The coming age of internet censorshipWikileaks; June 17, 2009
Today, Germany's lower house passed the first Western national internet censorship law. As every news organization, political newsletter and discussion between friends relocates onto the internet, censorship systems are being rolled out to interpose themselves between every communicator and their audience.
By Claire Ulrich (translated from the French, Les censeurs du net)
In Internet history, 1994-2004 was the era of the pioneers. 2004-2007 was the era of the merchants. Now we’re entering the era of the bullies. Everywhere in the world, sites are going dark, arrests are increasing, more people are going to prison. The Web just celebrated its 20th birthday. Nobody used to take it seriously, but those days are gone.
Nacer (all first names of Internet users in this article have been changed) remembers the first computer with Internet access in the national library of Damas, in Syria. A guard who didn’t speak a word of English came and sat next to you while you were at the computer, to keep an eye on this unfamiliar volatile. Those were the good old days. Today, in the comfort of their homes, Syrians surf a censored Web. However, cybercensorship, and collecting data about Internet users, are not practices limited to dictatorships.
Italy is right up there with Beijing and Shanghai, where cybercafés are required by law to check the IDs of every single client. In Kazakhstan at the moment, people are strongly advised not to publish the words “economic crisis” online. The president doesn’t want them to. This is quaint compared to the tests going on in Australia to purge the domestic Web of “pedo-pornographic content.” All governments are anxious about the Hydra that is the Internet, but they all act on their concerns according to their culture. Great Britain is preparing to monitor and archive all electronic communications in the name of the War on Terror. In France, the battle between the government and Internet users is over the downloading of copyrighted material. When the dust settles on the legal battlefields, there remains an unequal power relationship: governments and Internet service providers (ISP) now have the technological means to detect and block access to sites they find objectionable on a countrywide scale. When this happens, it’s called Web “filtering.”
ERROR 404 – PAGE NOT FOUND
Web filtering is most often indicated by the “Page Not Found” message familiar to all Internet users, free or monitored. In computer lingo, it’s called a “404 error.” The 404 page has always been a problem. According to a charming tech legend, in the early days of the Web, at CERN in Switzerland, researchers who were sick of continually having to restart a failing server located in office number 404 named the failure-to-connect error after this unlucky office. Whether the story is true or not, this error page really does have bad karma.
In Oman, in Bahrain, in Dubai, the 404 page works overtime: you are redirected to a message informing you, in English and Arabic, that the site you are looking for is not authorized in the kingdom. In China, the 404 page doesn’t come with an explanation. There’s no point; the sites are censored. American soldiers in Iraq see it when they try to access YouTube while on base, which is prohibited by the US Army. They don’t have that problem in cybercafés in Baghdad. In Algeria and Egypt, it indicates an actual technical problem. The Web isn’t filtered there, though it is closely monitored. You get it in Syria if you try to go to a site that ends in .il, the top-level domain for Israel. But you’ll have no trouble getting to a porn site. And in Tunisia, the 404 page is just fake. You’ll get an Internet Explorer or Firefox page informing you that your connection failed. The only problem is that the Firefox logo displayed when you’re using Internet Explorer (or vice versa) makes it clear that you’ve landed on a phony page. In Tunisia, this gave birth to the expression a “404 bâchee” (canvas-covered) for the censored pages, a reference to the little canvas-back Peugot pickup truck so popular in Africa. Tunisian Internet users exclaim in unison, “And the driver’s name is Ammar!” Ammar, for the first letter of the ATI (Tunisian Internet Agency), an arm of the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior.
FIRST STOP, TUNISIA
On our cruise through Censorland, we must stop over in Tunisia, the first African country to have access to the Internet, that shining gateway to a computerized citizenry and new technologies. Praised by Bill Gates (”I am amazed by Tunisia”), this country is at the forefront of cybercensorship. Back in 2000, when the blogosphere was still deserted, the country led the charge by censoring the forum Takriz.org (”fed up”.org) within its borders. That same year, its first cyber-dissident, Zouhair Yahyaoui, was arrested in a cybercafé and condemned to 18 months in prison for having published on his site, Tunezine, a survey that asked, “Is Tunisia a kingdom, a republic, a zoo, a prison?”
