Watching Big Brother: The Hypocrisy of Internet Censorship

A recent report by the ONI points out that technologies developed in the West are increasingly being adopted by governments elsewhere to limit access to information
A recent report by the ONI points out that technologies developed in the West are increasingly being adopted by governments elsewhere to limit access to information

Western democracies – where freedom of speech is celebrated as a cornerstone of society – decry the regimes of countries where the net is routinely monitored and censored. China, Iran and Syria are often cited as the worst offenders, but plenty of others have a poor record, too, including much of Eastern Europe and parts of North Africa, as well as democratic countries like Turkey, Pakistan and India. Internet censorship and monitoring in these countries is not only effective at containing the spread of information that governments deem unpalatable, but frequently also leads to the arrest and persecution of journalists, protesters and political or social dissidents.

UK newspaper, The Guardian, recently produced an interactive map of the world showing the extent and nature of online censorship in individual nations. The map is based on public data from the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a joint venture by several US and Canadian academic and research institutions, that researches and reports on online censorship and its effects worldwide. In its 2011 review, ONI notes: “Although Asian and Middle Eastern countries and regimes were often in the ONI spotlight this year, European and American companies also came under scrutiny for their role in internet censorship. Last year saw French and British software firms exporting technology to the Middle East that was used in surveillance and monitoring of online and mobile communications. In August, political prisoners sued Cisco for supplying the Chinese government with software to track Chinese internet users.”

In an earlier (March 2011) report on the role of Western technologies in state censorship, ONI points out that technologies developed in the West – ostensibly to detect and block offensive or illegal material – are increasingly being adopted by governments elsewhere to keep tabs on – or silence – dissenting voices, curb protest and sure up their political power. “ISPs [internet service providers] in Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Sudan, and Tunisia all use Western-built automated filtering solutions to block mass content”, it says. Censored material includes websites that provide skeptical views of Islam or openly discuss secular, atheist, sexual or gay rights issues, as well as those offering dating services or information about censorship-circumvention tools.

Policy Insanity

Indeed, many Western governments seem to take a somewhat schizophrenic stance on censorship. On one hand, they seek to promote online freedom of expression throughout the world, in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For example, the UK Foreign Office last year convened a Freedom of Expression on the Internet Expert Group comprising lawyers, academics and other experts to advise on the best ways to go about it. Others are actively developing and distributing technologies to help people bypass internet censorship, such as the US government-funded Commotion Wireless project, which gives people open-source tools to set up their own distributed ‘mesh networks’ by linking together their wireless devices without going through a central ISP.

On the other hand, we see these same governments not only failing to take a stand on the sale of Western censorship-enabling technologies to oppressive regimes, but also attempting to monitor and control what their own people can say and see online. Such measures, these governments contend, are necessary to prevent criminal activity such as the distribution of child pornography, the promotion of violence and hatred, or the piracy of copyrighted content.

Among the proposals currently causing consternation among UK anti-censorship campaigners is the upcoming Communications Bill, which will include new measures to make ISPs filter out potentially pornographic sites automatically by default “to protect children”. It will also put an onus on search engines, ISPs and other ‘intermediaries’ to prevent copyright infringement.

"The minute individuals have to persuade a large company of something’s merits before they’re allowed to publish it is the minute internet innovation stops, the minute we don’t get the next Wikipedia"
Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard

Another is the UK Home Office’s Prevent strategy, which would give security officials the right to censor websites deemed to be inciting terrorism, without any legal oversight or transparency. Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group (ORG), a UK organization defending internet freedom, says: “On one hand they’re trying to tell the rest of the world they need to respect people’s human rights by promoting internet freedom, but when it comes to our own democracy in the UK they tend to leap to censorship and surveillance as the first port of call whenever there’s a perceived problem. It’s a reaction that fails to take into account real evidence or to address the practical implications, or whether the measures they’re proposing will do more harm than good.”

