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‘I was shocked it was so easy’: meet the professor who says facial recognition can tell if you’re gay

Psychologist Michal Kosinski says artificial intelligence can detect your sexuality and politics just by looking at your face. What if hes right?

Vladimir Putin was not in attendance, but his loyal lieutenants were. On 14 July last year, the Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and several members of his cabinet convened in an office building on the outskirts of Moscow. On to the stage stepped a boyish-looking psychologist, Michal Kosinski, who had been flown from the city centre by helicopter to share his research. There was Lavrov, in the first row, he recalls several months later, referring to Russias foreign minister. You know, a guy who starts wars and takes over countries. Kosinski, a 36-year-old assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University, was flattered that the Russian cabinet would gather to listen to him talk. Those guys strike me as one of the most competent and well-informed groups, he tells me. They did their homework. They read my stuff.

Kosinskis stuff includes groundbreaking research into technology, mass persuasion and artificial intelligence (AI) research that inspired the creation of the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica. Five years ago, while a graduate student at Cambridge University, he showed how even benign activity on Facebook could reveal personality traits a discovery that was later exploited by the data-analytics firm that helped put Donald Trump in the White House.

That would be enough to make Kosinski interesting to the Russian cabinet. But his audience would also have been intrigued by his work on the use of AI to detect psychological traits. Weeks after his trip to Moscow, Kosinski published a controversial paper in which he showed how face-analysing algorithms could distinguish between photographs of gay and straight people. As well as sexuality, he believes this technology could be used to detect emotions, IQ and even a predisposition to commit certain crimes. Kosinski has also used algorithms to distinguish between the faces of Republicans and Democrats, in an unpublished experiment he says was successful although he admits the results can change depending on whether I include beards or not.

How did this 36-year-old academic, who has yet to write a book, attract the attention of the Russian cabinet? Over our several meetings in California and London, Kosinski styles himself as a taboo-busting thinker, someone who is prepared to delve into difficult territory concerning artificial intelligence and surveillance that other academics wont. I can be upset about us losing privacy, he says. But it wont change the fact that we already lost our privacy, and theres no going back without destroying this civilisation.

The aim of his research, Kosinski says, is to highlight the dangers. Yet he is strikingly enthusiastic about some of the technologies he claims to be warning us about, talking excitedly about cameras that could detect people who are lost, anxious, trafficked or potentially dangerous. You could imagine having those diagnostic tools monitoring public spaces for potential threats to themselves or to others, he tells me. There are different privacy issues with each of those approaches, but it can literally save lives.

Progress always makes people uncomfortable, Kosinski adds. Always has. Probably, when the first monkeys stopped hanging from the trees and started walking on the savannah, the monkeys in the trees were like, This is outrageous! It makes us uncomfortable. Its the same with any new technology.

***

Kosinski has analysed thousands of peoples faces, but never run his own image through his personality-detecting models, so we cannot know what traits are indicated by his pale-grey eyes or the dimple in his chin. I ask him to describe his own personality. He says hes a conscientious, extroverted and probably emotional person with an IQ that is perhaps slightly above average. He adds: And Im disagreeable. What made him that way? If you trust personality science, it seems that, to a large extent, youre born this way.

His friends, on the other hand, describe Kosinski as a brilliant, provocative and irrepressible data scientist who has an insatiable (some say naive) desire to push the boundaries of his research. Michal is like a small boy with a hammer, one of his academic friends tells me. Suddenly everything looks like a nail.

Born in 1982 in Warsaw, Kosinski inherited his aptitude for coding from his parents, both of whom trained as software engineers. Kosinski and his brother and sister had a computer at home, potentially much earlier than western people of the same age. By the late 1990s, as Polands post-Soviet economy was opening up, Kosinski was hiring his schoolmates to work for his own IT company. This business helped fund him through university, and in 2008 he enrolled in a PhD programme at Cambridge, where he was affiliated with the Psychometrics Centre, a facility specialising in measuring psychological traits.

It was around that time that he met David Stillwell, another graduate student, who had built a personality quiz and shared it with friends on Facebook. The app quickly went viral, as hundreds and then thousands of people took the survey to discover their scores according to the Big Five metrics: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. When users completed the myPersonality tests, some of which also measured IQ and wellbeing, they were given an option to donate their results to academic research.

Kosinski came on board, using his digital skills to clean, anonymise and sort the data, and then make it available to other academics. By 2012, more than 6 million people had taken the tests with about 40% donating their data, creating the largest dataset of its kind.

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From Cesare Lombrosos criminal taxonomy: a habitual thief

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and a murderer. Photographs: Alamy

In May, New Scientist magazine revealed that the datasets username and password had been accidentally left on GitHub, a commonly used code-sharing website. For four years, anyone not just authorised researchers could have accessed the data. Before the magazines investigation, Kosinski had admitted to me that there were risks to their liberal approach. We anonymised the data, and we made scientists sign a guarantee that they will not use it for any commercial reasons, he had said. But you just cant really guarantee that this will not happen. Much of the Facebook data, he added, was de-anonymisable. In the wake of the New Scientist story, Stillwell closed down the myPersonality project. Kosinski sent me a link to the announcement, complaining: Twitter warriors and sensation-seeking writers made David shut down the myPersonality project.

During the time the myPersonalitydata was accessible, about 280 researchers used it to publish more than 100 academic papers. The most talked-about was a 2013 study co-authored by Kosinski, Stillwell and another researcher, that explored the relationship between Facebook Likes and the psychological and demographic traits of 58,000 people. Some of the results were intuitive: the best predictors of introversion, for example, were Likes for pages such as Video Games and Voltaire. Other findings were more perplexing: among the best predictors of high IQ were Likes on the Facebook pages for Thunderstorms and Morgan Freemans Voice. People who Liked pages for iPod and Gorillaz were likely to be dissatisfied with life.

If an algorithm was fed with sufficient data about Facebook Likes, Kosinski and his colleagues found, it could make more accurate personality-based predictions than assessments made by real-life friends. In other research, Kosinski and others showed how Facebook data could be turned into what they described as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion.

Their research came to the attention of the SCL Group, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica. In 2014, SCL tried to enlist Stillwell and Kosinski, offering to buy the myPersonality data and their predictive models. When negotiations broke down, they relied on the help of another academic in Cambridges psychology department Aleksandr Kogan, an assistant professor. Using his own Facebook personality quiz, and paying users (with SCL money) to take the tests, Kogan collected data on 320,000 Americans. Exploiting a loophole that allowed developers to harvest data belonging to the friends of Facebook app users (without their knowledge or consent), Kogan was able to hoover up additional data on as many as 87 million people.

Headshot
Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie who says the company tried to replicate Kosinskis work for psychological warfare. Photograph: Getty Images

Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who lifted the lid on Cambridge Analyticas operations earlier this year, has described how the company set out to replicate the work done by Kosinski and his colleagues, and to turn it into an instrument of psychological warfare. This is not my fault, Kosinski told reporters from the Swiss publication Das Magazin, which was the first to make the connection between his work and Cambridge Analytica. I did not build the bomb. I only showed that it exists.

Cambridge Analytica always denied using Facebook-based psychographic targeting during the Trump campaign, but the scandal over its data harvesting forced the company to close. The saga also proved highly damaging to Facebook, whose headquarters are less than four miles from Kosinskis base at Stanfords Business School in Silicon Valley. The first time I enter his office, I ask him about a painting beside his computer, depicting a protester armed with a Facebook logo in a holster instead of a gun. People think Im anti-Facebook, Kosinski says. But I think that, generally, it is just a wonderful technology.

