On March 2nd 2006 the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority to block 12 websites. This list was in addition to the hundreds of thousands of websites which Pakistan already blocks. Up till now, most internet users in Pakistan had never really cared to speak up about this censorship, but this new blacklist caused millions of personal websites hosted at Blogspot to be banned. There are hundreds of Pakistani websites hosted at Blogspot, so this action by the government led internet users to form an action group against this ban.
To understand what exactly it means to block a website on the internet, one has to first understand how the internet works.
The internet is a strange beast. Many of us use it every day – not just when sitting in front of a computer, but every time when using a credit card, filling fuel, sending a SMS, taking a flight – in short just about every modern activity depends on the internet. The use of the internet is spreading everywhere, even to the most surprising places – some farmers in India receive current market prices for their crops on internet enabled cellphones, and the early warning system for tsunamis being developed after the 2004 ocean quake works through the internet.
The internet is a gigantic 3 dimensional spider web, where every intersection is a computer which is connected to every other computer on the internet – regardless of its location. The Internet is not built by design – it grows organically as computers and networks join it as they please. It is hard to visualize what the Internet has grown to now just 30 odd years after starting with a handful of computers. The map above represents just a partial view of the Internet. The amount of computers on the Internet is staggering – recent estimates puts the figure close to a billion computers, and growing fast.
For the lay person, the internet generally means the world wide web. The internet is actually the underlying platform on which the web runs. The internet is made up of computers and cables – the computers send packets of information to other computers on the Internet through these cables, and the beauty of the Internet is that these packets can go through any path. Put up a packet with a correct address anywhere on the Internet, and it will arrive at its destination, usually in a few milliseconds.
The way the internet works is very simple. Multiple independent networks of rather arbitrary design are all connected to each other. Every computer on the Internet has a unique address, so when you send a message to another computer on the Internet, the underlying software breaks the message up into data packets, puts the destination address on every one of these packets, and sends them on to the next computer it’s connected to. As the packets arrive, each receiving computer looks at the address, and if it’s not addressed to that pc, sends it onwards. This process happens over and over again until the packet arrives at its destination. Each packet of data takes the best possible route available to it, which will vary even over the milliseconds the sending computer takes to send out each packet.
The internet was designed from the ground up to resist damage – and censorship is just another form of damage to the internet. If the data doesn’t make it through to its destination, then another route will be automatically tried, until all possible routes are exhausted. So if one computer, or a whole bunch of them, decides to block certain types of data, then they will be automatically bypassed.
Pakistan has 3 major internet links to the world, which consist of two submarine fibre optic links and a few satellite links. All of these are controlled by the Pakistan Internet Exchange, or PIE, which monitors all incoming and outgoing Internet traffic from Pakistan. The primary purpose of PIE is to filter content as the Government deems fit. A secondary purpose is to keep track of all incoming and outgoing e-mails, which by parliamentary order are kept for a period of at least 3 months.
If the government controls all outside links to the world, then one might think that it should be a simple matter to censor the internet. Yet this isn’t the case, for the current filtering system in place is very crude. There is a list of banned addresses which the computers installed at the Pakistan Internet Exchange look at, and accordingly block requests by users to the computers on the blacklist. This is where the internet comes in – for if an address is blocked, than all you have to do is go through another, unblocked address. This computer is called a proxy server, and it acts as a man in the middle between you and the blocked computer. Any computer on the Internet can do the job of a proxy – so potentially, there are a billion ways of bypassing censorship!
Many of the top universities in the world like Duke, Stanford, MIT, Harvard and Princeton (to name just a few) have set up such proxy systems to enable users around the world to bypass censorship. Besides universities and individuals acting on their own to protect the freedom of speech, there are many government and privately funded projects set up specifically for the purpose of allowing users to bypass any form of internet censorship. The rise of peer to peer networking means that every single computer, even home PC’s formerly not thought of as servers, can be used to serve up content to any other PC.
The second, slightly harder to bypass form of censorship, as implemented in China, is to have a list of banned words, and censor those on the fly. As users in China request a web page, the incoming page is first inspected by government servers, and blocked if a banned term like democracy is present on that page. Human censors are also actively looking at what people browse on the internet, and actively block websites as they see fit. This method is also easily bypassed by connecting to a proxy server which scrambles the page as it sends it to you. Take a look at the links listed at the bottom for many other ways to bypass internet censorship, or just do a google search to bring up a few hundred thousand websites which will tell you how.
So, what exactly does it mean to block a website? Can it even be done with today’s technology?
Simply put, with current technology the only way to restrict information on the Internet is to ban it all together. There is no middle way – the technology is just not there today. One good example is China, which spends billions of dollars, and employs over 40,000 full time government employees in Beijing alone to monitor and restrict Chinese usage of the internet. The Chinese government tries to control and restrict access to a wide variety of topics, such as the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Falun Gong, Tibet, Taiwan, pornography or democracy. Despite the most sophisticated filtering system in the world, China has failed miserably at its attempt to censor the Internet..
The Supreme Court and Government of Pakistan have obviously an extremely limited understanding of the Internet, and do not grasp what exactly they have done. They are still thinking along the lines of traditional media, made up of books, newspapers and magazines, and probably think they have blocked certain ‘bad’ issues, and that everything else will be accessible as usual.
Most, if not all people savvy enough to operate a computer are easily able to bypass any technological blocks the govt. puts up. At best, the various censorship solutions the government will implement over the next few years will discriminate between the technological haves and have-nots.
It is sad to see Pakistan walk down that same road. At best, attempts to censor the internet will give the censors a false sense of security that they are doing something, while slowing down the internet for the entire country, as well as further degrading its image throughout the world.
The internet, although a network in name and geography, is a creature of the computer, not the traditional network of the telephone or television industry. It will, indeed it must, continue to change and evolve at the speed of the computer industry. Trying to impose artificial barriers on the internet is akin to building sand castles on the beach – sand walls can’t stop the spray of information coming over the walls, and the next wave of technology will completely overwhelm the entire castle.
In the future, technology will enable governments to control the creation and flow of information. The slippery slope to George Orwell’s 1984 starts here, when we allow governments control of what we can see, read and watch. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and once the censorship drive to ban all bad things starts; it’s a hard animal to stop.
- Wikipedia – Internet Censorship in Pakistan
- The Filtering Matrix
- Howto bypass Internet Censorship
- TOR – An anonymous Internet communication system
- Wikipedia entry on the Internet
This article was published in the April 2006 issue of ‘Spider magazine’:http://spider.tm.