With online freedom of expression under constant threat, some people help maintain an open Internet by using proxies or mirroring content. However, creating new routes of access to blocked sites has traditionally been daunting for the less tech-savvy. Several recent projects are aiming to making circumvention easier; in turn, they are becoming targets of censorship themselves.
Most recently, WordPress plug-in RePress, came under fire. The software, developed by web hosting company Greenhost, makes it easy to turn any WordPress blog into a fully operational proxy, rerouting traffic through the RePress tool in order to evade URL-based filtering. Once installed, the user can designate specific URLs they want rerouted through the RePress software. For each of those URLs, the RePress tool creates an obfuscated link in order to circumvent certain forms of censorship. According to RePress, the tool has been used to reroute traffic to Amnesty.org, Blogspot, Wikileaks, TorProject, and until recently, The Pirate Bay.
Because of RePress’s potential for evading court-ordered copyright related filtering, on July 6, the Court of the Hague issued an ex-parte court injunction ordering Greenhost to take its Pirate Bay proxy offline within 6 hours of the notice or face a fine of 1,000 euro a day. The court order follows Dutch anti-piracy outfit BREIN’s June 25 formal complaint to Greenhost, in which they asked Greenhost to remove the entire RePress tool. BREIN sees RePress as a threat to the progress it has recently made in litigation aimed at forcing ISPs to block access to the The Pirate Bay. Greenhost responded that it would not remove the tool because RePress was created to proxy any site which may be censored, not solely The Pirate Bay. Some legal critics had questioned the appropriateness of BREIN’s criminal complaint, especially because Dutch law explicitly protects hosting providers against criminal liability. Thus, the Hague’s decision comes as somewhat of a surprise.
Since the injunction, Greenhost’s Pirate Bay proxy has redirected viewers to a page explaining that its proxy is offline. However, because the court order was directed only at The Pirate Bay proxies that Greenhost maintained, the RePress proxies hosted by RePress users, including proxies to The Pirate Bay, still remain. Greenhost is still considering its next steps with respect to its The Pirate Bay proxies.
Greenhost’s RePress isn’t the only project trying to protect online material from censorship. Other applications, such as Mirror Party, use mirroring technology to create and cache exact copies of the linked-to website, allowing access even if the original site is taken down. Proxy servers simply provide a different route to the destination state, and cannot help if the destination server is offline. In contrast, mirroring services like Mirror Party clone the target site, making the content accessible regardless of what happens to the original destination site. Mirror Party is designed to be resistant to most forms of web censorship, including DDoS attacks and hostname/IP filtering. Once installed, the user can choose to mirror a particular site: Mirror Party downloads content from the target site, modifies and encrypts relevant content in the snapshot to make it suitable for mirroring, and distributes the content to peer servers around the world. This can be done with or without close communication with the mirrored site and can involve multiple mirror host-sites.
But existing proxying and mirroring applications have limitations. RePress is still in alpha release and can be unstable, providing minimal protection against cross-site scripting attacks and cookie hijacking. Similarly, Mirror Party is also still in development. In addition, the biggest limitation to web mirroring is that mirrors cannot be created after a site has been taken down, because mirroring must be done preemptively, before a site is inaccessible.
A forthcoming alternative is a Harvard University-based project spearheaded by Professor Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard’s Berkman Center. The Internet Robustness project aims to support digital activists by developing, testing, and piloting a new counter-censorship technology. The project is unique in its aim is to allow online communities, such as human rights groups or independent media sites, to mirror each other’s content. In the case that any one participant fails to remain online, visitors will be able to access the content from other servers across the network. The project’s target community is Iranian web users, and ultimately, the goal is to make the internet significantly more robust and resilient by protecting against various attacks. Zittrain’s team is currently in the research stage of a 3-year process, which is being funded by a USAID grant. More information regarding this new mirroring project can be found here.
It is inescapable that tools designed for one purpose may be used for others. Teams working to strengthen internet robustness for activists through proxying and mirroring are creating tools that can also be used by software and content pirates. Just because technology may have dual uses does not mean that governments should try to ban them. In fact, that approach may be counterproductive. Just a few days after BREIN’s victory over The Pirate Bay, Dutch internet provider XS4All revealed that traffic on BitTorrent had actually increased since the blockade, presumably due to all the media attention.