Censoring The 'Net Is Hard

from the even-for-authoritarian-governments dept

Over the last few months, I've been doing research on a forthcoming paper for the Cato Institute on the network neutrality debate. In the next few weeks, I'll be doing a series of posts on the major themes of my paper. My goal will be to highlight some interesting stories from the tech world, and then highlight their broader policy implications.

This week, the blogosphere is abuzz with the story that Iran may shut down the Internet on the date of its elections next week. I should note at the outset that I'm a little bit skeptical of this story, which seems to be rather thinly sourced. It's been picked up by a bunch of news outlets, but they all point back to the same International Herald Tribune article. That story cites two unnamed Iranian media outlets, which apparently don't even agree with each other about the reasons for the supposed Internet blackout. And the idea of blocking Internet access on election day just doesn't make a lot of sense. I can imagine why an authoritarian regime would shut down the Internet for a week or two before the election to suppress access to information about the election. But a block on the day of the election -- especially one that's announced a week ahead of time -- doesn't seem like it would do the government any good.

In any event, this certainly wouldn't be the first time Iran has instituted broad restrictions on Internet access in an effort to suppress the free flow of information. In 2006, Iran reportedly required that home Internet connections be reduced to 128 kbps. That doesn't make a lot of sense either; 128k is still plenty of bandwidth to download compressed audio, for example. But the Iranian government turned to a broad restriction on bandwidth after other efforts at content filtering failed. It seems that "as fast as they put up information roadblocks, Iranians have found detours around them." The only way the Iranian government has found to cut off the flow of information it doesn't approve of is to restrict the flow of information, period.

Some advocates of network neutrality seem to think that network neutrality is an issue of free speech. The fear is that AT&T or Verizon will use sophisticated filtering technologies to block content and websites they don't approve of. A conservative telco might block liberal blogs or YouTube videos, say, or maybe Ford would pay telcos to block access to Chevy's website. But if the government of Iran -- an institution with an almost unlimited budget and the ability to throw people in jail -- can't keep information it doesn't like away from its citizens, it's awfully hard to imagine that AT&T or Verizon would be able to do so. Iran has found that the only way to limit access to content it doesn't like is to limit access to the Internet altogether. Obviously that's not going to work for telcos, which are in business to make money. There are certainly some plausible arguments for network neutrality regulations, but fears of telco censorship are pretty low on the list.


Other posts in this series:


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Le Blue Dude, Mar 5th, 2008 @ 3:33pm

    True...

    It is less then possible to block parts of the internet. It is quite possible to make using them harder though.

     

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  2.  
    identicon
    Thinker, Mar 5th, 2008 @ 4:16pm

    Tor

    So long as there is an internet connection, Tor allows outside access. Relakks, Xerobank, Ironkey, Tor are all valid solutions to break ISP snooping and non-Net neutrality.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    icon
    Derek Kerton (profile), Mar 5th, 2008 @ 4:25pm

    Easier To Sabotage The Net, Leveraging Tech Ignora

    Not sure I agree that "Iran has found that the only way to limit access to content it doesn't like is to limit access to the Internet altogether."

    The easiest way to limit access to content would be to take advantage of the average user's ignorance (as Comcast has). Instead of blocking the whole Internet, or entirely blocking a particular content type, site, etc. - both of which are very easily noticed - governments could slow access to certain content, or introduce errors and glitches.

    I'm not saying that this would be entirely successful, but when you just corrupt the flow, most people don't know why the service quality is so bad, and just give up. They'll blame their browser, their modem, their PC, or the host site. This is why the "uproar" over Comcast's BitTorrent filtering has been limited to a fairly small cadre of geeks.

    It's like election rigging: nobody dares say, "Group x is not allowed to vote". That would be obvious to outside eyes, and could cause a revolt. Instead, jerks just intimidate group x, jerrymander, screw with voter lists, and make the travel distance large to the point where it's not worth the costs to go to the polling place. Yet in the case of election-rigging, non-technical people can understand what really happened. In the tech world, few people do.

