Internet Censorship: A Game of Cat and Mouse

//In light of Google Ideas’ uProxy tool announcement, AnOx 2013 alumnus Temitope Lawal reviews governments’ employment of censorship and surveillance online, and the growing efforts by internet users to circumvent these restrictions to fulfill their right to freedom of expression, access to information, and privacy.

Recently, Google Ideas announced that it developed a tool called uProxy, a peer-to-peer service that allows people living under controlling regimes to bypass government censorship and surveillance software by establishing internet connections with trusted persons living in open internet states. Currently, more than 25 countries, notably China, Iran and Syria, have institutionalised different types of internet controls to restrict online speech and information access. In Iran, for example, foreign media sites are often blocked, redirected or hijacked.[i] Even with existing circumvention tools, sites such as Voice of America and Kaleme cannot be accessed within the country. China’s highly sophisticated filtering technologies, collectively known as the Great Firewall of China, also enable the practice of blocking foreign websites, blogs and social media platforms. Meanwhile the Turkish government continues to actively monitor and filter content posted on Twitter since anti-government protests in June.

Unlike other circumvention technologies, such as Ultrasurf, Tor and Phiphon, uProxy users selectively share their internet connection with trusted friends. The extension will allow two people who know each other, and are already in touch via chat or email platforms, to share their connection in a way that resembles a virtual private network (VPN). A user in Syria, for example, could ask a friend in the United States to activate uProxy via an extension link sent by chat or email. After the U.S. friend clicks on the extension and accepts the invitation, the person in Syria would then be connected to the internet via a secure channel using the US friend’s connection. This means that uProxy is not an anonymising network tool like Tor. It will, however, render an individual connection indistinguishable from all other encrypted traffic online. As noted on uProxy’s website, “There is no uProxy-specific mark on traffic that identifies the traffic as being sent by uProxy.”

Google’s uProxy tool raises a key question related to circumvention technologies and repressive regimes: Who is liable for illegal activities performed by way of circumvention tools? Since most circumvention technologies prevent user detection, they have become useful tools for drug trafficking, child pornography and other criminal activities. This problem has been acknowledged by developers of anti-filtering tools, though some say it is a cost of providing anti-surveillance tools.

The question of illegal activity, however, becomes more complicated when dealing with illegal activities within repressive regimes which may not be considered illegal on the open internet. While in most countries intermediaries, including internet service providers (ISPs), are generally not liable for content posted by their users or third parties,[ii] the user who posts such illegal content(s) almost certainly bears the risk of liability. Using uProxy potentially creates a unique scenario. Since an internet user in one country (identified as person x) connects to the internet through the ISP of a user in another country (person y), person y is more likely to be held liable for illegal activities carried out by the person x, as person y’s internet connection was used. Even though setting up a circumvention pathway provides a gateway for someone to exercise their freedom of speech and right to access information,[iii] it is a choice that carries a heavy responsibility and potential liability risks.

As online “hacktivists” develop more circumvention tools backed by free-internet states, repressive governments consequently upgrade their filtering and monitoring capabilities. For example, according to a Washington Post article, “China’s Great Firewall has grown more sophisticated in recent years, with the communist government employing tens of thousands of monitors to filter content and watch users.” Additionally, in the week leading up to the 2013 Iranian presidential elections, authorities waged an aggressive campaign filtering websites and throttling network speeds of encrypted traffic down to between one to five percent of the speed for unsecured and domestic traffic.[iv] Most online tools that allowed users to communicate anonymously and circumvent filtering were either blocked or rendered dysfunctional.

Although many internet users in authoritarian states have been able to access blocked websites and content using various circumvention techniques, authorities are actively working to disrupt such efforts, forcing users to constantly search for new solutions. As was succinctly put by Philip Howard, a professor at the University of Washington, “…getting around internet censorship is not as simple as building a virtual tunnel…whether Google’s ideas have an equal impact in all repressive regimes remains to be seen.”

[i] Enemies of the internet, Special Edition: Surveillance (Reporters without Boarders, 12 March 2013)

[ii] Intermediary Liability: Protecting Internet Platforms for Expression and Innovation (Centre for Democracy and Innovation, April 2010)

[iii] Everyone’s Guide to By-Passing Internet Censorship (The Citizen Lab, September 2007)

[iv] Freedom on the Net 2013: A global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media (Freedom House, 3 October 2013)

//Temitope Lawal, a Nigeria-qualified lawyer, has just completed his post-graduate studies in Computer and Communications Law from Queen Mary, University of London. His areas of interest include new media technologies, telecommunications and internet regulation.

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