The 10-year marriage of the latest cyber-surveillance technologies and a police state has declined into a sad routine – imprisonment of cyber-dissidents and automatic suppression of foreign press sites if even a paragraph is deemed undesirable. Lofti, a Tunisian who lives in Europe, recalls that he was never able to connect to the site Voila.fr when he was in the country. Why? Because of the AFP dispatches published on the portal? Photos that were too sexy? Asking questions is also frowned upon. Interestingly, the ATI has always, from the beginning, been run by a woman. Khadija Ghariani, an engineer, Ecole nationale supérieure des telecommunications, Paris, class of ‘84; Feriel Béji, who has a doctorate in artificial intelligence; and Lamia Cheffai Sghaier, an electrical engineer, each took turns running the agency. Among dissidents, they’re called Ben Ali’s Angels, a local show with the tagline, “We’re here to make you hate the Internet!” Tunisia is also a master of cyber-humor.
“WRITE ‘JI/AN/G ZE/MIN’”
The other old soldier of cybercensorship is China. Everyone knows that a Great Firewall shields the eyes of the Chinese from millions of sites. Accessing Web content freely is just not an option, but the Chinese don’t complain much; they’re used to it. Writing and conversing online is what they love to do. It’s ‘harmonization” that aggravates them.
Ever since the Communist Party in China decided to “construct” a “harmonious society” in 2007, the Web is not only censored there, it’s “harmonized.” An automatic filter, an invisible hand, suppresses a word here, a name there, any phrases, comments, blogs, or images that are undesirable. So they say, “I’ve been harmonized.” A little lesson learned by e-mail from Edwin, an English-Chinese interpreter who has lived in Wenzhou for a long time: “Take, for example, the name of the former president Jiang Zemin, the one of Tiananmen fame, which has been meticulously erased from the Chinese Web. If you write it on a blog or a forum, sometimes it’s automatically replaced by stars or a blank space, or it could be that you won’t even be able to send the message. It might also be removed after publication. But you just have to be a little creative. “Write ‘Ji/an/g Ze/min’ and you’re good to go.”
The censorship robots don’t understand words with slashes, paraphrases, or the double phonetic meaning of a Chinese character. What are the notorious forbidden words that they track? No one knows but the Party, which chooses them, and the ISPs, which do housework. Occasionally, a pirated list of prohibited words shows up on the Web. The latest one contained 1,041 words (chinadigitaltimes.net/tag/banned-words). These included sex, Tibet, Falun Gong (a forbidden religious movement), Tiananmen, play-boy, fuck, multiple parties, Taiwan independence, police, whore, corruption, torture, public funds, anus, Jesus Christ, riot, insurrection, air disaster, 89, tyranny, North Korea, scrotum, dictatorship, pigeon, timeshare, penitentiary, Voice of America, bra, Geneva finance, shit.
Even China is starting to have trouble managing its 300 million restless Internet users – the population of the United States – and the flood of their insolent comments, which disturb the general harmony. Why else would they have hired the “50 Cent Gang” to harmonize opinions on the Web? This mysterious group was so named because it is made up of innumerable anonymous workers who are said to be paid a half Yuan (0.05 €, the price of a subway ticket) for every pro-government comment left on forums, chat rooms, and blogs. Our man in Wenzhou confirms this by e-mail: “It’s pretty easy to spot them. When someone publishes 50 messages in the afternoon of the same day he created a profile, we assume it’s one of them.” Some of these part-timers who lack imagination even give blatant clues, choosing obvious usernames like “Morning Harmony” and “Harmony of the Geranium.”