Water Always Finds a Way

The information security profession knows all too well how trivial it is to bypass these types of controls by using technologies such as encryption, steganography, proxies or anonymizing systems such as TOR – as does any self-respecting commercial-scale copyright infringer, pedophile, or terrorist. The general mass of law-abiding users and small businesses don’t, however, and campaigners believe they’re the ones most likely to be negatively affected by such proposals.

There are plenty of examples of automated filters censoring perfectly legitimate content, such as when the English town of Scunthorpe was excised from Google searches in 2004 because its name contained a certain offensive four-letter word. Amusing, perhaps, although not quite so funny for the town’s businesses, which lost customers as a result. Similarly, in December last year, an overzealous Virgin Media filter unhelpfully prevented UK customers from seeing content on its electronic TV guide relating to the UK soccer team Arsenal, TV presenters Dick and Dom, Charles Dickens and others.

"People understand the democratic power they have through the internet and social media. They don’t want to see it controlled or limited by regulation"
Jim Killock, Open Rights Group

In addition to the measures being ineffective at hitting their stated targets, the ORG says there are inherent dangers in the kind of measures being proposed. For a start, they force ISPs into the role of censors and reduce the impetus on governments to address the underlying problems.

In the US, the SOPA/PIPA legislation would have imposed similar strictures on American companies, with global repercussions. Critics of the bills, which included leading technology companies such as Google, Facebook and Wikipedia, claimed they would stifle innovation and threaten online freedom. This criticism culminated in online protests in January 2012, with thousands of internet users voicing their opposition to the bills on social media and self-imposed 24-hour blackouts by high-profile sites like Wikipedia. The action led to the shelving of the bills – for the time being at least.

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a multinational treaty to address intellectual property infringements drawn up behind closed doors without public input, met with similar opprobrium and widespread protests across Europe this year. (Editor's note: since this article was published, ACTA has been struck down by the European Parliament)

“People understand the democratic power they have through the internet and social media. They don’t want to see it controlled or limited by regulation”, ORG’s Killock asserts. “Politicians wrongly assume people have this reaction because they want to access pirated material online. In fact, it’s a reaction to a sustained, systematic attack on the tools we all depend on for our democratic rights.”

A Message from the Ministry of Truth

Traditionally, tech-savvy proponents of an uncensored internet have often assumed the very nature of the net as an open, highly distributed medium that will thwart any attempts to control it technologically. For the tech savvy, that is – and may remain – true. But Harvard law professor and author Jonathan Zittrain, one of the founders of the ONI, believes people’s increasing willingness to entrust their data to large, corporate providers and tethered devices such as the iPhone and Kindle, is unwittingly putting us all at greater risk of unchecked censorship.

Zittrain acknowledges that because these systems can be centrally monitored and controlled, they do solve many of the usability and security problems inherent on the open internet, which is one reason so many people are attracted to them. But at what cost, he asks? The terms of Apple’s App Store, Facebook or Amazon give these private companies an unprecedented right to censor and remote-delete whatever they like from their platforms and their users’ devices – or whatever they’re asked to censor by third parties, including corporate lawyers and governments.

In a talk last year, Zittrain gave some telling examples that indicate where the internet might be heading. “For example, one app called Freedom Time, which counted down the time until the end of George W Bush’s presidency, was denied from the App Store. The developer wrote to Steve Jobs to ask why. Jobs replied that although he was a Democrat, ‘what’s the point of offending half our customers?’. The minute individuals have to persuade a large company of something’s merits before they’re allowed to publish it is the minute internet innovation stops, the minute we don’t get the next Wikipedia”, he said.

Another example is the Kindle. Zittrain observes: “When Amazon gave away the novel 1984 to US customers thinking it was public domain, it subsequently realized someone had screwed up on the copyright and it was only public domain in Canada. So immediately, it remotely deleted 1984 from everybody’s Kindle. We should be keeping a close eye on what these leading devices are telling us about the future of our technology environment.”

So for Kindle users, as in real life, 1984 has come and gone. But unless we all remain vigilant, George Orwell’s vision might yet come to pass.

What’s hot on Infosecurity Magazine?