Digital Dissent Sidestepping Censorship

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image by Andrew Zbihlyj /

Sokwanele means “enough is enough” in a Bantu dialect. It is also the name of a Zimbabwean pro-­democracy website whose bloggers last year published accounts of atrocities by Robert Mugabe’s regime and posted election-day updates describing voter intimidation and apparent ballot stuffing. You can visit Sokwanele’s “terror album” and see photographs of firebombed homes, of people with deep wounds carved into their backs, of a hospitalized 70-year-old woman who’d been beaten and thrown on her cooking fire (she later died). You can find detailed, frequently updated maps describing regional violence and other incidents. You will be confronted with gruesome news, starkly captioned: “Joshua Bakacheza’s Body Found.”

Because this horrific content is so readily available, it is easy to overlook the courage it took to produce it. The anon­ymous photographers and polling-station bloggers who uploaded the Sokwanele material remain very much in danger. In a place like Zimbabwe, where saying the wrong thing can get you killed or thrown in prison on treason charges, you take precautions: You’re careful about whom you talk to; you’re discreet when you enter a clinic to take pictures. And when you get to the point of putting your information on the Internet, you need protection from the possibility that your computer’s digital address will be traced back to you.

Maybe, at that point, you use Tor, one of several Internet anonymity systems that encrypt data or hide the accompanying Internet address, and route the data to its final destination through intermediate computers called proxies. This combination of routing and encryption can mask a computer’s actual location and circumvent government filters; to prying eyes, the Internet traffic seems to be coming from the proxies. At a time when global Internet access and social-networking technologies are surging, such tools are increasingly important to bloggers and other web users living under repressive regimes. Without them, people in these countries might be unable to speak or read freely online.

Unlike most anonymity and circumvention technologies, Tor uses multiple proxies and encryption steps, providing extra security that is especially prized in areas where the risks are greatest. Paradoxically, that means it’s impossible to confirm whether it’s being used by the Zimbabwean bloggers.

“Anyone who really needs Tor to speak anonymously isn’t going to tell you they use Tor to speak anonymously,” says Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of Global Voices, an online platform and advocacy organization for bloggers around the world. “You can’t tell if it’s happening, and anyone who is actively evading something isn’t going to talk about it.” That said, the Sokwanele journalists “are extremely sophisticated and use a variety of encryption techniques to protect their identity,” he says.

Anonymity aside, Internet users in dozens of countries–whether or not they are activist bloggers–often need to evade censorship by governments that block individual sites and even pages containing keywords relating to forbidden subjects. In a new and still-evolving study, the OpenNet Initiative, a research project based at Harvard and the Universities of Toronto, Oxford, and Cambridge, found that more than 30 countries are filtering one or more kinds of speech–political content, religious sites, pornography, even (in some Islamic nations) gambling sites–to varying degrees. “Definitely, there is a growing norm around Internet content filtering,” says Ronald Deibert, a University of Toronto political scientist who cofounded OpenNet. “It is a practice growing in scope, scale, and sophistication worldwide.”

Tor can solve both problems: The same proxies that provide anonymous cover for people posting content also become portals for banned websites.

Syria, for example, is an all-purpose Internet repressor. In addition to going after online critics, Syria also blocks many websites, including Facebook, YouTube, and Skype, from all web users in the nation. When I spoke to blogger Anas Qtiesh about Syrian censorship, he told me he isn’t worried that he’ll be tracked down, because he tends to blog about pan-Arab politics, not about criticisms of the regime. But he wants access to more of the Internet than the government permits, so the Firefox browser on his laptop sports the Torbutton, a recent feature that allows users to easily turn Tor on and off within that browser (turning it off speeds up Internet access but removes the protections). Click the button, and presto–the same Internet that everyone in America sees. “Tor brings back the Internet,” Qtiesh says.

Tor has grown rapidly since it launched five years ago, from 30 proxies on two continents to approximately 1,500 proxies on five continents. It is still trying to expand its reach, both abroad and in the United States, because digital barriers and privacy threats affect even the free world. In the United States, for example, libraries and employers often block content, and people’s web habits can be–and are–recorded for marketing purposes by Internet service providers (ISPs) and by the sites themselves. “The Internet is being carved up and filtered and surveilled,” Deibert says. “So it’s up to citizens to build technologies to [counter these trends]. And that is where I see tools like Tor coming into play. It preserves the Internet as a forum for free information.”

Roger Dingledine, one of Tor’s original developers, reasons that each time a national censor blocks news sites and YouTube, or an ISP or website loses or sells or gives away user data, people will seek out the protections that Tor and other tools provide. “The approach we’ve taken so far is to let the bad guys teach people about it,” he says. “Let the AOLs and the China firewalls screw up. Let everybody read about why they want privacy on the Internet.” More and more people might just decide that enough is enough.

Excerpted from Technology Review (May-June 2009), a tech magazine that’s wonky enough for techies, yet grounded enough for the rest of us. Nominated for a 2009 Utne Independent Press Award for science/tech coverage. Copyright © 2009 Technology Review.

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