Psiphon, Iran, and OpenNet Initiative

There is a lot going on right now on so many exciting fronts. We at the OpenNet Initiative have released three major reports: An Asian regional overview, and country reports on China and Iran. We released these at the ONI Asia regional meeting in Penang Malaysia. Thanks to the ONI team for all of their hard work.

You can read about ONI Asia results here, and the Iran country report here

Second, we have been actively engaged in a campaign to allow Iranians to access the Internet freely via Psiphon, using Twitter and other outreach tools. The Globe and Mail has a report on it, among other media stories.

ONI Bulletin on China’s Green Dam Filtering Software

The OpenNet Initiative has released a bulletin entitled “China’s Green Dam: The Implications of Government Control Encroaching on the Home PC.” You can read more about it here.

Executive Summary

A recent directive by the Chinese government requires the installation of a specific filtering software product, Green Dam, with the publicly stated intent of protecting children from harmful Internet content. The proposed implementation of software as reviewed in this report would in fact have an influence that extends beyond helping parents protect their children from age inappropriate material; the filtering options include blocking of political and religious content normally associated with the Great Firewall of China, China’s sophisticated national-level filtering system. If implemented as proposed, the effect would be to increase the reach of Internet censorship to the edges of the network, adding a new and powerful control mechanism to the existing filtering system.

As a policy decision, mandating the installation of a specific software product is both unprecedented and poorly conceived. In this specific instance, the mistake is compounded by requiring the use of a substandard software product that interferes with the performance of personal computers in an unpredictable way, killing browsers and applications without warning while opening up users to numerous serious security vulnerabilities. The level of parental control over the software is poor such that this software does not well serve parents that wish to the limit exposure of their children to Internet content.

The mandate requiring the installation of a specific product serves no useful purpose apart from extending the reach of government authorities. Given the resulting poor quality of the product, the large negative security and stability effects on the Chinese computing infrastructure and the intense backlash against the product mandate, the mandate may result in less government control.

Announcement: Greg Walton joins Citizen Lab as Senior SecDev Fellow

I am pleased to announce that Greg Walton will be joining the Citizen Lab.

Greg Walton is the senior security researcher for ONI Asia, and the first SecDev fellow at the Citizen Lab. He is a graduate of the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford (International Relations and Security Studies), and holds an MSc from the Computer Science Department, University of Sunderland (UK).

In the past Greg worked for a number of human rights organizations, and as a radio and TV journalist in Asia. He is the author of a seminal study analyzing China’s censorship and surveillance systems and the complicity of western corporations (Golden Shield).

In addition to his work for ONI Asia, Greg is also the editor of ONI’s sister project, the Information Warfare Monitor and the Chief Security Officer for the start-up Psiphon, heading up the “red cell” — responsible for penetration testing and security analysis.

Welcome Greg!

Experts: Internet filtering and censorship rife

Published on
August 21, 2008

LONDON, England (CNN) — Believe the conspiracy theories — out of sight and without your knowledge, governments truly are filtering what you see on the Internet.

The recent conflict between Georgia and Russia has highlighted many of the issues at play with Internet filtering, as its increasing use by governments raises serious doubts about the freedom of the Web.

Georgian authorities blocked most access to Russian news broadcasters and Web sites after the outbreak of the conflict, and both sides reported Web sites being blocked, removed or attacked as the situation unfolded.

According to one of CNN’s contributors in Georgia, the situation has been very frightening for citizens.

Andro Kiknadze said an online forum he used to organize supporters appeared to have been taken down and he described a “cyber war” in which some Web sites appear to be blocked.

“Please, please help us. We are losing our treasure, our freedom. I am almost crying because I’m seeing my country is falling,” Kiknadze said.

So, what is Internet filtering, and why all the fuss?

Filtering simply means restricting access, blocking, or taking down Web sites.

Karin Karlekar, senior researcher at freedom promoter Freedom House, said there were several ways in which content could be ‘filtered’.

She told CNN governments could use purpose-built filtering technology, censor Web sites, filter search results — with the assistance of multinational corporations, and block applications and circumvention tools — to stop online applications like Facebook, YouTube or Voice over IPs that enable social networking.

And the use of these tactics appears to be quite widespread.

According to a 2007 report by the OpenNet Initiative, which surveyed more than 40 countries, almost two-thirds of the states involved were filtering content to some degree.

Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for Internet Studies at the University of Toronto, said in the research, “States are applying ever more fine grained methods to limit and shape the information environment to which their citizens have access.”

