Time to reboot our push for global Internet freedom (esp. in Country such as China)


By Jackson Diehl, Via The Washington Post, Monday, October 25, 2010 -

Last Tuesday 215,646 Internet users in Iran evaded their regime to visit sites such as Facebook, Twitter and RadioFarda.com, the U.S.-funded Persian-language news service. In Syria, 14,886 people freely surfed; in Vietnam, 10,612; in Saudi Arabia, 14,691; in China, 18,000.

I know this because I saw the internal logs of a company called UltraReach, which created and manages a firewall-breaching system that is allowing as many as half a million people a day to visit Web sites banned by their governments, and circumvent or avoid detection. To watch the traffic stream through the company’s servers is to see a parade of the world’s most oppressed people. In the few minutes I watched I also saw Cubans, Burmese, Uzbeks, Belarusians, Algerians, Cambodians and Libyans traveling via an Internet link to Northern California, where they were able to visit any non-pornographic site without being blocked or identified. Continue reading

Why the State Department refused to spend the funds to “expand access and information in closed societies” such as Iran and China


By L. GORDON CROVITZ, via The Wall Street Journal, May.2, 2010-

When a government department refuses to spend money that Congress has allocated, there’s usually a telling backstory. This is doubly so when the funds are for a purpose as uncontroversial as making the Internet freer.

So why has the State Department refused to spend $45 million in appropriations since 2008 to “expand access and information in closed societies”? The technology to circumvent national restrictions is being provided by volunteers who believe that with funding they can bring Web access to many more people, from Iran to China.

A bipartisan group in Congress intended to pay for tests aimed at expanding the use of software that brings Internet access to “large numbers of users living in closed societies that have acutely hostile Internet environments.” The most successful of these services is provided by a group called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, whose programs include Freegate and Ultrasurf.

When Iranian demonstrators last year organized themselves through Twitter posts and brought news of the crackdown to the outside world, they got past the censors chiefly by using Freegate to get access to outside sites.

The team behind these circumvention programs understands how subversive their efforts can be. As Shiyu Zhou, deputy director of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, told Congress last year, “The Internet censorship firewalls have become 21st-century versions of Berlin Walls that isolate and dispirit the citizens of closed-society dictatorships.”

Repressive governments rightly regard the Internet as an existential threat, giving people powerful ways to communicate and organize. These governments also use the Web as a tool of repression, monitoring emails and other traffic. Recall that Google left China in part because of hacking of human-rights activists’ Gmail accounts.

To counter government monitors and censors, these programs give online users encrypted connections to secure proxy servers around the world. A group of volunteers constantly switches the Internet Protocol addresses of the servers—up to 10,000 times an hour. The group has been active since 2000, and repressive governments haven’t figured out how to catch up. More than one million Iranians used the system last June to post videos and photos showing the government crackdown.

Mr. Zhou tells me his group would use any additional money to add equipment and to hire full-time technical staff to support the volunteers. For $50 million, he estimates the service could accommodate 5% of Chinese Internet users and 10% in other closed societies—triple the current capacity.

So why won’t the State Department fund this group to expand its reach, or at least test how scalable the solution could be? There are a couple of explanations.

The first is that the Global Internet Freedom Consortium was founded by Chinese-American engineers who practice Falun Gong, the spiritual movement suppressed by Beijing. Perhaps not the favorites of U.S. diplomats, but what other group has volunteers engaged enough to keep such a service going? As with the Jewish refuseniks who battled the Soviet Union, sometimes it takes a persecuted minority to stand up to a totalitarian regime.

The second explanation is a split among technologists—between those who support circumvention programs built on proprietary systems and others whose faith is on more open sources of code. A study last year by the Berkman Center at Harvard gave more points to open-source efforts, citing “a well-established contentious debate among software developers about whether secrecy about implementation details is a robust strategy for security.” But whatever the theoretical objections, the proprietary systems work.

Another likely factor is realpolitik. Despite the tough speech Hillary Clinton gave in January supporting Internet freedom, it’s easy to imagine bureaucrats arguing that the U.S. shouldn’t undermine the censorship efforts of Tehran and Beijing. An earlier generation of bureaucrats tried to edit, as overly aggressive, Ronald Reagan’s 1987 speech in Berlin urging Mikhail Gorbachev: “Tear down this wall.”

It’s true that circumvention doesn’t solve every problem. Internet freedom researcher and advocate Rebecca MacKinnon has made the point that “circumvention is never going to be the silver bullet” in the sense that it can only give people access to the open Web. It can’t help with domestic censorship.

During the Cold War, the West expended huge effort to get books, tapes, fax machines, radio reports and other information, as well as the means to convey it, into closed societies. Circumvention is the digital-age equivalent.

If the State Department refuses to support a free Web, perhaps there’s a private solution. An anonymous poster, “chinese.zhang,” suggested on a Google message board earlier this year that the company should fund the Global Internet Freedom Consortium as part of its defense against Chinese censorship. “I think Google can easily offer more servers to help to break down the Great Firewall,” he wrote.

