Internet Censorship Growth Hampers News, Study Says
By JOHN MARKOFF
Published: October 11, 2011A detailed study of Internet censorship in China and Iran shows that blocking techniques are changing rapidly and are becoming significant new obstacles for news organizations, governments and businesses.
The study, being published on Tuesday, focuses on Internet blocking faced by Iranian and Chinese visitors to BBC Web sites during periods of political unrest in the two countries over the last two years.
“This problem of Internet control is becoming an issue for more than human rights concerns,” said an author of the report, Ronald Deibert, the director of the Canada Center for Global Security Studies and the Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto organization that focuses on Internet security. “The fact is that you have dozens of countries not just filtering for porn, but political filtering and key events as well.”
The study, by the BBC and Dr. Deibert’s center, acknowledges that the Internet accounts for only about 13 percent of the broadcaster’s global audience, which totaled 225 million people in 2010-11. But it is increasingly important in authoritarian countries; for example, there are now 500 million Chinese Internet users, many times the number that listen to shortwave broadcasts.
The study documents the activities of firewall censorship during a variety of political events, including anniversaries of events like the Tiananmen Square protests.
The activities of censoring authorities are not easily predictable and can change rapidly, the authors say, adding that broadcasters must be ready to engage in a “cat and mouse” game with censors by constantly monitoring government firewall systems and by clever use of alternatives like Twitter and other social media.
Government censorship of broadcasters goes back at least to World War II, the report says. The Nazis enacted strict laws to prevent Germans from listening to foreign broadcasts, and radios were designed so they could not receive the broadcasts. During the cold war, the Soviets began an intensive radio-jamming campaign, and the United States responded with a “ring plan” — vast deployments of strategically placed shortwave transmitters meant to overwhelm the jammers.
The report, “Casting a Wider Net: Lessons Learned in Delivering BBC Content on the Censored Internet,” says the news media will need to form alliances to combat censorship efforts.
“Vietnam has been learning its blocking technology from China,” said the lead author, Karl Kathuria, the BBC’s senior operations manager. “One of our recommendations is that broadcasters get together as well.”
To help make its service available through firewalls, BBC has collaborated with Psiphon, a software firm that is a spinoff of the University of Toronto computer security researchers. The firm supplies circumvention software to BBC and the Voice of America as well as other organizations.There are several ways to avoid firewall blocking systems. One of them, known as a Web proxy, routes requests for Web pages through an intermediate Internet address.