Tag Archives: Censorship

Wasp: Sticker-War as a Tactic for Civil Resistance

Eric Russell’s science fiction novel, Wasp, is brilliant. It was published in 1957 and weaves civil resistance theory with creative tactics that remain fully relevant half-a-century later. What I want to do here is share some excerpts that describe a very neat civil resistance tactic. Please see my previous post for the context of the story along with the novel’s compelling theory on civil resistance.

One of the first tactics that Mowry employs is perhaps surprising—posting stickers with different messages. His strategy is to make the authorities think a powerful underground movement lead by Dirac Angestun Gesept (D.A.G.) is resisting the regime. This movement is entirely imaginary. The sticker read for example:

“War is wealth for the few, misery for the many. At the right time, Dirac Angestun Gesept will punish the former, bring aid and comfort to the latter.”

Mowry bet that folks who came across the he posted in very public places would be too shocked to try and remove them and would stay very clear of them. “The chances were equally good that they’d spread the news, and gossip is the same in every part of the cosmos: it gains compound interest as it goes the rounds.”

In one instance, Mowry had planted a sticker on a shop window. He then stands on the other side of the street to see what would unfold. Very quickly, a crowd forms and a scowling police officer was at the scene. He immediately summons the shopkeeper who becomes very anxious when he sees the sticker.

‘Get if off!’

‘Yes, Officer, Certainly, Officer. I shall remove it immediately.’

The manager started digging with his nails at the sticker corners, in an attempt to peel it off. He didn’t do so well, because [Earth’s] technical superiority extended even to common adhesives. After several futile efforts, the manager threw the cop an apologetic look, went inside, came out with a knife, and tried again. This time he succeeded in tearing a small triangle from each corner, leaving the message intact.

A few minutes later, James Mowry, glancing back from the far corner, saw the manager emerge with a steaming bucket and get busy swabbing the notice. He grinned to himself, knowing that hot water was just the thing to release and activate the hydrofluoric base beneath the print.

Sure enough, but the time he came back a few hours later, “the sticker had disappeared; in it’s place the same message was etched deeply and milkily in the glass. The policeman and the manager were now arguing heatedly upon the sidewalk, with half a dozen citizens now gaping alternately at them and the window.

As Mowry walked past, the cow bawled, ‘I don’t care if the window is valued at two thousand guilders. You’ve got to board it up or replace the glass.’

‘But, Officer…’

‘Do as you’re told. To exhibit subversive propaganda is a major offence.’

By the end of the night, Mowry had slapped exactly one hundred stickers on shops, offices, and vehicles of the city transport system; he also inscribed swiftly, clearly, and in large size letters D.A.G. upon twenty-four walls. The latter feat was performed with [Earth] crayon, a deceitfully chalklike substance that made full use of the porosity of brick when water was applied. In other words, the more furiously it was washed the more stubbornly it became embedded.

The following day, Mowry brought a paper and searched it for some mention of yesterday’s activities. There wasn’t a word on the subject. First he felt disappointed; then, on further reflection, he became heartened.

Opposition to the war and open defiance of the government definitely made news that justified a front-page spread. No reporter, no editor would pass it up if he could help it; therefore the papers had passed it up because they could not help it. Somebody high in authority had clamped down upon them with the heavy hand of censorship. Somebody with considerable power had been driven into making a weak countermove.

That was a start, anyway. Mowry’s first waspish buzzings had forced authority to interfere with the press. What’s more, the countermove was feeble and ineffective, serving only as a stopgap while officials beat their brains for more decisive measures.

The more persistently a government maintains silence on a given subject of discussion, the more the public talks about it and thinks about it. The longer and more stubborn the silence, the guiltier the government looks to the talkers and thinkers. In time of war, the most morale-lowering question that can be asked is, ‘What are they hiding from us now?”

Some hundreds of citizens would be asking themselves that same question tomorrow, the next day, or next week. The [messages on the stickers] would be on a multitude of lips, milling around in a like number of minds, merely because the powers that be were afraid to talk.

And if a government fears to admit even the pettiest facts of war, how much faith can the common man place in the leadership’s claim not to be afraid of anything?

I did a little research to see where we’re at with sticker technology. While stickers with hydrofluoric acid still belong to the realm of science fiction, there are stickers that give the very real semblance of being etched in glass are available.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Nation-State Routing: Globalizing Censorship

I just found an interesting piece on Internet censorship at arXiv, my favorite go-to place for scientific papers that are pre-publication. Entitled “Nation-State Routing: Censorship, Wiretapping and BGP,” this empirical study is possibly the first to determine the aggregate effect of national policies on the flow of international traffic.

As government control over the treatment of Internet traffic becomes more common, many people will want to understand how international reachability depends on individual countries and to adopt strategies either for enhancing or weakening the dependence on some countries.

Introduction

States typically impose censorship to prevent domestic users from reaching questionable content. Some censorship techniques, however, “may affect all traffic traversing an [Autonomous System].” For example, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in China, Britain and Pakistan block Internet traffic at the Internet Protocol (IP) level by “filtering based on IP addresses and URLs in the data packets, or performing internal prefix hijacks, which could affect the international traffic they transit.”

