What real Internet censorship looks like
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