Still, he is disappointed in the Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who, when he testified before US Congress in April, said he was trying to find out whether there was something bad going on at Cambridge University. Facebook, Kosinski says, was well aware of his research. He shows me emails he had with employees in 2011, in which they disclosed they were using analysis of linguistic data to infer personality traits. In 2012, the same employees filed a patent, showing how personality characteristics could be gleaned from Facebook messages and status updates.

Kosinski seems unperturbed by the furore over Cambridge Analytica, which he feels has unfairly maligned psychometric micro-targeting in politics. There are negative aspects to it, but overall this is a great technology and great for democracy, he says. If you can target political messages to fit peoples interests, dreams, personality, you make those messages more relevant, which makes voters more engaged and more engaged voters are great for democracy. But you can also, I say, use those same techniques to discourage your opponents voters from turning out, which is bad for democracy. Then every politician in the US is doing this, Kosinski replies, with a shrug. Whenever you target the voters of your opponent, this is a voter-suppression activity.

Kosinskis wider complaint about the Cambridge Analytica fallout, he says, is that it has created an illusion that governments can protect data and shore up their citizens privacy. It is a lost war, he says. We should focus on organising our society in such a way as to make sure that the post-privacy era is a habitable and nice place to live.

***

Kosinski says he never set out to prove that AI could predict a persons sexuality. He describes it as a chance discovery, something he stumbled upon. The lightbulb moment came as he was sifting through Facebook profiles for another project and started to notice what he thought were patterns in peoples faces. It suddenly struck me, he says, introverts and extroverts have completely different faces. I was like, Wow, maybe theres something there.

Physiognomy, the practice of determining a persons character from their face, has a history that stretches back to ancient Greece. But its heyday came in the 19th century, when the Italian anthropologist Cesare Lombroso published his famous taxonomy, which declared that nearly all criminals have jug ears, thick hair, thin beards, pronounced sinuses, protruding chins, and broad cheekbones. The analysis was rooted in a deeply racist school of thought that held that criminals resembled savages and apes, although Lombroso presented his findings with the precision of a forensic scientist. Thieves were notable for their small wandering eyes, rapists their swollen lips and eyelids, while murderers had a nose that was often hawklike and always large.

Lombrosos remains are still on display in a museum in Turin, besides the skulls of the hundreds of criminals he spent decades examining. Where Lombroso used calipers and craniographs, Kosinski has been using neural networks to find patterns in photos scraped from the internet.

Kosinskis research dismisses physiognomy as a mix of superstition and racism disguised as science but then argues it created a taboo around studying or even discussing the links between facial features and character. There is growing evidence, he insists, that links between faces and psychology exist, even if they are invisible to the human eye; now, with advances in machine learning, such links can be perceived. We didnt have algorithms 50 years ago that could spot patterns, he says. We only had human judges.

In a paper published last year, Kosinski and a Stanford computer scientist, Yilun Wang, reported that a machine-learning system was able to distinguish between photos of gay and straight people with a high degree of accuracy. They used 35,326 photographs from dating websites and what Kosinski describes as off-the-shelf facial-recognition software.

Presented with two pictures one of a gay person, the other straight the algorithm was trained to distinguish the two in 81% of cases involving images of men and 74% of photographs of women. Human judges, by contrast, were able to identify the straight and gay people in 61% and 54% of cases, respectively. When the algorithm was shown five facial images per person in the pair, its accuracy increased to 91% for men, 83% for women. I was just shocked to discover that it is so easy for an algorithm to distinguish between gay and straight people, Kosinski tells me. I didnt see why that would be possible.

Psychologist
I did not build the bomb. I only showed it exists. Photograph: Jason Henry for the Guardian

Neither did many other people, and there was an immediate backlash when the research dubbed AI gaydar was previewed in the Economist magazine. Two of Americas most prominent LGBTQ organisations demanded that Stanford distance itself from what they called its professors dangerous and flawed research. Kosinski received a deluge of emails, many from people who told him they were confused about their sexuality and hoped he would run their photo through his algorithm. (He declined.) There was also anger that Kosinski had conducted research on a technology that could be used to persecute gay people in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is punishable by death.

Kosinski says his critics missed the point. This is the inherent paradox of warning people against potentially dangerous technology, he says. I stumbled upon those results, and I was actually close to putting them in a drawer and not publishing because I had a very good life without this paper being out. But then a colleague asked me if I would be able to look myself in the mirror if, one day, a company or a government deployed a similar technique to hurt people. It would, he says, have been morally wrong to bury his findings.

One vocal critic of that defence is the Princeton professor Alexander Todorov, who has conducted some of the most widely cited research into faces and psychology. He argues that Kosinskis methods are deeply flawed: the patterns picked up by algorithms comparing thousands of photographs may have little to do with facial characteristics. In a mocking critique posted online, Todorov and two AI researchers at Google argued that Kosinskis algorithm could have been responding to patterns in peoples makeup, beards or glasses, even the angle they held the camera at. Self-posted photos on dating websites, Todorov points out, project a number of non-facial clues.

Kosinski acknowledges that his machine learning system detects unrelated signals, but is adamant the software also distinguishes between facial structures. His findings are consistent with the prenatal hormone theory of sexual orientation, he says, which argues that the levels of androgens foetuses are exposed to in the womb help determine whether people are straight or gay. The same androgens, Kosinski argues, could also result in gender-atypical facial morphology. Thus, he writes in his paper, gay men are predicted to have smaller jaws and chins, slimmer eyebrows, longer noses and larger foreheads… The opposite should be true for lesbians.

This is where Kosinskis work strays into biological determinism. While he does not deny the influence of social and environmental factors on our personalities, he plays them down. At times, what he says seems eerily reminiscent of Lombroso, who was critical of the idea that criminals had free will: they should be pitied rather than punished, the Italian argued, because like monkeys, cats and cuckoos they were programmed to do harm.

I dont believe in guilt, because I dont believe in free will, Kosinski tells me, explaining that a persons thoughts and behaviour are fully biological, because they originate in the biological computer that you have in your head. On another occasion he tells me, If you basically accept that were just computers, then computers are not guilty of crime. Computers can malfunction. But then you shouldnt blame them for it. The professor adds: Very much like: you dont, generally, blame dogs for misbehaving.

Todorov believes Kosinskis research is incredibly ethically questionable, as it could lend a veneer of credibility to governments that might want to use such technologies. He points to a paper that appeared online two years ago, in which Chinese AI researchers claimed they had trained a face-recognition algorithm to predict with 90% accuracy whether someone was a convicted criminal. The research, which used Chinese government identity photographs of hundreds of male criminals, was not peer-reviewed, and was torn to shreds by Todorov, who warned that developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning have enabled scientific racism to enter a new era.

Kosinski has a different take. The fact that the results were completely invalid and unfounded, doesnt mean that what they propose is also wrong, he says. I cant see why you would not be able to predict the propensity to commit a crime from someones face. We know, for instance, that testosterone levels are linked to the propensity to commit crime, and theyre also linked with facial features and this is just one link. There are thousands or millions of others that we are unaware of, that computers could very easily detect.

Would he ever undertake similar research? Kosinski hesitates, saying that crime is an overly blunt label. It would be more sensible, he says, to look at whether we can detect traits or predispositions that are potentially dangerous to an individual or society like aggressive behaviour. He adds: I think someone has to do it Because if this is a risky technology, then governments and corporations are clearly already using it.

