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March 5, 2009

Circumvention Report

Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, and John Palfrey have released a careful report they wrote in 2007 about the tools and techniques for circumventing filtering of sites. Although some of the particular evaluations of tools are out of date now, the general explanations and evaluations are still trenchant. From the announcement of the report’s publication:

The authors find that all of the tools use the same basic mechanisms of proxying and encryption but that they differ in their models of hosting proxies. Some tools use proxies that are centrally hosted, others use proxies that are peer hosted, and others use re-routing methods that use a combination of the two. The authors find that, in general, the tools work in the sense that they allow users to access pages that are otherwise blocked by filtering countries but that performance of the tools is generally poor and that many tools have significant, unreported security vulnerabilities. Responses from developers of the tools in question are included in the report.

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March 3, 2009

[berkman] Rebecca MacKinnon on the Chinese Internet and democracy

Rebecca MacKinnon isgiving a Berkman talk on the Chinese Internet. [Note: Live-blogging, hence full of errors and omissions and typos and misspellings and inadequate paraphrases.] [For a better report, see Ethan Zuckerman‘s]

She begins by pointing to Lao Tze’s saying that directly grasping something is often the worst way of controlling it. Then she shows a video of Chinese kids lipsyncing to the Backstreet Boys. They’re now famous in China as the “Back Dorm Boys.” The Chinese government has lost control of the culture, she says. Novelists and artists are routing around the control structure. For 66% of Chinese young people, the Web is the primary source of video entertainment. Most of it is found through social networking.

Premier Wen Jiabao gave a two hour chat online with Netizens. Questions came in from the Web, moderated by a journalist. It showed a human side of the Chinese leaders. “This is being greeted by many in China with euphoria.” The Premier said that he spends 30-60 mins on line everyday and considers it an important way to hear what people are thinking. There’s an egov site, including chat rooms and forums, as well as providing online services.

The National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meets for two weeks every year, primarily to rubber stamp decisions. The Premier gives a live press conference once a year. Now he’s on the Web responding to questions directly. The meeting has a site (run by a Chinese newspaper) where people can comment, make suggestions, etc. Someone posted that the one child policy should be ended, with a lively open discussion among Chinese citizens.

So, asks Rebecca, is this “Chinese cyber-glasnost”? Chinese government Web sites are celebrating this as “Internet democracy.” But …

… Blogger Wang Xiaofeng blogged yesterday that people are getting too emotional about this. “Without a proper political structure, all Premiere Wen can do is interact with people on an emotional level…” He posted that yesterday. Today is blog is “closed temporarily.” He was told to close his blog. Other blogs talking about this have to insert spaces between words that otherwise would trigger inspection.

Dissidents are still in jail, Rebecca says. Bloggers, opposition party folks, lawyers… Yongnian Zheng talks about “authoritarian deliberation.” (His book: Technological Empowerment). Authoritarian regimes allow different degrees of deliberation. China is more deliberative because of the Internet, says Rebecca, but institutionally it hasn’t changed.

Our common Western paradigm makes it hard for us to understand Chinese Internet control, Rebecca says. We tend to think of it like the Great Wall: A barrier blocks people from accessing outside information. It is, as Lokman Tsui calls it, the “Iron Curtain 2.0.” Internet filtering is only one small part of censorship in China. It only affects sites hosted outside of China. For those hosted inside, the “Net nanny” metaphor is more accurate: A paternalistic state that protects people from themselves and maintains order. Google China does not show gory photos when you search for “Tianamen Massacre.” Baidu, the largest search service in China, returns zero results. If you try to post a post that contains trigger words, it goes into a moderation queue from which it never emerges. Eight out of 15 blog hosting services removed “objectionable” political content. The censoring is done by the hosting companies.

We could also use the metaphor of hydroelectric engineering. Most of the Chinese leaders have engineering backgrounds. When the storm comes, you put up the dam, then you let water out. New technique: The official news agencies quickly break stories that are bad news for the government (e.g., riots in Weng’an county in 7/08), and then they censor the unofficial versions. The official version “flooded” the Web.