    Current world politics has shown that it's hard for people to fight back when they can't correctly identify the enemy.

     

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  4.  
    identicon
    Jake, Mar 5th, 2008 @ 4:31pm

    Re: Tor

    On the other hand, Tor takes a massive bite out of one's available bandwidth. Much below about 1MB on a good computer and it's essentially unusable, at least in my experience. The Iranians might just have something here.

     

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  5.  
    identicon
    Hyrulio, Mar 5th, 2008 @ 4:40pm

    I hope they don't read this

    The best way would be to employ people with a decent knowlege of computers who could simply administer some governmental DDoS attacks and take the site down, mind you, then other countries would complain about their porno being unavailable and it would start a war......

    Parhaps DDoS at the next UN perogotive?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Tim Lee, Mar 5th, 2008 @ 5:03pm

    Re: Easier To Sabotage The Net, Leveraging Tech Ig

    Well, hasn't the "fairly small cadre of geeks" been BitTorrent users? I think the reason there hasn't been an uproar among the general public is that most users don't know what BitTorrent is.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 5th, 2008 @ 5:08pm

    Doesn't have to be impossible, just hard

    IP blocking all of Ford's sites would be enough to stop at least 99% of all people. Most people don't have enough time to look into proxies, Tor, or whatever to get through. It's just not worth the trouble. The only people that will proxy are people trying to get to TPB and stuff lke taht.

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Tim Lee, Mar 5th, 2008 @ 6:34pm

    Re: Doesn't have to be impossible, just hard

    And you don't think Chevy would get a ton of negative publicity if it was revealed that they'd paid AT&T to block Ford's site?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Jeff Linton, Mar 5th, 2008 @ 7:26pm

    Iran's possible reasoning

    Since this site is oriented toward technology and not politics I think you have missed a potential reason behind Iran wanting to shut down the internet. It is one thing to announce the results to an election days after and alter the votes in your favor; however, with the immediateness of Internet communication there could be more questions as to the validity of the election results.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Ran Guu, Mar 6th, 2008 @ 12:04am

    AT&T, MICROSOFT, GM PLACING ADS OVER INTERNET PORN

    In the headlong rush to "monetize" their portals, many video sites such as Youtube, Blip.Tv , Metacafe, and Veoh have developed some interesting technology that randomly places advertisements surrounding the videos. Some even place ads on top of the videos. But at the same time, some devilish pranksters have taken to uploading some really hardcore porn on these sites, knowing it could take days before a real human being at these portals is made aware of what has been uploaded. The situation has been producing some very interesting relationships between the porn and some of America's biggest corporations.

    Check out http://www.planetpop.tv/culturetrends for a good laugh

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    known coward, Mar 6th, 2008 @ 9:04am

    blocking is easy

    Pakastan took down Youtube for half of south asia without really trying.

    Blocking nets is easy. Try this on your outbound router port and see what comes back from 192.9.121.X

    route add 192.9.121.0 /dev/null0

    While i like the idea of a free unfettered net, the reality is that goverments can block whatever they want too, as long as they know about it. The net does not supercede geopolitical realities, as some would have it. The net does not see censorship as damage and route around it, The net see's censorship as a black hole.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Charlie, Mar 6th, 2008 @ 11:24am

    Stanford's Clean Slate Project

    Censoring the net might be difficult in its present form, but some folks are working very hard to re-design it from the ground up. They want to increase 'control and management' in order to ensure 'quality of service' and provide 'value-added services.' I like my Internet just fine the way it is, thanks.

    A Clean Slate researcher from Stanford recently gave a talk at my university, and the whole thing was basically a thinly veiled attack against Network Neutrality.