***

But when I press Kosinski for examples of how psychology-detecting AI is being used by governments, he repeatedly falls back on an obscure Israeli startup, Faception. The company provides software that scans passports, visas and social-media profiles, before spitting out scores that categorise people according to several personality types. On its website, Faception lists eight such classifiers, including White-Collar Offender, High IQ, Paedophile and Terrorist. Kosinski describes the company as dodgy a case study in why researchers who care about privacy should alert the public to the risks of AI. Check what Faception are doing and what clients they have, he tells me during an animated debate over the ethics of his research.

I call Faceptions chief executive, Shai Gilboa, who used to work in Israeli military intelligence. He tells me the company has contracts working on homeland security and public safety in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. To my surprise, he then tells me about a research collaboration he conducted two years ago. When you look in the academia market youre looking for the best researchers, who have very good databases and vast experience, he says. So this is the reason we approached Professor Kosinski.

But when I put this connection to Kosinski, he plays it down: he claims to have met Faception to discuss the ethics of facial-recognition technologies. They came [to Stanford] because they realised what they are doing has potentially huge negative implications, and huge risks. Later, he concedes there was more to it. He met them maybe three times in Silicon Valley, and was offered equity in the company in exchange for becoming an adviser (he says he declined).

Kosinski denies having collaborated on research, but admits Faception gave him access to its facial-recognition software. He experimented with Facebook photos in the myPersonality dataset, he says, to determine how effective the Faception software was at detecting personality traits. He then suggested Gilboa talk to Stillwell about purchasing the myPersonality data. (Stillwell, Kosinski says, declined.)

He bristles at my suggestion that these conversations seem ethically dubious. I will do a lot of this, he says. A lot of startup people come here and they dont offer you any money, but they say, Look, we have this project, can you advise us? Turning down such a request would have made him an arrogant prick.

He gives a similar explanation for his trip to Moscow, which he says was arranged by Sberbank Corporate University as an educational day for Russian government officials. The university is a subsidiary of Sberbank, a state-owned bank sanctioned by the EU; its chief executive, Russias former minister for economic development, is close to Putin. What was the purpose of the trip? I didnt really understand the context, says Kosinski. They put me on a helicopter, flew me to a place, I came on the stage. On the helicopter I was given a briefing about who was going to be in the room. Then I gave a talk, and we talked about how AI is changing society. And then they sent me off.

The last time I see Kosinski, we meet in London. He becomes prickly when I press him on Russia, pointing to its dire record on gay rights. Did he talk about using facial-recognition technology to detect sexuality? Yes, he says but this talk was no different from other presentations in which he discussed the same research. (A couple of days later, Kosinski tells me he has checked his slides; in fact, he says, he didnt tell the Russians about his AI gaydar.)

Who else was in the audience, aside from Medvedev and Lavrov? Kosinski doesnt know. Is it possible he was talking to a room full of Russian intelligence operatives? Thats correct, he says. But I think that people who work for the surveillance state, more than anyone, deserve to know that what they are doing is creating real risk. He tells me he is no fan of Russia, and stresses there was no discussion of spying or influencing elections. As an academic, you have a duty to try to counter bad ideas and spread good ideas, he says, adding that he would talk to the most despicable dictator out there.

I ask Kosinski if anyone has tried to recruit him as an intelligence asset. He hedges. Do you think that if an intelligence agency approaches you they say: Hi, Im the CIA? he replies. No, they say, Hi, Im a startup, and Im interested in your work would you be an adviser? That definitely happened in the UK. When I was at Cambridge, I had a minder. He tells me about a British defence expert he suspected worked for the intelligence services who took a keen interest in his research, inviting him to seminars attended by officials in military uniforms.

In one of our final conversations, Kosinski tells me he shouldnt have talked about his visit to Moscow, because his hosts asked him not to. It would not be elegant to mention it in the Guardian, he says, and besides, it is an irrelevant fact. I point out that he already left a fairly big clue on Facebook, where he posted an image of himself onboard a helicopter with the caption: Taking off to give a talk for Prime Minister Medvedev. He later changed his privacy settings: the photo was no longer public, but for friends only.

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The great firewall of China: Xi Jinpings internet shutdown

The long read: Before Xi Jinping, the internet was becoming a more vibrant political space for Chinese citizens. But today the country has the largest and most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world

In December 2015, thousands of tech entrepreneurs and analysts, along with a fewinternational heads of state, gathered in Wuzhen, in southern China, for the countrys second World Internet Conference. At the opening ceremony the Chinese president, XiJinping, set out his vision for the future ofChinas internet. We should respect the rightof individual countries to independently choosetheir own path of cyber-development, said Xi,warning against foreign interference in other countries internal affairs.

No one was surprised by what they heard. Xi had already established that the Chinese internet would be aworld unto itself, with its content closely monitored and managed by the Communist party. In recent years, the Chinese leadership has devoted more and more resources to controlling content online. Government policies have contributed to a dramatic fall in the number of postings on the Chinese blogging platform Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter), and have silenced manyof Chinas most important voices advocating reform and opening up the internet.

It wasnt always like this. In the years before Xi became president in 2012, the internet had begun to afford the Chinese people an unprecedented level of transparency and power to communicate. Popular bloggers, some of whom advocated bold social and political reforms, commanded tens of millions of followers. Chinese citizens used virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked websites. Citizens banded together online to hold authorities accountable for their actions, through virtual petitions and organising physical protests. In 2010, a survey of 300Chinese officials revealed that 70% were anxious about whether mistakes or details about their private life might be leaked online. Of the almost 6,000 Chinesecitizens also surveyed, 88% believed it wasgood for officials to feel this anxiety.

For Xi Jinping, however, there is no distinction between the virtual world and the real world: both should reflect the same political values, ideals, and standards. To this end, the government has invested intechnological upgrades to monitor and censor content. It has passed new laws on acceptable content, and aggressively punished those who defy the new restrictions. Under Xi, foreign content providers havefound their access to China shrinking. They are being pushed out by both Xis ideological war and hisdesire that Chinese companies dominate the countrys rapidly growing online economy.

At home, Xi paints the wests version of the internet, which prioritises freedom of information flow, as anathema to the values of the Chinese government. Abroad, he asserts Chinas sovereign right to determine what constitutes harmful content. Rather than acknowledging that efforts to control the internet areasource of embarrassment a sign of potential authoritarian fragility Xi is trying to turn his vision ofaChinanet (to use blogger Michael Antis phrase) into a model for other countries.

The challenge for Chinas leadership is to maintain what it perceives as the benefits of the internet advancing commerce and innovation without letting technology accelerate political change. To maintain his Chinanet, Xi seems willing to accept the costs in terms of economic development, creative expression, government credibility, and the development of civil society. But the internet continues to serve as a powerful tool for citizens seeking to advance social change and human rights. The game of cat-and-mouse continues, and there are many more mice than cats.


The very first email in China was sent in September 1987 16 years after Ray Tomlinson sent the first email in the US. It broadcast a triumphal message: Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world. Forthe first few years, the government reserved the internet for academics and officials. Then, in 1995, it was opened to the general public. In 1996, although onlyabout 150,000 Chinese people were connected tothe internet, the government deemed it the Year of the Internet, and internet clubs and cafes appeared all over Chinas largest cities.

Yet as enthusiastically as the government proclaimed its support for the internet, it also took steps to control it. Rogier Creemers, a China expert at Oxford University, has noted that As the internet became a publicly accessible information and communication platform, there was no debate about whether it should fall under government supervision only about how such control would be implemented in practice. By 1997, Beijing had enacted its first laws criminalising online postings that it believed were designed to hurt national security or the interests of the state.