People routed around this censorship. Youc ouldn’t talk about Weng’an, but you can talk about pushups, because the official story behind a murder was that a man was doing pushups on the bridge. Bloggers used pushups as a way of talking about the forbidden content. Or:” the government used “Harmonious Society” as a slogan. People had started using “harmonized” to mean “censored,” but then “harmonized” got censored, so people started using “rivercrab,” which is very close to “harmonious.” Then people started posting rivercrabs wearing three watches because that’s close to another slogan.

Another example. There was an anti-porn crackdown in January. Political discussions were removed along with smut. So, a video showed up, a happy children’s chorus about alpaca sheep, because “alpaca sheep” and “fuck your mother” are very similar; it’s a protest against censorship. It went viral. Now it’s spawned academic research.

“This is why keyword censorship is bound to fail. There’s so much discussion on the Web right now about rivercrabs and alpaca sheep.”

Cybernationalism is big in China, i.e., people on the Net who are very proud of their nation. There’s an anti-CNN site created by Chinese journalism students, to critique CNN’s errors in coverage. People resent foreigners criticizing their Internet. There are now Red Guard-like cyber-vigilantes. There are also paid informants on the Web. Cyber-police. Cyber-bonapartism, i.e., a strong centralized state using democratic means to make people feel more involved? Cyber-confucianism? Cyber-ocracy? She points to Isaac Mao who says we can’t have free speech until we have thinking, and thus he talks about “share-ism.”

Ultimately, we should be talking about off line institutions. Fair mechanisms, transparency, legal protection of free speech. Until you have that, Rebecca says, nothing much changes.

What does this mean for the global Internet? David Post, in Jefferson’s Moose, talks about the balance between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians (free speech vs. control). This debates rages in China now. The debate is “hampered by censorship and complicated by nationalism.” How do we support that debate, Rebecca asks. Between governments and citizens there’s now global layer of Web and IT services. How do we use this layer, in China and globally? Authoritarian governments may not be moved to democracy and freedom. If we don’t talk about this, we might all end up in the middle.

Q: This echoes the traditional Chinese leadership pattern of going out among the people. And different people in China use the Internet for different purposes. Elites vs, working class, etc.
A: Yes. The Net right now is an echo chamber for elites. If you want to know what the peasantry are thinking, the Internet is not the way to find out. But if you want know about the people who might be future leaders, the Internet is a good tool.

Q: Are there country-to-country discussion forums? And are they using The Onion Router?
A: Some do. Not a critical mass. And there are good-hearted attempts to “save” the Chinese. It’d be better not to be so paternalistic.

Q: Why don’t controversial bloggers post on hosts outside their country?
A: Because their audience would be too small. One guy I know posts the same posts to ten blogs and hope that not all of them are taken down. And the problem with circumvention tools is that you have to know what you want to know. It can be hard to know how much censorship there is if you’re within the system.

Q: Do the Chinese people want to be free? Russians tell you that freedom leads to conflict and misery.
A: What is freedom? There isn’t consensus in China about how much freedom vs. control. But how can you get consensus if you can’t have an uncensored debate about it? [Tags: ]


February 25, 2009

Am I Blocked or Not?

The Berkman Center has launched, a site that lets you report sites you can’t reach, aggregating reports from every other Herdict user, to paint a picture of the openness of the Net.

You can join here. (And see Eszter Hargittai‘s better explanation of it. We’re both using as the title of our posts an aptly-named URL — — that takes you to a page accessibility test at Herdict.)

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February 18, 2009

[podcast] Seeing the network – Its traffic, obstructions, and its social effect

The latest Radio Berkman podcast talks with Jonathan Zittrain about Herdict, a service that lets us together discover which sites are being blocked by whom. Then there’s an interview with Judith Donath about her MIT Museum installation that lets us experience what it means to live in a world supersaturated with information.

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February 10, 2009

[berkman] JZ on Herdict

Jonathan Zittrain is talking at a Berkman lunch, about Herdict. [Note: I’m liveblogging, making mistakes, missing stuf, go wrong in every which way.] Herdict wants to help create “an emegent sense of what’s going on with this network” especially as network blockages and filterings are happening. Herdict tries to enlist people at large to answer the question “What’s going on with the Net?”