THE “MYANMAR JUNTA OPTION”
Not all countries have the conviction, or the inexhaustible labor pool that the Chinese censorship industry has. But there is nonetheless a wide variety of techniques to choose from. Computer complexities aside, the Web can be compared to a telephone exchange. To censor it, the easiest thing to do is still to simply pull out the plug connecting the domestic Web to international traffic. This is the “Myanmar Junta Option,” used during the demonstrations in 2007.
Another method is to throttle the connection speed of individual users. In Iran, President Ahmadinejad has a blog, but only the government and the clergy have high-speed Internet access. The average Iranian has to make do with 256k/second, which makes it unlikely that he’ll be downloading racy films or speeches glorifying atheism, which he couldn’t find anyway. (Just for comparison, a basic ADSL connection in France is 10 times faster.)
Censors can also choose to place the clamp where their domestic Web meets the Worldwide Web, as they do in Saudi Arabia, in order to sift the vice from the virtue at their convenience before allowing content through. Among the techniques considered outdated today is DNS poisoning, which is practiced in Thailand. That explains why, in Bangkok, you can pull up a BBC article online and find yourself on the home page of a local government office.
But for your more modern censors, with money to invest, those days are over. Censorship is selective and flexible, recognizing and suppressing sites or domains with the help of robots that seek out keywords or entire categories of sites. To do this, of course, you need specialized software. Tools that behave like parental control software raised to the millionth power, and produce the same result. And most of these are manufactured in Western countries.
FILTERS “MADE IN USA”
In the United States, three serious companies are on the rise, with steadily increasing sales: Secure Computing, Websense and Blue Coat. Their specialty is the security of business networks and intranets. According to the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative research project among Harvard, Toronto, Cambridge, and Oxford Universities that studies cybercensorship, these are the three main providers of filtering tools to governments.
There’s nothing illegal about selling computer security tools. The product page of SmartFilter, the leading software product, says “SmartFilter removes all inappropriate content from the workplace and educational environment, limits your liability, manages bandwidth, and ensures protection against security risks.” It’s thanks to them that office workers can’t go to Facebook at work, and that gaming, gambling and pornographic sites can’t be accessed by computers in libraries and schools. But selling these tools to governments of countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, which we know aren’t too concerned about human rights? Secure Computing has always denied these contracts, even going so far as to accuse Iran of “illegally acquiring” their software.
Helmi Noman, a Harvard researcher in charge of the Middle East for the OpenNet Initiative, consistently sees the signs of these filtering specialists during the tests that the organization conducts regularly in all the countries of the world. And if they’re not the culprits, their partners are. These tools are also distributed by the biggest names in the computer industry: Microsoft, Sun, Cisco, McAfee, Dell. Evidently the Emirate of Bahrain has recently done some shopping.
IN BAHRAIN, ONE SIMPLE RULE: WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THE EMIR
In this little Gulf country, described by expatriates as “pretty cool,” the rule was short and simple: don’t talk about the Emir. Since January, Bahrain has switched into high gear. Ahmed is a software engineer in Manama, the capital. He’s lived through old-school censorship and the new kind too. He likes taking risks; one of his pastimes for the last 10 years has been publishing a blog on local news, which regularly causes problems for him. The worst, in 2005, ended in 15 days of jail time because he published a photo of the Emir’s son drinking champagne at the finish line of a Formula 1 race. At times, his blog has been crudely censored, in a way that was easy to get around. Since January, and a decree promising to remove from the Web elements that are “contrary to the culture” (pornography, anti-religious material), the Web throughout the entire kingdom has been paralyzed.
According to Ahmed, up to 40% of sites are inaccessible in Bahrain, including advertising, cooking blogs, Google Translate, and technical engineering sites. It’s reached the point where foreign companies are complaining because they can’t work.
