BIG BROTHER is now very big. Both Russia and China have provided vivid illustrations in recent days of their intent to choke off online speech and expression, offering fresh evidence of what it is like to live in a world where jokes, instant messages and funny videos can easily be censored, and where apps vanish overnight. Moscow and Beijing are taking their assault on freedom of expression to absurd new levels.

On April 10 in China, the state overseer of radio and television ordered the permanent closure of the Neihan Duanzi app, a primarily mobile app where users shared inside jokes and absurdist videos. According to the human rights monitor China Change, the app encompassed a variety of short video sketches — funny, moving, musical, playful, cute — as well as genius retorts, hilarious images and humorous sketches of “all taste and manner.” The app had 21.7 million users as of last summer, and they tended to be young people, calling themselves “skit friends,” greeting each other with coded messages in public and making videos exchanging the messages. One of the videos shows dozens of cars lined up in formation at night, sounding the calling card of the community: “Beep. Beep-beep.”

China’s rulers, who built a Great Firewall to block applications such as Google and Facebook from abroad, have struggled to impose control on messaging apps inside the country, applying repressive techniques ranging from censorship of keywords to harsher means such as outright closure. The ban on Neihan Duanzi was sparked by what the authorities said was an “improper orientation and vulgar style.” The app’s corporate boss issued an apology that the content “was incommensurate with socialist core values.” In other words, the Communist Party pooh-bahs did not laugh at the joke culture. The “skit friends” were forming a cohesive community, and the threat that they could act in unison was probably enough to frighten the party, which retains a monopoly on power.

In Russia on April 16, the communications overseer, Roskomnadzor, ordered Internet service providers to block the messaging app Telegram because it refused to provide access to encryption to the Federal Security Service, or FSB, a successor to the Soviet KGB, that would allow the agency to read messages. Telegram has 13 million Russian users. In the attempt to shut it down, Russian authorities for the first time blocked large chunks of Internet Protocol addresses, known as subnets, unleashing chaos on the Russian Internet. Meanwhile, Telegram managed to stay online. Outside the FSB headquarters, the activist Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot staged a protest, sending aloft hundreds of paper airplanes, the symbol of Telegram. She was arrested and sentenced to 100 hours of community service for violating a law on public assembly.

What does it tell us about Russian and Chinese leaders that they see jokes, videos and paper airplanes as threats?

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