From China to the UK: net censorship worldwide

7th Aug 2009 | 11:15

From China to the UK: net censorship worldwide

Who does it, who helps them and why it's spreading

Blocking sites and controlling internet access

Going online in countries where internet censorship is common is rather like visiting a parallel universe run by the world's strictest, most bigoted parents. Entire sites disappear without warning.

YouTube is frequently blocked for hosting content that some regimes don't want their citizens to see, and online translation services, blogging platforms and even VoIP utilities like Skype often fall foul of censors.

Local sites are also very selective about what they publish or link to. Bloggers rot in jails for daring to criticise politicians or religious leaders, while millions of people are denied internet access altogether, limited to an incredibly narrow selection of officially approved pages or subjected to constant and chilling levels of surveillance.

Restrictions on freedom in some parts of the world put the UK's situation into context. When we worry about plans to monitor our online activities or make certain kinds of content illegal, we're complaining of a headache to someone who's just been decapitated.

In these countries, keyword filtering and ISP blacklists prevent you from accessing any sites that the government doesn't think you should see. Depending on where you are, the list can be a very long one; among sites blacklisted are those dealing with women's rights and general human rights, different political or religious points of view, Western pop music, foreign news sources, gambling, mentions of alcohol or drug use, stories that portray the ruling regime as less than perfect and even information sites such as Wikipedia.

China is one of the world's most infamous internet censors. In addition to the Great Firewall of China – a large network of filters that blocks content and scans messages for 'subversive' keywords – Chinese internet users have become familiar with JingJing and Chacha, two cartoon police officers who pop up on their screens to remind them of the rules.

JingJing and chacha

INTERNET POLICE:Meet JingJing and Chacha, the friendly faces of Chinese state censorship who pop up regularly to remind people of the rules

Sites that raise sensitive subjects are either blocked, criticised in official media, fined, ordered to dismiss webmasters or shut down. China is far from the only country that censors content. Tunisia blocks sites known to be critical of its government.

Saudi Arabia filters content to the extent that some 400,000 sites are blocked due to 'immoral' content; campaigning organisation Reporters Sans Frontieres (www.rsf.org) notes that the censorship is so strict that it's effectively impossible to search for basic health information, such as advice on breast cancer.

Iranian website owners have to register with the government before publishing online, while 'immoral' sites such as Flickr and YouTube are banned, and ISPs must ensure that prohibited content is not available via their servers.

Access denied

Governments don't just limit what people can see online – they also limit how they get on to the internet in the first place. Iran banned high-speed connections in 2006, partly to protect its creaky network infrastructure, but also to prevent Western cultural products – music, movies and so on – from becoming easily accessible.

In Cuba, citizens have to use government-controlled access points that monitor the keywords they search for and the sites that they visit. In Vietnam, reports claim that 'cyberpolice' monitor people's activities in internet cafes.

In 2007, the Burmese government responded to antigovernment protests by shutting down internet access for the entire country. And in South Korea, citizens have to provide their official ID numbers in order to gain access to many websites.

Sometimes the gates to the web are closed by accident. In 2006, Zimbabwe's internet connectivity suffered a major setback when the state telecoms company didn't bother paying its bills. Satellite communications firm Intelsat promptly cut off 90 per cent of the country's internet access.

It's doubtful that Robert Mugabe's government was greatly worried by this; even where people can get connections, ISPs must help the government to locate the authors of any messages considered 'harmful' and 'take the necessary measures' to prevent illegal material from being published. Even when countries don't use blanket censorship or beat up bloggers, the climate can be chilling.

In Belarus, legislation passed in 2007 forces the owners of cybercafes and computer clubs to report anybody visiting 'sensitive' websites to the police, while sites critical of the government have an unfortunate tendency to succumb to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

Tunisian cybercafe owners are responsible for the activities of their users, which means users are often asked for ID before logging on and then warned away from 'subversive' sites. The penalties for breaking the rules can be severe.

In Egypt, Hala Al-Masry's Cops Without Boundaries blog attracted the attention of the authorities. She was harassed by government officials, her father was mysteriously beaten up, and she and her husband were arrested and forced to shut down the blog.

In Burma, Maung Thura is serving a 59-year jail sentence for publishing footage of the aftermath of the devastating 2008 cyclone. In Iran, Omidreza Mirsayafi was jailed for insulting the country's religious leaders; he died in prison in mysterious circumstances.

In Syria, Waed al-Mhana faces jail for criticising the government's decision to demolish a historical market, and China has jailed 48 bloggers for 'inciting subversion'.

Who is colluding with the censors?

Nanny's little helpers

The technology used to censor content and spy on users is rarely home-grown. In 2006, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) provided the US House of Representatives' Committee on International Relations with a list of US firms that either provided censorship tools to other nations or actively censored content.

According to RSF, Yahoo has censored its Chinese search results since 2002 and also helped the Chinese police identify and jail at least one journalist and one dissident who criticised human rights abuses.

