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Blogging anonymously from Ethiopia

I received a comment on yesterday’s post regarding the apparent blocking of Blogspot blogs in Ethiopia from Alex, who is evidently an Ethiopian blogger. He offered the following:

While we are getting increasingly worried about the freedom of the web and the muffling of the few free public fora in Ethiopia the oppression is mounting. Since the bombings on Friday the 12th of May the presence of military in various types and colours of uniform has been stepped up. Armed soldiers, who had been walking around with their rifles casually slung around their torsos are now seen with their itchy fingers on the trigger, especially in the “poorer” areas of Lideta, Abinet, Merkato etc. The “security guards” by the Customs offices in LaGare are actually stationed on the wall with their rifles pointing into the street- a busy street. Other news is that the highly publicised use of teachers and schools for oppression and intimidation is continuing. A teacher of foreign origin (a 2nd generation Italian according to my source) at a public school was forced to leave the country after refusing to disclose the name of “troublemakers”- students who are known for political awareness raising and agitation. He was actually lucky… His family here though are still facing uncertainty.

Returning to the freedom of blogs- we are told that we can use Secure Tunnel and similar sites to access blocked blogs, but how can we post? And, more importantly- is it still safe to post? Will Blogspot collaborate with the government like Yahoo did with the Chinese government? There is a need for some detailed advice as to what is a secure way to post on the blogs and also write safe e-mails using means that a cranky, overworked and inefficient Ethiopian Telecom Server can quickly handle.

Here’s a three-part response to Alex and any other Ethiopian bloggers trying to figure out what to do in response to the block.

– Near as I can tell from reports from friends in Ethiopia, blogspot.com is being blocked, but blogger.com is not. This would mean that bloggers can access their blogs and post to them, but probably cannot see the results within Ethiopia without using a proxy like Anonymizer, Anonymouse or Secure Tunnel.

If the Ethiopian government is serious about blocking access to Blogspot, they will likely block blogger.com as well soon, which will make it impossible to blog on that site without using a proxy.

If ETC and the government are cooperating to locate bloggers within Ethiopia – there is no indication yet that this is the case, but it is a possibility – it would be very easy to detect who is blogging through Blogger if they are not using proxy. This might make it possible for government authorities to identify the specific person blogging, especially if they were blogging from home, rather than from a cybercafe. In other words, if you are blogging politically sensitive material in Ethiopia, this may be a dangerous thing to do – I do not recommend it.

– It is possible to use Blogger through Tor. I just confirmed this, making a post to a Blogger blog I use for testing, while using Tor. If you use Tor to access Blogger, it will not be possible for ETC to see that you are accessing Blogger. They would be able to see that you are accessing a Tor server, but it would be unclear whether you were looking at a blocked blog, editing a blog, or looking at some other website entirely.

The only danger in this situation would be if Blogger/Google cooperated with the Ethiopian government to release data on who signed up for a Blogger account. If you signed up for Blogger using an IP address in Ethiopia – or if you used any personally identifiable data in signing up for that account – Google could theoretically share than information with the government. Personally, I think it is very unlikely that they will do so – Google does not have operations in Ethiopia and therefore is unlikely to face the sorts of political pressure Yahoo faced in China. But if you are really concerned that Google might release information to the government, this could be a concern.

– If you want to blog from Ethiopia and protect yourself to the greatest extent possible, you should do the following:

1) Install Tor.
2) With Tor running, sign up for a Hushmail account. Don’t use any personally identifiable information when signing up for that account.
3) Using Tor and your new Hushmail account, sign up for a new account on wordpress.com. WordPress isn’t yet blocked in Ethiopia, to the best of our knowledge, and WordPress blogs are easy to move to new servers, if need be.
4) When you blog to this new blog, do so using Tor.

There are no guarantees of anonymity on the internet, but the method outlined above is quite likely to provide you with a very high level of anonymity.

RSF has posted about the apparent censorship in Ethiopia, asking ETC and the government to clarify if there’s a technical problem (unlikely) or whether these blogs are being intentionally blocked. Business in Africa has picked up the story as well. It will be interesting to see if the government acknowledges this block at some point in the future.

Added: a quick tip for Ethiopian blog readers – I’ve had reports that Bloglines is not blocked within Ethiopia. This lets you read many of the blogs that appear to be inaccesible through ETC. For instance, the feed for Ethiopundit is available at http://www.bloglines.com/preview?siteid=491680 . Try going to Bloglines and searching for the blog you’re looking for – it just may be reachabble within the Bloglines system. Ethiobloggers outside the country – consider setting up a Bloglines account and subscribing to your own blog – this will make it available within Ethiopia… unless ETC ends up blocking Bloglines as well.

4 thoughts on “Blogging anonymously from Ethiopia”

  1. I don’t know much about security, so if i am wrong about this, I hope someone will correct me.

    It seems worth nothing that you can both post to a Blogger blog and read blogs via email. You can set up Blogger to receive messages at username.password@blogger.com, which are then published directly to the blog. [it’s in your email settings.]

    If you don’t want local authorities to see that you are sending mail to overthrow_the_government@blogger.com, set up a gmail address with a filter that automatically forwards the messages to your Blogger publishing address.

    It’s a little tricky to embed images, but links shouldn’t be a problem.

    For reading blogs, services like rssfwd.com allow blog updates to be sent directly to an email address.

  2. Hi Paul –

    Blogging via email is definitely one of the ways to get around blocks like the one in Ethiopia. However, it requires you to get into Blogger in the first place to set up the email address and password… which may require Tor or another piece of circumvention software.

    Once you start blogging via email, you need to consider whether that email can be read as well. If you’re sending email through a conventional email client in Ethiopia, not using IMAPS or POPS, it would not be difficult for a network administrator at ETC to see who the email was being sent to and what the content of the posts was. It would be a much better idea to use Gmail through its secure interface – using Gmail through its conventional interface leaves your email open to snooping by ETC. Either access gmail at https://mail.google.com/mail/ or use Hushmail, which conveys all its session traffic via https.

  3. Thank you so much Ethan, I am deeply touched by your support, and thank you for giving up some of your time and energy to give people like me who are living in totalitarian countries a voice and good technical advise. It really means a lot. Ethiopia is heading towards the road of fascism and absolute control of every living and breathing being by the few narrow minded and self-centred people. It is an absolute pleasure to have people like you who stand in solidarity with the poor and the dispossessed people of the world. Change for the better and brighter future can only come this way. If most of the concise intellectuals of the world stand against tyranny and dictatorship, the world we live in wouldn’t have been as depressing and unbearable as it is now. You know, I was visiting my friend yesterday evening at her house, which is in the poorer side of Addis, and because it was some sort of a meeting on our current predicament there were a lot of people discussing about what is happening to them personally and the country in general, and also what should be done to solve our problem. All of a sudden the conversation was shifted to talk about hope, and a young girl stood up and said,”You know what? They can take away my house or material belongings, but what makes me sad and angry is when they try to take away my hope”. I think dictatorships thrive when there is no “hope”, hope for a bright tomorrow, and she summed up everything I wanted to tell the world in few sentences. All the censorship of free speech(the little there was) and the brutal and monstrous treatment of ordinary citizens was all about destroying peoples hope, but I can’t give up hoping and people like you who live in the free world give me all the hope for a bright future. Thank you Ethan.

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