The scope and magnitude of this affect is unclear. What we do know is that one may intentionally or by accident apply censorship policies to international traffic, as demonstrated by the global YouTube outage last year as a result of a domestic Pakistani policy directive.

Methodology

The authors therefore developed a framework to study interdomain routing at the nation-state level. They first adapted the “Betweeness Centrality” metric from statistical physics to measure the importance, or centrality, of each country to Internet reachability. Second, they designed, implemented and validated a Country Path Algorithm (CPA) to infer country-paths from a pair of source and destination IP addresses.

Findings

The table below shows Country Centrality (CC) computed directly from Trace Route (TR) and Border Gate Protocol (BGP). The closer the number is to one, the more impact that country’s domestic Internet censorship policies has on international Internet traffic.

arxivtable1

The second table below lists both Country Centrality (CC) and Strong Country Centrality (SCC). The latter measures how central countries are when alternative routes are considered. When SCC equals one, this suggests a country is completely unavoidable.

arxiv-table2

“Collectively, these results show that the ‘West’ continues to exercise disproportionate influence over international routing, despite the penetration of the Internet to almost every region of the world, and the rapid development of China and India.”

This last table below lists CC and SCC measures for authoritarian countries that are known for significant domestic censorship of Internet content. Aside from China, “these countries have very little influence over global reachability.”

arxiv-table3

Next Steps

The authors of the study point to a number of interesting questions for future research. For example, it would be interesting to know how the centrality result above change over time, i.e., which countries are becoming more central over time, and why?

Another important question is what economically driven strategies single countries (or small coalitions of countries) could adopt to increase their own centrality or to reduce that of other countries?

One final and particularly important question would to find out what fraction of domestic paths are actually routed through another country? This is important because the answer to this question would “provide insight into the influence that foreign nations have over a country’s domestic routing and security, and would shed light on […] whether warrantless tapping on links in one country to another might inadvertently capture some purely domestic traffic.”

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Democracy: Introduction & Overview

My colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new course on Digital Democracy and we just had our first brainstorming session. We see this class as being a series of brainstorming opportunities as opposed to traditional lecturing.

Josh and I we started the class by asking what the word democracy means to everyone. We sought to go beyond conventional text-book definitions to understand what democracy means to all of us on a day-to-day basis. Students shared the following thoughts; namely, democracy is:

  • About being heard;
  • Minority rights;
  • Accountability and transparency;
  • Advocacy for change;
  • Access.

We then asked what adding “digital” in front of “democracy” means for all of us:

  • Empowerment of the individual;
  • Fall of hierarchies;
  • Wider participation;
  • Democratization of information.

With these definitions in mind, we explored the digital technologies used to document today’s historical democratic event, the US inauguration. We spoke about uses of Facebook, Twitter, Second Life, etc., and the tools in place to promote transparency and accountability in the Obama Administration. A list of these are available on the course wiki. The point of this survey was to emphasize that these tools can also be used to improve other democratic processes.

(Incidentally, we chose to set up a wiki because the academic online platform Blackboard is just a gated community. The platform reminds me of Jonathan Zittrain’s recent book on “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” I’d like to suggest an idea for a new start-up: Blogboard).

We then delved into the readings by Benkler and Ronfeldt (also available on the wiki). This brought up some neat conversations ranging from issues on censorship and anonymity to digital activism, the digital divide and the information economy. A couple students recounted their experience with censorship when they lived/worked in China. Another student described the dynamic between repressive regimes and digital activists as an “information race,” which I found to be spot on. We also spoke about the role of the media in a digital democracy and discussed the rise of citizen journalists.

After the brainstorming session, we went through the syllabus and briefly introduced each session. As part of this week’s assignments, we’ve asked students to get a Twitter/Twhirl and Google Reader account. We’ve created a Twitter feed for the course: @digidemocracy. Weekly assignments will include writing blog posts on the readings and Tweeting current events/issues related to digital democracy.

As previously mentioned, Josh and I welcome feedback from anyone vis-a-vis the syllabus, the individual session outlines, tweets, blog posts etc. In the meantime, please feel free to send the class relevant links/articles to @digidemocracy.

Patrick Philippe Meier

New Course on Digital Democracy (Updated)

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, my colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new full-semester undergraduate course on Digital Democracy. The course is being offered as part of Tufts University‘s interdisciplinary Media and Communication Studies Program.

The course will address the following topics:

  • Introduction to Digital Democracy
  • American Democracy
  • Global Democracy
  • Media and Democracy
  • Guest Speakers: Digital Democracy
  • Bloggers Rights
  • Digital Censorship and Democracy
  • Human Rights 2.0
  • Digital Activism
  • Digital Resistance
  • Digital Technology in Developing World
  • Class Presentations

The course wiki along with the syllabus is available here. We regularly update the syllabus so do check back. Feedback on the syllabus is also very much welcomed.