What happened? It’s a classic scenario, one that Helmi Noman has often seen when a government decides to use these tools. Overwhelmed by the power of the filtering software that the government has bought and imposed on them, the ISPs make one mistake after another. However, when it comes to one category of sites in Bahrain, there is no question of an accident on the part of the ISPs or the palace technicians. Ever since January, all Shiite sites and blogs, though hardly pornographic, have disappeared from the Sunni kingdom. Ahmed is a Shiite. He still writes on his blog occasionally, for his foreign readers, and wonders if he’ll be allowed to leave the country the next time he goes to the airport.
From Doha, in Qatar, where he’s giving a lecture, Helmi Noman warns about these false-bottomed filtering tools. “Western societies are selling ISPs not only filtering software, but also decisions about freedom of expression.” The censorship package includes the software plus a database of 20 million sites and updates that can be regularly downloaded, as with antivirus software. SmartFilter places these sites in 91 categories. It’s up to the client to choose the categories he wants to prohibit. “When an ISP buys SmartFilter, he is buying 20 million decisions and 91 categories that could be wrong.”
These “mistakes” are fairly common, according to what Helmi Noman has found. On the day that sites as varied as Orkut (a social network very popular in India and Brazil), Last.fm (online music), LiveJournal (the most popular blog platform in the former Soviet Union), and Twitter (microblogging) were labeled “dating sites” – for what reason we don’t know – it was temporarily impossible to access them from different parts of the globe. In April, 2007, the video site Dailymotion spent several days in Category V4 (pornography). Internet users in Oman, Yemen and Tunisia were the ones who felt that: no Dailymotion for them. The database that feeds the filters can be accessed online (www.trustedsource.org/urlcheck). It’s collaborative. Anyone – a company, an individual, or the league of virtue of any religion – can flag a site and label it according to his own beliefs, from anywhere in the world, anonymously.
Secure Computing isn’t feeling the recession. It was just bought by the antivirus giant, McAfee, for 465 million dollars (around 350 million Euros). The new management is noncommittal in its response to any question about government cyber-surveillance: “The governments that are our clients can use all of the categories [which we provide] to shape the Internet to suit their cultural needs. McAfee has no control over, or any say in the way an organization implements its own filtering strategy.” To be fair, Europe is doing its share too. Siemens offers a catalog of solutions for intercepting and monitoring communications. China is one of their biggest clients.
TALKING BACK WITH TECHNOLOGY
Nobody wants a Web crawling with pedophiles, terrorists and criminals. But the perfectly democratic example of Australia and its costly offensive against online pedophilia (budget: 125 million Australian dollars over four years, about 70 million Euros) got off to an appallingly amateurish start. In March, during the filtering tests, the ultra-secret blacklist of 2,395 blocked pedophile sites was leaked and ended up on the site for such slip-ups, WikiLeaks. Fortunately. The leak revealed that only half of the sites fell into that category. Some unfortunate errors: the sites of a dentist’s office, a dog boarding facility, and a travel agency were also on the list.
To create its blacklist, the Australian government – like others – relied on information from the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), a British organization based in Cambridge that has been cataloging sites flagged as pedophile since 1995. The IWF is one of 20 such organizations around the world, subsidized mainly by players in the Internet sector. Little by little, without any oversight, or anything to recommend it but its good intentions, it has become the pedophilia police for the authorities. In December, an IWF flag resulted in the censorship in Great Britain of the Wikipedia page for Virgin Killer, an album by the German hard rock group, Scorpions. The cover of this old album, which was never the object of any legal action, shows a nude teenage girl.
The Web has no central government, no universal law, no Red Cross, no seat at the UN. Every Internet user must deal with the legal whims of his country on his own. In case of trouble, he might have recourse to a few organizations that defend freedom of expression. A worthy cause, but a luxury in time of recession. Once again, the response comes in the form of technology, and it’s Internet users the world over who come to the rescue. In Iran, photographer Hamed Saber developed, by himself, a little tool that bypasses the block on the photo site Flickr, which he then made available to the community. The Berkman Center at Harvard just launched Herdict.org, a site where anyone can flag a site that is inaccessible from a given country, so that they will have real-time data on the Web’s blind spots.