“Some states block access to a wide swathe of content, while others tend to concentrate on one or two narrow baskets. South Korea, for example, tends to block access only to sites related to North Korea,” Deibert said.

Although countries such as Iran and China — home to the ‘Great Firewall of China’ — are obvious examples of where filtering is prevalent, other countries are also restricting content for varying reasons.

Dr Ian Brown, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, said the Internet in some European countries, including the United Kingdom, was also filtered. However this was mostly to block child pornography and content which incited or glorified terrorism, he said.

Most democracies, and particularly those of the U.S. and India had unrestricted Internet, though more than 40 countries were known to filter content, he said.

And it’s not just governments involved in filtering. Search engine Google has been heavily criticized for working with the Chinese Government to block searches for material about Taiwan, Tibet, democracy and other sensitive issues on its Chinese portal. Do you think governments should filter and censor Internet sites?

With recent developments in Georgia and Internet restrictions during conflict in Estonia last year, there are concerns that filtering could be further utilized in future ‘cyber warfare’.

Brown believed filtering would be used more commonly in repressive states in the future. Although he didn’t have exact figures, Brown understood the Chinese military had more than 100,000 people employed to look at cyber warfare.

Co-founder of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Jonathan Zittrain, told CNN the tactic was very powerful.

“Filtering can help shape the message a country’s citizens see — including, as may have happened recently when Georgia filtered some Russian Web sites, for the purpose of preventing enemy propaganda from reaching one’s citizens.”

While Freedom House’s Karin Karlekar agreed that filtering was a strong aspect to cyber warfare, she said other trends were more concerning.

“Filtering isn’t the primary technological way that Internet freedom can be compromised. The kind of ‘cyber-warfare’ that we hear about usually isn’t filtering as much as ‘denial of service’ attacks that disable servers hosting particular Web sites, either of opposition media outlets or of foreign governments.

“Another type of ‘cyberwarfare’ that occurs more regularly is hacking into computers and stealing information, as well as planting Trojans or viruses,” Karlekar said.

So, if governments are stepping up their Internet filtering and the threat of cyber warfare is increasing, how can citizens sidestep the restrictions?

Zittrain told CNN tech-savvy citizens were already using a variety of tools to circumvent filtering.

“They range from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s ‘Tor’ software, to commercial anonymizers and virtual private networks, and ‘buddy system’ software like Psiphon, which allows a person in one place to handle requests for Web sites from someone in a place that filters.”

In Iran, some citizens were overcoming Internet restrictions by using Freedom House’s Gozaar Web site.

Karin Karlekar said the site offered news and debates with a plurality of voices, and gave Iranians an opportunity to participate. The domain name was changed weekly to keep ahead of Iranian authorities, she said.

Zittrain, who is a founder of the OpenNet Initiative, which tracks Internet filtering around the world, said the organization was currently working on a free tool that will let people easily report blockages as they find them.

He believed such tools could in future help citizens in heavily restricted countries to bypass filters placed by their governments.

Permanent Link

CBC Search Engine, Nature, and Digital Nation

Some recent items on psiphon, the ONI’s new volume, Access Denied, and others to report:

I did an interview with Jesse Brown of CBC’s search engine on psiphon. The full interview, including Mike Hull’s psiphon theme song, is available here
(Note: The interview with me starts at 16 minutes, 15 seconds into the podcast).

Bruce Schneier wrote a review of the ONI’s new volume Access Denied in the recent issue of Nature. A pdf of the review can be downloaded here.

Lastly, I recently had the pleasure of appearing on The Digital Age with James Goodale. The full interview has been posted on google video here.

ONI Burma Report – Pulling the Plug

The OpenNet Initiative has compiled a bulletin on the recent demonstrations in Burma and the Burmese government’s shutdown of the Internet there. ONI conducted a technical analysis of the Internet’s uptime, documenting a complete shutdown in Burma, followed by intermittent periods of up-time throughout early October, with an apparent return to full connection on October 13 for one of the two ISPs and on October 16 for the other. This bulletin presents these results and investigates the impact that the use of communication technologies had on shaping these key events.

The report can be downloaded HERE.

Myanmar's Net Curtain Begins To Lift


According to Ron Deibert, director at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and an investigator at the OpenNet Initiative. “Now that the government’s crackdown has succeeded, they’re beginning to let information trickle out again,” he says. Deibert speculates that even for a country as repressive as Myanmar, the cost of shutting off all outside connections is too great to sustain for long. “There’s the cost of lost business and the government’s own inability to communicate,” he says. “Myanmar wants to avoid the risk of being seen as a pariah. These are all reasons they need to connect with the outside world.”

Found HERE.