One should start by saying that Internet censorship is a legally similar to any other censorship of offline material (books, audio, video and other material). The major difference between internet and offline censorships is that national borders are more permeable through the internet as well as entry barriers for internet use are lowered. The majority of information that is banned in a certain country can be easily found online through websites hosted outside that country. Therefore, the attempts of a government in one country to prevent its citizens from having access to some information also will place some restrictions on foreigners since the government typically would take some action against existing internet sites anywhere in the world that have material the government strives to object. In the following essay I will speak about the internet censorship, point out some of the recent censorship instances, comment on the ways how the governments can limit the internet access and how that government control can be overcome as well as what one needs to do to assure that his/her information can be still available on the internet even if she/he lives in the country that imposes limits on the use of internet and information sharing.
Some of the most common censorship events in the past few years:
- LICRA vs. Yahoo. The French organization LICRA (and also UEJF) would sue Yahoo company for selling Nazi memorabilia on its existing online auction websites. LICRA stated that such Nazi memorabilia would support Nazism and remind the French of the war crimes and the holocaust. The French courts found Yahoo in violation of French laws and would demand Yahoo to block its auction sites for access from France. Yahoo would appeal in the US federal courts stating that obeying the rule of the French courts would violate the 1st amendment of the US constitution. The case has not been resolved yet, and French internet users can still access yahoo auction sites and purchase Nazi memorabilia (Granick, 2004).
- The US communications decency act of 1996 was adopted in the USA in an attempt to restrict online speech that would possibly negatively impact minors. The act would find most of the online speech available in the USA offensive for minors. The advocates of free speech still managed to have most of the parts of the act being overturned by the US courts. The digital millennium copyright act would criminalize any discussion and dissemination of technology and tools necessary to circumvent locks and other copyright protection mechanisms to infringe copyrights on the Internet. The Church of Scientology would use this act censor some of the information about them that the church found unfavorable or marring. The information was found to be in violation of church’s copyrights (Herumin, 2005).
- China would set up numerous system necessary for internet censorship that go by the name of the Great Firewall of China. Lately, the major search engines such as Google, Yahoo, AOL would develop special versions for use in China. These search engines would provide only those websites as approved by the Chinese government. The current debate is about having these companies choose extra market and profit and agree to limit freedom of speech in some parts of the world as initiated by hostile communist government of China (Tremblay, 2004).
- Burma (country ) would develop a special Myanmar wide web used for controlling some of the internet traffic.
- The government of Maldives would censor and prosecute anyone who publishes articles or any other information criticizing the government.
- Cuba had outlawed the Internet for most citizens. It is only medical doctors and other medical institutions that are allowed to use the internet. As a result local hospitals, clinics and doctors would be the very placed to go if one needed to send an email, or check out some major news on the internet.
- The country of Tunisia would censor some sites that it finds inappropriate for its citizens. As a result, pornography, email, peer-to-peer file transfer/FTP and translation services would be blocked and not allowed there.
- Syria would block some of the websites that criticize the government and persecute people who create and publish such information.
- South Korea also would pose censorship over some of the websites that positively speak about North Korea. The sites that criticize South Korea are also not allowed for view in South Korea.
- The Arab World and the Middle East countries all alike establish censorship over some content which is viewed as immoral by the Muslim standards. The government controls the proxy servers and blocks access to pornography, let alone any other websites that speak about sexuality, nudity, immorality, other religions. One cannot purchase female lingerie online, just like view politically sensitive information about Arabs and Islam. The government officials constantly review various pages and if they do not meet the required criteria they get blocked.
- The United Arab Emirates (UAE) blocks access to pornography, political information and inflammatory information about the United Arab Emirates.
- Singapore would frequently arrest people who publish material viewed as improper by the government of Singapore. Students who defame their teachers on their blogs also get arrested for several days. The internet service providers obey the government orders on the issues of what is allowed and what is prohibited. Thus one cannot view any information that the government finds as against Singapore and dangerous for the public security, national defense, let alone sites that provoke discrimination and hostility. Police is given broad controls to tap and intercept emails from individual citizens.
- The USA places censorship on certain adult products and limits the access of minors to these products which are viewed are immoral and improper for those under 21. By the same token, the USA places censorship on those websites which can pose potential threat to the nation’s security and social tranquility. In other words, one would be unable to find any website hosted in the USA which would propagate genocide, racial discrimination/oppression, or those that give direct instructions how to manufacture a nuclear bomb, or develop a biological weapon to destroy New York, for instance. Still, this information can be available on websites hosted elsewhere in the world.