Chinas leaders were right to be worried. Their citizens quickly realised the political potential inherent in the internet. In 1998, a 30-year-old software engineer called Lin Hai forwarded 30,000 Chinese email addresses to aUS-based pro-democracy magazine. Lin was arrested, tried and ultimately sent to prison in the countrys first known trial for a political violation committed completely online. The following year, the spiritual organisation Falun Gong used email and mobile phones to organise a silent demonstration of more than 10,000 followers around the Communist partys central compound, Zhongnanhai, to protest their inability topractise freely. The gathering, which had been arranged without the knowledge of the government, precipitated an ongoing persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and a new determination to exercise control over the internet.

The man who emerged to lead the governments technological efforts was Fang Binxing. In the late 1990s, Fang worked on developing the Golden Shield transformative software that enabled the government toinspect any data being received or sent, and to block destination IP addresses and domain names. His work was rewarded by a swift political rise. By the 2000s, he had earned the moniker Father of the Great Firewall and, eventually, the enmity of hundreds of thousands ofChinese web users.

Security
Security outside Googles office in Beijing in January 2010. Photograph: Diego Azubel/EPA

Throughout the early 2000s, the Chinese leadership supplemented Fangs technology with a set of new regulations designed to ensure that anyone with access to Chinas internet played by Chinese rules. In September 2000, the state council issued order no 292, which required internet service providers to ensure that the information sent out on their services adhered to the law, and that some domain names and IP addresses were recorded. Two years later, Beijing blocked Google for thefirst time. (A few years later, Google introduced Google.cn, a censored version of the site.) In 2002, the government increased its emphasis on self-censorship with the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for Chinas Internet Industry, which established four principles: patriotic observance of law, equitableness, trustworthiness and honesty. More than 100 companies,including Yahoo!, signed the pledge.

Perhaps the most significant development, however, was a 2004 guideline on internet censorship that called for Chinese universities to recruit internet commentators who could guide online discussions in politically acceptable directions and report comments that did notfollow Chinese law. These commentators became known as wu mao dang, or 50-cent party, after the small bonuses they were supposedly paid for each post.

Yet even as the government was striving to limit individuals access to information, many citizens weremaking significant inroads into the countrys political world and their primary target was corruptlocal officials.


In May 2009, Deng Yujiao, a young woman working inahotel in Hubei province, stabbed a party official to death after she rejected his efforts to pay her for sex andhe tried to rape her. Police initially committed Dengto a mental hospital. A popular blogger, Wu Gan, however, publicised her case. Using information gathered through a process known as ren rou sousuo, orhuman flesh search engine, in which web users collaborate to discover the identity of a specific individual or organisation, Wu wrote a blog describing the events and actions of the party officials involved.

In an interview with the Atlantic magazine at the time,he commented: The cultural significance of fleshsearches is this: in an undemocratic country, the people have limited means to get information [but] citizens can get access to information through the internet, exposing lies and the truth. Dengs case beganto attract public support, with young people gathering in Beijing with signs reading Anyone couldbeDeng Yujiao. Eventually the court ruled thatDeng had acted in self-defence.

During this period, in the final years of Hu Jintaos presidency, the internet was becoming more and more powerful as a mechanism by which Chinese citizens heldtheir officials to account. Most cases were like that of Deng Yujiao lodged and resolved at the local level. Asmall number, however, reached central authorities inBeijing. On 23 July 2011, a high-speed train derailed inthe coastal city of Wenzhou, leaving at least 40 people dead and 172 injured. In the wake of the accident, Chinese officials banned journalists from investigating, telling them to use only information released from authorities. But local residents took photos of the wreckage being buried instead of being examined for evidence. The photos went viral and heightened the impression that the governments main goal was not toseek the true cause of the accident.

A Sina Weibo polllater blocked asked users whythey thought the train wreckage was buried: 98%(61,382) believed it represented destruction of evidence. Dark humour spread online: How far are wefrom heaven? Only atrainticket away, and The Ministry ofRailways earnestly requests that you ride theHeavenly Party Express. The popular pressure resultedin a full-scale investigation of the crash, andinlate December, the government issued a reportblaming poorly designed signal equipment and insufficient safety procedures. Asmany as 54 officials faced disciplinary action as aresult of the crash.

The internet also provided a new sense of community for Chinese citizens, who mostly lacked robust civil-society organisations. In July 2012, devastating floods inBeijing led to the evacuation of more than 65,000 residents and the deaths of at least 77 people. Damages totalled an estimated $1.9bn. Local officials failed to respond effectively: police officers allegedly kept ticketing stranded cars instead of assisting residents, andthe early warning system did not work. Yet the realstory was the extraordinary outpouring of assistancefrom Beijing web users, who volunteered theirhomes and food to stranded citizens. In a span of just 24 hours, an estimated 8.8m messages were sent onWeibo regarding the floods. The story of the floods became notonly one of government incompetence, butalso oneof how an online community could transform intoareal one.


While the Chinese people explored new ways to use theinternet, the leadership also began to develop a tastefor the new powers it offered, such as a better understanding of citizens concerns and new ways to shape public opinion. Yet as the internet increasingly became a vehicle for dissent, concern within the leadership mounted that it might be used to mobilise alarge-scale political protest capable of threatening thecentral government. The government responded withastream of technological fixes and political directives; yet the boundaries of internet life continuedto expand.

The advent of Xi Jinping in 2012 brought a new determination to move beyond deleting posts and passing regulations. Beijing wanted to ensure that internet content more actively served the interests of theCommunist party. Within the virtual world, as in thereal world, the party moved to silence dissenting voices, to mobilise party members in support of its values, and to prevent foreign ideas from seeping intoChinese political and social life. In a leaked speechinAugust 2013, Xi articulated a dark vision: Theinternet has become the main battlefield for thepublicopinion struggle.

Early in his tenure, Xi embraced the world of social media. One Weibo group, called Fan Group to Learn from Xi, appeared in late 2012, much to the delight of Chinese propaganda officials. (Many Chinese suspected that the account was directed by someone in the government, although the accounts owner denied it.) Xi allowed avisit he made to Hebei to be liveblogged on Weibo bygovernment-affiliated press, and videos about Xi, including a viral music video called How Should IAddress You, based on a trip he made to a mountain village, demonstrate the governments increasing skillatdigital propaganda.

Xi
Xi Jinping at the World Internet Conference in Jiaxing, China, in 2015. Photograph: Aly Song/Reuters

Under Xi, the government has also developed new technology that has enabled it to exert far greater controlover the internet. In January 2015, the government blocked many of the VPNs that citizens hadused to circumvent the Great Firewall. This was surprising to many outside observers, who had believed that VPNs were too useful to the Chinese economy supporting multinationals, banks and retailers, among others forthe government to crack down on them.

In spring 2015, Beijing launched the Great Cannon. Unlike the Great Firewall, which has the capacity to block traffic as it enters or exits China, the Great Cannon is able to adjust and replace content as it travels around the internet. One of its first targets was the US coding andsoftware development site GitHub. The Chinese government used the Great Cannon to levy a distributed denial of service attack against the site, overwhelming itwith traffic redirected from Baidu (a search engine similar to Google). The attack focused on attempting toforce GitHub to remove pages linked to the Chinese-language edition of the New York Times andGreatFire.org, apopular VPN that helps people circumvent Chinese internet censorship.

But perhaps Xis most noticeable gambit has been toconstrain the nature of the content available online. InAugust 2013, the government issued a new set ofregulations known as the seven baselines. The reaction by Chinese internet companies was immediate. Sina, for example, shut down or handled 100,000 Weibo accounts found to not comply with the new rules.

