22 January 2006

Ron Deibert and the OpenNet Initiative

On Friday, the Centre for Media and Culture Education at OISE hosted Ron Deibert of the OpenNet Initiative. He began by describing the three social forces that contradict the popular conception – some might call it myth – of the Internet being open, borderless, anonymous and free (as in speech). The three that put to rest what might have been the founding ethos of the ‘net include content filtering and censorship that render what appears as borderless as islands of sovereign spaces carved out from cyberspace; surveillance based on state policies that have significantly relaxed restrictions and oversight on the collection of information, often with mutual cooperation among countries; militarization of cyberspace, primarily led by the United States which has adopted a policy that views information operations as appropriate offensive measures.

The OpenNet Initiative is a collaboration among the University of Toronto, Harvard University, and Cambridge University to investigate and document patterns of censorship and surveillance worldwide. These occur within national firewalls over extended periods of time throughout the entire hardware and software infrastructure of the Internet. Their investigative techniques involve covert operations in countries being investigated via remote probes, specific tests by in-country visitors, and covert, literally black boxes attached as in-line, online monitors. Deibert described, for example, how some information is obtained at personal risk to some of the in-country operatives. The objective of ONI is to provide the imprimatur of academic rigour and objectivity to what is often anecdotal information concerning the info-surveillance, filtering and blocking operations of governments, primarily in Central and East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Their findings are impressive, if not disturbing. The scale, scope and sophistication of online filtering and surveillance is growing rapidly, with one repressive regime sharing “best practices” with others. A few years ago, the focus was primarily blocking pornography. Today, it is blocking human rights sites, news sites such as CNN and BBC, websites of opposition movements, anonymizers, web hosting sites and blogging sites. Originally, these countries blocked Western news services. Now, it is primarily local language news and information services that are being blocked, with the exception, of course, of state-sanctioned (and run) news agencies. Up until two years ago, Google cache was a way for local people to get around the filters. Today, Google cache, the Internet Archive, and other similar server locations are blocked. Additionally, there is apparently state-sponsored commercial “black ops” as VoIP and IM services are actively being blocked in some countries in order to maintain the monopoly of state-owned communication services.

Effectively, according to Deibert, the so-called borderless Internet does not exist because of the prevalence of choke points at every level of the Internet’s infrastructure. Geolocation filtering is growing in significance as well. Many countries are not able to access certain U.S. servers because the U.S. company blocks access. In fact, many Western companies are actively cooperating with repressive regimes to provide technology and expertise to facilitate blocking access to the likes of NGOs and human rights organizations. Among the biggest complicit culprits: Cisco, Nortel, Secure Computing (the filter of choice for Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia). It is now well known that to preserve their access to vast commercial markets, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google all comply with restrictive practices imposed by China, for instance. This includes Yahoo providing information that has led to the incarceration of dissidents. (Microsoft’s complicity is discussed at length by Rebecca MacKinnon.)

When it comes to such filtering and surveillance, there are issues of transparency, oversight and accountability that are raised, especially relative to companies and governments operating in the West. The Saudis, for instance, are quite transparent and conspicuous about their blocking activities. If one attempts to access a blocked site, a page is posted indicating that access has been blocked, the reason for blocking, with contact information if the user feels that the site has been blocked in error. In other places, the blocking is far more subtle, with time-outs, 404 (“not found”) pages, as opposed to 403 (“forbidden”), and redirection from the requested site to a government sanctioned site (including, once again, commercial hijacking to government-favoured service providers for, say, search). In many countries, individual blog posts, instant message postings, and even SMS text messages that have “inappropriate words” never make it beyond the gateway to cyberspace, bits dissipated like dust in the cyber-wind.

With all this activity, one is moved to ask, what is being blocked and filtered here at home? How do we know that certain sites that might be sensitive to domestic interests (especially in the U.S.) might suddenly vanish into the cyber-ether?
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