GEOG 479
Cyber-Geography in Geospatial Intelligence

Censorship of the Internet from the 1990s to the present


Censorship of the Internet from the 1990s to the present

Online information control is a key issue among the United States and other actors. However, some countries, including Russia, China, and Iran, focus on “cyber influence” and the risk that Internet content might contribute to political instability and regime change. The United States focuses on cybersecurity and the risks to the reliability and integrity of our networks and systems. This is a fundamental difference in how we define cyber threats.

Testimony of Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, 12Mar2013, page 6

The number of nations that intentionally limit access to online content has increased in the last decade. Some of these nations make arguments that are often powerful and compelling: securing intellectual property rights, protecting national security, preserving cultural norms and religious values, and shielding children from pornography and exploitation. Using these arguments, many nations are implementing extensive filtering practices to curb the perceived “lawlessness” of the Internet.

Internet Censorship and Filtering Techniques

Internet censorship can be enacted using a multitude of different techniques. Internet filtering normally refers to technical approaches of controlling access to information. Filtering based on dynamic content analysis—effectively reading the content of requested websites—is now being deployed.

Three commonly-used techniques that block access to websites are:

  1. Internet Protocol (IP) address blocking
  2. Domain Name System (DNS) tampering
  3. Uniform Resource Locator (URL) blocking using a proxy

These techniques are used to block access to specific webpages, domains, or IP addresses, and are typically used where direct control is beyond the reach of national authorities. Keyword blocking prevents access to websites based on words found in URLs or searches using blacklisted terms. It is a more advanced technique that a growing number of countries are beginning to employ. Blocking access to certain websites can be achieved by Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks that overload the target computer.

In some instances, companies that provide Internet search services are forced to cooperate with governments to omit “illegal” websites from search results. (When Google entered China, one of the issues posed to them was to employ a self-filtering strategy to control access to “questionable content.”) As opposed to blocking access to the targeted sites, this simply makes finding the sites more difficult. When a government has direct access to - legal jurisdiction over - web content hosts, the simpler strategy is to demand the removal of the offending sites. Often, a cease and desist notice sent from one party to another, with the threat of subsequent legal action, is enough to persuade web hosts to take down the targeted sites. Where authorities have control of domain name servers, officials can simply deregister a domain – effectively making the website invisible to users.

Political Cartoon of man cutting all Internet lines but one. Onlookers say - "But they say we'll all be better off this way...
Figure 3: Network Neutrality.
Credit: Network Neutrality Project from CMU.

Another way to limit access is by encouraging self-censorship both in browsing and in choosing content to make available. This may take place through a threat of legal action, the promotion of social norms, or informal methods of intimidation (read excessive red tape to begin operations). Arrest and detention related to Internet offenses, or on unrelated charges, has been used to encourage compliance with Internet content restrictions. Sometimes the content restrictions are neither spoken nor written. The user perception that a government engages in surveillance and monitoring of Internet activity can provide a strong incentive to avoid posting material or visiting sites that might draw the attention of authorities.

While technologies alone can be effective at blocking specific content, current technology is not able to accurately identify and target specific categories of content found on the billions of webpages that exist on the web. Filtering has inherent flaws, notably under-blocking and over-blocking. Under-blocking is the failure to filter targeted content deemed offensive. Over-blocking refers to filtering non-targeted content that shouldn’t be filtered. Blacklists are generated through a combination of manually designated websites, and automated searches often contain incorrectly classified websites as a result of over-filtering. Blunt filtering methods, such as IP blocking, can knock out large blocks of acceptable websites because they are hosted on the same IP.

The profusion of Internet content means that those hoping to block access to certain types of content have to rely on software providers with automated content-identification techniques. This essentially puts the access control in the hands of corporations that are not subject to the review by government entities enforcing standards.

comic of man in Iran photographing violence with cell phone and saying, stop or I'll tweet.
Figure 4: Stop or I'll Tweet!
Credit: Walt Handelsman, June 17, 2009.

