Internet censorship and you

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There’s a movement going around on Facebook to bring attention to a plan by the Turkish government to begin filtering internet access within the country. As of August 22, internet service providers in Turkey will be required to make their users choose one of four access plans, each corresponding to a blacklist of websites that will be blocked. For example, the “domestic” plan will block international websites, and “children” will presumably block anything considered to be inappropriate for kids (pornography and such). But the exact blacklists will be maintained by the BTK (Turkish Information Technologies Board, or something like that), and will not be made public. So the government can theoretically add any website to the blacklists, thereby using them to suppress political opposition or whatever they want, and nobody will know. Any time a government agency gets power without explicit accountability like this, there’s a high potential for abuse and people should be concerned. Even if most government workers are really just trying to do what’s best for their country, how much do you trust that everyone who ever works in the information technologies agency will be able to resist the temptation to go too far?

Of course, the Turkish government is arguing that this program doesn’t restrict anything, it only adds options. The head of the BTK says, “The users who want to access the web freely have the option to select ‘standard package’.” Without access to the original material released by the Turkish government, I can’t tell whether that’s really the case, but I have my doubts. At the end of last month, the TÏB (Telecommunications Directorate — see, that even sounds ominous) issued a “request” to internet service providers within the country asking them to ban websites which include any of a set of words, and threatening unspecified punishment if they didn’t comply. So it seems that the government is not above using hard-handed censorship methods, even without a clear legal basis to do so. That’s the real problem, that the people in power have this better-to-ask-forgiveness-than-permission attitude. The secret blacklist of websites is just going to be a tool that makes that far easier for them to put that attitude into practice. They never have to ask forgiveness if nobody finds out.

So what’s a freedom-respecting internet citizen to do about this? A lot of people in Turkey itself are taking to the streets to protest the internet censorship, which will hopefully have some effect. Of course, if the Turkish government is really fixated on this plan, they could just ignore the protests of their citizens. However, it’s my understanding that Turkey is interested in joining the European Union, and more generally interested in appearing progressive in the eyes of the “western” world. Ignoring massive protests in the country isn’t going to help their case. This also means that citizens of the US and European democracies can perhaps help by contacting their elected officials (at least, to the extent that asking your elected officials to do anything ever has an effect), reminding them to stay aware of the situation in Turkey and to make it clear that ordinary citizens in the US and western Europe don’t consider Turkey’s behavior appropriate for a modern nation.

Then again, one has to wonder whether the governments of “western” nations are going to chastise Turkey for this, given that a lot of them are already on their way to doing the same thing! Turkey is only the latest in a series of national governments that are instituting programs to restrict internet access. This first made news in 2007, when Australia’s Minister of Telecommunications announced that all internet service providers in the country would be required to offer their customers the option of filtered internet access, using a government-controlled, non-public blacklist. The plan sounds uncannily similar to what Turkey is now trying to introduce. This is somewhat worrying because, as Wikipedia reports, the next move by the Australian government was to make some of the filtering mandatory, although after extended public opposition, the government backed down… temporarily. Here’s hoping that Turkish protests can produce the same (or a better) result.

Even the United States is on the path toward enforcing internet restrictions using a non-public blacklist. Last year, the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, asserted that it had the right to disable any domain that, by its own judgment, was involved in illegal activity, focusing on copyright infringement, counterfeiting, and child pornography. From a technical standpoint, this isn’t quite as restrictive as the filtering schemes being considered in Australia and Turkey, since the ICE isn’t blocking the websites themselves, just preventing them from being accessed using their domain names. It’s possible to get around that, if you know the site’s numeric IP address, and in fact there is a Firefox plugin, MAFIAA Fire, to do just that. But the motivation is the same, and I bet the DHS would try all-out web filtering if they thought they could get away with it. And if they don’t see enough resistance to what they’re doing now, that’s exactly what they will think.

Thankfully, Mozilla (the creators of Firefox) are standing up to the DHS. When the Homeland Security people asked Mozilla to disable the MAFIAA Fire plugin, Mozilla responded by asking for the legal basis of the request. So far, there has been no response — you have to wonder whether they can actually justify this request at all. This is the kind of behavior that we need to see more of: all too often, when the government makes a request to an ISP or content host to have something taken down, they just do it without asking any questions, and the government gets free rein to have anything it wants censored. Don’t let them get away with it! While I’m not saying we should cripple our government’s ability to enforce the law, we do have the right — and even the responsibility — to remind them that they also have to obey the law.

For anyone who’s concerned about this, let me offer a few closing notes:

  • Developments in these internet censorship programs are usually reported by Slashdot whenever they become public. You can subscribe to the RSS feed (this feed focuses specifically on internet users’ rights), or follow the stories on Facebook or Twitter.
  • So far, the internet filters being proposed center on websites (things you access in a web browser). That suggests that other services that run over the internet, like chat/instant messaging, BitTorrent, and Skype, are free to continue, at least for now. In the event that web filtering gets put in place, those alternate services can still be used to communicate. Of course, Turkey (or any other nation) could attempt to block these other services, but many of them are designed in such a way as to make that technically difficult. Besides, shutting off something like Skype cannot be justified as protecting people from obscene or illegal content — that’s straight-up censorship, and once the news of that got out, there would be no illusions in the international community that Turkey is doing this to assert control, not just to protect its people.
  • The Tor Project provides software that implements an “onion router”: it masks the true nature of internet communications by routing data packets around a maze of connected servers and encapsulating them in multiple layers of encryption. Any kind of internet traffic (whether web browsing, file transfer, chat, etc.), once it gets sent into the Tor network, is indistinguishable from any other kind, so the only way for a government to stop it is to cut a country off from internet access entirely. If you operate a web server or any computer with constant internet access and have some bandwidth to spare, you can help the project out by running a relay node on your server. Check out the series I posted a couple years ago, when the Tor project helped circumvent Iran’s internet access restrictions, about my experience setting up a relay.

And finally, for people who aren’t concerned about this: I won’t argue that you should be. Everybody gets to pick their own pet issues. But remember, the goal here is to keep a government honest, and to do that requires as much public pressure as possible. If you don’t actively agree that governments should be able to maintain and enforce private website blacklists, any little thing you do to remind people that this is going on — a Facebook status update, a tweet, a mention to a friend — can be a big help.