issued to them upon purchase. It’s the same principle as a bank-card and corresponding pincode and it was similarly penetrable with sufficient time, skill and resources. An industry was born…
Beneath the academic veneer lent by some of the world’s most revered cryptologists, the NDS investigations team were deployed to monitor people of interest; for intelligence gathering, dissemination. And to infiltrate and on occasion even entrap pirate community message-board members. Skilled lone-wolf hackers, lured by the prospect of high renumeration and their own intellectual curiosity were recruited to reverse engineer smartcards. To exploit technical weaknesses in rival models on behalf of NDS, or alternatively to become sources within online technical discussion communities. Some were even recruited for their credulity to then be used as pawns.
With all this in mind, it’s unsurprising the reality of Murdoch’s dealings in the world’s most populated country were a far cry from the sentiments he expressed first in London in 1993 and then once again in Melbourne in 1994. Not only did Murdoch lend his services to the country’s Communist Youth League; a lynchpin of the ruling party, which serves to identify and assimilate would-be dissidents with the party-line while they’re young, for a “risky television venture” but, on the testimony of a number of former Dow employees Murdoch had also regularly worked closely with China’s state broadcasters in exchange for the go-ahead to circumvent regulatory interference to achieve specific entrepreneurial goals. And so before long, it became obvious that Murdoch’s aggressive, no holds barred #brand of journalism would actually not be pushed on the new frontier — because he couldn’t. Media regulations would also continue to tighten over the years. So much so that in 2005, Murdoch would decide to incrementally divest from the country.
His dalliance with it would herald his third marriage, to translator and StarTV company executive Deng, who he first met in the US in 1997. Then somewhat ironically perhaps it would formally end just a few weeks after finalising his divorce from the Yale MBA graduate and mother to his two youngest in 2013, when 21st Century Fox Group sold off its remaining 47% stake in StarTV.
Ain’t love grand.