The government also adopted tough restrictions oninternet-based rumours. In September 2013, the supreme peoples court ruled that authors of online posts that deliberately spread rumours or lies, and wereeither seen by more than 5,000 individuals or shared more than 500 times, could face defamation charges and up to three years in jail. Following massive flooding in Hebei province in July 2016, for example, thegovernment detained three individuals accused of spreading false news via social media regarding the death toll and cause of the flood. Some social media posts and photos of the flooding, particularly of drowning victims, were also censored.

In addition, Xis government began targeting individuals with large social media followings who might challenge the authority of the Communist party. Restrictions on the most prominent Chinese web influencers, beginning in 2013, represented an important turning point in Chinas internet life. Discussions began to move away from politics to personal and less sensitive issues. The impact on Sina Weibo was dramatic. According to a study of 1.6 million Weibo users, the number ofWeibo posts fell by 70% between 2011 and 2013.


The strength of the Communist partys control over theinternet rests above all on its commitment to prevent the spread of information that it finds dangerous. Ithas also adopted sophisticated technology, such as theGreat Firewall and the Golden Shield. Perhaps its most potent source of influence, however, is the cyber-army it has developed to implement its policies.

The total number of people employed to monitor opinion and censor content on the internet a role euphemistically known as internet public opinion analyst was estimated at 2 million in 2013. They are employed across government propaganda departments, private corporations and news outlets. One 2016 Harvard study estimated that the Chinese government fabricates and posts approximately 448m comments on social media annually. A considerable amount of censorship is conducted through the manual deletion of posts, and anestimated 100,000 people are employed by both the government and private companies to do just this.

Private companies also play an important role infacilitating internet censorship in China. Since commercial internet providers are so involved in censoring the sites that they host, internet scholar Guobin Yang argues that it may not be too much of astretch to talk about the privatisation of internet content control. The process is made simpler by the fact that several major technology entrepreneurs also hold political office. For example, Robin Li of Baidu is a member of the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, an advisory legislature, while Lei Jun, founder and CEOof mobile phone giant Xiaomi, is arepresentative ofthe National Peoples Congress.

Yet Xis growing control over the internet does not come without costs. An internet that does not work efficiently or limits access to information impedes economic growth. Chinas internet is notoriously unreliable, and ranks 91st in the world for speed. As New Yorker writer Evan Osnos asked in discussing thetransformation of the Chinese internet during Xistenure: How many countries in 2015 have an internet connection to the world that is worse than itwas a year ago?

Scientific innovation, particularly prized by the Chinese leadership, may also be at risk. After the VPN crackdown, a Chinese biologist published an essay thatbecame popular on social media, entitled Why Do Scientists Need Google? He wrote: If a country wants tomake this many scientists take out time from the short duration of their professional lives to research technology for climbing over the Great Firewall and toinstall and to continually upgrade every kind of software for routers, computers, tablets and mobile devices, no matter that this behaviour wastes a great amount of time; it is all completely ridiculous.

More difficult to gauge is the cost the Chinese leadership incurs to its credibility. Web users criticising the Great Firewall have used puns to mock Chinas censorship system. Playing off the fact that the phrases strong nation and wall nation share a phonetic pronunciation in Chinese (qiangguo), some began usingthe phrase wall nation to refer to China. Those responsible for seeking to control content have also been widely mocked. When Fang opened an account onSina Weibo in December 2010, he quickly closed the account after thousands of online users left expletive-laden messages accusing him of being a government hack. Censors at Sina Weibo blocked Fang Binxing as asearch term; one Twitter user wrote: Kind of poetic, really, the blocker, blocked. When Fang delivered a speech at Wuhan University in central China in 2011, a few students pelted him with eggs and a pair of shoes.

Nonetheless, the government seems willing to bear the economic and scientific costs, as well as potential damage to its credibility, if it means more control over the internet. For the international community, Beijings cyber-policy is a sign of the challenge that a more powerful China presents to the liberal world order, which prioritises values such as freedom of speech. It also reflects the paradox inherent in Chinas efforts topromote itself as a champion of globalisation, whilesimultaneously advocating a model of internet sovereignty and closing its cyber-world to information and investment from abroad.

Adapted from The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping andtheNew Chinese State by Elizabeth C Economy, publishedby Oxford University Press and available atguardianbookshop.com

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Red list research finds 26,000 global species under extinction threat

IUCN fears planet is entering sixth wave of extinctions with research from Australia revealing more risks to reptiles

More than 26,000 of the worlds species are now threatened, according to the latest red list assessment of the natural world, adding to fears the planet is entering a sixth wave of extinctions.

New research, particularly in Australia, has widened the scope of the annual stocktake, which is compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and revealed the growing range of risks to flora and fauna.

Nineteen of the species previously on the list have moved to a higher level of concern. They include the precious stream toad Ansonia smeagol (named after Gollum in Lord of the Rings), which is being decimated by tourist pollution in Malaysia; two types of Japanese earthworm that are threatened by habitat loss, agrochemicals, and radioactive fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster; and the Bartle Frere cool-skink, a slinky Australian reptile whose habitat has shrunk as a result of global warming to a 200-metre band at the peak of the tallest mountain in Queensland.

The threats are not limited to faraway creatures with exotic names. Scientists have warned the loss of biodiversity is more of a threat than climate change because it erodes the earths capacity to provide clean air, fresh water, food and a stable weather system.

Compilers of the red list said the latest toll showed the onslaught on biodiversity.

This reinforces the theory that we are moving into a period when extinctions are taking place at a much higher pace than the natural background rate. We are endangering the life support systems of our planet and putting the future of our own species in jeopardy, said Craig Hilton-Taylor, head of the IUCN red list unit in Cambridge. This is our window of opportunity to act we have the knowledge and tools on what needs to be done, but now need everyone, governments, private sector and civil society, to escalate actions to prevent the decline and loss of species.

Part of the rise is due to the steady expansion of the IUCN red list which is compiled with the collaboration of thousands of experts around the world. It now includes 93,577 species, of which 26,197 are classified as vulnerable, critical or endangered.

The
The grassland earless dragon from Australia is under threat. Photograph: Will Osborne

Since last year, six species have been declared extinct, taking the total to 872. Another 1,700 species are listed as critically endangered, possibly extinct.

Among the most avoidable declines was that of the Greater Mascarene flying fox, which moved from vulnerable to endangered after the government of Mauritius carried out a cull at the request of fruit farmers who argued the bats were eating their crops. The IUCN is now working with both sides to find a compromise that will allow the species to recover without hurting livelihoods.

In the Caribbean, the tiny population of Jamaican hutia a rodent has been fragmented by expanding settlements. This makes it harder for the small mammal to mate and raises the risk of predation by dogs and cats. This highlights how humanity and a handful of domesticated animals are decimating other species. A recent research revealed the worlds 7.6 billion people represent just 0.01% of all living things, yet have caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants, while pets and livestock abound.

New studies are constantly widening the range of the red list. A focus of this years report was Australian reptiles, 7% of which are threatened with extinction. This is mainly due to climate change and invasive species, particularly the poisonous cane toad and feral cats, which are estimated to kill about 600 million reptiles each year. Among those suffering alarming declines are the grassland earless dragon and Mitchells water monitor.

On a more positive note, the Quito stubfoot toad was among four amphibian species rediscovered in South America after fears they had gone extinct. Overall, however, frogs and toads have shown some of the sharpest declines along with coral and orchids.

