In China, Fighting Censorship with Pi

While internet censorship in China has long been pervasive, the days leading up to and marking the Tiananmen Square protests mark a tradition of heightened censorship practices throughout the country. As the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests approached earlier this month, one China-based Redditor described a convenient, do-it-yourself circumvention tool built on a Raspberry Pi.  This tool represents a development in the ongoing cat and mouse game between China’s internet censors and the users seeking convenient ways to burrow through it.

The use of virtual private networks (VPN) is a daily reality for users attempting to access blocked sites in China – ensuring an encrypted connection and a secure path to overseas servers.  While there is no shortage of available VPNs to tunnel under the firewall, the process of finding, downloading and configuring a new VPN whenever on a new device or public computer can prove arduous. The set-up that Redditor JaiPasInternet describes allows users to connect automatically to a designated VPN across devices rather than the typical reconfiguration necessitated when switching between multiple platforms.  Following the Redditor’s instructions, the single-board computer created to promote computer science education can be configured to help users circumvent China’s Great Firewall. The DIY circumvention strategy involves a Raspberry Pi which automatically connects to a virtual private network through the open-source software application OpenVPN. Configured to connect to the internet via ethernet, that connection is shared with a wireless dongle equipped with hostapd software running in the background. In this scenario, the Raspberry Pi is set up to work like a WiFi hotspot, just like you would encounter in an airport or coffeeshop – it can share that internet connection with other devices. The primary difference here is the point of action for connecting to the virtual private network. Instead of that connection being based off a laptop or iPad, connecting to a pre-designated VPN takes place on a portable computer the size of a credit card, which devices can tap into.

While the Raspberry Pi method described above may save time for users, it is by no means a silver bullet for skirting the firewall entirely. The single-board computer still requires a VPN to connect to, a circumvention technique which China censors have allegedly cracked down on in recent months. Reports released late last year indicate a crackdown on some of the commercial VPN services. The alleged fortification of the Firewall prompted major VPN companies operating inside the country to issue apologies and publish workarounds for users to access their accounts. However at least one major, U.S-based VPN company was unable to offer definitive solutions on helping all users skirt the problem, offering some suggestions and advising their customers to “become familiar with the modification process and experiment on your own.” Responding to allegations from the VPN companies, Fang Binxing, known as the “Father” of the Firewall denied any knowledge that of upgrades meant to stymie VPN services. However, he noted the three overseas VPN companies were unregistered, and therefore operating illegally within the country.

Tracking Iranian Censorship with ASL 19

On June 14, 2013, Iran is going to hold their presidential elections, an event we are watching very carefully.  During the previous election in 2009, the government cracked down even further on the already limited online freedoms.  This included briefly shutting down the Internet as a whole.  In the intervening years, Iran has taken their censorship to new levels of sophistication, quietly building a Halal Internet.   And is already limiting access to foreign sites in advance of the elections.

In order to get more information about what is occurring in Iran, Herdict is partnering with ASL 19, an interdisciplinary lab that monitors and reports on Internet and media censorship in Iran while supporting Iranian Internet users efforts at bypassing Internet censorship.  In the past year, Herdict has received over 200 reports from Iran, but to glean useful information about the election, we need more.   To help us collect more data, ASL 19 is educating their users about Herdict in the hopes that they will become contributing members of the Herdict community.  Additionally, ASL 19 will be directing their circumvention traffic from Psiphon to a Herdict landing page.  We hope this will allow us to collect real-time information as to what is happening in Iran during this difficult time.

This work is not without challenges.  Psiphon itself is under assault from the Iranian censorship regime, and establishing reliable connections can be difficult.  But we hope that ASL 19’s supporters will help us in improving global awareness about the sites currently blocked in Iran.

If you see an increase in Herdict reports from Iran over the next few weeks, this is because of ASL 19’s help and doesn’t necessarily reflect an increase in the levels of censorship in Iran – those levels are high and are likely to remain so for quite some time.  Instead, when looking at Herdict data, pay attention to the kinds of sites that are blocked and look for changes to the accessibility of individual sites.

Thanks to our friends at ASL 19 for their help with this important project!

