The Internet: Disruption, Repression and Censorship

Authoritarian regimes (and even democracies) often try to control the flow of information. But there are ways to protect Internet freedom.

By Sam Lanfranco and Jessica Wever | 2015-10-01 12:00:00

A new drama os unfolding as our political institutions encounter the enabling and disruptive Internet ecosystem.

In any gathering, or at the local pub, if you start a discussion about human nature, someone will always say that communication is the unique capacity that makes us truly human. Means of communication include speech, language, handwriting, the printing press, radio, television, and now the Internet. These are the foundation of all that we build in our world. Each means of communication has been disruptive in its own way but the latest, the Internet, will be the most disruptive—for better or worse, depending on how we handle the challenges.

The Internet ecosystem creates the ability to move digital signals across space and time through technologies that carry or store text, voice, images, or commands that control other processes. The printing press was a technology that allowed language to be rapidly rendered in print, with multiple copies that could be read across time and space. At one level, the Internet is simply the printing press on steroids. But, given its speed and scale of deployment, the Internet is disruptive to human systems, including our political systems.

Ask where the Internet came from and you will be told that it came from military research. Few people, however, can tell you what the objective of that military research was. The challenge was to design a communications protocol such that messages could get from point A to point B without depending on the integrity of any particular network link between points A and B. The solution was the Internet Protocol (IP). Content is broken into digital packets, each with its digital source, destination, and reassembling instructions. Combine this with networks of servers housing IP address information and, rain or shine, neither bombs nor bandwidth bottlenecks can prevent the message from getting from point A to point B. Marshall McLuhan’s “Global Village,” or maybe a world of warring factions, comes within reach.

Authoritarian forces seek to control or suppress communication, whereas those pursuing knowledge and with democratic leanings seek to expand it. Galileo’s and Martin Luther’s personal views were contrary to those of the Church but only became disruptive when Galileo, his views in print, and Luther’s Bible translation in German, communicated their ideas to wider audiences. What is disruptive is not knowledge itself, but rather the ability to communicate knowledge.

Repressive regimes have always known this and suppressed dissent by suppressing communication. The slave regime in the US South made it a crime to teach slaves to read. A Guatemalan military regime outlawed clothes-washing at the village well to prevent the women from sharing information. A Brazilian junta cut off phone and mail service to dissidents whom it could not punish more harshly. Now those who would suppressinformation must deal with the Internet.

From the moment the Internet flew from its military birth nest, spread its wings across the academic landscape, and flew into the general population at large, it faced conflicting pressures. Civil society practically welded onto the Internet’s DNA the idea that the Internet should be “Open and Free”—not necessarily free in the zero-cost sense, but free for speech and the pursuit of human rights.

Private interests, upons seeing the potential for monetizing and capturing value in the Internet, began attempting an “enclosure movement” by appropriating the Internet’s public digital spaces for private gain. These efforts are most intense in skirmishes around the ownership of digital content and the treatment of intellectual property.

However, the real gorilla in the room, as far as control of Internet communications is concerned, is government. Increasingly, even democratic governments seek ways to frame the context for dialogue within their own self-interests. Repressive regimes have even stronger interests in controlling communications. However, those peasant women who were banned from washing clothes at the village well, along with the market women in Nigeria, now own cell phones. Twenty years ago Nigerian phone penetration was less than one percent, and now it exceeds one per capita. Earlier (non-brutal) methods of suppressing communications have become less effective.

Whenever repressive governments seek to control or block Internet communications, there will be technological responses. Technological change is a story of structural challenge and innovative response. This is true everywhere, including within the Internet ecosystem. When a Canadian oil sands executive was asked what is the biggest threat to the development of the oil sands, he replied, “innovation.” For repressive regimes the answer is, “Internet innovation.” So next we will describe the innovation being introduced by a Canadian start up that is dedicated to disrupting repressive regimes.

Psiphon: a Canadian Response for a Free and Open Internet

This is the story of the Psiphon anti-censorship application, one of Canada’s contributions to a global free and open Internet ( The original Psiphon application, conceived in Toronto’s Citizen Lab and launched in 2006, was designed to allow one’s personal computer in a non-censored country to act as a server (gateway) giving a friend’s computer in a censored region unrestricted Internet access. This was quickly followed by Psiphon 2, which ran servers, known as “Psiphon nodes,” acting as proxies (gateways) forusers in censored regions, thus eliminating the need to access a friend’s computer.

Users in censored settings connect to the Psiphon nodes using an alternately provided domain name. They see a second “blue bar” on their web browser, where they enter the desired web address. The Psiphon server acts as a proxy, accesses the desired site, and enables content to get through to the user. As far as the user’s Internet Service Provider’s IP servers know, the user has never ventured beyond the original unblocked website. Proxy alternate domain addresses are updated and distributed whenever previous proxy sites are blocked.

In 2011, a downloadable Psiphon client was launched for Windows and in 2012 an Android application was created for cell phone use.

This version, Psiphon 3, is downloadable from Google Play. It is wildly successful and the most popular way of accessing Psiphon. It is open source and can be inspected and validated as trustworthy by any technically skilled programmer. Psiphon 3 is dynamic, resilient, and adaptable in the face of adversaries, who are always inventing new blocking tactics.

The user’s Psiphon app has a list of proxy servers and selects the best connection, automatically switching servers if the connection is dropped. Other Psiphon features make traffic appear to be what it is not, or appear to be going somewhere other than its true destination. The Psiphon app determines the best way to handle traffic, either through a virtual private network or a secure shell, both of which effectively send encrypted information through a secure “tunnel.”

