Freedom House’s Review of Censorship Circumvention Tools

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Freedom House, the human rights organization, has recently released the report titled “Leaping Over the Firewall: A Review of Censorship Circumvention Tools.” This report describes in detail the most effective tools for bypassing online censorship in Azerbaijan, Burma, China and Iran. It also outlines the advantages and disadvantages of every tool.

As it is known, the governments of the countries mentioned above took control of all citizens' online activities. Freedom House, established by the United States, does not stay indifferent to the internet censorship at these overseas countries. Robert Guerra, Project Director of Freedom House’s Internet Freedom program, claims: “As repressive governments become increasingly savvy in their ability to filter and censor online content, these tools, which allow users to exercise their fundamental rights to free expression and privacy online, have become essential.”  The described censorship circumvention tools are recommended to unblock websites and bypass restrictions on the internet. Therefore, Freedom House thinks this report will help to protect free expression online.

But the report has not only got positive opinions about it. “I have concerns about this report’s methodologies and resulting conclusions. The report in its current form could be dangerous to the users it aims to help,” says Jacob Appelbaum in this article published on Global Voices Advocacy web site

The author attacks the report and concludes at the end: “From performance to security, the report presents mistake after mistake. The core of the review is non-technical in nature and yet the entire circumvention landscape is quite technical.” To make the tools review more objective, the author recommends to rate the tools based on:

•    availability,
•    whether the tool requires administrative privileges,
•    validated security claims,
web anonymity,
•    design and implementation details available for peer review,
•    centralization or de-centralization,
•    and other qualities

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Famous Blogger Arrested in Bahrain

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Censorship BahreinThe leader of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, reported that famous blogger Mahmood al-Yousif and Internet activists Sana Abdul-Razzaq Zinedine, trade unionist, and poet Ayat al-Qurmozi have been arrested.

Some years ago, Mahmood Al-Yousif launched an Internet  campaign called “Just Bahraini”. The main goal of this campaign was to fight against Sunni-Shiite sectarianism in Bahrain. The country has a Sunni government, but the majority of residents are Shiites.

In connection with the latest events, protecting internet privacy is of crucial importance for Bahrain internet users. They are afraid that their private communication via e-mail or social networks can become a reason for arrest. That’s why many of them prefer to use VPN services to protect themselves from their government's surveillance.

The United States of America worry that this act of Bahrain government will prevent its national dialogue with Shiite citizens of the country. The US State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, claimed: “The Bahraini government needs to engage in that kind of national dialogue, as does the opposition, in order to move this process forward, and arresting bloggers doesn’t help in that respect.”

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COICA and its Consequences

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CoicaCOICA, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, was presented to the US Senate last year. But it wasn’t accepted. This year, both chambers of Congress are examining a new COICA draft. According to this act, the government is allowed to block sites at domain name (DNS) level  if the Justice Department considers them to be "dedicated to infringing content." The aim of this act is to abolish access to foreign piracy and counterfeiting sites.

With the help of COICA the government wants to solve the problem of online security and protecting internet privacy. The supporters of the act believe that it will be effective to gain the control over websites that engage in illegal activity.

But opponents of this act claim that such internet censorship will bring people to use alternative DNS systems or anonymous proxies to access blocked sites. They think that COICA won’t solve the problem and, moreover, that it will aggravate the situation.

Senator Ron Wyden, who opposes COICA, says: "It seems to me that online copyright infringement is a legitimate problem, but it seems to me that COICA as written is the wrong medicine. Deploying this statute to combat online copyright infringement seems almost like using a bunker-busting cluster bomb when what you really need is a precision-guided missile. The collateral damage of this statute could be American innovation, American jobs, and a secure Internet."

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Viewers Access Al Jazeera Through VPN

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American television viewers looking for the coverage of the uprising in Egypt have been deprived of the option of tuning into Al Jazeera English. They have to wait until one of the U.S. cable-company-approved networks broadcasts footage from AJE, which the company makes publicly available, or use a VPN connection.

An overwhelming majority of the American states – except from Ohio, Vermont and Washington, D.C. – cable carriers do not broadcast Al Jazeera. That corporate censorship comes as American diplomats harshly criticize the Egyptian government for blocking Internet communication inside the country and as Egypt attempts to block Al Jazeera from broadcasting.

Wadah Khanfar, director general of the Al Jazeera Network, is sure that “the blackout is based on misinformed views about our content and journalism. Some of the largest American cable and satellite providers have instituted corporate obstacles against Al Jazeera English.

As a result from the blackout, many AJE longtime viewers tend to use VPN services to get to the media outlet's website, where footage can be seen streaming live. The last 24 hours have seen a two and a half thousand percent increase in web traffic. Sixty percent of that traffic has come from the United States.


VPN Crisis in China

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A censorship crisis has started in China after the authorities restricted the use of VPN services in the country. Some VPN services, including free VPN, faced problems in their work process; some have been banned,  and others have been resumed. The Chinese government implemented these measures in fear of the Jasmine Revolution, trying to stop people from accessing outside websites through VPNs.

As reports, the major VPN service provider to the Chinese market, Witopia, remains inaccessible, as well as a few other VPN services: Hidemyass, CyberGhost VPN, Ultra Reach, Hotspot Shield, TorProject and others. In addition, the IP addresses of the VPN servers owned by these providers have also been blocked. As a result, the companies have to keep shifting their users from one server to another.

Moreover, Email services such as Gmail, Hotmail, and Aol Mail have slowed down in their performance. For example, Gmail has been 45 times slower than QQ. Google has started discussions with the Chinese authorities regarding Gmail being boycotted, but so far it hasn't had much success.


Getting Around Internet Censorship

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Internet censorship exists in many countries. Many bloggers are discussing the ways to get around the restrictions put in place by authoritarian governments like China, Egypt, Libya and others. If you try opening a banned site, you might receive a “Not Found” error, an unexplained connection failure or an announcement that the location has been forbidden by the authorities.

Prof. Hacker (Konrad Lawson), in  yesterday’s post, provides two effective methods from his own experience. “I believe it is increasingly important for us to learn some of the ways to circumvent Internet censorship in a world where having access to information is central to everything we do,” he says.

He is sure that free web proxies do not solve the problem. Third-party servers, even though they redirect your traffic to the blocked sources, can themselves be blocked. And you will waste time finding another proxy.

The way he proposes for visiting banned locations is Tor – a network designed for protecting internet privacy and security by making use of encrypted traffic tunneled through a collection of relays.

Another advice is to use VPN services to get around internet censorship. The blogger gives the advice to check with your local University and see if they provide VPN access. If you use this VPN connection, all traffic will be routed though the University's server. The University IP will unlikely be banned. The blogger insists: “Because Universities and large corporations often provide access to VPN servers for their employees and students, if a government decides to block all access to a given VPN they risk incurring the anger of those institutions who may be involved in conducting profitable business or valuable research exchanges with the country.”


China Hinders Access to VPN

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Witopia, the VPN service provider, has recently reported a huge amount of complaints from its Chinese users about being unable to access some of the resources. According to Bloomberg, they were even forced to ask their subscribers to report problems via e-mail instead of their live support service, because of the “extraordinary volume of China's shenanigans”.

China, notorious for its Great Firewall (The Golden Shield Project) attempts to impose control over the Internet content by banning access to pornography, gambling and opposition sites, as well as to famous western resources such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube., a Harvard based organization which monitors accessibility of web sites across the Internet, reports China to have the leading position in Internet censorship.

China denies interfering into the VPN services. Li Wufeng, chief of the Information Office Internet Affairs Bureau of China’s ruling State Council, stated that there have never been any issues involving the access of legitimate VPN services that are used by companies to enhance security.

A virtual private network (VPN) uses encrypting mechanisms for providing a secure data exchange between remote networks and is mostly used by corporations. However, the average users in China have found VPN extremely useful for surfing through blacklisted sites and protecting their Internet privacy.



A “New Era” in the Middle East?

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Facebook page

In February, Syrian authorities repealed bans on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The fact that Facebook was widely used in recent disorders in Tunisia and Egypt didn’t stop Syrian officials. 

Though Facebook had been blocked in Syria since the end of 2007, young Syrians have been using free web proxies allowing them to go around firewalls and traded them. The government strictly controls this market to prevent any kind of undesirable activities. Yet the president and first lady are already registered in Facebook, as well as other officials. 

Syria’s governing party remains stable, having been in power since 1963. The wake of regional unrest hasn’t influenced much the situation in Syria. But its president has already promised to force reforms to meet a “new era” in the Middle East.

Syrians have an ambiguous position regarding the loosening of restrictions. The government has a wide control over freedom of expression in the country. According to Reporters without Borders, Syria ranks a lowly 172th, out of 178 countries, for press freedom. Many websites, popular in the rest of the world, remain blocked.  


Bypassing the Great Firewall Using a Simple VPN

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From today, we are starting publishing our daily news about security and VPN. We will track what is going on in the world of VPN and will see what role VPN plays in the world.

In February, Bloomberg News and BusinessWeek were interested in how some Chinese guys bypassed the “Great Firewall of China” and why the number of Facebook users from China is growing. Facebook has been blocked in the country since 2009. China bans pornography, gambling and content that is critical of the ruling Communist Party. All sites, including Facebook, that do not follow the nation’s self-censorship rules are blocked. But last month the number of Facebook users from China exceeded 700,000. “This number will probably double over the next six months,” say the experts.

