#IMWeekly: December 9, 2013

A senior Brazilian lawmaker said that a vote on a law that would require global Internet companies, like Google and Facebook, to store the data of Brazilian citizens inside Brazil will be delayed until next year due to disagreements about the bill’s content.

Chinese telecom giant Huawei announced that it will no longer be pursuing business opportunities in the US. US officials and lawmakers have regularly accused Huawei of being a proxy for Chinese military and intelligence agencies and have encouraged public and private efforts to inhibit Huawei’s influence in the US.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard arrested 16 cyber journalists and activists “accused of working against the country’s national security, having ties with foreign ‘enemy media’ and designing anti-regime websites.” The arrests followed on the heels of other recent government actions that have infringed on Internet freedom, despite promises by the administration of President Hassan Rouhani to peel back repressive government policies.

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that the US National Security Agency is collecting vast amounts of cellphone location data to track the whereabouts and movements of hundreds of millions of cellphones around the world. The wide scope of the newly revealed programs has again raised concerns about privacy and is likely to provoke further resentment among foreign citizens and governments who have already expressed displeasure with US spying.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#IMWeekly: December 2, 2013

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that Canada allowed the US National Security Agency to conduct widespread surveillance during the G8 and G20 summits that were held in Toronto in 2010. It is unclear who the specific targets of the surveillance operation were. Both US and Canadian officials declined to comment on the new revelations.

A seven-month investigation by the Dutch Data Protection Authority (DPA) found that Google’s policy of combining personal data from the various online services that it provides violates Dutch data protection law. The DPA’s recent conclusions are based in part a new privacy policy that Google introduced in March 2012 and implemented, according to the DPA, without adequately informing users about what it would be collecting and why. The same policy is under investigation in five other European states: France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Britain.

South Africa
South African President Jacob Zuma signed a Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Bill into law. According to a statement issued by a presidential spokesman, “The act will give effect to the right to privacy, by introducing measures to ensure that the personal information of an individual is safeguarded when it is processed by responsible parties.” The new POPI law is designed to protect consumers’ right to privacy while not overly burdening online businesses and entrepreneurs who seek to legitimately use their customers’ personal information to provide better services.

The Vietnamese government issued two new decrees that create new fines for various offenses related to e-commerce and social media. The full impact of the decrees remains to be seen. Critics fear, however, that the new commerce fines place undue restrictions on young e-commerce sites. Activists are also concerned that the new social media fines, which penalize “propaganda against the state” and expressions of “radical ideology”, could be used to further suppress online activity and activism.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#IMWeekly: November 4, 2013

The Brazilian government said it is forging ahead with a plan that would require global Internet companies to store any data obtained from Brazilian users on servers inside the country. While the plan might better protect Brazilian citizens from US spying it could have significant implications for how global Internet companies are able to operate in the future in Brazil and elsewhere.

Recently released documents obtained by Edward Snowden reveal that the NSA has tapped into the main communication links that connect Yahoo and Google data centers all over the world.

Indonesian government officials summoned the Australian ambassador to respond to reports that the Australian Embassy in Jakarta “is a hub for Washington’s secret electronic data collection program.”

A hacktivist going by the name “The Messiah” defaced a number of websites in Singapore to protest proposed Internet licensing rules that critics have called back door state censorship. In one instance, the hacktivist, who claims to be part of Anonymous, targeted The Straits Times website writing, “Dear ST: You just got hacked for misleading the people!” Other critics of the proposed rules include Google, Facebook, eBay, Salesforce, and Yahoo.

United States
A major reform bill was introduced, designed to rein in the NSA’s spying powers. While the bill boasts bipartisan support, critics were quick to argue that the “reform” bill does little more than preserve the status quo. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that there have been cases where US efforts to gather information have “reached too far inappropriately.”

#IMweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

#IMWeekly: October 28, 2013

German officials alleged that the US had monitored Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone for more than a decade. The allegations were based on leaked documents obtained by the German news magazine Der Spiegel. While the US administration has denied that President Barack Obama was aware of or approved any intelligence operations involving Merkel, the controversy has increased tension between the US and its European allies and has provoked calls within Germany to better shield domestic Internet traffic from foreign intelligence services.

Google announced the creation of Uproxy, a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that can allow users all over the world to bypass restrictive firewalls by using peer-to-peer connections. The new technology has the potential to provide uncensored Internet access for activists all over the world.

The administration of recently elected President Hassan Rouhani announced that it is closely reviewing and revising government censorship policies. The review process is beginning with censored books, but statements by Iranian officials suggest that they may also revisit government policies that restrict access to various websites and social media—a goal that is in line with statements made by President Rouhani prior to his election.

A group of nations led by Germany and Brazil joined together to push for a UN General Resolution to promote a right of privacy on the Internet. The meeting of diplomats in New York represented the first significant international effort to limit NSA surveillance powers exposed in recent revelations about American spying. Diplomats are reportedly considering a draft resolution that expands on the privacy rights contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

#imweekly is a regular round-up of news about Internet content controls and activity around the world. To subscribe via RSS, click here.

Flying Past Filters and Firewalls: Pigeons as Circumvention Tools

credit: zeevveez/Flickr

On June 14, 2013, Google announced that it would begin sending experimental balloons, loaded down with Internet hotspot equipment, into the stratosphere to help connect the estimated 4.5 billion people who do not have access to the Internet, many of whom live in rural areas. Google’s project, named “Loon,” quickly grabbed the attention and imagination of people living in countries where Internet censorship is the norm. Abdullah Hamed, CEO and founder of the popular Saudi gaming platform GameTako, reacted to Google’s announcement by posing a provoking question (or taunt) to local Emirati telecom companies and the Saudi government on Twitter.

