Holes in the firewall

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: Mar 27 2014, 20:52pm hrs
What burning books was to the Gutenberg age, blocking sites is to the internet age. These acts are performed for the same reasons, and they have the same effecta sudden interest in the book or site under attack. Censorship defeats its stated purpose and popularises what it set out to contain.

When Penguin Random House withdrew and pulped the India edition of Wendy Donigers The Hindus: An

Alternative History, Delhis booksellers anticipated huge demands for the classics scholars other books. They responded by displaying Donigers books very prominently in show windows. Apparently, there was also a spike in e-book downloads. Never mind the figures, for the first time in a life devoted to India in general and the study of Hindu culture in particular, Doniger emerged from the restricted world of the seminar room and the lecture hall. Her name is now widely known and generates public curiosity about her works. The attempt at censorship was self-defeating.

Now, Istanbul is doing battle with Twitter, perhaps out of some misguided fear of a Turkish Spring, after allegations of corruption were discussed on social media. First, a DNS page redirect took users away from the Twitter home page, a silly trick from the Nineties that would cause todays users nothing more than one double take, maybe followed by a laugh. DNS redirection is trivial to bypass, by going to Twitters actual IP address rather than Twitter.com. One wonders why governments even contemplate such measures any more.

When the government actually blocked Twitter.com, makers of proxying and anonymising software were immediate beneficiaries. Within 24 hours after the ban, the Turkish user base of Hospot Shield spiked, with 330 times more downloads than the average rate. This is software for phones to create virtual private networks that evade censorship firewalls. The anonymising software Tor was also used. Earlier restricted to geekdom, it has been popularised by Edward Snowdens press conferences. His laptop, which is very visible in media, bears the Vidalia onion logo of Tor.

Post-ban, social media managers have reported a rise in Twitter traffic in Turkey. What worked for Gutenberg continues to work for the internet. In fact, it works even better. The age of print was hieratic, with elites in control of the press, and mainly the consumers of its products too. The printing press has been democratic only for a century and even then, as the Doniger case shows it remains trivially easy to turn off the tapthe press from which all information flows. However, the TCP/IP protocol which drives the internet was designed specifically for communications rather than containment. So, packet data doggedly tries to reach its target and deliver its payload of communications. If it finds one route blocked, it tries another, and then another until all its options run out. This means, effectively, that lines of communications will remain open even if most of the internetbackbones and serversis physically disabled. The internet is a network of networks and the ownership of its content and architecture is distributed. Now that the US has relinquished its special status in ICANN, even the addressing system and roadmap of the internet are owned by all of humanity. In such a tremendously distributed system, there is no single crucial tap that a government can turn off.

Except in its own territory, as Turkey has shown. And, as Turkeys Twitter users have shown in turn, territorial authority is illusory. Internet traffic does not know about geographical borders. In fact, when the author William Gibson coined the term cyberspace, he conceived it as a location by itself, unrelated to terrestrial geography. And so, when a government tries to enforce its writ on what it imagines is its zone in cyberspace, its citizens simply move to another zone. That is one of the effects of using Torfrom the point of view of the internet, a computer physically located in Turkey appears to be located in Sweden or Thailand. Even Google serves its Swedish or Thai home pages, rather than the Turkish one. And Turkish ISPs think that Twitter traffic out of Istanbul is actually taking a through path from Sweden or Thailand, and do not interfere.

The internet cannot be censored with technology. But a combination of political will and legal pressure can do the job. The Great Firewall of China is a working model of what can be done, simply by making state-administered proxies mandatory and by threatening state action against those attempting to bypass them. The Great Firewall called for considerable state investments. Anecdotally, it was believed in the last decade that some 30,000 officials were involved, directly or indirectly, in keeping it watertight. If governments embark on the difficult and odious project of net censorship, this is the kind of investment they should be prepared to make.