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Technical approaches to censorship in Asia

Isaac Mao leads off the morning’s session, comparing Internet filtering strategies throughout Asia. He refers to the situation in China as “the great firewall versus the great tunnel”.

In past talks on net filtering, I’ve heard Isaac refer to the idea that “freedom of thought” is a precursor to “freedom of speech” – he’s got a more developed version of this meme now, and refers to the firewall as the conjunction of three walls – barriers to free access, free speech and free thinking. Isaac notes that China has “brainwashed” its population through the educational system. He remembers, “in childhood, my parents would say, ‘Don’t say that, it’s dangerous.’ Later in University, people would say ‘Don’t say democracy in a public space, it’s dangerous.'”

The Chinese firewall barriers to access involve four different strategies – URL hijacking, Keyword screening, IP blocking and “brain shrinking”. The first three are pretty self explanatory – URLs can be redirected to other sites, pages that contain particular keywords can be blocked and whole IP addresses can be made inaccessible. “Brain shrinking” refers to the compromises companies like Google have made in coming to China – they offer restricted versions of their indexes, shrinking the sorts of options available to Chinese users.

While proxies are an option for Chinese users, as are systems like Tor, and agents like “hidemyass” and “nyud“, they’re hard to use – the overwhelming message they send Chinese users is “give up”.

Isaac offers some thoughts on the future of tunnels through the great firewall. He’s interested in “social relaying” – using individual relationships in a peer to peer model to tunnel through the firewall without relying on a central server. (This sounds a bit like what Citizen Lab is trying to do with Psiphon.) He speculates that there’s a strategy of offering internet access via Skype, taking advantage of the fact that Skype’s traffic is encrypted.

Isaac’s done a great job documenting what sites are blocked by the firewall – he and others are using the GFW tag in del.icio.us to show sites that are blocked by the firewall. And he points out that creative Chinese users are finding ways to share information even through photo sharing sites like flickr – he points to a doctored photo of Einstein showing anti-China critique.

Dr. Awab Alvi from Pakistan is one of the leaders of the Don’t Block the Blog project. He’s advocating that Pakistan stop blocking Blogspot.com, which they’ve blocked in the past month.

In Pakistan, there was some violent protest in reaction to the Danish cartoons parodying the Prophet Mohammed. A Pakistani blogger posted a blog – Draw Mohammed Week – which generated a great deal of ire in Pakistan. Under Pakistani law (article 249-C) it’s certainly arguable that this blog is prohibited under Pakistani law.

But Pakistan may have overreacted, blocking all Blogspot blogs for over a month. Awab believes that this is made easier by the fact that all Pakistani internet traffic is routed through the Pakistan internet exchange. He and his colleague Omer Alvie have started a campaign to call attention to this overblocking, and to protest other blocking actions. When Pakistan blocked all of Wikipedia – because one page contained the banned cartoons – they helped organize major online protests, and the block was ended within seven hours.

Nart Villeneuve offers a short version of his default Open Net Initiative talk, which I’ve blogged before here. He makes two interesting points I hadn’t heard before:

– ONI is now especially interested in short-term blocking, especially blocking of opposition websites around elections. He’s recently worked on studies in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus, and in the Kyrgyz elections, found some evidence of denial of service attacks around the election.

– BBC is blocked far more often than comparable news sites like Fox or CNN. Why? Because they create local language content which is considered more dangerous that English language content.

Other posts from FEAC 2006: