Governments, technologists battle over Internet censorship

Sunday, September 1st 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Vietnam's government tries to block its citizens from such U.S.-based Web sites as the one run by expatriate Pham Ngoc whose pro-democracy rantings it considers dangerous and subversive.

The ruling Communist Party doesn't like the dissident writings and other postings on his Thong Luan site, shortened from the Vietnamese for ``information debate.''

No matter. Third-party Internet gateways known as proxies have long allowed Vietnamese citizens to bypass government filters by masquerading the sites they are trying to reach.

But lately, governments in such countries as Vietnam, China and Saudi Arabia have gotten smarter about blocking those proxies as well. And that's forcing technologists to devise new ways of evading the censors.

``It's like a game,'' said Pham Ngoc, a Vietnamese expatriate who operates the Thong Luan site from San Jose, Calif. ``If they discover this is a new proxy, they will spread the word to friends. But if they know, the police know.''

Say what you want about the Internet as the Wild West, where information flows freely and the masses are in control.

Internet censorship is on the rise.

A February 2001 report from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders found censorship in 58 countries, including China, Vietnam and Tunisia. The group expects to list about 40 more in a January update.

And longtime censors have gotten even more aggressive in the past year or so as they play what amounts to a digital version of Whac-a-Mole.

They have poured countless resources and hired the brightest technicians to find and close the technical loopholes through which people can get forbidden content, including Western news outlets, dissident writings, and in the Mideast, pornography and other sites deemed anti-Islam.

They have largely succeeded.

``Most of these governments are not as worried about the elite,'' said Jack Balkin, an online speech expert at Yale Law School. ``It's about making sure the vast majority don't get unfiltered access.''

Early this year, the Chinese government took 24 hours to discover new proxies as they circulated through online discussion groups or chat rooms, said Greg Walton, a San Francisco researcher who provides technical support for a Tibetan-freedom organization.

``Then it gradually went to 12 hours, six hours, now it's 15 minutes,'' he said.

And when technical measures fail, the Chinese government can encourage self-censorship by sending police to cybercafes and imposing lengthy prison sentences for downloading ``subversive'' materials.

Vietnam, meanwhile, concedes it can't afford the estimated $400 million needed to fully block sites and keep up with proxies. But that won't stop censorship: It recently proposed to severely punish cafe owners who let customers access porn or anti-government sites like Pham Ngoc's.

Other countries like Cuba and Iraq make accessing the Internet so expensive and difficult that it is effectively censored for the majority. China, too, has tried to limit access, closing thousands of cybercafes following a deadly June fire at one.

When access is available, users can turn to proxies to fool filters into thinking they are visiting innocent sites. After governments caught on, technologists developed dynamic systems to keep proxies hidden.

Two commercial proxy services, Anonymizer and Megaproxy, are among those that frequently change domain names or numeric Internet addresses.

With help from the U.S. government's Voice of America, technologists have even adopted some of the same techniques that have frustrated the entertainment industry's campaign to stop piracy of its songs and films.

``By moving fast and keeping proxy sites moving around, we hope to be able to move faster than they are blocked,'' said Ken Berman, a program manager with VOA parent International Broadcasting Bureau.

SafeWeb developed Triangle Boy, in which hundreds of volunteers in open societies serve as proxies for the SafeWeb proxy. If a government discovers and blocks one, another volunteer would come along.

Other systems in development include Peekabooty and Flyster, which incorporate peer-to-peer technologies. The idea is to clone a sensitive Web site on numerous, networked computers, frustrating those manning the filters.

Other systems such as Camera/Shy, Tangler and Freenet are also being built to slip sensitive documents through filters.

Money is the biggest obstacle for the volunteers and start-up companies involved.

Congress allocated $10 million last year for the Voice of America and sister organizations to better reach audiences in China and Russia. But only a small amount is going to fight Internet censorship in China, through partnerships with Anonymizer and SafeWeb.

In fact, SafeWeb has all but abandoned its anti-censorship efforts outside China to focus energies on moneymaking security products.

Stephen Hsu, SafeWeb's chairman and co-founder, said building a full-blown service for China alone could cost up to $5 million.

From the censoring government's perspective, finding proxies is trivial with enough resources.

Websense, one of several Western companies the Saudi government is considering for future filtering services, already makes daily searches of filter-avoidance systems for its corporate clients.

To fight back, Peekabooty, Anonymizer and others are now developing ways to prevent one source from discovering all the alternative addresses at once.

Anti-censorship activists will never match a totalitarian government's virtually unlimited coffers but Hsu and others hope to make it expensive enough for censors to give up.

``If they are outspending us 10-to-1 or 100-to-1, we're just going to lose,'' Hsu said. ``The goal of good software is to make that ratio 1,000-to-1 so they have to spend this much resources to block that guy out.''

By continually adding ranges of addresses that must be blocked, technologists also believe governments risk losing foreign investors who require an open Internet.

``That's the option we're trying to force them into,'' said Lance Cottrell, Anonymizer's president and founder. ``Either they have to allow unfettered access or in effect they have to deny all access.''