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Otto Warmbier's death reminds us of North Korea's brutality

The country's treatment of the US student shows its growing unpredictability.

The tragic death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier yesterday, 17 months after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in North Korea for stealing a propaganda sign from the Yanggakdo International Hotel, is a shocking reminder of the sheer brutality of the regime.

Before being released last week in a comatose state, Warmbier’s last public appearance was at his kangaroo court trial in Pyongyang, which is reported to have lasted for under an hour.

The distress which he was under is nothing short of heartbreaking. A high-flying student at the University of Virginia, Warmbier was widely popular and "had never been in trouble in his life". He had been offered a job once he graduated and had travelled widely, including a summer spent studying at the London School of Economics.

The details of what happened are still unclear and may never be verified. We know that Warmbier was released last week, with North Korean officials claiming he had been in a coma for more than a year after being given a sleeping pill when he contracted botulism from food.

In the US, examinations found no evidence of Warmbier suffering from botulism, with experts saying the most likely cause of his condition was cardiopulmonary arrest. His parents said their son was “brutalized and terrorised” by the regime.

Bill Richardson, the veteran US diplomat who has secured previous hostage releases, simply said: "In no uncertain terms, North Korea must explain the causes of his coma." Senator John McCain alleged on Twitter that Warmbier, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, had been tortured and murdered.

North Korea did not tell US officials, in private delegations or otherwise, about Warmbier’s condition before his release – meaning his parents had no idea their son had been in a coma for more than a year without receiving proper medical care.

It is not uncommon for US citizens who have been arrested to suffer physical abuse in North Korea. Robert Park, a Christian missionary who arrived in North Korea in 2009, said he was mistreated, while US journalist Laura Ling reported being hit in the head during her captivity.

However, it is very unusual for a citizen to be seriously harmed, and Warmbier's fate highlights the increasing unpredictability of North Korea under Kim Jong-un. This has already been demonstrated by the country's relentless missile testing, showing it has little regard for international opinion or law.

Some have pointed to Warmbier’s release, even in his terrible condition, as a success story for diplomacy. No doubt US officials worked hard behind the scenes to ensure Warmbier was able to pass away peacefully with his family.

The focus now turns to the three other Americans detained in North Korea: Kim Dong-chul, a businessman arrested in 2015, and Tony Kim and Kim Hak-Song, both of whom worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the country’s only privately funded university. It is vital that international public opinion and diplomatic efforts push for their safe release.

Tour firms taking US citizens into the country should also re-examine whether, in doing so, they are endangering the lives of those who are often caught up as pawns in a wider political game. For many years, the regime has used detained US citizens as bargaining chips, and as a means to move the media agenda away from other issues. 

Young Pioneer Tours, which arranged Warmbier's trip to North Korea, has announced it will no longer take US citizens there. Other such companies should take note.

In amongst the trivialisation of North Korea, Warmbier is a reminder of the regime’s true face. He was an individual with a thirst for life, who loved people and wanted to see the world – even North Korea – in a positive way. Instead, he has lost his life, primarily for being an American citizen.

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.