MSN censors the Chinese version of MSN Spaces, Google censors its search results in China, Secure Computing has sold censorship technology to Tunisia, and Fortinet has sold the same kind of software to Burma. Most seriously of all, RSF alleges that Cisco Systems has marketed equipment "specifically designed to make it easier for the Chinese police to carry out surveillance of electronic communications".

RSF also alleges that Cisco is suspected of giving Chinese engineers training in how to use its products to censor the internet. Cisco strenuously denies the allegations, but as the US Council for Foreign Relations reported back in early 2008, "China relied on two US companies – Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks – to help carry out its network upgrade, known as CN2, in 2004. This upgrade significantly increased China's ability to monitor internet usage [although] Cisco has denied charges it adapted its equipment."

The truth is that hardware and software designed to block genuine problems – illegal pornography, viruses, worms and hacking attacks, for example – is often just as effective at blocking legitimate sites or scanning legitimate traffic. As always, technology itself is neither a force for good nor a force for evil: it all depends on who's using it.

Fighting back

Technology can censor internet use, but it can be used to evade censorship and surveillance too. Picidae turns websites into images, enabling you to read and click links without worrying about your browsing history being recorded or pages scanned for keywords.

Another example is Freegate, which uses proxy servers to reroute traffic and bypass censorship. Then there's Tor. Tor takes your internet requests and routes them through virtual tunnels, making it impossible for traffic analysts to see what you're connecting to (or to trace you from server logs).

Through add-ons such as the Tor button plug-in for Firefox it can anonymise browsing (although for full security you should disable plug-ins such as Flash, QuickTime and so on). While doing a sterling job at hiding what you're looking at, it doesn't protect against tracking cookies and it doesn't encrypt communications – so if you send somebody an email its content can still be intercepted by third parties.

Tor

THE ONION ROUTER:Tor can help minimise your exposure by encrypting your browsing, but it isn't a silver bullet – and it can be compromised

Internet censorship in the UK

It couldn't happen here

Could censorship happen here? It already does. Around 95 per cent of residential internet connections pass through filters that compare requested URLs with the Internet Watch Foundation's blacklist, a secret list of sites that host child pornography. However, despite concerns about the IWF itself, there's no suggestion or evidence that the IWF list deliberately blocks anything other than illegal porn.

It's not compulsory, either: ISPs don't have to use the blacklist if they don't want to. That doesn't mean that things won't change in the future, though. In Australia, the government proposed – and then shelved – new legislation which would have introduced mandatory filtering of all online content to prevent X-rated material (that's content that would be classified R18+ or X18+ in the UK) from being seen by minors.

Any such content that wasn't protected by an age verification system would be deleted if hosted on Australian servers, or the site blocked if the files were hosted somewhere outside of the country. As the Australian proposal demonstrates, protecting children from smut can easily lead to heavy-handed censorship. Could the UK implement similar filtering? The Scots might.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland recently criminalised downloading of 'extreme' – that is, violent – pornography, but the Scottish Government intends to go further. Its new Criminal Justice Bill doesn't just criminalise actual violence; it would also make it illegal to possess images that "realistically depict life-threatening acts and violence that would appear likely to cause severe injury [or] non-consensual penetrative sexual activity."

The difference between the Scots legislation and the rest of the UK raises the faintly absurd prospect of Porn Police checking Englishmen's laptops at airports and train stations. It also shows the problem of instigating any kind of censorship, no matter how well-meaning: if the IWF blacklist were forced to follow the Scot's criterion, it would arguably have to block clips from Hollywood movies such as Hostel 2, which realistically depicts life-threatening violence in a sexual content, or Irreversible, which features a protracted rape scene.

IWF advert

IWF:The IWF blocklist filters illegal porn – but ISPs don't have to subscribe to it if they don't want to

Keep calm and carry on

Over the years, pressure groups have demanded that UK ISPs filter pro-anorexia websites and other potentially dangerous content, and copyright owners want filesharing sites such as The Pirate Bay blocked.

However, even when blocking particular kinds of content is unlikely to cause public outcry, the British government shies away from outright censorship. For example, in April it emerged that the Home Office was taking steps against websites that promoted anti-Western, extremist views. It wasn't blocking them, though: rather, it was teaching search engine optimisation to the webmasters of pro-Western, moderate websites so that their sites would become more visible.

It may sound bizarre, but the recent Damian McBride email scandal typifies the government's attitude to the internet: faced with strong criticism from right-wing blogs, government insiders tried to fight back by circulating smears about their opponents. The plan was many things – including reprehensible, morally bankrupt and doomed to failure – but it wasn't censorship.

In some countries, the government would simply have rounded up the most critical bloggers and made them disappear. In the UK we're lucky enough to live in a country where our internet access is largely unimpeded, and where we have the freedom to launch online petitions, copy all our emails to Alan Johnson and write angry blog posts about real or perceived threats to our privacy without fearing either persecution or a prison sentence.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be vigilant, of course – never underestimate the power of a newspaper 'ban this sick filth' campaign or a 'terrorists are using Twitter' scare story – but perhaps we should be counting our blessings at the same time.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 284

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