HUMOR AS A WEAPON
Because they are tech savvy, Edwin in China and Ahmed in the Emirates can read and write whatever they want to, while remaining under the censors’ radar. They use “proxy anonymizers,” the unattractive name for encryption tools that allow you to discreetly borrow the address of a computer somewhere else in the world just long enough to launch yourself onto the open seas of the uncensored Web. They are called Ultrareach, Psiphon, TOR, Dynaweb, Anonymizer, and they can all be downloaded.
One of the most popular and activist of these is TOR. In 2001, the US Navy released one of its tools for encrypting communications to the public domain. Robert Dingledine, then a student at MIT, has the long hair and little round glasses of freeware activists. It was he who decided to adapt the tool to the Web and distribute it for free. TOR, managed in the United States by a nonprofit organization, has been downloaded millions of times. “We don’t know where they’re downloading from, we don’t keep any data. But we estimate that at any given moment of the day, around the world, between 300,000 and half a million people use one of our connection addresses and encryption to remain anonymous.” Encrypting communications on the Web is not illegal anywhere. But the sites where you can download the “anonymizers” are often prohibited.
In Thailand, using a proxy can land you in prison. The software gets around nonetheless, on USB keys or disks, competing these days with virtual private networks (VPN), encrypted gateways that are used, for example, by multinationals for secure online communication with their foreign branches. The solution is so simple that Edwin, in Wenzhou concludes, “If we really wanted to fight cybercensorship, all we’d have to do is invest a few million dollars in a massive VPN and distribute the links and keywords for free to Internet users. End of story.”
A Thai organization, Freedom Against Censorship (FACT), is already doing that on a small scale, to give Thai Internet users a breath of fresh air. Fifty-thousand sites were shut down during the country’s various political upheavals, thanks to a legislative Trojan horse: the crime of lèse majesté (offense) against King Bhumibol. This misdeed is no joke (three to 15 years of prison) and foreigners can also be prosecuted for it. An Australian writer and a BBC journalist have had a taste of Thai prisons in the king’s name.
The free Web has many enemies, but new legions of allies are rising, and giving ministries of information pause. They are the young people, for whom life without YouTube or Facebook is inconceivable. The Web 2.0, that of social networks and photo, video and music sharing, is continually tripping up the censors, whose blunders are much too visible and very unpopular. On these gargantuan sites, where millions of people, files and links are interconnected, it’s not easy to isolate a single video, or profile, or conversation. Had the Turkish government been able to, it would have blocked only one video that was “insulting” to the national icon, Ataturk, rather than the entire YouTube site, and thus spared itself the wrath of the under 30s. In Tunis, when Facebook was completely blocked in September of 2008, it roused the population for the first time. It was unheard of; even the press talked about it.
The last weapon in the Internet users’ arsenal is humor, and it can be devastating. Ridicule always kills a policy’s credibility. In China, since February, a tough “antivulgarity” campaign for a Web without crude language or photos forced ISPs to ask public forgiveness for the “indecent content” they had provided and to sanitize thousands of sites and social networks.
It took only a few days to prepare a response. It came in the form of a little online video of a fluffy alpaca, with an exuberant children’s chorus singing about the wonders of a mythical Chinese animal, the “Grass Mud Horse” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKx1aenJK08). In Chinese, “alpaca” also means, almost to the tone, “screw your mother.” So does “grass mud horse.” “He Xie” (harmony, and therefore censorship) is phonetically very close to “river crab.” Here is the alpaca song: The “grass mud horse” (screw your mother) lives in the Ma Le desert (your mother’s twat). This creature fights the “river crabs” (harmony/censorship) in order to save the “prairies” (homonym of “freedom of expression”). It was a very crude and joyful protest. But since then, harmony reigns once more, over the living as well as the dead. Any reference to the children who died in the Sichuan earthquake last year is immediately harmonized.
Thanks to Claire Ulrich and Le Monde for covering this material. Copyright, other than the translation itself, remains with the aforementioned.