The
The Greater Mascarene flying fox is endangered after the government of Mauritius carried out a cull when fruit farmers said the bats were eating their crops. Photograph: Martin D Parr

To counter such trends, Cristiana Paca Palmer, the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, says the world needs a global biodiversity pact equivalent in scale and stature to the Paris climate agreement. She wants nature reserves, ocean protected areas, restoration projects and sustainable land use regions to be steadily expanded by 10% every decade so that half the world is nature friendly by 2050.

But most nations are off course to meet even the Aichi targets for 2020. At a meeting of conservation policymakers in Montreal, Jane Smart, the global director of IUCNs biodiversity conservation group, urged countries to fast track action. Todays update of the IUCN red list of threatened species shows that urgent action is needed to conserve threatened species.

This and other proposals will be discussed at global biodiversity talks in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt this November and then in 2020 in Beijing.

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More tigers live in US back yards than in the wild. Is this a catastrophe?

It is easier to buy a tiger in some states than to adopt a rescue dog and only 6% of the animals are housed in approved facilities. This is bad for the big cats and for humans

According to estimates, the population of tigers in peoples back gardens in the US outnumbers those in the wild. Seven thousand of the big cats live in US captivity, whereas, despite increases, there are as few as 3,890 wild tigers worldwide. Most of the captive animals are kept in unregulated conditions, as the BBC reported last week. Only 6% are housed in zoos or facilities approved by the US Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The rest live in private breeding facilities, back yards, even urban apartments. In some states, it is easier to buy a tiger than to adopt a rescue dog.

Leigh Henry, a species policy expert at the World Wildlife Fund, says the situation threatens the work that has been done to conserve wild populations in Asia. A patchwork of regulations governs these tigers, meaning no agency can say how many there are, when they are born, when they die and what happens to their valuable parts when they do. Illegal trade in tiger parts remains the primary threat to tigers in the wild, and the last thing we want is parts from captive tigers helping sustain or even fuel this black market.

This is bad for humans, too. In 2011, an owner of exotic pets in Zanesville, Ohio, released his menagerie into the community; 18 tigers and other animals were shot to protect people. In 2001, Texas was forced to pass a law demanding owners register their animals after a pet tiger ripped off a young boys arm. Since 1990, there have been hundreds of dangerous incidents involving big cats in the US. Four children lost their lives and dozens of others lost limbs or suffered other often traumatic injuries. Nineteen adults have been killed and scores have been mauled, says Debbie Leahy, the manager for captive wildlife protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Many captive big cats are kept in inhumane conditions, pose a threat to the community, create a burden for law enforcement agencies and sanctuaries, and compromise conservation efforts.

The keeping of charismatic megafaunae as status symbols sits worryingly close to the mentality of killing wild animals for sport. The distinction between the wild and the tamed has been blurred. Most of us see wild animals only in TV documentaries, so they become commodities or experiences.

A tiger in your back garden is far removed from William Blakes unknowable and majestic creature burning bright. But even Blake wrote at a time when the Exeter Exchange on the Strand in London displayed tigers, lions and elephants in a first-floor department store, visited by Lord Byron and Jane Austen.

As we reduce and affect their natural habitats, will we be left with big cats as flea-bitten, oversized but potentially deadly kittens?

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‘A ticket to the next life’: the lavish Buddhist dog funerals of Bangkok

Full funeral rites from the monks of Bangkoks Wat Krathum Suea Pla temple used to be for humans only until a new and lucrative market emerged

Fou Fou always liked the good things in life. The pomeranian puppy had a heart of gold and a taste for expensive grilled pork. Varunthip Manthin loved the tiny dog as much as any of her sons.

When she discovered him dead in the road having been hit by a motorbike, she was inconsolable. Despite her grief Manthin knew one thing: she would give him a funeral worthy of her own child.

And so, on a Saturday morning, Fou Fous body was brought to a small chapel in Bangkoks Wat Krathum Suea Pla temple, laid in a fuchsia pink coffin, set among a kitsch display of plastic flowers, and sent into eternity with the blessings of a monk.

The monks of this temple once only offered such funeral rites for deceased humans. However, that has recently changed as a new market became apparent: beloved pets.

Buddhists believe that as part of the samsara life and death cycle, dogs and cats as well as elephants and horses can potentially be reincarnated as humans. By giving their pets full funeral rites including prayers for forgiveness, a blessing by a monk, filling the coffin with (fake) gold and tickets to the next lifefollowed by full cremation many owners hope to give them a better chance of returning to this world in a higher form.

Fou

Phatcharakorn

Phatcharakorn

A

  • Varunthip Manthin and her daughter Phatcharakorn Likanrapichitkun during the funeral of their dog, Fou Fou. Photographs: Cory Wright

I feel complete now that I can hold a funeral ceremony for him like I would for any of my children; I am a mother doing everything she can to honour my son, said Manthin through floods of tears, as she looked down at Fou Fou and scattered petals over his body, cozily tucked up inside the open pink casket.

I definitely believe that Fou Fou will be reborn in the next life as one of my children because he was just so different from other kinds of dogs; he was just so clever. He understood me better than anyone.

After an emotional ceremony during which Manthin and her daughter, Phatcharakorn Likanrapichitkun, 20, wore black and wept freely as the monk offered the last Buddhist rites and laid a sandalwood flower on the body Fou Fou was taken for cremation. As his body was enveloped by flames in the vast marble oven, Manthin lamented that Fou Fous best friend, the family cat, could not be with them to say goodbye.

Phatcharakorn

  • Phatcharakorn Likanrapichitkun says a final goodbye to Fou Fou before he is consigned to the flames.

According to Theerawat Saehan, who organises the pet funerals, business is booming in Bangkok. The temple now performs up to 300 a month, and with each funeral costing 3,000 Thai baht (70) for animals weighing under 20kgs (44lbs), and 4,000 baht for heavier animals, it is proving extremely lucrative. Most are dogs, though around 10% are cats, 5% rabbits and 3% reptiles; funerals have also been held for goldfish, catfish, monkeys, iguanas, a rooster, pigs and a small horse.

The idea came to Saehan, who used to own a pet grooming shop, after he was invited to the funeral of one of his canine customers. It felt like a really sad occasion, not a proper funeral at all just the burning and destroying the body of someone they loved like family. So I felt I must do something, he said.

He approached the Wat Krathum Suea Pla temple about holding a proper Buddhist ceremony with the monks, and managed to get their agreement. Suddenly I had so many people contacting me, asking for me to arrange funerals for their pets too, he said. We believe in the next life, so this ceremony is to help with reincarnation, to give them what they need.

As well as the funerals, monthly boat trips for scattering the ashes are also offered. Over 120 families taking part each month, ceremonially casting their pets remains over the Chao Phraya River.

Part

During

  • During the final stages of the ceremony family members transfer water from one container to another in order to dedicate merit for the deceased pet, to reduce bad karma. Photographs: Cory Wright

While most are satisfied with just one monk and a half-hour ceremony, the most extravagant pet funeral Saehan has been called upon to arrange was for a golden retriever belonging to a Thai businessman. Sixty monks and 80 guests attended the event, which featured a custom-made coffin and a motorcade funeral procession, at a total cost of 400,000 baht (9,300).

But Saehan was most moved by the ceremony for Daam the street dog, who had lived in a Bangkok vegetable market. Opening up the envelope which contained the payment, he was moved to see it was made up of hundreds of small coins and bills, all donated by dozens of market stallholders. I felt like this dog, even though he was a street dog, must have been very good to have been loved by so many people who wanted him to have a proper funeral, said Saehan.

