Peter Wilson of the Vancouver Sun put together a lengthy feature article on the ways in which freedom of information exchange is being undermined on the Internet. I provided some background info and input.
The not-so-free Internet: From Chinese filtering to police access in Canada, governments are trying to regulate the Internet. But technology has a habit of bypassing everything regulators can throw at it.
22 September 2005
Copyright © 2005 Vancouver Sun
“The Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it.”
— John Gillmore, co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, circa 1992.
When Canadian Internet law expert Michael Geist tried to download his e-mail in a Beijing hotel room recently he ran into what he thought was nothing more than a technical hiccup.
“I’d be downloading and all of a sudden it would be cut off,” said Geist. “And at first I thought it was a coincidence and the network had a glitch.”
Well, no. It kept happening again and again.
Geist — who holds the Canada Research chair in Internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa — had run smack into everyday Chinese censorship of the Internet.
What was happening, he later discovered, was that a filtering program was going through his e-mail word by word, term by term, and when it hit a something it didn’t like, bam, goodbye to his download.
Geist started looking for methods to beat the system, which was also blocking his access to some websites.
“I did find a few ways but they were very inconvenient,” said Geist. “So after a few days, I ultimately just gave up and sort of accepted the fact in a few days I would be gone.”
Geist said he did what he supposes most people in China and that was to live with the problem.
It would seem that, as has been the history of the Net, a struggle has yet again arisen between those who want it to be unrestrained — or as some have termed it, unstoppable — and those who would control it.
Not only are some countries attempting to keep their Net-using citizens from learning what’s happening in the outside world, but also legislators in democracies — usually acting to protect the copyright of recorded music and movies or against the spread of pornography — appear to believe they can tame the Internet and its technology through regulation.
So far, at least, the conventional wisdom is — like that of Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) co-founder John Gillmore more than a decade ago — that the Internet always manages to route around problems.
“It certainly has been the conventional wisdom,” said Ronald Deibert, who director of The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies. “The problem is that the conventional wisdom is being increasingly challenged.”
Deibert — whose Citizen Lab is a member of the OpenNet Initiative that creates technological tools to help citizens evade state Internet censorship — said that countries are becoming increasingly intent on and more adept at controlling online information.
Five years ago, he said, there were perhaps two countries — China and Iran — that were imposing Internet filtering and now there are dozens, including Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
He said that, as with any kind of censorship, only a small minority of people try to get around it.
“What happens in countries like China and Iran is that the government is secretive about it and yet there are stiff penalties for people caught violating those ambiguous regulations, said Deibert. “It creates a climate of self-censorship. In other words, people become very cautious because they’re afraid.”
Interestingly, said Deibert many countries use western technologies to do filtering, as shown by analysis by the OpenNet Initiative, which connects computers clandestinely to filtered networks.
OpenNet includes The Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and the Advanced Network Research Group at the Cambridge Security Program at Cambridge University.
“We have people who work with us inside countries, often at great risk to themselves,” said Deibert. “They go into a hotel in the country, plug into the Internet and run tools that we provide for them and that we’ve kitted up on their laptops. What we’re essentially doing is mapping the Internet infrastructure from the inside out.”
The OpenNet Initiative recently discovered that a product called SmartFilter, marketed by United States-based Secure Computing, was being used in Iran, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
“So they definitely see a market and they’re pushing their product,” said Deibert. “Of course, they deny they’ve sold that particular product to Iran because there are sanctions against Iran right now in the United States. They say it might have been downloaded illegally.”
Deibert said that Citizen Lab and OpenNet Initiative is developing new software called Psiphon to allow those in such places as China and Iran to get access to an uncensored Internet.
“The way our system works is if you have friends or family in a country where censoring takes place, you would have them connect with your computer with a couple of simple changes to their browser,” said Deibert. “They wouldn’t have to install anything. Then you would run a program on your computer that would allow them to surf through your computer.”
There are other programs available for this. Circumventer, for example, allows those who install it on their computer to connect to proxies, which in turn access information and sidestep the filters.
“The problem is that the Chinese government is now aware that there is something called Circumventer, and so it’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Deibert.
Not that long ago, said Deibert, the Voice of America, the U.S. State Department’s propaganda arm, worked together with a company called Anonymizer to create a circumvention system for Iran.
“We connected two computers in Iran and connected them to the Anonymizer service and ran tests where we requested literally hundreds of thousands of Web sites.”
What they found in place on the Voice of America software were porn filters that blocked sites by searching for such terms as “ass” which meant that if you tried to look up a U.S. embassy it was blocked.
“They had decided, somewhat mysteriously on their own — there wasn’t any public discussion about this — that the American taxpayer wouldn’t want Iranians surfing porn,” said Deibert.
Even in democracies, the Internet is not as free as people like to imagine it is, said Cindy Cohn the legal director of the EFF.
