FT Censorship Series

FT has recently run a series of articles on internet censorship. Each touches on an interesting theme.

TOR can be used for both anonymity and censorship circumvention, but while “anonymous” proxies can be used for censorship circumvention they not really anonymous. A “proxy” may sheild your identity from the website you are visiting but it does not hide you or anything you are doing from the owner of the proxy. And if the proxy is not encrypted — most of the “open” proxies are not — then anyone monitoring Internet traffic can also see everything you do through the proxy. TOR, on the other hand, encrypts your traffic and hides what you are doing from the TOR network itself, it is hardly comparable to “open” proxies. I have not looked closely at GPass, but it appears to be an encrypted Socks proxy, and if so, is not anonymous — all traffic through it can be viewed by the owners of GPass. (And you don’t have to use Swedish Google, Google just redirects you to the localized version, you can always click the google.com link and use google.com).

It is not only “repressive” governments that are increasing their level of filtering and employing new techniques (new techniques for the country, not for filtering in general), countries such as India and Thailand are filtering as well. There is a tendency to analyze all regulations and restriction in particular countries, such as China and Iran, out of context. For example, there is a tendency to think of China’s Internte cafe’s as places teeming with cyberdissdents and therefore when China closed many and instituted restrictions after a deadly fire in an unlicensed cafe many interpretted it as a crackdown on free expression. I think that the Iranian bandwidth limitation story may prove to go this way as well — it’s more likely to do with porn than with politics. But, hey, I could be wrong.

Human rights groups and NGO’s worldwide have long protested that they are often the victims of state surveillance, computer breakins and denial of service attacks. ONI has documented an attack on Kyrgyz opposition newspaper websites during that countries elections in 2005 and there have been reports of such Denial of Service attacks during elections in Belarus as well. What is new is not the technique but the correlation between the target — important opposition website — and the time period — during an election. Denial of Service disrupts access to a website for everyone — as opposed to filtering which would only block it from the affected location. It also provides deniability on the part of the government. In the Kyrgyz case, the attacks appear to have been conducted by a “botnet for hire” leaving the conection to the government circumstantial. This is a trend we will probably see more of especially in countries that don’t have a national filtering system (or officially filter very little content).

A good article about the forthcoming ONI study, however, some instances listed as “new censorship techniques” are not really new at all. They may be new to certain countries, but they are standard filtering techniques. And there is not yet evidence that Zimbabwe is censoring the Internet, let alone using the same techniques as China. I have heard reports about this, but even if they are true, it has not been implemented.

One comment.

  1. It seems to me that the Chinese authorities have been relatively skillful in opening up the ‘superhighway’ while maintaining censorship – i could imagine other governments looking to emulate them, so i found those reports of a China-Zimbabwe link quite plausible. Interesting that you say there’s no evidence of Zimbabwe censoring the internet,

    Would it be possible to check if one government was using a technology solution developed by another i.e. do the specific filtering techs have enough of a ‘fingerprint’? Or could you draw an inference from a holistic analysis of way filtering was implemented (both tech and non-tech) to a point where you could say ‘country A has been learning from country B’?

    This could be one part of a dynamic visualisation of how filtering is spreading and widening. Will the forthcoming ONI study be expressed on maps or through other visualisations? And will the data be available (e.g. through an API) so it could be used in mashups?

    I have a little suggestion at Gapminder and net censorship :)


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