What real Internet censorship looks like

February 27, 2012

Lately Internet users in the U.S. have been worried about censorship, copyright legalities and data privacy. Between Twitter’s new censorship policy, the global protests over SOPA/PIPA and ACTA and the outrage over Apple’s iOS allowing apps like Path to access the address book without prior approval, these fears have certainly seemed warranted. But we should also remember that Internet users around the world face far more insidious limitations and intrusions on their Internet usage — practices, in fact, that would horrify the average American.

Sadly, most of the rest of the world has come to accept censorship as a necessary evil. Although I recently argued that Twitter’s censorship policy at least had the benefit of transparency, it’s still an unfortunate cost of doing global business for a company born and bred with the freedoms of the United States, and founded by tech pioneers whose opportunities and creativity stem directly from our Constitution. Yet by the standards of dictatorial regimes, Internet users in countries like China, Syria and Iran should consider themselves lucky if Twitter’s relatively modest censorship program actually keeps those countries’ governments from shutting down the service. As we are seeing around the world, chances are, unfortunately, it won’t.

Consider the freedoms — or lack thereof — Internet users have in Iran. Since this past week, some 30 million Iranian users have been without Internet service thanks to that country’s blocking of the SSL protocol, right at the time of its parliamentary elections. SSL is what turns “http” — the basic way we access the Web — into “https”, which Gmail, your bank, your credit card company and thousands of other services use to secure data. SSL provides data encryption so that only each end point — your browser and the Web server you’re logging into — can decrypt and access the data contained therein.

By blocking SSL, Iran has crippled Tor, a program that enables Internet users to anonymize not just their content but their physical location as well. Tor is a very common workaround for users in totalitarian regimes to access Twitter, Gmail, Facebook and other services. It’s hard to come up with an apt analogy for Iran’s unprecedented blockage — it’s not just that the letters you send are read by the Post Office and photocopied for their records, it’s that the Post Roads themselves have been closed off, so you can’t even send a letter in the first place. That’s the net effect of blocking SSL in Iran.

The hacking group Anonymous has brought down all kinds of websites in protest, mostly over copyright, in the U.S. and Europe. I don’t advocate their targeting any country’s servers for retribution, but where is the outrage or public demonstration or media attention over the denials of Iranians’ basic freedoms to communicate, via the Internet?

Unfortunately, it’s still too easy for Internet companies and even the Internet’s founding fathers to dismiss the importance of the tools they created in fostering free and open public dialogue, especially in places like Iran. Recently, legendary engineer and Google Vice-President Vint Cerf published a New York Times op-ed entitled “Internet Access is Not a Human Right,” where he wrote: “Internet access is always just a tool for obtaining something else more important.” How wrong he is. Cerf’s line of thinking eviscerates the Internet — the wonder of the modern world he helped build. Cerf argues that humans have the right to “lead healthy, meaningful lives,” including having “freedom from torture or freedom of conscience.” Yet, we live in the 21st century: It’s hard to see how, among people whose economies are developed enough to afford them communication devices, Cerf would excuse governments that curtail their citizens’ freedom and right to use the ultimate communications tool — the global network of the Internet. In fact, in underdeveloped parts of the world, the cost to have a cell phone that connects to the Web can be quite affordable.

I’m not arguing semantics here — if our society excludes the Internet from the fundamental rights of human communication, we also excuse totalitarian regimes like Iran’s from any repercussions when it comes to blocking that avenue of human contact. It’s a dangerous compromise to make in a world that only gets more digital with each passing day. And it also conveniently excuses the free world from having to do much of anything about it. We wouldn’t forgive Iran if it threw 30 million citizens into solitary confinement — so why would we ignore it when the Iranian government effectively cuts the entire population off from the outside world, to stifle their voices during a critical electoral cycle?

The U.S. and the free world have often engaged in global humanitarian missions in cases of genocide, famine and natural disaster. At what point will the deprivation of freedom of communication warrant such an intervention? The U.S. is already on guard itself against hacking attempts from Russia and China — intrusions by both rogue and government-sponsored actors — so how long will we tolerate countries’ depriving their citizens of Internet access?

