translated from the French, Les censeurs du
from WikiLeaks Website
2004-2007 was the era of the merchants. Now
we’re entering the era of the bullies. Everywhere in the world, sites are
going dark, arrests are increasing, more people are going to prison. The Web
just celebrated its 20th birthday. Nobody used to take it seriously, but
those days are gone.
However, cybercensorship, and
collecting data about Internet users, are not practices limited to
All governments are anxious about the Hydra that is the Internet, but they all act on their concerns according to their culture. Great Britain is preparing to monitor and archive all electronic communications in the name of the War on Terror. In France, the battle between the government and Internet users is over the downloading of copyrighted material.
When the dust settles on the legal battlefields, there remains an unequal power relationship: governments and Internet service providers (ISP) now have the technological means to detect and block access to sites they find objectionable on a countrywide scale.
When this happens,
it’s called Web “filtering.”
ERROR 404 - PAGE NOT FOUND
The 404 page has always been a problem. According to a charming tech legend, in the early days of the Web, at CERN in Switzerland, researchers who were sick of continually having to restart a failing server located in office number 404 named the failure-to-connect error after this unlucky office.
Whether the story is true or not, this error page really
does have bad karma.
In China, the 404 page doesn’t come with an explanation. There’s no point; the sites are censored. American soldiers in Iraq see it when they try to access YouTube while on base, which is prohibited by the US Army. They don’t have that problem in cybercafés in Baghdad.
In Algeria and Egypt, it indicates an actual technical problem. The Web isn’t filtered there, though it is closely monitored. You get it in Syria if you try to go to a site that ends in .il, the top-level domain for Israel. But you’ll have no trouble getting to a porn site. And in Tunisia, the 404 page is just fake. You’ll get an Internet Explorer or Firefox page informing you that your connection failed.
The only problem is that the Firefox logo displayed when you’re using Internet Explorer (or vice versa) makes it clear that you’ve landed on a phony page. In Tunisia, this gave birth to the expression a “404 bâchee” (canvas-covered) for the censored pages, a reference to the little canvas-back Peugeot pickup truck so popular in Africa.
users exclaim in unison, “And the driver’s name is Ammar!” Ammar, for the
first letter of the ATI (Tunisian Internet Agency), an arm of the Tunisian
Ministry of the Interior.
FIRST STOP, TUNISIA
Praised by Bill Gates (”I am amazed by Tunisia”), this country is at the forefront of cybercensorship. Back in 2000, when the blogosphere was still deserted, the country led the charge by censoring the forum Takriz.org (”fed up”.org) within its borders.
That same year, its first cyber-dissident, Zouhair Yahyaoui, was arrested in a cybercafé and condemned to 18 months in prison for having published on his site, Tunezine, a survey that asked,
The 10-year marriage of the latest cyber-surveillance technologies and a police state has declined into a sad routine - imprisonment of cyber-dissidents and automatic suppression of foreign press sites if even a paragraph is deemed undesirable.
Lofti, a Tunisian who lives in Europe, recalls that he was never able to connect to the site Voila.fr when he was in the country. Why? Because of the AFP dispatches published on the portal? Photos that were too sexy? Asking questions is also frowned upon.
Interestingly, the ATI has always, from the beginning, been run by a woman.
Among dissidents, they’re called Ben Ali’s Angels, a local show with the tagline,
Tunisia is also a master of cyber-humor.
“WRITE ‘JI/AN/G ZE/MIN’”
Everyone knows that a
Great Firewall shields the eyes of the Chinese from millions of sites.
Accessing Web content freely is just not an option, but the Chinese don’t
complain much; they’re used to it. Writing and conversing online is what
they love to do. It’s ‘harmonization” that aggravates them.
So they say,
A little lesson learned by e-mail from Edwin, an English-Chinese interpreter who has lived in Wenzhou for a long time:
The censorship robots don’t understand words with slashes, paraphrases, or the double phonetic meaning of a Chinese character.
What are the notorious forbidden words that they track? No one knows but the Party, which chooses them, and the ISPs, which do housework. Occasionally, a pirated list of prohibited words shows up on the Web.
The latest one contained 1,041 words (chinadigitaltimes.net/tag/banned-words).
These included sex, Tibet, Falun Gong (a forbidden religious movement),
Tiananmen, play-boy, fuck, multiple parties, Taiwan independence, police,
whore, corruption, torture, public funds, anus, Jesus Christ, riot,
insurrection, air disaster, 89, tyranny, North Korea, scrotum, dictatorship,
pigeon, timeshare, penitentiary, Voice of America, bra, Geneva finance,
Why else would they have hired the “50 Cent Gang” to harmonize opinions on the Web? This mysterious group was so named because it is made up of innumerable anonymous workers who are said to be paid a half Yuan (0.05 €, the price of a subway ticket) for every pro-government comment left on forums, chat rooms, and blogs.
Our man in Wenzhou confirms this by e-mail:
Some of these part-timers
who lack imagination even give blatant clues, choosing obvious usernames
like “Morning Harmony” and “Harmony of the Geranium.”
THE “MYANMAR JUNTA OPTION”
But there is nonetheless a wide variety
of techniques to choose from. Computer complexities aside, the Web can be
compared to a telephone exchange. To censor it, the easiest thing to do is
still to simply pull out the plug connecting the domestic Web to
international traffic. This is the “Myanmar Junta Option,” used during the
demonstrations in 2007.
That explains why, in Bangkok, you can pull up a BBC
article online and find yourself on the home page of a local government
And most of these are manufactured in Western
FILTERS “MADE IN USA”
Their specialty is the security of business networks and intranets.
According to the
Initiative, a collaborative research project among Harvard, Toronto,
Cambridge, and Oxford Universities that studies cybercensorship, these are
the three main providers of filtering tools to governments.