Psiphon continually develops its software to keep ahead of blocking attempts by censoring governments. They have developed techniques that effectively hide their traffic in a way that makes ithard to isolate and block it without interrupting other Internet traffic.

In addition to the Psiphon app being downloadable from Google Play, Psiphon has entered into creative partnerships with global broadcasting networks such as BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio Zamaneh, an Amsterdam-based Persian language broadcaster. Each broadcaster receives a branded Psiphon app for users to download. When run, it first brings up the broadcaster’s home page. Psiphon use is free, and the user has full Internet access from there.

In the past two years political events in Iraq and Turkey showed Psiphon’s usefulness and greatly increased its popularity. In mid-2014 the Islamic State militant group seized control of the northern provincial capitals Mosul and Tikrit, as well as Iraq’s largest oil refinery. The Iraq government responded by blocking the Internet, ostensibly to block the spread of the group’s propaganda. Social media sites (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter) and messaging apps (WhatsApp, Viber), as well as Psiphon proxy sites, were blocked.

But Citizen Lab found that websites affiliatedwith the militants remained largely accessible, which suggested that the main intent of the blocking was to stop the spread of news rather than to stop ISIS communications or propaganda. Within the first week of blocking, Psiphon gained nearly 1.5 million new users, and another million users the following week. Acquisition was predominantly by Android (cell phone) users through Google Play.

In March of last year, Turkey’s telecom regulator announced that it had blocked Twitter, intending to stop the flow of news about a government scandal. Initial simple domain name system (DNS) blocking, by removing access to the domain name on the Internet Service Provider (ISP) database, was easily bypassed using Google’s open DNS server code, which was widely shared, including via graffiti on the streets.

As blocking became more sophisticated, Psiphon use quickly increased. Prior to the Twitter block, Psiphon had about 5,000 users in Turkey. Within ten days this grew to over 200,000 with more than 90% of them on mobile devices (cell phones).

The ongoing levels of use depend on events and demand. Psiphon use in Turkey remains high at about 100,000 users per week, and when news websites and social media were blocked after a bombing event this past July, Turkish use spiked; users had immediately turned to Psiphon to communicate freely.

Myanmar: Facing a Tsunami of Disruption

While Iraq and Turkey present different cases of regimes attempting to censor the Internet, Myanmar is about to become a test case, showing how a traditional society with an authoritarian government comes to terms with the disruptive power of the Internet. Myanmar is about to be deluged by cellular communications, and smart-phone Internet access, across the length and breadth of the country. The risk is that an unprepared authoritarian government will resort to Internet censorship to control the direction and pace of change.

There are several indicators of the Internet tsunami that is about to disrupt government, business, civil society, community, and personal life in Myanmar. Five years ago a cell phone sim card cost more than $2000 US there. Today the price is less than two dollars. The current Internet population penetration rate in Myanmar is less than two-thousandths of one percent. But, at the moment, foreign (US) firms are under contract to erect 8,000 cell towers by 2018. Only Internet-enabled smart cell phones (e.g. inexpensive smart phones from China) are authorized for import. In less than three years the Internet penetration rate in Myanmar, mainly via cell phones, will likely exceed 50 percent.

Neither the government nor business nor civil society is prepared for the disruptions that will follow. Some thought is being given to using the Internet to improve government services. Little thought has been given to the roles of civil society and business in setting government policy and policy implementation. As elsewhere, the business sector—from the smallest roadside vendor to large state, private, and foreign enterprises—will exploit the functional opportunities of the Internet ecosystem as fast as possible. Civil society will struggle to drive the direction of change toward an open and free society. Conflicting parties will see the Internet as one more venue for their struggles.

While civil society abhors a communications and information vacuum, authoritarian regimes depend on controlling information and communications in order to control both society and politics.Access to the Internet ecosystem will disrupt that.

Business and civil society want access to both information and to each other. Governments can try to restrict access to certain information—especially to preferred government information. It can try to suppress social networking between individuals and within ad hoc constituencies.

All of these efforts become increasingly futile, given the properties of the Internet ecosystem. By design, the original idea of the Internet was to enable it to function despite disruptions, circumventing breakages and blockages in communications. The military imperative was to circumvent physical disruption. The civil society imperative is to circumvent censorship.

Fortunately, authoritarian governments have finite lives. But when they realize that they have to reduce control, they seldom have an orderly strategy for doing so. They have a “tiger by the tail,” fearing that any reduction in control will signal weakness and escalate popular resistance. The existence of the Internet ecosystem as an information source, a communications venue, and a site for social mobilization escalates this tension and the possibilities for both suppression and resistance.

Myanmar has a brief window of opportunity to engage its various constituencies in a dialogue about the path and pace of change. That dialogue should be underway well before 2018, and should produce a degree of consensus with regard to policies. Unfortunately, the likelihood of such dialogue is low. Myanmar’s success or failure to meet that challenge will be measured by one indicator: the spread of such apps as Psiphon.

And for the Rest of the Story

Oddly, the ultimate measure of the success of the Psiphon app would be “free and open” Internet, and a complete decline in the need to use it. But we have told only the first part of an ongoing story. The longer story will be about how citizens build their citizenship in the Internet ecosystem, and how governments come to realize that the Internet needs to remain open and free.

Stay tuned to your local Internet connected device for the rest of the story, and as an informed citizen of the Internet, consider joining in the fray.

_Sam Lanfranco, Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar, York University is on the Policy Committee, Internet Society Canadian Chapter,; and Chair, Policy Committee, ICANN Not-for-Profit Operational Concerns (NPOC) Constituency Jessica Wever is with Psiphon.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2015

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2015, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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