New Citizen Lab report: “Monitoring Information Controls in Iraq in Reaction to ISIS Insurgency”

A new report from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto takes a look at Internet monitoring in Iraq. Since violence led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) broke out in the country several weeks ago, the government has responded by cutting Internet access, first by blocking websites including Twitter and Facebook and then, on June 15, issuing orders for a total Internet shutdown in five of the nation’s 19 provinces.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • A total of 20 unique URLs were found to be blocked on three major Internet service providers (ISPs): Earthlink Telecommunications, IQ Net, and Newroz Telecom. The blocked sites include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, YouTube, WhatsApp, and WeChat, as well as popular VPN services including OpenVPN and StrongVPN.
  • The majority of the websites found to be unavailable corresponded with the list of that the Ministry of Communications ordered to be blocked on June 13. The ISP Newroz Telecom showed no signs of filtering, which “was expected, because this ISP serves the Kurdistan area, and reports have indicated that the shutdown and social media blocking orders did not include Kurdistan.”
Traffic from Akamai, a content delivery network, to Iraq, showing a sharp drop in traffic since the filtering orders from the Iraqi Ministry of Communications. Via the Citizen Lab.

Traffic from Akamai, a content delivery network, to Iraq, showing a sharp drop in traffic since the filtering orders from the Iraqi Ministry of Communications. Via the Citizen Lab.

  • The Citizen Lab also looked at seven websites “affiliated with or supportive of” ISIS. None were blocked. “Given that the insurgency was cited as the rationale for the shutdown and filtering,” wrote the authors, “this finding is curious.” This could suggest that the Maliki government is using the present crisis as an excuse to rein in broader social media around the country—whether or not it is related to ISIS violence.
  • Usage of Psiphon and Tor, which allow users to circumvent filtering, has soared in Iraq in recent days (though Tor use has since fallen slightly).
Directly connecting users of Tor in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

Directly connecting users of Tor in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

Daily users of Psiphon in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

Daily users of Psiphon in Iraq, via the Citizen Lab.

More information about the Citizen Lab’s analysis can be found in its report, Monitoring Information Controls in Iraq in Reaction to ISIS Insurgency.

#imweekly: July 29, 2013

United Kingdom
News reports and online discussions on freedom of expression have been dominated this week by Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposals to require ISP-level anti-pornography filters. Cameron’s motivations for the proposal have been questioned, especially after ISPs disclosed that the filter settings include blocks for many other kinds of online content such as social networking, gambling, file sharing, or sites concerned with drugs, alcohol and tobacco. The UK government’s reliance on the Chinese telecom firm Huawei to maintain the list of blocked  sites and the decision to turn the filter on by default, requiring users to opt-out of filtered access, has prompted strong responses from freedom of expression and privacy advocates. Adding to the controversy, hackers posted pornographic images on the website of Claire Perry, one of the architects of the ISP-level filters. Perry’s response generated more controversy when she accused the blogger who reported the hack as being responsible for the content; critics argue her responses demonstrate a poor understanding of digital technologies.

It’s been a controversial week for the Russian Internet. The country’s recent waves of violence against members of the LGBTQ community have been facilitated by social networks, which vigilantes use to identify and physically locate victims, and by the ability to share bullying videos online. The U.S. has also identified several young Russians behind top U.S. cyber thefts in the last seven years, leading to arrests and extraditions. Finally, the head of the Russian State Duma’s Committee for Family, Women, and Children has proposed modifications to Russia’s existing content rules to block bad language from social networks, websites, and forums. Earlier this year, Russia banned swearing from its media outlets and prohibited countries from making products featuring swear words. Also, today Ilya Segalovich, the co-founder of Russia’s largest search engine Yandex, has died.

Shortly after the UK announced it would be requiring ISPs to filter adult content, the Australian Christian Lobby announced it would be renewing its campaigns to block porn in Australia. In 2008 Australia attempted to pass similar porn-blocking legislation, but lack of popular support killed the proposed plan when the Coalition government refused to vote on the matter. At the same time, Australia’s Parliamentary Inquiry into the higher prices charged by IT companies selling hardware, software, and digital downloads in Australia recommended that the Australian government educate consumers in circumventing the geolocation tools used by IT companies to determine where buyers are located. The Inquiry also required testimony from representatives of Apple, Adobe, and Microsoft as to the reasons for the higher prices, but found these companies could not satisfactorily explain the reason for increasing product prices when sold to people in Australia.

United States
This week, an anonymous web developer claimed that the U.S. government is requiring companies to turn over encryption keys. The U.S. government has so far denied the claims and some companies, like Microsoft and Google, have declined to say whether the government has made any such requests, but indicate they will not comply if asked for server-to-server email encryption keys. Also, an Internet monitoring company released a study which found that Google is responsible for 25% of all Internet traffic in North America, which is more than Facebook, Netflix, and Instagram combined. This is up from 6% of Internet traffic in 2010. Finally, a Texas man was charged this week for creating an operating a Bitcoin Ponzi scheme worth approximately $65 million at today’s exchange rate. The scam involved using money from new investors to make “interest” payments to earlier ones and to cover withdrawals.

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

#imweekly: May 29, 2013

The Cuban Internet has leveled up this year: in January, a long-dormant cable connection to Venezuela was activated, giving Cuba its first non-satellite connection to the global Internet. Last week, a second cable connection, this time to Jamaica, came online. The New York Times is reporting that the government is planning to open 118 new cybercafés, at which Cuban citizens will be able to go online for a fee. Until recently, Internet access in Cuba largely has been limited to access to the country’s domestic intranet or to services designed for foreigners. While the new cafés will increase availability of Internet access, the price—$4.50 per hour, in a country where salaries average around $20 per month—will likely prevent widespread use.

