Some people were shocked when the Internet in Egypt and then Libya was all but shut down. They shouldn’t have been. It’s not all that hard to ‘pull the plug’ on the Internet, especially in countries with a relatively small number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs). It’s not high tech. When guys with guns show up at the ISP’s door, servers go off-line. Sometimes all it takes, as in Egypt, is a phone call from somebody in government. After all, in most countries ISPs must have various kinds of government-issued licenses.
There are very few countries where it is not considered legitimate for government to have a role in Internet access. There are crooks and terrorists to catch, lots of them, and they all hang out on the Internet just waiting for government sleuths to ferret them out. Snark aside, this kind of on-line police work exists and is useful. However, while there’s no way to know, I’d wager that a lot more money is spent by governments to monitor political dissidents and various political conspiracies than is spent on typical police work. Much of this is done behind the cover of ‘normal’ government regulation and surveillance.
Of course, what is ‘normal’ varies, just as forms of government vary. Tapping the Internet remains technologically challenging for many governments. The rapid growth of phone-based satellite and Wi-Fi delivered Internet access complicates the picture for would-be snoops. Politically, it is sometimes inexpedient or even illegal for government to undertake mass monitoring of Internet traffic. So between the costs, technical difficulty and political/legal barriers many governments have gone to some effort to do what in many other circumstances they refuse to do: They’re learning from other countries’ experience and using another country’s model, China’s.
The model that seems to be spreading most rapidly is China’s. With more Internet users than there are people in the United States (380 million +), the thinking goes, “If China can keep a reign on the Internet, then any country can.” The Chinese model, which is of course unofficial, is relatively simple to outline:
1. Monitor, filter, and analyze Internet traffic. While the volume of Internet traffic is immense, technology for accessing, filtering, and analyzing has steadily become better and less expensive. The results are not ‘perfect’ from a surveillance point of view, but this is a game of percentages. Capturing and accurately analyzing around 50% of the traffic usually provides enough of a picture to be effective. Smart countries pick their surveillance targets with care and don’t waste resources.
2. Create laws and regulations that either directly or indirectly legitimizes surveillance, censorship and punitive action. It’s easier, even in a police state, to justify Internet intervention on the basis of what appear to be reasonable laws or regulations. These are often grounded on ‘moral and religious standards,’ ‘disturbance of the peace,’ and ‘fairness in business’ tenets sufficiently broad and fuzzy to cover any situation. Most of them are guaranteed to hold up in court, if indeed, there is any pretense of working within the law.
3. Enlist the support of Internet users. The business of co-opting the users to help monitor government targets takes on two main forms: Paid informers whose business it is to infiltrate and observe target activity, and voluntary monitoring, often within the proceedings of social networking, forums, blogs and other relatively informal areas where information is exchanged.
4. Establish a pattern for selectively blocking, apprehending, and intimidating Internet sources. Technically this is simply another side of monitoring and analyzing traffic. National firewalls, selective site blocking, ISP control (as in nationally owned access), and selective content blocking are typical censorship techniques. In more belligerent countries, the technical aspect is buttressed with harassment, arrest and other forms of intimidation to get compliance. In general, however, the Chinese model prefers to have ‘voluntary compliance.’
5. Prepare action protocols for emergency or ‘campaign’ style blocking. As has been dramatically demonstrated by the recent revolts in the Middle East, governments see the need to be prepared for quick and massive action in the face of uprisings. This calls for relatively elaborate and funded plans for emergency situations. The emergencies can also be natural disasters, so the plans can be made to do double duty. China has reportedly been rapidly putting into place such plans as a reaction to recent events.
If these seem like a formidable array of tools for governments to control the flow of information on the Internet, that’s because it is. It’s not perfect by a long shot, to repeat, this is a numbers game. Catch enough content (and people) to make enforcement a real threat; that will inhibit activity, possibly reducing it to ineffectiveness. That’s the goal.
It should be clear that this goal is not limited to authoritarian regimes. Many western-style democracies have all or some of the China model in place – usually minus the more brutal police action.
There is something of a technology race, remindful of security hackers versus security software (pretty much the same approach to the technology). But when it comes to government interference in the Internet, the ground-rules are not fair, in fact those who choose to fight are more like the one legged man in an ass kicking contest.
Those who wish to get around government censorship and prevention have three big allies: Volume, technical options and deception. Two of these often work together. Huge volumes of Internet traffic make it easier to hide risky communication through deception. One approach that is gaining favor is called steganography, or hiding information in plain sight. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the spies’ playbook. Unlike encryption, which tends to call attention to itself, steganography embeds the message in what appears to be normal language. There is even publicly available software, such as the academic project Collage, to help conceal the messages in typical social networking chatter, email, and tweets.
Another approach is based on a system of proxy servers, fake routers, and other technical means for concealing the actual flow of traffic. Somewhat like the Internet itself, these systems are designed so that if one node is compromised the messages can be rerouted through other nodes. This approach is very popular, often used more in the service of accessing pornography than for political purposes. Many of the proxy server ‘workarounds’ are more vulnerable than people think, but there are sophisticated approaches that are difficult for governments to detect.
The problem is, whether some kind of message concealment or technical fakery, these approaches are not for the un-initiated. They require a considerable amount of expertise, patience and often money – all of which may be in short supply. I’m not trying to be pessimistic, but the advantage in the struggle for freedom of Internet access and information goes to the determined government. In most countries, most people, most of the time will not be able (or even want to) circumvent government censorship.
And the point is? Focus on #2 above in the China model. It is almost impossible to stop governments from exercising the technical aspects of Internet monitoring and censorship, nor will most people be able to resist or even want to resist the approved channels of Internet use. What needs to happen is that laws and regulations, which aid and abet Internet censorship, are not enabled – either in the first place or they are repealed. Of course, in many countries this is a pipe dream. Of course, it’s hard enough to do this even in countries such as the United Kingdom or the United States. However, it remains perhaps the best method to take the teeth out of Internet censorship. (Good luck and keep trying.)
SciTechStory: Government censorship on the rise
The Guardian: Silence of the dissenters: How south-east Asia keeps web users in line
The Economist: A new way of beating the web’s censors
Technology Review: Censorship Circumvention Tools Aren’t Widely Used