ASL 19 has translated this post into Farsi and made it available here

The Balkanisation of the Internet

This month it was reported that Syria had once again blocked access to the internet. Both Google and Renesys, an internet monitoring service, reported the outage. The incident comes after a similar blackout in November of last year, when activists were attempting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Last year’s blackout was blamed on ‘terrorism,’ while this most recent event on a technical fault. David Belson of Akamai Technologies has analysed the situation and told the BBC that the fault blamed couldn’t have caused a complete internet blackout. Al Jazeera has meanwhile reported that military sources within Syria have claimed the blackout was part of a security force operation.

Our ability to communicate openly finds itself continually under assault, subject to geographic restrictions.  Recently, Freedom House released their Freedom of the Press report, which found that ‘the percentage of the world’s population living in societies with a fully free press has fallen to its lowest level in over a decade.’ It seems that censorship is increasing in all areas of the media and in countries all over the world. Western Europe was found to have suffered an ‘unprecedented decline’ in press freedom in 2012. The report also noted that ‘new media’ was subject to ‘heightened contestation’ in the last year. Freedom of the Net 2012 Report  illuminates these evolving threats to internet freedom, online press, and bloggers.

Each country has a very different idea about what is and what isn’t acceptable content, and thanks to increasingly fine-grained technological controls, it is increasingly within nations’ power to select the content their citizens can see.  Thus, we are increasingly experiencing the ‘balkanisation’ of the internet, with a different version of the Internet available in each country and the dream of an entirely free, accessible, and global Internet becoming just a dream. As Tim Wu and Jack Goldsmith discussed in their 2006 book, Who Controls the Internet?, the world wide web is becoming a “bordered internet” — a “collection of nation-state networks“. Ryan Budish already highlighted on this blog the difference between the Internet with a big I – the one network that connects everyone – and internet with little i – little local networks.

While the difference between the tightly controlled networks of China and the Middle East and the relatively free Internet of the West is obvious, there are differences even between individual European countries, and between Europe and the US. The US generally applies its First Amendment principles to hold that speech should be free unless it is used to incite violence or is criminal in nature (such as child pornography).  In contrast, Europe tends to be far more concerned about the possible results of offensive or hateful speech, having experienced first-hand the extremes of both fascism and communism.

European law also recognises the ‘right to be forgotten,’ which allows criminals who have served their time to object to the publication of facts about their conviction. Under the First Amendment in the US, the publication of an individual’s criminal history is protected. In the Internet age, this means that there is a question of how the ‘right to be forgotten’ should apply to the world of social media. In January 2012, the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, said that ‘If an individual no longer wants his personal data to be processed or stored by a data controller, and if there is no legitimate reason for keeping it, the data should be removed from their system.’ For US lawmakers, the ‘right to be forgotten’ represents a significant threat to free speech.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Google, Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks continue to make their own decisions about what is and what isn’t acceptable content.  For example, Facebook was severely criticised for its decision not to remove the Innocence of the Muslims video, which was initially blamed for causing riots all over the Middle East, while simultaneously censoring a political ad that criticised Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg. Jeffrey Rosen at the New Republic has suggested that ‘the Deciders’ of the big social networks are in many ways more powerful when it comes to the issue of online free speech than any government. It is important to remember, however, that the social networks are driven by profit rather than principle. If it is in their financial interests to censor content, they will do so, as Facebook proved by deeming all criticism of Ataturk, no matter where in the world it originates or is seen, as unacceptable, even though it is only illegal in Turkey.

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has warned in the Guardian that in the coming years ‘Each state will attempt to regulate the internet, and shape it in its own image.’ With the increased balkanisation of the internet, even a kind of visa requirement may become necessary, ‘controlling the flow of information in both directions.’

Jim Cowie, the chief technology officer at Renesys, has found that there is a ‘silver lining’ to all of the attacks on Internet freedom, stating that ‘every significant Internet disconnection, and the local and global reaction of outrage and dismay, sends an important signal about the fragility of the underlying system. It makes single points of failure and control visible, so that those fragilities can be found and fixed, and the Internet as a whole can continue to gain strength from disorder.’

Whether Eric Schmidt’s dark predictions or Jim Cowie’s more hopeful ones will come true remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that the global Internet is under threat, and that a concerted effort must be made to protect its freedom and accessibility.

Jean-Loup Richet – Herdict Special Contributor


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