Online Activists Tap Tools to Escape Censorship

Internet activists in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia are increasingly using collaborative Internet sites as well as circumvention and anonymity tools to avoid censorship, according to participants at the international "Internet at Liberty" conference sponsored by Google.

Countries including Iran, China, Tunisia, Thailand, and Syria have, for example, blocked access to certain sites that allow sharing of user-generated content.

In some countries like Tunisia, video sharing sites like YouTube are banned completely, but Facebook is for the most part accessible.

"Facebook has become the default video-sharing site because it is not fully blocked except a few accounts," said Houeida Anouar, a blogger and online activist from Tunisia, at the conference, which ended Wednesday in Budapest.

To circumvent government firewalls, activists are using tools such as hotspotshield, ultrasurf, psiphon and alkasir. Alkasir offers English and Arabic interfaces and is widely used in the Middle East. Hotspotshield offers English, Arabic and several other language interfaces.

Most of these applications offer a mix of firewall circumvention and anonymity tools, noted show attendees at the Internet at Liberty event.

"Circumvention allows people to access the websites without detection even though the fear is still there," said Walid Al Saqaf, founder and manager of Alkasir, which offers censorship mapping and circumvention. "Anonymity tools are better but do not work well in low bandwidth areas, and most of the censoring countries have low bandwidth," he noted.

The TOR (The Onion Router) Project offers widely used software designed to ensure anonymity online, noted event participants. "Tor protects you by bouncing your communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world," notes the project's website.

Other sites offer information and links to various services designed to circumvent government monitoring. One such site is ssd.eff.org, originally created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) "to educate the American public about the law and technology of government surveillance in the United States, providing the information and tools necessary to evaluate the threat of surveillance and take appropriate steps to defend against it," according to the website.

Other sites that act as portals to information and software related to security and anonymity include getnetwise.org and Security in a Box, noted speakers at the Budapest meeting.

Allowing activists to report what has been censored, herdict.org aggregates reports of inaccessible sites and allows users to compare data and share globally, presenting the information in the form of a map.

This week, timed with the Budapest conference, Google rolled out a new tool designed to show government-induced blocks and disruptions of its services. Google's new Transparency Report site allows people to see the availability of multiple Google services in different countries.

While most activists host their content abroad, where national governments have no jurisdiction, the websites come under constant attacks, which may or may not be from government agents.

"What I see is that a lot of these organizations get broken into and their sensitive, sometimes classified information gets taken by people whose intentions are unknown, be they foreign actors or those who want to sell information," said Nart Villeneuve, a security expert at the OpenNet Initiative at the University of Toronto.

While activists are expecting governments to invest in more expensive filtering software and hardware, the rising number of Internet users will make that a challenge.

"Yes, there is fear that governments are going to invest in more sophisticated technology to crack down on activists, but the rising number of users will also make it difficult to crack down," added Al Saqaf, who is from Yemen.

During the two-day conference, sponsored by Google and supported by other social media companies, activists had opportunities to share information, and some noted that while people are getting more vocal online, physical demonstrations involving people in the street appear to be decreasing.

The meeting, held at the Central European University, was mainly meant to bring together activists and individual users to understand ways to protect against censorship; social media companies to discuss transparency and user-protection issues; and for governments to hear what users, activists and online companies have to say about restraint of power and freedom of expression.

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