China's Foxconn worker riot and Iran's shadow Internet

A group of protestors from SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour) demonstrate outside the Foxconn annual general meeting (AGM) in Hong Kong on May 18, 2011.

With all this information technology at our disposal, it's striking how getting to the truth of a matter can still be so tough. Two tech stories from opposite sides of the world today remind us how even in 2012 the flow of information is still tightly controlled.

First, Iran, where authorities seem to be restricting access to some big websites. Cyrus Farivar is an editor at the online technology publication, Ars Technica. 

"There were reports that Iran had blocked Gmail and Google," says Cyrus Farivar, an editor at Ars Technica, "thereby cutting off Iranian internet users from using those popular internet services."

The reason for the interruption? Some Iranian media report the temporary restriction was in response to protests over the inflammatory "Innocence of Muslims" video. Others in Iran suggest it's a technical glitch, something Google denies. Outside experts see the possibility that the disruption of Gmail and Google is part of an Iranian government idea to eventually set up a separate, but limited Internet for inside the country. Farivar, who has written today on the topic, says Iranians might be pressured to use the limited net, even though he strongly doubts the regular web would be cut off completely.

"I don't' think that it's actually going to happen in that way," says Farivar. "I don't think that Iran is brash enough or stupid enough to truly cut itself off from the entire internet in the way that say North Korea might do or has done.

North Korea maybe not, but big brother? Maybe. Iran-specific internet and email options would likely be aggressively monitored by the authorities.


Now part two: This one from China, that brawl-slash-unrest-slash-riot involving employees of one of that country's huge technology factories the other night. The tip-off about the story came via Chinese social media sites, with claims online that it all started when a security guard hit a Foxconn employee. New York Times Shanghai Bureau Chief David Barboza has been covering this. But it's been difficult to get a sense of what really happened.

"I don't really like to use things from social media in my story unless I really, really have to," says Barboza. "Because I can't really know."

Reporters can't take without corroboration the company's statement that the incident-which involved about 2000 people-- was started by a personal dispute and was not work-related. Barboza observes that it's tough to  define personal and work issues when 79-thousand people work and live at a factory complex.

"They are like cities, like city-states," he says. "And they have their own dormitories, their own banks, their own little restaurants, their own work sites.  In the "city" of some of these facilities you may have the Dell building, the Apple building, and the Microsoft building and these are really conglomerates manufacturing conglomerates."

Which makes it a challenge to track down just what the Taiyuan plant in Central China was making and for whom. The center of production for one of the season's most-coveted pieces of consumer electronics--the iPhone 5--is reportedly centered at a Foxconn plant elsewhere. The new iPhone's carton, by the way, reads "Designed by Apple in California" and doesn't list any specific Chinese factory locations.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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