Hamed’s question was a good one to put to the Saudi government and telecom companies who regularly block websites and ban unsanctioned communications services such as the VoIP product Viber. Hamed’s question soon got an answer, but not from the Saudi government or any other state that censors its Internet; Hamed was answered by Google. The company announced that it would be obtaining all the proper air travel permissions and radio frequency licenses, and will connect with local telecom networks as its balloons float by.

credit: purolipan/Flickr

In the late 1970s, small numbers of Iranians were permitted into Iraq to worship at the shrine of Imam Ali. After most of the pilgrims left the shrine, the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would give impassioned anti-Shah lectures to the remaining visitors. Khomeini’s speeches were recorded onto cassette tapes, copied, and widely distributed on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities. The Shah’s government was aware of the tapes, and often destroyed copies it could find, but it did not manage to sufficiently disrupt the distribution network, and Khomeini’s influence in Iran grew. The CIA and the Shah’s information intelligence communities, looking in the wrong places, failed to see that the ground beneath them had shifted and were caught by surprise when the Iranian Revolution ousted the Shah’s government. In today’s increasingly connected world, we would call Khomeini’s followers members of a “sneakernet.” A sneakernet refers to the transfer of electronic information like computer files using removable media like magnetic tape, floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, USB flash drives, and external hard drives by someone wearing sneakers.  While sneakernets do still exist, many hung up their sneakers once broadband made sharing files faster and easier.

credit: Tony Marr/Flickr

Hamed’s excited tweet expressed his hope that floating balloons would connect people to the Internet and thwart government censorship policies. Instead of investing his hopes in Google Loon, Hamed might take seriously a proposal from the early days of the Internet that seems loonier than Google Loon, but might be more practical for circumventing network censorship or avoiding government scrutiny by programs like PRISM or the recently discovered snooping via the US Postal Service: IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC). On April Fool’s Day, 1990, David Waitzman submitted a Request for Comments (RFC) to the Internet Engineering Task Force, the ad hoc body charged with developing and promoting Internet standards, on the idea of using carrier pigeons or other birds for the transmission of electronic data. Nine years later, again on April 1st, Waitzman issued another RFC suggesting improvements to his original protocol. On April 1, 2011, Brian Carpenter and Robert Hinden made their own RFC detailing how to use IPoAC with the latest revisions to the Internet Protocol IPv6.  While Waitzman, Carpenter, and Hinden clearly designed IPoAC as a joke, using birds to transfer digital media has been successfully tested. In 2004, inspired by the IPoAC idea, the Bergen Linux group sent nine pigeons, each carrying a single ping, three miles. (They only received four “responses,” meaning only four of the birds made it.)

credit: Alan Mays/Flickr

Not all the tests have ended in failure. In 2009, a South African marketing company targeted South Africa’s largest Internet Service provider, Telkom, for its slow ADSL speeds by racing a pigeon carrying a 4 GB memory stick against the upload of the same amount of data using Telkom’s service. After six minutes and 57 seconds, the pigeon arrived, easily beating Telkcom, which had only transferred 4 percent of the data in the same amount of time. In 2010, another person hoping to shame their ISP in Yorkshire, England raced a five-minute video on a memory card to a BBC correspondent 75 miles away using a carrier pigeon while simultaneously attempting to upload the same clip to YouTube. The pigeon made it in 90 minutes, well ahead of the YouTube video—which failed once during the race. In Fort Collins, Colorado, rafting photographers routinely use pigeons to carry memory sticks from their cameras to tour operators over 30 miles away, and prisoners in Brazil have been caught using pigeons to smuggle cellphones into their prison cells.

credit: Windell H. Oskay/Flickr

Suggesting that pigeons might be faster than Internet connections might seem ridiculous, but as the information density of storage media has increased, and continues to increase, many times faster than the Internet bandwidth available to move it, IPoAC might not be so far-fetched. Over the last 20 years, the available storage space of hard disks of the same physical size has increased roughly 100 percent per year, while the capacity of Internet connections has only increase by 30-40 percent each year. Sneakernets might have gone out of fashion as bandwidth speeds increased, but as storage capacity increases—along with our need to fill those capacities—pigeon-powered networks may become a practical alternative to existing networks. While no one brought up the idea of using pigeons at Google’s “How green is the Internet?” summit last month, pigeons may also be a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way to transfer data in the future.

Even if the increasing gap between storage and mobility doesn’t become a problem, Internet censorship or privacy issues might spur the development of a Pigeonet. Earlier this month Anthony Judge, who worked from the 1960s until 2007 for the UN’s Union of International Associations and is known for developing the most extensive databases on global civil society, published a detailed proposal titled “Circumventing Invasive Internet Surveillance with Carrier Pigeons.” In the proposal, Judge discusses the proven competence of carrier pigeons for delivering messages, their non-military and military messaging capacity, and the history of using pigeons to transfer digital data. Judge acknowledges that pigeon networks have their own susceptibilities (such as disease or being lured off course by an attractive decoy), but argues we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea. As governments, and compliant corporations, increasingly block or filter access to the Internet, data capacities and data production increase beyond bandwidth limitations, and we begin to realize the environmental costs of running the Internet, sneakernets and pigeonets may become increasingly attractive options for transmitting data.