[LINK] net censorship
stephen at melbpc.org.au
stephen at melbpc.org.au
Sat May 2 00:32:29 EST 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 youre 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 groups 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 governments censors mostly censor groups deemed to be
state enemies, like the Falun Gong, making it harder for them to reach
Blocking such groups has become more insidious as Internet filtering
technology has grown more sophisticated. As with George
Orwells 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 Gongs
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 Peoples Liberation Army, he said he first understood the
power of government-controlled media when overnight the nations student
protesters were transformed from heroes to killers.
I was so disappointed, he said. People believed the government, they
didnt 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 Chinas 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
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 consortiums 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 220.127.116.11 that identify a Web
site, in this case, google.com. By clicking on a link provided in the
consortiums 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 sites 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
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 groups 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 consortiums 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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