Thursday, May 24, 2007

Evading Internet Censorship

Keywords: Hossein Derekhshan; President Ahmadinajad; blogs; Iran; Facebook; Mel Watkins; Keele University; Ron Deibert; OpenNet Initiative; censorship of Internet; China.

Well, blow me down! I was astonished to learn from , an Iranian guest on Steve Paikin's talk show “The Agenda,” that about 95 percent of all Iranians (including President ) keep . Even more surprising is the fact that the government stimulated the whole movement and pays for it. Apparently domestic Internet messaging is pretty free and uncensored, though material from abroad is filtered. Hossein Derekhshan says that his own blog is excluded. He can help certain people get around the blocks, but cannot just set up alternative sites and expect them to function very long. The popularity of Iranian blogs and their official encouragement by the state seems completely contrary to the image I had formed of that regime.

But there are two other news items about the Internet today. One noted that , which started as a student social networking tool in North America, has spread around the world very recently. Not only are students using it, but prominent persons as well. My friend now communicates with me through Facebook instead of regular e-mail. But at in Britain, there is a crackdown against it. It seems that virtually all students there are on Facebook, and some of them have been sharing rude comments about their professors. How far should university administrators be able to go in curtailing such comments? I have mixed feelings about the matter. In Toronto recently a high school enacted some new rules against Facebook after it was used to convene a violent confrontation after school.

Someone forwarded me a “watchdog report” by of the National Post. (see photo), a University of Toronto professor who monitors Internet censorship stated that the handful of regimes (notably China) that impede Internet freedom has expanded. Deibert’s organization, the , has been following 26 countries to catch the ones that filer certain Internet addresses or key word searches.

Most countries do not want to acquire bad reputations for perpetrating infringements of this kind, but some of them — including Western — nevertheless do so for short periods during crucial events. Deibert said,

“There’s a recognition among authorities that while these tools are very important for economic development, they can also unleash a lot of unforeseen consequences on the political spectrum and so they’re looking for ways to control them with ever more fine-grained methods.”

For example, is remarkably restrictive, regulating the availability of offensive content, issuing takedown notices for Internet content hosted within the country, and maintains filters to block content from outside the country.

Even in Canada, at least once a major telecommunications company blocked access to union sites during a labor dispute, says Deibert.

Because regimes recognize the strategic importance of cyberspace, Deibert says they are developing “information warfare methods and doctrines. So I think that has effectively unleashed what I would call an arms race in cyberspace.”

What can be done to protect our freedom of expression on the Internet? I’m not sure, but I met a Chinese fellow a couple of years ago who was living in Hong Kong and playing a cat-and-mouse game with the Chinese censors. He would set up a new system for spreading messages throughout , and within a week the state would have figured it out and found a way to block it. But by then he’d have the next plan ready, and set it up well enough to function throughout the following week. I don’t know whether that contest is still going on.

In any case, Deibert himself has developed some software that can be used to get around filters in countries where the Internet is regularly blocked. It’s called “.” I checked his web site and found out that it has to be done between individuals. As the web site explains,

"Psiphon is not designed to solve all secure Web browsing dilemmas. Rather, it is a means by which those in uncensored countries can assist specific individuals in censored countries access blocked Web content -- without placing any technical (or personal security) burden on those individuals."

In other words, they can’t catch you doing it — but on the other hand you cannot use Psiphon to broadcast information to the public at large.



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