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    Macky, Oct 25th, 2009 @ 7:54am

    Censoring

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    hypotheekrente, Nov 25th, 2009 @ 5:39am

    Quite a technical post but interesting anyway.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    geld lenen, Nov 26th, 2009 @ 2:12pm

    It's not easy but it shouldnt be, should it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    identicon
    Online lenen, Aug 13th, 2010 @ 2:18pm

    I think censoring or trying to control the Internet (in any way, also datacenter takeover like Google) will in the end NEVER do any good

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Electronic Cigarette, Sep 16th, 2010 @ 4:27am

    I want to say that after reading your post I have found so many interesting thing in your blog and I really love that. Keep up the good work!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Electronic Cigarette, Sep 16th, 2010 @ 4:28am

    I want to say that after reading your post I have found so many interesting thing in your blog and I really love that. Keep up the good work!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    jack balboa, Oct 4th, 2010 @ 9:59pm

    The net does not supercede

    as long as they know about it. The net does not supercede geopolitical realities, as some would have it. The net does not see censorship as damage and route around it, The net see's censorship as a black hole. Dissertation Writing Essay Writing

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    E cigarette reviews, Oct 5th, 2010 @ 12:55pm

    Censoring

    Well written

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    scott griest, Oct 17th, 2010 @ 11:39pm

    i like your article as long as they know about it. The net does not super cede geopolitical realities, as some would have it. The net does not see censorship as damage and route around it, The net see's censorship as a black hole thanks for sharing.... logo design

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    identicon
    stretch mark removal, Oct 20th, 2010 @ 5:39pm

    Insightful

    You can't Censor the net. It is way too complex for people moderate it thoroughly. I do want to know if there is a certain system that would do it as a whole. But for the present Net is very hard to crack and so is its censorship.

    Happy Blogging!
    Maria

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Bootstrap, Nov 12th, 2010 @ 12:48pm

    Since this site is oriented toward technology and not politics I think you have missed a potential reason behind Iran wanting to shut down the internet. It is one thing to announce the results to an election days after and alter the votes in your favor; however, with the immediateness of Internet communication there could be more questions as to the validity of the election results.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    identicon
    Calculus Tutor Help, Nov 20th, 2010 @ 7:34pm

    http://www.calculusproblems.org

    The internet is the modern day tower of Babel.
    It can be brought down.

    Algebra Problem Help
    Used Harley Parts

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    Calculus Tutor Help, Nov 20th, 2010 @ 7:35pm

    The internet is the modern day tower of Babel.
    It can be brought down.

    Algebra Problem Help
    Used Harley Parts

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    identicon
    Electronic Cigarette Review, Nov 28th, 2010 @ 4:17pm

    Government Control

    With all the new things happening with ICE being able to just shut down websites, I don't know what to think of it. I know the new bill says that it's to close down copyright infringement sites, but I bet you somewhere in that bill is fine print that says they can shut down any site they want to for any reason. What ever happened to freedom of speech?!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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    Snel Geld Lenen Binnen 10 Minuten, Feb 13th, 2011 @ 9:14am

    Many countries (India, China, undoubtedly others) legally require mapping companies display only officially approved maps - i.e. ones that agree with what they claim their borders are, the rest of the world be damned.

     

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  32.  
    identicon
    Justin, Apr 5th, 2011 @ 10:05pm

    Thanks for the great post! I've been thinking about this exact same thing over the last few days, so it's weird that you posted on it. You definitely did a much nicer job writing about it than I could have though.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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  34.  
    identicon
    Dr. Oizio, Nov 13th, 2011 @ 10:13am

    Censoring is impossible. If you look to the history of downloaden music. First with FTP, then p2p and so on. This also will happen with content. People always find ways to exposure stuff.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  35.  
    identicon
    John Mikael, Dec 12th, 2011 @ 11:01am

    censorship

    It's really not a good evolution that they will try to censor the web. It can't be done anyways. People will always find a loophole. I'l like a big bucket of water. They try to close the gaps and we just shoot a new hole in it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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