Chinese users started using VPN services to access the restricted sites. A Chinese user seeking to access Facebook would first start an encrypted connection with a VPN service, which would then get on the social-networking website. The Internet service providers can see only that the user logs on to the VPN server, not to Facebook’s. Using VPNs can slow down the connection speed and might require additional software and costs. In spite of this, AnchorFree Inc., an American startup, said that they have seen 1.5 million people using their free VPN service in China during January, a 25 percent increase from the previous month. “There is a general growth in demand for getting onto Facebook and other social media sites everywhere,” said David Gorodyansky, Chief Executive Officer of AnchorFree.

In February, Facebook opened an office in Hong Kong, bringing the company closer to China. Does Facebook feel the "warming" from the Chinese government towards the social networking sites? We can hardly say it. Facebook has about 621 million users worldwide and 700 thousand is a significant number. But we must consider that, in China, the total number of internet users amounts to 457 million. "When you consider the number of Internet users in China, the number of Facebook  users is just a blip. It will never be open enough so that most people can use it. It’s too risky." said Paul Wuh, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Samsung Securities Co.


Internet Censorship – The Creeping Threat

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The Internet has revolutionised the way we live, and with the passing of time we grow more and more dependant on its very existence. That it could spring up independently of governments and big business lead many to believe that the Internet could bring the world a new type of freedom. Now we have reason to think again……..

We send emails, blog, chat, do our banking, organise our travel, engage in social networks, enjoy numerous forms of entertainment…..the list is endless.

While we go about our lives on the Internet, we need to be conscious of the threats that exist, and take steps to protect among other things our identity, privacy and communications. VPN service providers play an important role in helping you protect your life on the Internet. We have discussed this in previous blog articles.

Beyond the sinister threat from individuals with criminal intent, we would like to explore in greater detail the growing threat to our Internet freedoms from government sponsored initiatives. Traditionally we have thought of countries such as China and Iran as examples of countries looking to block Internet freedoms from their citizens. But there is a creeping menace that is developing in so called liberal democracies.

There is clearly a role for responsible governments to play in protecting its citizens from harm. But we see a disturbing trend in how this mandate is being used to restrict individual freedoms on the Internet. And the main issue we see is not what is necessarily being targeted now by 'Internet filtering' systems, but how they will morph and be applied into the future……..who will hold the keys? what will be done with information gathered? where will it be stored? how secure is the storage?


In the United Kingdom, the Digital Economy Bill was rushed through parliament in the evening of the 10th of April 2010. Is remains only to be approved by the House of Lords. In short, it gives the government the power to force ISPs to block access to any sites its deems necessary, and block access of individuals to the Internet entirely. Cynically it could be argued that MPs have come under significant pressure from global media companies to push this legislation through. But the wider implications of this bill are frightening.


In Australia, the government recently said that it would pass laws to block access to some Websites. The prohibited material includes child pornography, bestiality, incest, graphic "high-impact" images of violence, anything promoting or providing instruction on crime or violence, detailed descriptions of the use of proscribed drugs, and how-to information on suicide by Websites supporting the right to die for the terminally or incurably ill. A poll in the Sydney Morning Herald showed 96% opposed, and 2% in support. This is obviously not a display of support for the list of prohibited sites, but a resounding condemnation of a system that threatens freedom of information and expression into the future.

Wikileaks reported a leaked list of sites supposed to be included in the Australian filtering scheme. They included online poker sites, YouTube links, regular gay and straight porn sites, Wikipedia links etc.


In New Zealand, the government has quietly introduced an Internet filter and has been placing pressure on ISPs to implement its use. On the 1st of February 2010, the filter was reportedly turned on. David Zanetti, and spokesman for Tech Liberty made a very valid observation, "It establishes the principle that the government can choose to arbitrarily set up a new censorship scheme and choose which material to block, with no reference to existing law"


In the European Union, a Directive on 8 June 2000 about e-commerce revealed the first threat to freedom of expression, by making ISPs responsible for the content of websites they host and requiring them to block any page they consider illegal when informed of its existence. On the 29 of April 2004, the European Parliament approved the IPR Enforcement Directive. The Directive covers remedies available in cases of IPR breaches. Unfortunately, this directive has spawned new laws in member states that pose significant threats to Internet freedoms. As an example, Swedens IPRED law that went into effect on the 1st of April 2009, requires ISPs to store individual users traffic data. While not censorship, it perhaps points to a worrying EU direction on Internet freedoms.


The moment systems and laws are put in place to facilitate censorship, they sow the seeds for the eventual erosion of our human rights and individual freedoms. They will always be open to abuse and misapplication.

Jeremy Bentham was an English philosopher that lived from 1748 – 1832. He said something that is as true today as the day he uttered these words;

"As to the evil which results from a censorship, it is impossible to measure it, for it is impossible to tell where it ends."


We would value your thoughts and updates on cases of Internet censorship.




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