We are particularly keen for suggestions vis-a-vis recommended material (websites, online videos, links, books, papers etc.) and in-class activities.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Media & Repressive Regimes: Media Tactics

The second panel focused on the media tactics of regimes and opponents. Xiao Qiang gave the first presentation which addressed Chinese digital media controls and access to public expresssion. Rebecca MacKinnon presented the findings of her research on China’s censorship 2.0: how companies censor bloggers. The third talk, by Mahmood Enayat, focused on resistance 2.0: power and counter-power in Persian websphere.

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“In china,” says Xiao, the digital battle “is about controlling information space, both via censorship and propaganda.” The Internet is not just a medium, it’s a social space where netizens organize into communities, share, etc. The Chinese government seeks to control the “main melody” via censorship and disinformation. So Chinese cyberspace is a control space.

How do some Chinese seek to circumvent this control? A number of official Chinese journalists actually lead double-lives; working for the state-controlled media during the day, and blogging or participating in BBS forums at night. Political satire (“eGao”) is also used in response to Chinese media control. There is also an important gap in control between local and central authorities in terms of implementing censorship rules; there is also a timing factor that contributes to the control gap.

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Rebecca MacKinnon is a leading China expert, having been posted with CNN in Beijing for 9 years and now teaches in Hong King. “There are different kinds of Internet censorship,” says Rebecca, reminding us as well that the Great Firewall of China which filters websites outside China was coind by bloggers. In addition to filtering, Chinese authorities are known to delete websites, shut down domestic sites as well as data centers. Multinational Companies are complicit in Chinese internet censorship.

Rebecca and her team decided to test just how censored China’s different blogging websites really are. Using paragraphs with sensitive political language, they manually tested 15 blog hosting websites to test what content  were being filterred. The team used 108 different types of content and found huge variation in blogging platforms censoring, from one site filtering 56% content to another filtering only 0.9%; of the same content. There is also evidence that the filtering is not always automatic and indeed includes manual intervention.

In one interesting example, Rebbecca mentions a blog post by a former high-level Chinese political adviser. The post, entitled: “Letter to my Son: wishing for multiparty democracy in China.” The blog was highly political but did not use inflammatory language and therefore was not filtered. Out of curiousity, Rebecca copied and pasted articles from the main state-owned media, Xinhua, and found that some of the state’s own articles would get censored!

So why do we see so much variation in Internet filtering within China?

  • Instructions to companies from city or provincial state council inforation office internet section, interpreted diffently;
  • Different methods desvised for implementation;
  • Relationship between company management, investors and regulatory bodies;
  • Manager/editor’s relationship with local state council;

In conclusion, the Great Chinese Firewall is only part of Chinese Internet censorship. Domestic censorship is not centralized. Domestic web censorship is outsourced by government to the private sector. Censorship is inconsistent and it is usually possible to post your content on one platform, for at least a while.

What are the implications of this study? We need larger scale studies of domestic web censorship (including chat rooms, social networking sites, instant-messaging, mobile services, etc.). Unlike automated filtering tests, these tests require manual testing and constant analysis by Chinese speakers with contextual knowledge. We need surveys of web service company employees; also of users and bloggers about their experience.

Implication for activism: circumvention is important but its not the solution to the whole censorship problem. We need to educate bloggers and netizens about strategies to deal with censorship.

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Mahmood Enayat from the Oxford Internet Institute gave an entertaining presentation on the use of digital media in Iran. (NB: my notes for this section self-deleted, don’t ask). In any case, Mahmood’s presentation was engaging. He discussed the role of underground music one the one hand and the use of YouTube. My apologies to Enayat for this being so short.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Iran: Mullahs Impose Restrictions on SMS

Mobile phone users in Iran who wish to use the SMS feature on their mobile phones will now be required to apply for security clearance by the Ministry of of Intelligence and Security.

Sending SMS deemed contrary to national security will be punishable by law. Any change of address by the subscriber of the service must be reported promptly to the relevant authorities. It is the security agents who decide which SMS are in breach of national security .

In October, A number of senior officials of the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), the main body for imposing censorship, have expressed its deep concern over the use of SMS messaging by the Iranian Resistance’s network inside Iran (source).

Some 20 million text messages are sent every day in Iran according to some sources. Will the new regulation have a significant impact on that number? If so, will the regime care at all about the loss of revenue?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Gold Medals for Beating the Chinese Firewall

And the gold medals for beating the Chinese Firewall go to:

  • Witopia for securing your wireless communications.
  • WASTE again for allowing you to create a decentralized and secure private mesh network using an unsecured network, such as the internet.
  • Off-the-Record Messaging for enabling you to have private conversations over instant messaging by providing encryption, authentication, deniability and perfect forward secrecy.
  • Freedom Stick for providing you with a flash drive pre-loaded with software which will secure the communications of any computer it is slotted into. The drive uses the TOR network to cloak your connections, routing traffic around the world through anonymous computers, thus avoiding detection.
  • da Vinci for inspiring this clever circumvention of the Chinese Firewall.

Patrick Philippe Meier