#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.

#IMweekly: September 3, 2013

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology of Nakhchivan, an Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, has ordered Internet cafes throughout the area to shut down. Human rights activists speculate that the order may be part of an attempt to curb online dissent in advance of Azerbaijan’s October 9 presidential elections. Bloggers and journalists throughout the country who are critical of the government have faced arrests, hacking, and blackmail attempts over the past year as part of a broad crackdown on online freedom of expression.

Recently passed legislation in Gambia amending the Information and Communication Act to include a prohibition against the spread of false news and the jail terms of up to 15 years. Speaking about the new legislation, Gambia’s head of Civil Service and Minister of Presidential Affairs warned, “If you cannot say anything good about the country, then you should keep quiet.”

As the conflict in Syria continues, the country’s Internet connectivity is experiencing a number of changes. Internet access in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, went completely dark on August 29. Renesys explored the country’s international service providers and noted that Aleppo appears to be served almost exclusively by Turk Telecom via a land-based cable link, while the rest of the country is served by a small handful of other providers via three undersea cables.

United States
Last week we reported on Internet.org, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s new venture to bring Internet access to the global masses. As it turns out, the previous owner of the Internet.org domain had no idea to whom he was selling it.

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

#imweekly: August 26, 2013

Chinese mobile app WeChat has a growing international presence, making it the fifth most popular mobile app worldwide. Within the country, WeChat is heavily monitored, and users are blocked from sending messages containing prohibited keywords. TeaLeafNation reports that TenCent, which owns WeChat, is now offering two versions of the app: a censored version for Chinese users, and an uncensored version for international use. The problem: the lines between the two are unclear, as shown by the suspension last week of a US-based WeChat account belonging to ChinaGate, a Chinese-language web portal hosted outside of China.

The Finnish Supreme Administrative Court ruled today that the country’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was within its rights when it added an anti-censorship website to its secret list of blocked sites. The blocking took place under a 2006 law that enabled the NBI to maintain a secret blocklist of sites that distribute child pornography. The website lapsiporno.info (“childporn.info”) has been monitoring the bureau’s activities, criticizing the secrecy behind the blocklist and compiling a list of known blocked sites. When lapsiporno.info was blocked, operator Matt Nikki sued the NBI. The court ruled that even though Nikki’s site did not host any child porn, by listing blocked sites it was enabling users to find such sites, and therefore, the NBI’s blocking of lapsiporno.info was legal.

United States
Mark Zuckerberg announced last week that Facebook, along with a handful of tech companies, is launching an effort to bring Internet access to everyone on Earth. Zuckerberg told the New York Times that the project—Internet.org—is more about doing “something good for the world” than for profit, but many commentators disagree. The New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan notes that the project offers little in the way of infrastructure building, which is one of the biggest obstacles to Internet access. And The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal points out that the project heavily recuts a John F. Kennedy speech, stripping the original Cold War context and perhaps, Madrigal argues, changing the meaning entirely.

United States
The newest piece of the NSA surveillance scandal: LOVEINT. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that several NSA officers have used their power to spy on their romantic partners. Approximately ten cases of this type of abuse of NSA power have emerged over the past decade, and according to NSA officials, in each case, the employee responsible was punished and/or terminated. The LOVEINT discovery comes amidst the NSA’s admission last week that in the past year alone, the agency violated privacy regulations nearly 3000 times.

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

#imweekly: August 19, 2013

Earlier this year, Cuba’s government-owned telecommunications firm activated two undersea fiber optic cables and announced it would open 100 new public Internet cafés. Cuban citizens, heretofore largely cut off from the global Internet, are now beginning to go online. Access is not cheap—at $4.50 per hour, or roughly the average weekly salary for a state employee, using one of the cafés is still out of reach for many Cubans—and those who want to go online must first sign a statement swearing they will not do anything that might harm Cuba’s “economy, sovereignty or national security.”

The government of Thailand has announced its intentions to monitor conversations on the Line messaging app, claiming that surveillance is necessary to “safeguard order, security and morality of Thailand.” The national police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division has asked the Japan-based company to give access to Thai authorities.

United Kingdom
The partner of journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been reporting on the NSA’s surveillance programs for the Guardian, was detained at Heathrow airport yesterday under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. David Miranda had been in Berlin to meet with a filmmaker who has been working with Greenwald on the Snowden files; he was returning to his home in Rio de Janeiro when he was stopped and questioned for nine hours—the maximum allowed by the law. His laptop, phone, and other electronics were confiscated. Greenwald has publicly stated that the detention was an “abuse of the law” intended to intimidate reporters writing about the NSA; Amnesty International has spoken out against the detention.

#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.