As one can see, most of the countries around the world have at least some sort of censorship which may be either be ethically justifiable or completely biased and unmotivated. While it appears that some information which propagates hatred, sexual perversions, child porn, human trafficking, drug trade, bestiality, racial humiliation or genocide indeed should be censored as it provokes people to more violence, unethical behavior and unnecessary deaths, other information which accurately depicts the situation in the country should be accessible. Typically, the countries one now calls the “axis of evil” or “hostile governments” are those that restrict objective information describing the social and economical aspects of some country. The repressive regimes strive to shut the mouths of their citizens in order to avoid protests from global humanitarian organizations, NGOs and governments. While it is possible to limit individual freedom of speech as well as restrict what the press can talk about, it makes it extremely hard for these governments to control what is being published online.
One needs to remember that despite the government attempts to censor the internet, it is still a rather difficult thing to do due to the fact that the internet distribution technology and the nature of its structure had originally been designed to assure uncontrollable access to certain resources. Pseudonymity and data havens allow people from around the world unconditional free speech as the internet technology assures that no material can be removed or the physical identity of the organization or individual that posted some material can be established accurately (Granick, 2004).
There can be different ways to block certain websites and contribute to internet censorship with some of them being shown below:
- Blocked URLs via the DNS(domain name system)-server. In other words, if the DNS server censors you, it would just refuse to send the real IP-address which is mapped to the URL.
Forced Proxy Server/transparent proxy. When surfing the internet, one needs to specify a proxy server in the Internet Explorer settings. When the ISP is using a transparent proxy, one cannot see if there is proxy or not. Therefore any internet request one sends of receives from the internet is checked at the server and can be either redirected to you or not depending on what the server wants to do.
- Keyword filter. As all the internet traffic goes through the servers of the censor, the censor can scan the content for ‘bad words’ that the government or the country does not want to see. In other words, if some government does not want its citizens to read anything about politics or the USA it would prevent all websites with “politics” or “USA”, “United States”, “America”, or “US” words in them. Such keyword filtering is especially true in universities, schools and libraries which want to discourage students from accessing some music/movies-download websites. The filter can be easily overcome by hiding words inside images and posting them online as images that contain words. While the users will find no difference the spiders that check the content for bad words typically get tricked. The SSL encrypted traffic also cannot be so easily scanned for keywords.
- Blocked ports. The ports are like doors on the computer and range from zero to 65535 although the most common ports range from zero to 1024. The censors would block some of the most common ports such as 80, 1080, 3128 and 8080. Since the proxies on common ports are useless now to the internet user, one needs to find proxies which are listening to uncommon ports, a rather difficult thing to do for a typical internet user. Some of the most common proxies are the following : 20-21-FTP, 22-SSH, 23-telnet, 25-SMTP, 53-DNS, 80-HTTP, 110-pop3, 1080-socks proxy, 8080-a proxy (Bernfeld, 2004).
- Censorware on the client’s computer. This software would test certain sites for keywords and content and block some of the prohibited sites. Parents usually use this kind of software to censor what websites their children surf to prevent them from accidentally accessing porn or adult websites.
- Censorware on the server or inside computer networks. These are the programs installed on computer servers typically in schools and universities. Since all the computer traffic goes through a central computer (server) it makes more sense to install censorware no one central computer rather than on all computers in the given network.
- Whitelist. While the majority of filters work with the blacklist, i.e. one can have access to any website except those on the whitelist. The white list means that one can have access only to those websites on the whitelist and cannot access any other website (Lasica, 2003). While typically no governments use whitelists since it would allow users to access only a limited number of websites in total, some companies engaged in e-commerce use whitelists to allow free internet access to their websites for users to want to purchase something online.
In order to bypass the internet censorship, one needs to use all available means to circumvent the government-imposed controls and have alternative access to the available information rather than the most common, http-access/web-surfing.
Currently, there exist certain ways to overcome internet censorship with some of the most common yet useful and powerful means being shown below:
- Using different ISP. While usually all ISP in the same country obey similar rules it is possible to use some foreign ISP, i.e. the one outside the country. One can use either a dialup (dialing to another country which does not have censorship) or a satellite internet. While both ways are rather expensive, they allow users access the very information they need.
Using non-censoring DNS server by altering the properties of the TCP/IP-protocol (Bernfeld, 2004).