In the first instance, the team picked terms that it thought a regime might find objectionable, logged in as if from that country, and saw which sites are blocked. They then asked anyone on the Net to contribute sites that might be blocked, which the team then checked. In the next instance, they used open proxies. Then they teamed up with the Open Net Initiative to rigorously test filtering in about 50 countries. The result was the book Access Denied.

But to scale, they created Herdict (the verdict of the herd). As you surf, the sheep logo changes color: Green means nothing is blocked, grey means some people are blocked from the site, red means people you know have reported that it’s inaccessible. When you can’t get to a site, you can create a report

The Herdict Web site ( you can see a live map of blockages. You can also filter by country. You can also go to a page internally referred to as “AmIBlockedOrNot” — officially, “The Reporter” — that will show you pages and ask if you can see them.

Herdict is collecting information not just about government filters, but wherever you expected to find info and did not. E.g., if YouTube has taken content down, Herdict wants to know about it.

Q: Can it be gamed?
A: Yes. But we can also manually inspect suspicious reports of sites.

Q: Privacy?
A: We record the IP addresses of reporters. We want to know where people are reporting from.

Q: The biggest risk is the people doing the blocking will block the sheep-server.
A: The only real countermeasure is to let people access it over SSL.
A: When the first state tries to block it — remember, it’s not a circumvention tool; it doesn’t show you anything you can’t otherwise can’t get too — I’ll take it as the first measure of success.

Q: Suppose someone uses Tor to reach Herdict to make reports …
A: We’ll see that it’s someone using Tor.

Q: [me] In the best cse, how does this information get used to make the world better?
A: We’ll “out” blockages. It might make it more difficult for regimes to block sites. It also provides data to academics and others. You can learn a lot about China from what it chooses to filter and how the filtering changes. Finally, success would be fostering a sense of participation on the Net…a sense of the Net as something that’s improved by your own contributions, you’re building a commons, you’re building a “digital nervous system,” to quote Bill Gates, for the Internet. Most blocking happens by IP address, but those change over time, which means your site may be blocked into China; this would enable a “title search” on IP addresses to see what sort of troubles it’s had.

Q: You could piggyback on Twitter…
A: Twitter might be one of the sites that get filtered early by a state worried about Web 2.0. But, you could even come up with a hash tag on Twitter. And it’d give you an independent database of reports…
A: There is already a herdict twitter account.
A: We’re excited about the possibility of including Herdict as a default add-in to existing channels.
Q: It’d be great if, when you’re blocked, you get an error msg that lets you report it directly to Herdict.

Q: Some users are very interested in blocked sites. How do you protect the privacy of those users? E.g., Someone in China coming in to your central server?
A: We’re hoping that it’s not just activists who will use it. We could have an addon that checks sites in the background, but we don’t want to ask anyone to visit a site that they haven’t given actual permission to visit. But the Chinese (or whomever) can watch who is visiting the site. But we don’t put up your IP address; it’s not visible on the site.

A: We wouldn’t be adverse to Herdict notification being offered when you register a domain name: Would you like to be alerted if your site is being blocked?

A: On the Web site, we obey your choice about Google safe sites about which sites to show you. We also heed Google’s list of malware sites.

Q: Does the color of the sheep reflect the page or the site?
A: The site.

Q: [charlie nesson] You’re describing a piece of sw that will hold up a mirror to all of the powerful entities who are filtering. Could you comment on the political dimensions? And, how are you going to launch it? And, do you have any line of defense when the blowback comes?
A: When we first came out with the studies in 2002 — first of China and then of Saudi Arabia — that made a pretty good splash. The Saudis actually had given us permission to be on their network for 2 wks. Think of things that seem inane that then become indispensible, e.g., twitter, blogs, wikipedia. The dream is that Herdict become like this. My dream is that that happens so that when the blowback comes, knowing where you can get to and you can’t and why is just part of the functioning Internet. As for the introduction, let’s talk…

Q: Maybe partner with sites where people are bored, like www.ask500people

Q: [me] The fact that you call it The Reported instead of AmIBlockedOrNot is not a good sign for PR. But how about on launch focusing on one particular region so we get good results quickly, rather than broad results>

Q: There are English-speaking communities in China…

Q: Maybe the sheep can tell me about my current ISP.
A: It’s not perfect data because we’re pulling it from a database of ISPs, but good idea.