Listen to the Experts (Optional Talk)

Clay Shirky is an adjunct professor in New York University’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he teaches a course named “Social Weather.” He’s also the author of several books, whose content focuses on the rising usefulness of networks - using decentralized technologies such as peer-to-peer sharing, wireless, software for social creation, and open-source development. New technologies enable new kinds of cooperative structures to flourish as a way of getting things done in business, science, the arts, and elsewhere, as an alternative to centralized and institutional structures, which he sees as self-limiting. In his writings and speeches, he has argued that "a group is its own worst enemy." Shirky gave a talk (which saw 1 million views in the first 48 hours) at the TED headquarters in New York in June 2009, where he argued passionately against SOPA/PIPA.

In the winter of 2012, Congress considered two new bills on SOPA and PIPA, again ostensibly designed to stop online piracy. The Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would allow the US government to mandate DNS blocking—the technique that Iran had used in the 2009 election, to prevent US citizens from viewing unauthorized copies of copyrighted material on things like social media or search engines. The bill would also have made those sites responsible for removing links to pirated material. The DNS blocking provision was dropped from the bills this last time, but it will resurface as it does every few years. A "net revolt" incited by groups like Reddit, Google, and Wikipedia, threw the censorship card on the table, killing the legislation this time.

How Social Media can Make History
Click here for transcript of the how social media can make history video.

The transformed media landscape and what it means for anybody who has a message that they want to get out to anywhere in the world. And I want to illustrate that by telling a couple of stories about that transformation. I'll start here. Last November, there was a presidential election. You probably read something about it in the papers. And there was some concern that in some parts of the country there might be voter suppression. 

And so a plan came up to video the vote. And the idea was that individual citizens with phones capable of taking photos or making video would document their polling places on the lookout for any kind of voter suppression techniques, and would upload this to a central place, and that this would operate as a kind of citizen observation, that citizens would not be there just to cast individual votes, but also to help ensure the sanctity of the vote overall. 

So this is a pattern that assumes we're all in this together. What matters here isn't technical capital. It's social capital. These tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. It isn't when the shiny new tools to show up that their uses start permeating society, it's when everybody is able to take them for granted. 

Because now that media is increasingly social, innovation can happen anywhere that people can take for granted the idea that we're all in this together. And so we're starting to see a media landscape in which innovation is happening everywhere and moving from one spot to another. That is a huge transformation. Not to put too fine a point on it. The moment we're living through. 

The moment our historical generation is living through is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history. Now, that's a big claim. I'm going to try and back it up. There are only four periods is the last 500 years were media has changed enough to qualify for the label revolution. The first one is the famous one, the printing press. 

Movable type, oil based inks, that whole complex of innovations that made printing possible and turned Europe upside down, starting in the middle of the 1400s. Then a couple of hundred years ago there was innovation in two way communication, conversational media. First the telegraph, then the telephone. Slow, text based conversations, then real time, voice based conversations. 

Then about 150 years ago, there was a revolution in recorded media other than print. First photos, then recorded sound, then movies, all encoded into physical objects. And finally, about 100 years ago, the harnessing of electromagnetic spectrum to send sound and images through the air, radio and television. This is the media landscape as we knew it in the 20th century. 

This is what those of us of a certain age grew up with and are used to. But this curious asymmetry here. The media that's good at creating conversations is no good at creating groups, and the media that's good at creating groups is no good at creating conversations. If you want to have a conversation in this world, you have it with one other person. 

If you want to address a group, you get the same message and you give it to everybody in the group, whether you're doing that with a broadcasting tower or a printing press. That was the media landscape as we had it in the 20th century. And this is what changed. This thing that looks like a peacock hit a wind screen is Bill Cheswick's map of the internet. He traces the edges of the individual networks, and then color codes them. 

The internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversation at the same time. Whereas the phone gave us the one to one pattern, and television and radio, magazines, books give us the one to many pattern, the internet gives us the many to many pattern. For the first time, media is natively good at supporting these kinds of conversations. That's one of the big changes. 

The second big change is that as all media gets digitized, the internet also becomes the mode of carriage for all other media. Meaning that phone calls migrate to the internet, magazines migrate to the internet, movies migrate to the internet, and that means that every medium is right next door to every other medium. Put another way, media is increasingly less just a source of information, it is increasingly more a site of coordination. 

Because groups that see or hear or watch, or listen to something can now gather around and talk to each other as well. And the third big change is that members of the former audiences, Dan Gillmor calls them, can now also be producers and not consumers. Every time a new consumer joins this media landscape, a new producer joins as well, because the same equipment, phones, computers let you consume and produce. 

It's as if when you bought a book, they threw in the printing press for free. It's like you had a phone that could turn into a radio if you pressed the right buttons. That is a huge change in the media landscape we're used to. And it's not just internet or no internet, right? We've had the internet in its public form for almost 20 years now, and it's still changing as the media becomes more social. 

It's still changing patterns, even among groups who know how to deal with the internet well. Second story. Last May, China, in the Sichuan province had a terrible earthquake. 7.9 magnitude. Massive destruction in a wide area, as the Richter scale has it. And the earthquake was reported as it was happening. People were texting from their phones, they were taking photos of buildings. 

They were taking videos of buildings shaking. They're uploading it to QQ, China's largest internet service. They were Twittering it. And so as the quake was happening, the news was reported. And because of the social connections, Chinese students coming elsewhere and going to school, or businesses in the rest of the world opening offices in China, there were people listening all over the world, hearing this news. 

The BBC got their first wind of the Chinese quake from Twitter. Twitter announced the existence of the quake several minutes before the US Geological Survey had anything up online for anybody to view. The last time China had a quake of that magnitude it took them three months to admit that it had happened. 

Now, they might have liked to have done that here, rather than seeing these pictures go up online, but they weren't given that choice, because their own citizens beat them to the punch. Even the government learned of the earthquake from their own citizens, rather than from the Xinhua News Agency. And this stuff rippled like wildfire. 

For a while there, the top 10 most clicked links on Twitter, the global short messaging service, 9 of the top 10 links we're about the quake. People collating information, pointing people to news sources, pointing people to the US Geological Survey. The 10th one was kittens on a treadmill, but that's the internet for you. But 9 of the 10 in those first hours, and within half a day, donation sites were up, and donations were pouring in from all around the world. 

There was just an incredible, coordinated global response. And the Chinese, then in one of their periods of media openness, decided that they were going to let it go. That they were going to let this citizen reporting flower. And then this happened. 

People began to figure out in the Sichuan province that the reason so many school buildings had collapsed, because tragically the earthquake happened during a school day, the reason so many school buildings collapsed is that corrupt officials had taken bribes to allow those buildings to be built to less than code. And so they started, the citizen journalists started reporting that as well. 

And there was an incredible picture, you may have seen it on the front page of the New York Times. A local official literally prostrated himself in the street, in front of these protesters, in order to get them to go away. Essentially to say, we will do anything to placate you, just please stop protesting in public. But these are people who've been radicalized, because thanks to the one child policy, they have lost everyone in their next generation. 

Someone who's seen the death of a single child now has nothing to lose. And so the protests kept going, and finally the Chinese cracked down. That was enough of the citizen media. And so they began to arrest the protesters. They begin to shut down the media that the protests were happening on. China is probably the most successful manager of internet censorship in the world, using something that's widely described as the great firewall of China. 

And the great firewall of China is a set of observation points that assume that media is produced by professionals. It mostly comes in from the outside world. It comes in in relatively sparse chunks, and it comes in relatively slowly. And because of those four characteristics, they're able to filter it as it comes into the country. 