- Using a non-censoring proxy server. In other words we need to put a proxy between our computer and the blocked or prohibited website and through that proxy (which is allowed to access the site) we can get to that site, too. For the government, we would only connect to the proxy that they cannot so easily see and then we connect to the censored websites without allowing them to see that either. If the common ports are blocked we would need to know and use the proxies which use uncommon ports.
- Using a web-2-phone service. One just needs to dial a special service and name a website. Then the computer operator will read the content to the one who orders that service. Unfortunately, most web-2-phone services are available only in English, thus preventing those who do not speak English from accessing any information they need. The most famous web-2-phone project is www.internetspeech.com
- Using a web proxy. This is especially useful when one has no privileges to install any program on the computer yet needs to access some censored/blocked pages. One makes use of the CGI-scripts which act as translators and html-checkers, let alone as web-archives (Lasica, 2003).
Staganography or hiding all the words into images for viewing. The Camera/Shy software allows to automatically scan and deliver decrypted content from the web (Herumin, 2005). By using staganography, one can have a whole newspaper available online with no single word presented as text. Still, everyone could read it because these words were placed inside pictures or images (photocopy of pages).
- Using a special proxy such as p2p programs. The most common are Napster, Kazaa, or eDonkey. Freenet or Peek-a-booty.org are also common in China and other countries where the government monitors emails and the system. These programs allow individual and corporate users around the world to share absolutely any kind of information, one does not need to have a web browser to get the needed information. Despite numerous lawsuits, billion dollar expenditures and efforts by major Hollywood movie studios and sound recording studios to stop the sharing of information (copyrighted movies and music) online one can still rather easily download about any mp3 song or movie online. By the same token file sharing allows users in countries with most stringent censorship to access and spread the prohibited and censored information.
Those revolutionaries and other people who do not want to have their freedom of speech limited typically engage in the risky process of publishing prohibited content in a way to avoid censorship and getting caught. One will need to do something to reduces the chances of getting caught by the government agents, still there can be no 100% assurance that the ways presented below will absolutely certainly hide the individual from the Big Brother.
Some of the major tricks to avoid censorship will be shown below:
- Creating a website with several mirrors so that the censors are unable to block all the possible servers.
- Fax Polling, or providing the services on one’s own computer with a fax modem or use that service on the internet.
- Using one time address, or the links and URL which are only valid for 1 visit or 1 hour as used for paid downloads.
- Hiding censored content in images to make it extremely difficult for the censor-spiders to detect what this website is about.
- Hosting on a secure server in another country. One could use http://www.heavenco.com, a company located at Sealand, a small independent country located in the northern sea.
- Encrypting the content to make it more difficult for censors to work on the sites (Tremblay, 2004).
- Offering date in p2p programs. By offering data in programs like eDonkey or Kazaa one will be able to easily spread it among people from different countries and thus assure the survivability of data.
- Sending data via emails. This will allow people to receive the needed data without actually accessing some prohibited and censored websites.
- Using Martus or the encrypted bulletin service to post and view information which cannot be spied on by the government easily. The government cannot identify accurately who posted what information at what time and who accessed or watched that very information.
In conclusion I would like to note that most of the governments around the world attempt to impose some sort of censorship on the information that its citizens are exposed to and are able to manipulate or access it. Some governments do so to benefit the nation, when they strive to limit the minors access to pornographic sites or limiting adults population access to some hate and racial discrimination sites, let alone child pornography, drug/people/guns trafficking or illegal organ transplantation. Some governments, on the other hand do everything possible to limit their citizens’ access to any other website or information that would criticize the government or somehow fail to meet the government expectations or demands. The essay showed different methods that the censors (governments) could use to limit their citizens’ access to the internet and especially some of the major prohibited websites. Then the essay showed the reader what can be done to overcome the government-imposed controls and what one needs to do to assure that their information can be accessed worldwide and not stopped by the freedom-limiting and repressive foreign governments which still exist in the XXI century.
Herumin, Wendy, 2005, Censorship on the Internet: From Filters to Freedom of Speech (Issues in Focus), Prentice Hall, pp. 126-129.
Tremblay, Tony, 2004, Internet censorship as “cybriety”: Freud, McLuhan, and media pleasures, McGraw Hill, pp. 301-302.
Granick, Jackie, 2004, Nixing the news: Iranian Internet censorship, NY Random House, pp. 56-57.
Bernfeld, Betsy, 2004, Censorship of the Internet at public libraries, pp. 111-113.
Lasica, J.D., 2003, Censorship devices on the Internet, Wiley and sons press, pp. 240-241.
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