Q: Isn’t that similar to what Google is developing?
A: Yes, but for every possible development. Google is building tools for checking Net neutrality. They’re more into the tools and details. We’re about can you get there.

Q: You should hitch up with Charlie Nesson…

Q: Maybe there’s a built-in audience for people who have desk jobs and do a lot of dilbert-esque surfing.
A: And slashdot.

Q: The more you can like it a game, the better. And it’s a great educational tool.
A: Do we want some persistence in reporting. Do you want an ID on Herdict? You could accrue points. We’ve put it on the backburner for now.

Q: Is there a function in the plugin to make it easy to ask friends whether a particular site is blocked.
A: We have a “test a website” feature. It’s our “view site report” function.
A: We’ve talked about building community
A: We have embed code so on your blog you can embed either the herdometer or the ticker.

Q: You should move as much of the infrastructure as you can onto, say, Amazon. [Tags: ]

We then celebrate Charlie Nesson’s 70th birthday…

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November 25, 2008

Googling for tanks in China

Here’s an odd thing.

I was sure that when Google China first started cleansing its results, a search for “tiananmen” at Google Images did not return the famous photo of the man standing in front of the line of tanks, or other photos of the Tiananmen demonstrations.

Today it does.

Even odder, I was talking with Lokman Tsui of the Berkman Center about this, and he discovered that if you search for “tiananmen” using the Chinese characters (天安门), you don’t get back photos of the demonstrations but sanitized, post-card-ish touristy photos.

On purpose? Fluke? A crack in the structure of control?

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November 13, 2008

Celebrities block themselves from Argentinian search results

From a post by Firuzeh Shokooh Valle and Christopher Soghoian at the Open Net Initiative site:

Since 2006, Internet users in Argentina have been blocked from searching for information about some of country’s most notable individuals. Over 100 people have successfully secured temporary restraining orders that direct Google and Yahoo! Argentina to scrub the results of search queries. The list of censorship-seeking celebrities includes judges, public officials, models and actors, as well as the world-cup soccer star and national team head coach Diego Maradona.

Wow. Argentinian celebrities either have a different view of celebrity or of the Web, or both.

The post (which contains much more detail) notes that Yahoo was not notifying searchers that their search results were being blocked, a violation of the Global Net Initiative ethical guidelines that Yahoo, Google, and others recently promulgated. But, Chris Soghoian in an email notes that yesterday Yahoo fixed the transparency problem.

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February 4, 2008

Class Notes #3

A student in each session of The Web Difference will blog the class, so I’m not going to live blog the course, which I could only do when John Palfrey is leading it, as he is today. So, what follows are some some notes and comments. (The class notes will be up on the site tomorrow, probably.)

JP explains the “layer” view: Infrastructure, Logic, Apps, Content. He indicates that the layers are messy and that this is over-simplified. But I’m struck by the layer-cake look of this, with each tier slightly narrower than the one beneath it. Presumably, this is so the structure will look sturdy. But if it were drawn to scale, the content layer would be like a frisbee balanced on a pin.

The main topic today is whether you can see the same Internet from anywhere in the world. Answer: No, you can’t. JP points to Internet Services Unit where you can report sites to the Saudi government as deserving to be blocked. The Saudis block by having a single big pipe out to the Internet. Everything has to flow through the Saudi proxy. The Chinese filter similarly but also at every layer of the stack.

JP points to a site that compares the results of Google searches run here and in China. In poking around during the class, we discover that Chinese language searches seem to get the same results whether you’re searching from or, as if is assuming that if you are looking for search terms in Chinese, you want to see the censored results. Odd.

John takes the class through the many, many ways countries can filter the Net. Then he leads a discussion of which elements of a society might be interested in either filtering the Net or keeping it open.

John is going to Turkey tonight for talks with various interested parties there about the virtues and vices of maintaining an open Internet. [Tags: ]

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