“I think that people have less privacy and less control of their speech in an online world than they might have thought,” said Cohn. “Your ISP pretty much always knows who you are and where you’ve been online and they can finger you. This is what people have learned from the peer-to-peer battles as well. A subpoena to your ISP can reveal the fact that you’ve been offering files to share.”
As well, people create a paper trail of what they say and do online in a way they likely don’t on the phone or in conversation,” said Cohn.
To avoid some of this, the EFF has developed a piece of software called Tor which allows people to surf the Web anonymously.
“Tor’s a pretty good tool for for your basic ‘I don’t want this website to know who I am. I want to be able to browse about something like breast cancer or be able to look for a Christmas present for my husband and not have him be able to look at my browser history and find out what I did,’ ” Cohn said.
In Canada, Geist said, data retention systems are being proposed.
“For one, you’ve got the Lawful Access Initiative, which law enforcement in Canada has been pushing now for a number of years,” said Geist.
This would have networks set up so that they could identify a particular subscriber and respond around-the-clock to a law enforcement request within minutes.
And, added Geist, the new copyright legislation before the House of Commons includes a system under which a copyright holder alleging a copyright violation could send a notice of this to an ISP.
The ISP wouldn’t be required to take anything down without a court order, but they would have to notify their customer that they’d received the notice and they would have to retain the data in question for from six months to a year.
As well, said Geist, the federal government has created what’s known as statutory damages in copyright cases. This means that if the copyright holder can prove an infringement they can get up to $20,000 for it.
“That’s designed largely for widespread commercial piracy, but today it could well be used in individual file-sharing lawsuits where if someone makes a thousand songs available on their computer, they could be potentially on the hook for $20,000 per song,” said Geist.
However, both Geist and Cohn agree that what has so far been unstoppable is the development of peer-to-peer technology that, while it has many other uses, has most often been in the news because of the distribution of MP3s and movie files.
“There are some things that are extremely hard to stop on the Internet,” said Cohn. “I think its going to be pretty hard to stop because the technology is so simple. There’s a Princeton professor who’s written it in something like 28 lines of code.”
Even the recent Grockster and StreamCast decision by the United States Supreme Court– originally hailed as a victory for the copyright holders — is now seen by many observers as really a victory for peer-to-peer file sharing.
While the court held that file-sharing companies could be sued over copyrighted material carried on their networks, it said it would only be allowed if there was “evidence of active steps taken to encourage direct infringement.”
In other words, if you don’t encourage copyright infringement then you can’t be sued.
“I think peer-to-peer is a wonderful technology,” said Geist. “It provides a number of terrific uses, particularly for smaller creators — whether you’re talking about software companies with an effective method of distributing their products or documentary filmmakers or even bands who want to find a way to distribute their product.”
Geist also points to the success of the iTunes service as a sign that the music industry is finally getting the Internet.
“iTunes is going to sell half a billion songs this year,” said Geist. “That seems to me to finally be a case of the industry responding to some of the things their customers have been looking for and the customers responding.”
And recently, after years of industry wrangling over film piracy, Intel announced it was backing a new online movie venture, ClickStar, which plans to distribute first-run, pre-DVD release movies over the Net to homes in a secure digital format.
This would seem to indicate that the Internet, while beset by various attacks, continues as a kind of giant digital whack-a-mole game where every time something is driven underground it pops up somewhere else.
Cohn says that blogs have made a great deal of difference in the amount of information flowing and also offers examples of the whack-a-mole aspect of the Net when she points to successful court cases in which the EFF participated.
One, known as OPG vs. Diebold, had Diebold, a maker of voting machines, sending cease and desist orders to ISPs, trying to get an internal e-mail from Diebold that pointed out flaws in the voting machines removed from websites.
Diebold, said Cohn, essentially backed down after a couple of weeks because it had decided it was fruitless to try to remove the internal e-mail from the Internet. It was just in too many places.
“I think that was right and I also think it was because they were going to lose the case and ultimately they did lose the case and had to pay $130,000,” said Cohn. “I think it was a very good example of how fruitless it is to try to get rid of information once it’s been published online. You really have to find other remedies than trying to silence someone.”
As for the censorship battle on the Net, Deibert said it’s the new terrain of geopolitical struggle.
“Very high-powered forces are competing with each other to control cyberspace in the way that they used to compete with one another to control territorial spaces,” he said.
“There’s a constant struggle going on and these forces are in tension,” said Deibert. “I don’t think it will resolve one way or another. ”
Colour Photo: Vancouver Sun Files / Passengers surf the Internet on a free Internet service available at the Beijing airport. China uses filtering systems that can shut down e-mail downloads if it finds any ‘trigger’ words. Many countries are trying to restrict the Internet.; Colour Photo: Vancouver Sun Files / A Chinese youth plays a computer game at an Internet cafe in Beijing.