It’s a tricky question, with no easy answer. However, contemplating it may prepare us for the possibility that the world’s first cyber-war could be fought not to cut off a country’s Internet hookup, but to restore it. After all, the Obama administration’s State Department petitioned Twitter to stay online during one recent Iranian uprising and has used the service to communicate with citizens there during another. Iran has now essentially shut down Twitter with its SSL blocking. Will the U.S. respond? If we do, we will set a precedent that calls into question the rights of any government to silence its citizens on a global communications network, putting us into thorny conflicts with China and other 21st century frenemies. But if we don’t, we are condoning the silencing of dissent and turning our backs on a century-long pledge to foster democracy wherever it might flourish — even if it’s online.

Photo: Technicians monitor data flow in the control room of an internet service provider in Tehran. Picture taken February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Caren Firouz

7 comments

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Totalitarian regimes have always relied upon someone like you, the ordinary citizen, from reacting negatively via threats or bodily injury. If we knuckle under here (the U.S.), we will surely be cowardly there.

Posted by opuntia | Report as abusive

“Syria and Iran should consider themselves lucky if Twitter’s relatively modest censorship program actually keeps those countries’ governments from shutting down the service.”

Oh, so only getting molested by the “nice uncle” a few times a day is better than getting gang raped at a brothel that peddles kids all day? What a citizen you are!

Posted by zhmileskendig | Report as abusive

Didn’t people understand that days of geek-community internet is long over and currently internet is arena for information wars? And that instead of old motto “information is power, guard it well”, current approach is “hide a leaf in forest” or more accurately, “smear it with …something and bury it in garbage dump”?

Social networks/news sites etc…well, maybe many of old school readers don’t really understand that with information _seemingly_ just one touch (or google search) away , number of people who actually research something presented by flashmob messages or their favourite news site is increasingly small compared to ones affected by these flashmobs – and like any mobs social networks are ruled by emotions, not by reasonable thoughts. So with help of not so numerous astroturfers internet is becoming global “Ministry of Truth”.
And ones who’s just step in this brave new world of media wars have no defense against that – just like USSR citizens needed almost a decade to really understand what was reality and what was just sponsored ads. So many countries can’t hope to compete to spinmasters which often have more resources than goverments, and logically these states decide that decreasing pressure (ie cutting off most avenues of media attacks) will let them adapt population for this new harsh virus step-by-step.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

For others, like me, who struggled to read past the first few sentences.
At first glance this article appears to say, ‘Why protest the tiny censorships going on here when things are so much worse in other parts of the world?’ And none of us want to hear that.
But at second glance this article isn’t trying to make that point. It’s saying we should worry about more than just our own right to not be censored (internet-wise), but perhaps stick up for the rights of the rest of the world also.
It’s a pipe dream, yes. But it’s not the egregious article it appeared to be.
And, as a pipe dream, it was a complete waste of time.

Posted by fightingpillow | Report as abusive

Sorry, but with US DoD hiring corporations for astroturfing – internet censorship looks like a good idea.
Google this – “Ntrepid corporation CentCom” – and think on what “war on terror” was already used to justify in past decade.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

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I wonder what other rights we as Americans should be concerned about in Iran and other oppressive societies.

The right to cable TV with 150 channels? The right to purchase clothing at Abercrombie & Fitch? The right to free or low-cost checking accounts?

I wonder also what exactly I should be trying to do about this. Lobby for the President to declare war on Iran? Write impassioned letters to my Congressperson and Senators deploring the situation?

Seems to me the connection between technology and human rights is a little hard to define. And I don’t believe Iran has quite figured out freedom of religion or freedom of speech yet, so it’s not surprising that freedom of Internet hasn’t happened yet.

Posted by ChicagoFats | Report as abusive

The example of Iran is well taken in this article, but I would like to add one: I lived and taught in Zhuhai, China, from August 2007 to July 2009. As an expatriate, I didn’t seem to have my computer monitored and censored very much, but my students at United International College surely did.
We take our freedoms for granted. I don’t any more. I know what it is like to live in a country where “freedom of expression” is a sham. We shouldn’t let that happen here, which doesn’t mean condoning criminal activities on the net, but it does mean a conscious guarding of freedom of speech.

Posted by dwilliams3 | Report as abusive