The product page of SmartFilter, the leading software product, says,
It’s thanks to them that office workers can’t go to Facebook at work, and that gaming, gambling and pornographic sites can’t be accessed by computers in libraries and schools.
But selling these tools to
governments of countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, which we know aren’t
too concerned about human rights? Secure Computing has always denied these
contracts, even going so far as to accuse Iran of “illegally acquiring”
These tools are also distributed by the biggest names in the computer industry:
Evidently the Emirate of
Bahrain has recently done some shopping.
IN BAHRAIN, ONE SIMPLE RULE -
WE DON’T TALK ABOUT THE EMIR
Since January, Bahrain has switched into high gear. Ahmed is a software engineer in Manama, the capital. He’s lived through old-school censorship and the new kind too. He likes taking risks; one of his pastimes for the last 10 years has been publishing a blog on local news, which regularly causes problems for him.
The worst, in 2005, ended in 15 days of jail time because he published a
photo of the Emir’s son drinking champagne at the finish line of a Formula 1
race. At times, his blog has been crudely censored, in a way that was easy
to get around. Since January, and a decree promising to remove from the Web
elements that are “contrary to the culture” (pornography, anti-religious
material), the Web throughout the entire kingdom has been paralyzed.
Overwhelmed by the power of the filtering software that the government has bought and imposed on them, the ISPs make one mistake after another. However, when it comes to one category of sites in Bahrain, there is no question of an accident on the part of the ISPs or the palace technicians.
Ever since January, all Shiite
sites and blogs, though hardly pornographic, have disappeared from the Sunni
kingdom. Ahmed is a Shiite. He still writes on his blog occasionally, for
his foreign readers, and wonders if he’ll be allowed to leave the country
the next time he goes to the airport.
The censorship package includes the software plus a database of 20 million sites and updates that can be regularly downloaded, as with antivirus software. SmartFilter places these sites in 91 categories.
It’s up to the client to choose the categories he wants to prohibit.
These “mistakes” are fairly common, according to what Helmi Noman has found.
On the day that sites as varied as Orkut (a social network very popular in India and Brazil), Last.fm (online music), LiveJournal (the most popular blog platform in the former Soviet Union), and Twitter (microblogging) were labeled “dating sites” - for what reason we don’t know - it was temporarily impossible to access them from different parts of the globe.
In April, 2007, the video site Dailymotion spent several days in Category V4 (pornography). Internet users in Oman, Yemen and Tunisia were the ones who felt that: no Dailymotion for them. The database that feeds the filters can be accessed online (www.trustedsource.org/urlcheck).
It’s collaborative. Anyone - a
company, an individual, or the league of virtue of any religion - can flag a
site and label it according to his own beliefs, from anywhere in the world,
The new management is noncommittal in its response to any question about government cyber-surveillance:
To be fair, Europe is doing its share too. Siemens offers a catalog of solutions for intercepting and monitoring communications.
China is one of their biggest clients.
TALKING BACK WITH TECHNOLOGY
But the perfectly democratic example of Australia and its costly offensive against online pedophilia (budget: 125 million Australian dollars over four years, about 70 million Euros) got off to an appallingly amateurish start. In March, during the filtering tests, the ultra-secret blacklist of 2,395 blocked pedophile sites was leaked and ended up on the site for such slip-ups, WikiLeaks. Fortunately.
The leak revealed that only half of the
sites fell into that category. Some unfortunate errors: the sites of a
dentist’s office, a dog boarding facility, and a travel agency were also on
In December, an IWF flag
resulted in the censorship in Great Britain of the Wikipedia page for Virgin
Killer, an album by the German hard rock group, Scorpions. The cover of this
old album, which was never the object of any legal action, shows a nude
Once again, the response comes in the form of technology, and it’s Internet users the world over who come to the rescue.
In Iran, photographer Hamed Saber developed, by himself, a little tool that bypasses the block on the photo site Flickr, which he then made available to the community.
HUMOR AS A WEAPON
They use “proxy anonymizers,” the unattractive name for encryption tools that allow you to discreetly borrow the address of a computer somewhere else in the world just long enough to launch yourself onto the open seas of the uncensored Web.
They are called,
...and they can all be downloaded.
TOR, managed in the United States by a nonprofit organization, has been downloaded millions of times.
Encrypting communications on the Web is not
illegal anywhere. But the sites where you can download the “anonymizers” are
The solution is so simple that Edwin, in Wenzhou concludes,
A Thai organization, Freedom Against Censorship (FACT), is already doing that on a small scale, to give Thai Internet users a breath of fresh air.
Fifty-thousand sites were shut down during the country’s various political
upheavals, thanks to a legislative Trojan horse: the crime of lèse majesté
(offense) against King Bhumibol. This misdeed is no joke (three to 15 years
of prison) and foreigners can also be prosecuted for it. An Australian
writer and a BBC journalist have had a taste of Thai prisons in the king’s
On these gargantuan sites, where millions of people, files and links are interconnected, it’s not easy to isolate a single video, or profile, or conversation. Had the Turkish government been able to, it would have blocked only one video that was “insulting” to the national icon, Ataturk, rather than the entire YouTube site, and thus spared itself the wrath of the under 30s.
In Tunis, when Facebook was completely blocked in September of 2008, it
roused the population for the first time. It was unheard of; even the press
talked about it.
In Chinese, “alpaca” also means, almost to the tone, “screw your mother.”
So does “grass mud horse.” “He Xie” (harmony, and therefore censorship) is phonetically very close to “river crab.”
Here is the alpaca song:
It was a very crude and joyful protest. But since then, harmony reigns once more, over the living as well as the dead.
Any reference to the children who died in the Sichuan
earthquake last year is immediately harmonized.