[LINK] net censorship

stephen at melbpc.org.au stephen at melbpc.org.au
Sat May 2 00:32:29 AEST 2009

:-D  It's possible that the US Congress will fund efforts to circumvent
our Au government's effort to filter the net. Eg, "last year US Congress,
approved $15 million for circumvention services .."  

Cyberwar: Iranians and Others Outwit Net Censors 

JOHN MARKOFF Published: April 30, 2009 

The Iranian government, more than almost any other, censors what citizens 
can read online, using elaborate technology to block millions of Web 
sites offering news, commentary, videos, music and, until recently, 
Facebook and YouTube. 

Search for “women” in Persian and you’re told, “Dear Subscriber, access 
to this site is not possible.” 

Last July, on popular sites that offer free downloads of various 
software, an escape hatch appeared. The computer program allowed Iranian 
Internet users to evade government censorship. 

College students discovered the key first, then spread it through e-mail 
messages and file-sharing. By late autumn more than 400,000 Iranians were 
surfing the uncensored Web.

The software was created not by Iranians, but by Chinese computer experts 
volunteering for the Falun Gong, a spiritual movement that has beem 
suppressed by the Chinese government since 1999. They maintain a series 
of computers in data centers around the world to route Web users’ 
requests around censors’ firewalls. 

The Internet is no longer just an essential channel for commerce, 
entertainment and information. It has also become a stage for state 
control — and rebellion against it. Computers are becoming more crucial 
in global conflicts, not only in spying and military action, but also in 
determining what information reaches people around the globe. 

More than 20 countries now use increasingly sophisticated blocking and 
filtering systems for Internet content, according to Reporters Without 
Borders, a Paris-based group that encourages freedom of the press. 

Although the most aggressive filtering systems have been erected by 
authoritarian governments like those in Iran, China, Pakistan, Saudi 
Arabia and Syria, some Western democracies are also beginning to filter 
some content, including child pornography and other sexually oriented 

In response, a disparate alliance of political and religious activists, 
civil libertarians, Internet entrepreneurs, diplomats and even military 
officers and intelligence agents are now challenging growing Internet 

The creators of the software seized upon by Iranians are members of the 
Global Internet Freedom Consortium, based largely in the United States 
and closely affiliated with Falun Gong. The consortium is one of many 
small groups developing systems to make it possible for anyone to reach 
the open Internet. It is the modern equivalent of efforts by 
organizations like the Voice of America to reach the citizens of closed 

Separately, the Tor Project, a nonprofit group of anticensorship 
activists, freely offers software that can be used to send messages 
secretly or to reach blocked Web sites. Its software, first developed at 
the United States Naval Research Laboratories, is now used by more than 
300,000 people globally, from the police to criminals, as well as 
diplomats and spies.

Political scientists at the University of Toronto have built yet another 
system, called Psiphon, that allows anyone to evade national Internet 
firewalls using only a Web browser. Sensing a business opportunity, they 
have created a company to profit by making it possible for media 
companies to deliver digital content to Web users behind national 

The danger in this quiet electronic war is driven home by a stark warning 
on the group’s Web site: “Bypassing censorship may violate law. Serious 
thought should be given to the risks involved and potential consequences.”

In this cat-and-mouse game, the cat is fighting back. The Chinese system, 
which opponents call the Great Firewall of China, is built in part with 
Western technologies. A study published in February by Rebecca MacKinnon, 
who teaches journalism at the University of Hong Kong, determined that 
much blog censorship is performed not by the government but by private 
Internet service providers, including companies like Yahoo China, 
Microsoft and MySpace. One-third to more than half of all postings made 
to three Chinese Internet service providers were not published or were 
censored, she reported.

When the Falun Gong tried to support its service with advertising several 
years ago, American companies backed out under pressure from the Chinese 
government, members said.

In addition, the Chinese government now employs more than 40,000 people 
as censors at dozens of regional centers, and hundreds of thousands of 
students are paid to flood the Internet with government messages and 
crowd out dissenters. 

This is not to say that China blocks access to most Internet sites; most 
of the material on the global Internet is available to Chinese without 
censorship. The government’s censors mostly censor groups deemed to be 
state enemies, like the Falun Gong, making it harder for them to reach 
potential members. 

Blocking such groups has become more insidious as Internet filtering 
technology has grown more sophisticated. As with George 
Orwell’s “Newspeak,” the language in “1984” that got smaller each year, 
governments can block particular words or phrases without users realizing 
their Internet searches are being censored.