On this particular Saturday, those overseeing the pet funerals barely have time to draw breath as a steady stream of heartbroken owners turn up at the temple, clutching their dogs, limbs stiff with rigor mortis, in towels or boxes.

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Mountain bikers in fatal cougar attack did everything right, authorities say

Surviving cyclist in satisfactory condition in hospital as official says bikers tried to scare the mountain lion and then hit it

A mountain biker who was killed by a cougar near Seattle and his friend who escaped after the animal attacked him did everything right, authorities have said.

The two men were riding on a trail in the Cascade Mountain foothills on Saturday when the mountain lion began following them. Authorities said they did everything state guidelines advise: getting off their bikes, making noise and trying to scare the animal away. One even smacked it with his bike, after it charged.

The cougar ran off but returned and attacked when the men got back on their bikes. It bit one the survivor on the head and shook him. The second cyclist ran and the animal dropped the first victim and pounced, killing its victim and dragging him back to what appeared to be its den, Sgt Ryan Abbott of King county sheriffs department said.

They did everything they were supposed to do, Abbott said on Sunday. But something was wrong with this cougar.

The survivor was still in hospital on Sunday. A Harborview Medical Center spokeswoman, Susan Gregg, said the 31-year-old man was in satisfactory condition.

Authorities would not confirm the names of the cyclists until the man who died, a 32-year-old Seattle resident, was formally identified. That was expected on Monday.

The attack near North Bend, 30 miles east of Seattle, was the first fatal cougar attack in Washington state in 94 years. The first man managed to get on his bike and ride off, looking back to see his friend being dragged into the trees, Abbott said. The cyclist rode for two miles before he could get a cellphone signal to call 911.

When rescuers arrived, it took about half an hour to find the second victim, who was dead with the cougar on top of him in what appeared to be a den-like area. An officer shot at the animal, which ran off. Several hours later, state fish and wildlife agents used dogs to track the cougar to a nearby tree. They shot and killed it.

Authorities planned to match DNA taken from the animal with DNA from the victims to be certain they killed the right cougar. They also plan to examine the cougar to see what might have been wrong with it.

There are an estimated 2,000 cougars in Washington. Until the 1960s, the state paid hunters a bounty for killing them. Now it allows 250 to be hunted in 50 designated zones. While they are sometimes known to kill livestock or pets, and though one even found its way into a park in Seattle in 2009, encounters with people are rare.

Attacks have become more common, though, as people encroach on the animals territory. In North America, there have been about 25 deadly attacks and 95 non-fatal attacks reported in the past century, but more attacks have been reported in the US west and Canada over the past 20 years than in the previous 80.

Experts say people encountering the big cats in the wild should stop and pick up small children immediately. Because running and rapid movements can trigger the animals prey drive, people should not run. Instead they should face the cougar, speak firmly and slowly back away, appearing as large as possible by standing on a rock or stump or opening a sweatshirt or jacket.

People should also become more assertive if the cougar does not back off. If it does attack, people should fight back.

The idea is to convince the cougar that you are not prey but a potential danger, Washington state fish and wildlife advises on its website.

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Is Russia killing stray dogs ahead of the World Cup?

After the mass culls before the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, animal rights activists in the World Cup cities of Sochi and Yekaterinburg fear history could be repeating itself

Earlier this year, Russias deputy prime minister, Vitaly Mutko, met with animal rights activist to discuss their fears that stray dogs would be exterminated ahead of the football World Cup. Mutko pledged to stop all cruelty, and said he had ordered the construction of shelters for stray animals.

But activists allege dog killings have continued and that Mutkos words are meaningless as city governments are not compelled to follow recommendations made at a federal level.

If you put it in plain Russian, they said sod off, were going to carry on killing, says Yekaterina Dmitriyeva, the head of NGO the Foundation for the Protection of Urban Animals, who was present at the meeting. She set up the popular Facebook group, Bloody Fifa-2018, last year.

Dogs
Dogs sleep outside a metro station in Moscows financial district. In Moscow, despite concern from activists, killing of strays is rare. Photograph: Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

There are approximately two million strays in Russias 11 World Cup host cities and it has been estimated that local authorities will spend up to 119 million on catching, caging, sterilising and euthanising animals this year.But activists warn that image-conscious officials are trying to remove strays from the streets by fair means or foul before the arrival of players and fans next month.

While contracts to regulate the number of stray dogs are won by private companies in Russia annually, there is some evidence that the size of these tenders have been increased this year. An online petition launched by Dmitriyeva late last year calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to cancel contracts ahead of the World Cup has almost two million signatures, but there has been no response from the Russian leader, who is known to have several pet dogs and often speaks about his love for animals.

Russian
Russian president Vladimir Putin with his dogs Yume and Buffy. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Though Russian cities policies about stray animals differ, these contracts can be extremely lucrative. In the World Cup host city Yekaterinburg, for example, the state is paying 380,000 for the capture of 4,650 dogs. Some Russians have even advertised their properties online as housing for dogs during the World Cup, hoping for a financial windfall as the companies that won tenders struggle to cope.

Russian officials deny euthanasia is state policy, and some NGOs say the same. The allegations of mass extermination are just gossip, says Yekaterina Ublinskaya, deputy director of Right to Life, an animal rights NGO operating in the western exclave of Kaliningrad, which won a 21,400 contract to provide temporary accommodation for dogs picked up off the streets for the World Cup. There are some instances of poisoning, but these are private incidents and there is no mass poisoning.

But even top animal welfare officials have admitted there have been cases of animal cruelty linked to the World Cup preparations.

Vladimir Burmatov, the head of the Russian parliaments committee on ecology and environment protection, was horrified when he visited a dog shelter in Yekaterinburg earlier this year. The effect from what I saw was very painful. Malnourished dogs and conditions that you couldnt even call satisfactory, Burmatov wrote afterwards.

He said a large quantity of dogs were being put down unnecessarily for 1.20 each a price strongly indicating the methods used were likely not humane. He also revealed that the company running the shelter was not an animal specialist organisation, but focused on rubbish collection and disposal.

Fears about the treatment of animals ahead of the World Cup have been fuelled by activists experience of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi when they say homeless dogs were exterminated in a coordinated campaign.
The fate of Sochis strays became an international scandal before the tournament as photographs appeared of dogs dying in the streets and activists desperately tried to evacuate them from the city. In protest, some Olympic athletes
adopted Sochi dogs and took them back to their respective countries and, in one case, dedicated an Instagram account to them.

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A stray dog in Sochi ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Photograph: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

There are fears that what happened in Sochi could be repeated in all Russias World Cup cities, as well as in Sochi itself, which is hosting World Cup matches including those of footballing giants Germany and Spain. We are scared there will be a repeat of what happened before the Olympics when, over a week, there were mass poisonings and shootings, said Ksenia, a Sochi-based animal rights activist.

Documents on the state procurement website show that Basya Service, the company that carried out the culls before the Sochi Olympics, has won four contracts to catch 3,501 stray dogs and cats in 2018. Angry officials in a village in the nearby Tuapse district pledged to tear up a similar agreement with the company earlier this year after the remains of dead dogs were found by the side of the road.

The mayor of Sochi, Anatoly Pakhomov, has denied the city has authorised the killing of stray animals and says there are no plans to do so before the World Cup. Basya Service also denies that it uses inhumane methods.

But Sochi activists are calling on their local networks to watch out for those targeting stray dogs and to film, obstruct or call the police about any animal cruelty.

