If we actually look at how our civilization progresses, the one thing that has invariably enabled societies to progress has been increased connections among and within nations. Take a look at the rise of cell phones in many African countries, which has left some 83% of Ghanaians, for example, equipped with these marvelous devices (Pew). Not only does this allow for increased communication amongst family members or even community, but cellular communication has also enabled Ghanaians to exchange money over their phones, allowing for local entrepreneurs to hold and town economies to thrive.
It’s clear that the ability to connect billions of people instantly is a tool to allow for greater upward mobility, more trade, and a better standard of living. However, a lack of infrastructure, like in Africa until very recently, is not the only thing preventing people from accessing the Internet—in many developing countries with oppressive regimes, governments heavily restrict their citizens’ ability to use the Internet, often by blocking cites they deem “contrary to national values” or otherwise dangerous. Indeed, blocking and tracking users is one of the most effective ways governments have to suppress dissenting beliefs. In my research, I have found that there were a number of ways to defeat firewalls like these, but they mostly boil down to three essential pillars:
A few weeks ago I attended a panel discussion on methods of detecting whether countries are censoring their citizens and identifying what sites they’re blocking. While the discussion of the technical discussion was captivating, what really drew me in was their reasoned defense in researching censorship detection at all. Ryan Budish, a researcher at Harvard, explained that in diplomatic talks, censoring countries will very often deny any censorship is taking place at all, or justify the censorship as “copyright protection” or “national security.” However, if countries that support Internet freedom like the United States are armed with statistics and in-depth analysis of what the countries are blocking, then they have proof that it’s censorship, and thus they have leverage against the offending nation. Indeed, according to Reuters, the U.S. Trade Representative recently acknowledged, for the first time, that China’s Internet censorship “has posed a significant burden to foreign suppliers, hurting both internet sites themselves, and users who often depend on them for their business.” By furthering the measurement of censorship, the academic community can allow any willing allies to Internet freedom to press countries like China and Iran into loosening control over their Internet.
Stemming the Export of Censorship Tools
If you were to ask anyone how China built its Great Firewall, they would most likely say that China probably just built it themselves. In fact, when it was installed, the Chinese government did not have the technical capabilities to set up an advanced censorship tool, so they contracted Cisco—yes, the same Cisco that probably built your office phone—to adapt the censorship technology they built to keep employees productive to censor a billion people. When I spoke to Ben Jones, a graduate student at the Center for Information Technology Policy here at Princeton, he pointed out to me that the “vast majority of censorship tools are made by US and Canada and sold to foreign nations.”
While free trade is generally beneficial for social progress, censorship tools, like tanks and AK-47s, are an exception, because all the benefits of increased trade are wiped out by the massive human rights abuses enabled by the trade. New Jersey Representative Chris Smith argued as such, stating “US companies should not, knowingly or unwittingly, be providing the technology used by repressive regimes to hunt down and punish human rights activists.” His bill, H.R. 491 (introduced in the 113th Congress), titled the Global Online Freedom Act, would have done as much, preventing the export of censorship tools to any government known to censor its internet. While little objection was found for the bill, it never made it past committee in Congress. Getting this bill passed and signed, however, would prevent foreign governments from being able to adapt its censorship to the changing times, and would allow their existing technology to become obsolete to new circumvention techniques very quickly, allowing for greater access by citizens.
Enabling Circumvention Tools
Even as censorship tools may get weaker from international pressure and (with hope) deteriorating technology, this still leaves billions of people behind firewalls in both the short and long term. A common solution is to fund and enable circumvention tools, little pieces of code that allow activists to get around the firewall. This is, in fact, something that the Department of State has been doing since 2010, according to Vice News, and has continued doing so this year “with a $10 million investment into a new initiative called Leading Internet Freedom Technology.” The advantage of censorship circumvention tools is that they are incredibly adaptive—no matter what the government’s censors try to do, there is invariably a way around it through some neat trick a developer found. Some ire has been drawn, however, because of the fact that some of the technologies that the State Department is investing in, namely one called Tor, has enabled criminals to engage in anonymous cybercrime, culminating in the massive drug store called Silk Road. This, however, is a small price to pay, especially considering that the investment that the State Department puts in is targeted more for circumvention of oppressive governments, not for drug rings. Anything that has happened on Tor would have happened without the State Department’s investment anyway, and so we cannot really account this concern.
The Big Idea
Overall, the policies and actions I’ve discussed here all work in the hope of allowing citizens not only to get the economic benefits of the Internet, but also, and especially, the benefits to their well-being and ability to fight for better working and living conditions. By stopping censorship, governments can’t hide behind propaganda and instead have to either face the music or fix the problems they’re perpetuating. As citizens, we need to push our representatives to move to support funding censorship research, prevent ourselves from being complicit in it, and to help people get around technologies meant to limit their freedom. In doing so, it casts a message to the world, that we are not okay with letting people be oppressed by their own governments, much less using our own technology, and we need to allow freedom of thought to pervade.
Carsten, Paul, and Michael Martina. “U.S. Says China Internet Censorship a Burden for Businesses.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 08 Apr. 2016. Web. 10 May 2016.
Feamster, Nick, Ryan Budish, and Roya Ensafi. “Law and Technology Lunch Time Series: Online Censorship.” Law and Technology Lunch Time Series: Online Censorship. Princeton, NJ. 11 Apr. 2016. Panel.
Franceschi-Bicchierai, Lorenzo. “Why the US Government Is Investing Millions in Internet Freedom Technologies.” Motherboard. Vice Media, 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.
Jones, Ben. Personal interview. 10 Apr. 2016.
Pew Research Center. “Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline.” Pew Research Centers Global Attitudes Project. Pew Research Center, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.
“US Bill Targets Exports of Web Censorship Tools.” Phys.org. Phys.org, 9 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 May 2016.
Walters, Riley. “Cyber Attacks on U.S. Companies Since November 2014.” The Heritage Foundation. The Heritage Foundation, 18 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 May 2016.