But like the Maginot Line, the great firewall of China was facing in the wrong direction for this challenge, because not one of those four things was true in this environment. The media was produced locally, it was produced by amateurs, it was produced quickly, and it was produced at such an incredible abundance that there was no way to filter it as it appeared. 

And so now the Chinese government, who for a dozen years has quite successfully filtered the web, is now in the position of having to decide whether to allow or shut down entire services, because the transformation to amateur media is so enormous that they can't deal with it any other way. And in fact, that is happening this week. 

On the 20th anniversary of Tienanmen, they just two days ago announced that they were simply shutting down access to Twitter, because there was no way to filter it other than that. They had to turn the spigot entirely off. Now, these changes don't just affect people who want to censor messages. They also affect people who want to send messages, because this is really a transformation of the ecosystem as a whole, not just a particular strategy. 

The classic media problem from the 20th century is how does an organization have a message that they want to get out to a group of people distributed at the edges of the network? And here's the 20th century answer. Bundle up the message. Send the same message to everybody. National message, targeted individuals, relatively sparse number of producers. Very expensive to do, so there's not a lot of competition. 

This is how you reach people. All of that is over. We are increasingly in a landscape where media is global, social, ubiquitous, and cheap. Now, most organizations that are trying to send messages to the outside world, to the distributed collection of the audience are now used to this change. The audience can talk back. And that's a little freaky, but you can get used to it after a while, as people are doing. 

But that's not the really crazy change that we're living in the middle of. The really crazy change is here. It's the fact that they're no longer disconnected from each other. The fact that former consumers are now produces. 

The fact that the audience can talk directly to one another, because there's a lot more amateurs than professionals, and because the size of the network, the complexity of the network is actually the square of the number of participants, meaning that the network, when it grows large, grows very, very large. As recently as the last decade, most of the media that was available for public consumption was produced by professionals. 

Those days are over, never to return. It is the green lines now that are the source of the [INAUDIBLE], which brings me to my last story. We saw some of the most imaginative use of social media during the Obama campaign. And I don't mean most imaginative use in politics, I mean most imaginative use ever. And one of the things Obama did famously, the Obama campaign did was they famously put up, 

And millions of citizens rushed in to participate, and to try and figure out how to help. An incredible conversation sprung up there. And then this time last year, Obama announced that he was going to change his vote on FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. He had said in January he would not sign a bill that granted telecom immunity for possibly warrantless spying on American persons. 

By the summer, in the middle of the general campaign, he said, I've thought about the issue more. I've changed my mind. I'm going to vote for this bill. And many of his own supporters on his own site went very publicly berserk. It was Senator Obama when they created it, they changed the name later. 

Please get FISA right. Within days of this group being created, it was the fastest growing up on, within weeks of its being created, it was the largest group. And Obama had to issue a press release. He had to issue a reply. And he said, essentially, I've considered the issue. I understand where you're coming from. But having considered it all, I'm still going to vote the way I'm going to vote. 

But I wanted to reach out to you and say I understand that you disagree with me, and I'm going to take my lumps on this one. This didn't please anybody, but then a funny thing happened in the conversation. People in that group realized that Obama had never shut them down. Nobody in the Obama campaign had ever tried to hide the group or make it harder to join, to deny its existence, to deliver it, to take it off the site. 

They had understood that their role with was to convene their supporters, but not to control their supporters. And that is the kind of discipline that it takes to make really mature use of this media. The media landscape that we knew, as familiar as it was, as easy conceptually as it was to deal with the idea that professionals broadcast messages to amateurs is increasingly slipping away. 

In a world where media is global, social, ubiquitous and cheap, in a world of media where the former audience are now increasingly full participants, in that world media is less and less often about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals. There's more and more often a way of creating an environment for convening and supporting groups. 

And the choice we face, I mean anybody who has a message they want to have heard anywhere in the world, isn't whether that's the media environment we want to operate in. That's the media environment we've got. The question we all face now is how can we make best use of this media, even though it means changing the way we've always done it? Thank you very much. 

Credit: Sydney Copwatch