The situation is less volatile in other World Cup host cities. In the western city of Kaliningrad and the Volga city of Nizhny Novgorod both due to host the English team during the group stages local activists say authorities use a Trap, Neuter, Return policy . In Moscow, killings are rare.
In Kaliningrad, Ublinskaya said clearing dogs from the streets during the World Cup was actually in the animals best interests. During such events, there are a lot of people not always sober and it is best to have animals as far away as possible.

But activists point out that euthanasia programmes allow much greater scope for corruption: while it is relatively simple to check whether a stray dog has been sterilised and tagged, it is almost impossible to tell if dogs have been killed and whether corners have been cut.

Its a catastrophe, says activist Dmitriyeva. How do they choose who lives and who dies?

More on life inside Russian cities hosting the World Cup can be found here, or follow Guardian Cities on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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Illegal online sales of endangered wildlife rife in Europe

Exclusive: Study finds 12,000 items worth $4m, including ivory, live orangutans and a huge number of reptiles and birds for the pet trade

The online sale of endangered and threatened wildlife is rife across Europe, a new investigation has revealed, ranging from live cheetahs, orangutans and bears to ivory, polar bear skins and many live reptiles and birds.

Researchers from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) spent six weeks tracking adverts on 100 online marketplaces in four countries, the UK, Germany, France and Russia. They found more than 5,000 adverts offering to sell almost 12,000 items, worth $4m (3m) in total. All the specimens were species in which trade is restricted or banned by the global Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species.

Wildlife groups have worked with online marketplaces including eBay, Gumtree and Preloved to cut the trade and the results of the survey are an improvement compared to a previous Ifaw report in 2014. In March, 21 technology giants including Google, eBay, Etsy, Facebook and Instagram became part of the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, and committed to bring the online illegal trade in threatened species down by 80% by 2020.

It is great to see we are making really significant inroads into disrupting and dismantling the trade, said Tania McCrea-Steele at Ifaw. But the scale of the trade is still enormous.

Almost 20% of the adverts were for ivory and while the number had dropped significantly in the UK and France, a surge was seen in Germany, where traders developed new code words to mask their sales. It is a war of attrition and we can never let our guard down, said McCrea-Steele. The UK is implementing a stricter ban on ivory sales and the EU is under pressure from African nations to follow suit.

Reptiles for the pet trade were the single biggest group, making up 37% of the adverts, with live turtles and tortoises being sold in large numbers. Endangered birds were also common, making up 31% of the adverts. Parrots were the most frequently advertised, but almost 500 owls and 350 birds of prey were also offered.

Most of the adverts of large, live animals were found in Russia, where big cats or bears are regarded by some as status symbols. Leopards, cheetahs and jaguars were all offered for sale in Russia, as were more than 130 live primates, including orangutans, lemurs and gibbons.

However, seven live primates were also found in UK adverts and one live bear advert was found in Germany. More commonly offered for sale in the UK were big cat skins from lions, tigers and leopards, as well as polar bear skins.

Some endangered species can be legally traded, for example if they are bred in captivity. But it is often difficult to tell which sales are legal, as few adverts provide sufficient information, such as certificate numbers. The legal trade can serve as cover for the illegal trade, warned McCrea-Steele.

The Ifaw researchers selected 327 of the adverts that appeared most clearly illegal and have shared the information with law enforcement authorities. McCrea-Steele said that online wildlife trading has become big business: I have seen investigations where enforcers walk into a room of someone they have identified as trading online and they have floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall animal body parts rooms of death, which are deeply disturbing.

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Escaped lions and tigers back in cages at zoo in Germany

Lnebach residents had been told to stay indoors after animals escaped during flash flood

Five big cats two lions, two tigers and a jaguar escaped their enclosures in a flooded German zoo for several hours of Friday but were later reportedly back in their cages.

Local residents near the zoo close to the Luxembourg border were told to stay indoors while the predators were on the loose.

A bear, which also broke out of its enclosure at the Eifel zoo in Lnebach, was shot dead, a spokesman for local authorities said. Officials were verifying if the fences and cages were secure, said the spokesman.

Overnight heavy thunderstorms had sparked flash floods in the area and completely flooded the private zoo, which is located on a riverbank. The high waters had damaged the cages, allowing the animals to go on the run.

Local newspaper Trier Volksfreund said the big cats were still within the 30-hectare (74-acre) grounds of the zoo when they were finally located by a drone.

Emergency services including firefighters and police were deployed to hunt down the predators, while inhabitants of the town were told to stay indoors and to keep their windows and doors closed.

On Friday many residents were busy clearing muddy water from their cellars and removing trees downed by the severe storm. Part of a local motorway had also been blocked off due to high waters.

The zoo is home to about 400 animals, also including a Siberian tiger, and is owned by the Wallpott family.

Fridays escape came two years after a similar case in eastern Germany, when two lions broke out of their cages at the Leipzig zoo. One of the lions was shot dead while the other was eventually brought back into captivity.

In 2015, an orangutan was shot dead after escaping from the Duisburg zoo, and a bear that had escaped from Osnabrck was killed in 2017.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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Dutch island wants its rabbits to breed like

Biodiversity concerns prompt emergency plan to use ferrets to round up the few rabbits left

It is not a pastime for which rabbits usually require much encouragement. But a mystery depletion in numbers on the Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog has led to an emergency effort to coax the local population into breeding well, like rabbits.

Ferrets are being deployed to chase the reluctant remaining animals out of their warrens and into the hands of conservationists, who are bringing them together, safe from the stress of predators, in the hope that romance will blossom.

It is believed that the number of rabbits on Schiermonnikoog, or Grey Monk island, has been declining for the last three years, although conservationists are only working from the memory of the 947 people who live there.

The concern is that the unexplained decrease could have a negative effect on the biodiversity of Schiermonnikoog, a 9.9-mile-long nature reserve off the northern coastline, which attracts 300,000 visitors a year.

The rabbits play a vital role in nibbling away at the invasive American black cherry, a variety of the woody plant Prunus serotina that gets in the way of other species. Birds on the island are also known to use the rabbit warrens to lay eggs.

Schiermonnikoog
Schiermonnikoog is a 9.9 mile-long nature reserve off the northern coastline that attracts 300,000 visitors a year. Photograph: Getty Images/Robert Harding World Imagery

Jan Willem Zwart, a forester on Schiemonnikoog who is working on the project, said the fall in the rabbit population was already noticeable. Rabbits eat grasses and saplings that have just come up. That prevents the landscape from becoming closed. We do not know exactly how many rabbits are still here, but we clearly see that the vegetation on the island is increasing, he said. It has been very difficult to find the rabbits. And that is what we are doing at the moment. It is just the beginning.

The rabbit population has traditionally gone up and down, he said, often due to outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as myxomatosis, a virus introduced into Europe in the 1950s as an agent to control numbers. But the consistently low number of baby rabbits in recent years remains a mystery. Those surviving on the island have largely congregated around the village, Zwart added.

It might be the wild cats in the dunes that are keeping the numbers down, he said. We dont know. But we are going to catch a number of rabbits on the island. In the village there are still enough, they like to dig under the houses. In the long run, we want to expand them elsewhere on the island, where they are needed.

We want to do that in an animal-friendly way. That is why we are going to use ferreting. The ferret goes into the rabbit hole and chases them out. We will catch them there and put them in a paddock, a safe place away from predators.

It is hoped that in a secure area nature will follow its course, albeit with a little human help.

The project, aided by the Dutch national heritage organisation, the Natuurmonumenten, considered importing rabbits but the paperwork was deemed overwhelming because a permit is required for every animal.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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