Those who back the ragtag opponents of censorship criticize the 
government-run systems as the digital equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

They also see the anticensorship efforts as a powerful political 
lever. “What is our leverage toward a country like Iran? Very little,” 
said Michael Horowitz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute who advises the 
Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “Suppose we have the capacity to make 
it possible for the president of the United States at will to communicate 
with hundreds of thousands of Iranians at no risk or limited risk? It 
just changes the world.”

The United States government and the Voice of America have financed some 
circumvention technology efforts. But until now the Falun Gong has 
devoted the most resources, experts said, erecting a system that allows 
the largest number of Internet users open, uncensored access. 

Each week, Chinese Internet users receive 10 million e-mail messages and 
70 million instant messages from the consortium. But unlike spam that 
takes you to Nigerian banking scams or offers deals on drugs like Viagra, 
these messages offer software to bypass the elaborate government system 
that blocks access to the Web sites of opposition groups like the Falun 

Shiyu Zhou, a computer scientist, is a founder of the Falun Gong’s 
consortium. His cyber-war with China began in Tiananmen Square in 1989. A 
college student and the son of a former general in the intelligence 
section of the People’s Liberation Army, he said he first understood the 
power of government-controlled media when overnight the nation’s student 
protesters were transformed from heroes to killers.

“I was so disappointed,” he said. “People believed the government, they 
didn’t believe us.”

He decided to leave China and study computer science in graduate school 
in the United States. In the late 1990s he turned to the study of Falun 
Gong and then joined with a small group of technically sophisticated 
members of the spiritual group intent on transmitting millions of e-mail 
messages to Chinese. 

Both he and Peter Yuan Li, another early consortium volunteer, had 
attended Tsinghua University — China’s Massachusetts Institute of 
Technology. Mr. Li, the son of farmers, also came to the United States to 
study computer science, then joined Bell Laboratories before becoming a 
full-time volunteer.

The risks of building circumvention tools became clear in April 2006 
when, Mr. Li later told law enforcement officials, four men invaded his 
home in suburban Atlanta, covered his head, beat him, searched his files 
and stole two laptop computers. The F.B.I. has made no arrests in the 
case and declined to comment. But Mr. Li thinks China sent the invaders. 

Early on, the group of dissidents here had some financial backing from 
the International Broadcasting Bureau of the Voice of America for sending 
e-mail messages, but the group insists that most of its effort has been 
based on volunteer labor and contributions.

The consortium’s circumvention system works this way: Government 
censorship systems like the Great Firewall can block access to certain 
Internet Protocol addresses. The equivalent of phone numbers, these 
addresses are quartets of numbers like that identify a Web 
site, in this case, google.com. By clicking on a link provided in the 
consortium’s e-mail message, someone in China or Iran trying to reach a 
forbidden Web site can download software that connects to a computer 
abroad that then redirects the request to the site’s forbidden address. 

The technique works like a basketball bank shot — with the remote 
computer as the backboard and the desired Web site as the basket. But 
government systems hunt for and then shut off such alternative routes 
using a variety of increasingly sophisticated techniques. So the software 
keeps changing the Internet address of the remote computer — more than 
once a second. By the time the censors identify an address, the system 
has already changed it. 

China acknowledges that it monitors content on the Internet, but claims 
to have an agenda much like that of any other country: policing for 
harmful material, pornography, treasonous propaganda, criminal activity, 
fraud. The government says Falun Gong is a dangerous cult that has ruined 
the lives of thousands of people.

Hoping to step up its circumvention efforts, the Falun Gong last year 
organized extensive lobbying in Congress, which approved $15 million for 
circumvention services. 

But the money was awarded not to the Falun Gong consortium but to 
Internews, an international organization that supports local media 

This year, a broader coalition is organizing to push for more 
Congressional financing of anti-filtering efforts. Negotiations are under 
way to bring together dissidents of Vietnam, Iran, the Uighur minority of 
China, Tibet, Myanmar, Cuba, Cambodia, Laos, as well as the Falun Gong, 
to lobby Congress for the financing.

Mr. Horowitz argues that $25 million could expand peak usage to as many 
as 45 million daily Internet users, allowing the systems to reach as many 
as 10 percent of the Web users in both China and Iran.

Mr. Zhou says his group’s financing is money well spent. “The entire 
battle over the Internet has boiled down to a battle over resources,” he 
said. “For every dollar we spend, China has to spend a hundred, maybe 
hundreds of dollars.”

As for the Falun Gong software, it proved a little too popular among 
Iranians. By the end of last year the consortium’s computers were 
overwhelmed. On Jan. 1, the consortium had to do some blocking of its 
own: It shut down the service for all countries except China. 



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