August 29, 2009
Governments Use More Internet Political Filters

Battles are playing out on the internet over control of information about political events.

The latest evidence of these clampdowns comes in a report on the Middle East and north Africa by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), a collaboration of researchers based in the UK and North America. Among the restrictions it reports are clampdowns on Facebook in Syria and the use of hidden cameras in Saudi Arabia's internet cafes.

Most of these actions are aimed at stifling political debate. "Political filtering is the common denominator," says Helmi Noman of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Boston, who compiled the report. "It's the main target."

I can see on a smaller scale how government controls will fail. Point to point communications via private wireless networks won't pass thru government filter and firewall boxes. But on a larger scale it looks to me that governments can control the routing nodes.

Larger governments should be especially efficacious at control because they've got efficiencies of scale working for them. So does China's government win in the info control game?

China has developed an extensive system of filters which it uses to block access to content about sensitive topics, such as the protests in 1989 in Tiananamen Square, Beijing. Other Asian nations, including Thailand and Vietnam, have taken action against blogs and news sites that host material critical of their leaders. The ONI found few restrictions of this kind in the Americas, with the notable exception of Cuba, where many people are unable to even access the internet.

The article describes software developed in the West to help people in more repressive countries defeat the filters and blockers. What I want to know: Which side in this battle will win in the long run? Will governments be able to exert increasingly powerful levels of control over internet communications? Or will powerful open source applications for encryption, proxies that hide the origin of web pages and emails, and other tools work around the government controls?

The war against email spam is in some ways analogous to government controls on web access. The spammers keep finding new ways to camouflage their messages and get thru email filters. Imagine software that converts a news report into text that reads like, say, personal relationship gossip. It could use different names and change verbs to make a story read like it is unrelated to political events. Software on the receiving side could translate the story back into a political news report.

Blocks on individual sites are defeatable with use of reflector sites with other URLs. This is analogous to spammers who register lots of URLs in order to stay ahead of filters that get more URLs added to them. But a government like China's can write bot software that visits web sites found in emails to check them for, say, containing the front page of the NY Times. If multiple URLs map to the same proxy site then governments can start blocking IP addresses. So many servers (meaning more money) would be needed to support many IP addresses.

So how does this battle settle out in the long run? Do the controllers win? Do the controllers scale up to using artificial intelligence to monitor and filter communications? Will one of AI's early uses be for political repression via control of internet traffic?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 August 29 11:04 AM  Comm Tech Society

Billy Oblivion said at August 30, 2009 6:30 AM:

This isn't so much a question of scale as it is a question of ownership of the first layer of the network stack.

If you own the physical layer, or you can force people to use only physical layers you can directly control, then filtering and tracking are simply a matter of effort.

If you cannot own the physical layer (as here in the US currently) then that is much harder to control.

Peg C. said at August 31, 2009 2:36 PM:

Of course our current government has no interest in owning and controlling everything. They say so. I believe them. Yeah, really. Why wouldn't I?

hitnrun said at August 31, 2009 2:39 PM:

"What I want to know: Which side in this battle will win in the long run?"

Assuming the means and methods of what we call the Internet remains like it is now, the rebels always win in the long run, because information suppression can only ever be reactive and defensive. They can't crack down on hacks and workarounds that don't exist yet.

In practical terms, of course, the oppressor really wins, because the ability of brave geeks to escape censorship doesn't count for much for the population at large.

James McEnanly said at August 31, 2009 3:10 PM:

Hopefully, we won't have to use this here, but having the technology ready is a good thing.

Mason said at August 31, 2009 3:33 PM:

Government ultimately have the upper hand because they control everything that actually makes a network - all of the local and regional connections. They can shut it all down anytime they feel like it. The question is whether they prioritize having some sort of network connectivity over squashing dissent. It may not sound like much of a choice to us, but plenty of leaders have demonstrated that they'd rather be in total control of a stone-age hellhole than a leader of a genuinely successful nation.

Peg C. said at September 1, 2009 4:42 AM:

Mason, those aren't leaders, they are rulers (more accurately: thugs, despots, dictators and intimidators). Leaders lead. Controllers of hellholes are not leaders.

That said, the U.S. isn't a hellhole yet but we sure as shootin' do NOT have a leader.

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