Google is working to build wireless networks in emerging markets in an effort to provide Internet access to a billion people who currently live entirely offline, reports the Wall Street Journal. The company has already begun a pilot project in Cape Town, South Africa, transmitting wireless broadband across “white spaces” (unused channels in the broadcast TV spectrum) via three base stations located at Stellenbosch University. Future projects in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia may use similar technology, or may involve the use of masts, satellites, or “high-altitude platforms”—blimps—to transmit signals.

Russia’s most popular social network, VKontakte, was temporarily blacklisted for several hours on May 24. Russian government officials claim the blockage was a mistake, made when an employee accidentally added the entire site, rather than a single offending page, to the country’s national blacklist. The Guardian reports that the site’s founder, Pavel Durov, has come under government scrutiny in the past for refusing to shut down groups on the site that were used to organize protests during the December 2011 parliamentary elections.

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

#imweekly: May 21, 2013

Australian Internet users are wary of the government’s newly exposed ability to block multiple websites without notice, revealed when the Australian Securities and Investment Commission accidentally filtered over 1200 sites in an attempt to shut down a single website for fraud. Among the accidentally blocked sites was that of community-based activist group Melbourne Free University, which documented its experience trying to obtain information about the shutdown in a blog post .

In advance of Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for June 14, 2013, Internet users are experiencing slower speeds and trouble using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to access blocked sites. The Wall Street Journal reports that most Internet cafés in the country have had to close due to service disruptions, and that a newly created “special election cyberunit” has been established to monitor social media surrounding the presidential race. SMS service has also been affected. Thus far, Iranian authorities are denying any involvement in the disruptions.

Syria’s Internet has experienced multiple blackouts this month as the country’s internal conflict continues. On May 7, 2013, Renesys reported a complete Internet outage lasting over 19 hours; Google also noted a disruption to all of the company’s products in the country. A second outage, lasting approximately eight hours, took place on May 15. Cloudflare has a video explaining how the shutdowns took place.

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

Sex, Drugs, and Political Speech in Russia

Earlier this month, Russia’s new Internet censorship bill (available in English here, translated by Google machine translation) – designed to block content “containing [child] pornography or extremist ideas, or promoting suicide or use of drugs” – went into effect. Roskomnadzor, the Russian government’s media and communication monitoring ministry, will be responsible for enforcing the blacklist, which will be generated by submissions from individual users as well as three government agencies: the Interior Ministry, the Federal Antidrug Agency and the Federal Service for the Supervision of Consumer Rights and Public Welfare.

According to the new bill, after Roskomnadzor adds a website to its blacklist, the host provider of the offending site must remove the content immediately or Internet service providers (ISPs) will be instructed to block traffic to that site, or even the entire hosting provider. In protest, Russian Wikipedia blocked access to its own content for 24 hours in July, and major search engine Yandex, as well as sites like, Vkontakte and Livejournal, have all staged protest campaigns. Reporters Without Borders has also condemned the bill.

Online free speech scholars and activists have cited two frequent concerns about the bill. The first is that the bill’s definition of censorable content is vague, at best. What begins as the blocking of objectionable or “extremist” ideas may slowly expand, encroaching on valuable political speech. Content creators may become warier of what they post online, spurring self-censorship. And entire host providers could be blocked for one offensive piece of content – e.g., all of YouTube blocked to prevent access to the recent anti-Islam film that sparked riots this summer. (The technical solution to prevent this from occurring leads to the second concern, below.) As Russia’s Communications and Press Minister Nikolai Nikiforov wrote on Twitter in July: “The bill’s idea related to protecting children from objectionable information is right, but there are problems with the mechanisms for doing so.”

Second, the new system likely implements Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) – a form of packet filtering that that examines both the header and the actual data of the information being transmitted between the user and the Internet. Essentially, the government will be able to create a detailed log of what content any user accesses online. Rather than just block particularly offensive content, a nationwide implementation of DPI could give the government the power to monitor anyone’s online activity.

Russian netizens – among them the creators of, a site created to document each website blocked in accordance with the bill – are watching closely to see whether this new law will be applied narrowly or broadly, and how it will ultimately affect the freedom of Russia’s Internet.

Already, one suicide prevention site that has a page listing suicide methods has been blocked, as has the Russian domain (though not a parallel, internationally hosted site) for the Rylkov Foundation, which promotes drug policies based on “humanity, tolerance, protection of health, dignity and human rights” – the foundation apparently supports substitution therapy in the treatment of drug addicts.

These efforts represent a broad shift in Russia’s approach to Internet censorship. In the OpenNet Initiative’s 2010 book Access Controlled, Ron Diebert and Rafal Rohozinski described the “relative freedom” on the Russian web and noted that technical tests had found the Russian Internet “accessible and relatively free from filtering.” Compared to the technical filtering found in China, Russia’s “control strategies tend to be more subtle and sophisticated and designed to shape and affect when and how information is received by users, rather than denying access outright.”

Russia’s new law runs parallel to efforts in a number of countries around the world to require ISPs to invest in filtering technology, such as South Korea’s practices of arbitrarily requesting ISPs to block information the government wants to suppress. Even in the United States, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), if enacted, would have required ISPs to block access to sites after a court order. has put together a collection of ways to circumvent the black list. As in China and elsewhere, it seems probable that an escalating cat-and-mouse game will develop. For now, important questions about who decides what is filtered and how transparent and accountable the system will be remain up in the air.