- The Wall Street Journal

Editorial: The US congress can help fend off authoritarian censorship in Burma, Iran and China


Editorials, The Washington Post, July 7, 2009 -

FROM TWITTERERS in Tehran to bloggers in Burma, citizens living under authoritarian regimes depend upon free access to the Internet for information, coordination and the ability to make themselves heard. That’s why oppressive governments devote so much effort to online censorship: They, too, recognize the power of information to promote freedom. But some independent groups are pushing back against their control.

The indelible images and powerful stories that have emerged from Iran in recent weeks have been made possible by the efforts of a few volunteer experts running a makeshift system of patchwork servers. The Global Internet Freedom Consortium, a small, non-governmental organization, provides access to almost 1 million users daily and, according to recent statistics, to more than 90 percent of anti-censorship traffic from China and Iran. Its software allows users to evade online censors by connecting to a remote server that switches IP addresses nearly once a second to avoid being traced. But increased demand for the Internet amid recent turmoil has been overloading the consortium’s servers just when access is most needed. For the peaceful online revolution to continue, congressional support is necessary.

Before the Senate Appropriations Committee is a bill that could provide access to 100 million distinct users every day. Dedicating $50 million in the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill to Internet freedom could allow millions who live in autocratic societies access to the Internet. Internet freedom has long been a stated congressional priority — the 2008 appropriations bill included a commitment to provide “anti-censorship tools and services for the advancement of information freedom in closed societies.” Now is the time for Congress to put its money behind its words.

For every dollar the United States spends to guarantee access, oppressive regimes must spend thousands to put up walls and barriers. Once enough there are enough holes in a firewall, it crumbles. The technology for this exists. What is needed is more capacity.

- The Washington Post

GIF resumes anti-censorship services to Iran due to election crisis


Press Release, Global Internet Freedom Consortium, June 17, 2009 -

ATLANTA, June 17, 2009 – In response to increased attempts from Iranian web surfers to use its anti-censorship services, Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIF) has resumed them to Iran. This step has been greeted by an extraordinary traffic spike.

Amidst the political tumult, web surfers in Iran have literally rushed to utilize GIF’s protocols in order to obtain secure and censorship-immune channels of communication.

“Due to the dynamic situation in Iran caused by the election and its protest aftermath, the number of daily ‘hits’ from Iran has tripled during the past week,” said Dr. Shiyu Zhou, Deputy Director of GIF.

Considering the special circumstances in Iran, GIF temporarily reopened its anti-censorship services to Iranian web surfers on June 13. More than 120 million web ‘hits’ to GIF immediately followed on the next day, up from less than 60 million before the reopening. On June 16, GIF protocols logged more than 200 million daily ‘hits,’ or 400,000 estimated unique users, from Iran.

Unfortunately, server crashes caused by overload have been reported from GIF data centers.

Iran had been GIF’s second largest user base, only trailing China, until the end of 2008. The growing, word-of-mouth popularity of GIF tools, including FreeGate and UltraSurf, raised late 2008 demand to the level of overloading the capacity of GIF’s servers.

Given the risk of worldwide GIF system crashes, major cutbacks of GIF’s “lifeline” services to Iran and elsewhere had to be put into effect in early 2009, resulting in a sharp drop in Iran-originated traffic and user outcries.

“Our technology is highly scalable, and we really want to provide our services to everyone in repressive regimes,” said Dr. Zhou. “However, with our very limited resources we cannot now afford infrastructure large enough to do that. Our current service enhancement for the Iranian users will therefore be temporary unless we can find the support to sustain the operation.”

- Global Internet Freedom Consortium

Iranian Internet lifeline– Chinese Falun Gong’s Software


By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, The New York Times, June 17, 2009 -

The unrest unfolding in Iran is the quintessential 21st-century conflict. On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protesters firing “tweets.”

The protesters’ arsenal, such as those tweets on Twitter.com, depends on the Internet or other communications channels. So the Iranian government is blocking certain Web sites and evicting foreign reporters or keeping them away from the action.

The push to remove witnesses may be the prelude to a Tehran Tiananmen. Yet a secret Internet lifeline remains, and it’s a tribute to the crazy, globalized world we live in. The lifeline was designed by Chinese computer engineers in America to evade Communist Party censorship of a repressed Chinese spiritual group, the Falun Gong.

Today, it is these Chinese supporters of Falun Gong who are the best hope for Iranians trying to reach blocked sites.

“We don’t have the heart to cut off the Iranians,” said Shiyu Zhou, a computer scientist and leader in the Chinese effort, called the Global Internet Freedom Consortium. “But if our servers overload too much, we may have to cut down the traffic.”

Mr. Zhou said that usage of the consortium’s software has tripled in the last week. It set a record on Wednesday of more than 200 million hits from Iran, representing more than 400,000 people.

If President Obama wants to support democratic movements on a shoestring, he should support an “Internet freedom initiative” pending in Congress. This would include $50 million in the appropriations bill for these censorship-evasion technologies. The 21st-century equivalent of the Berlin wall is a cyberbarrier, and we can help puncture it.

Mr. Zhou, the son of a Chinese army general, said that he and his colleagues began to develop such software after the 1999 Chinese government crackdown on Falun Gong (which the authorities denounce as a cult). One result was a free software called Freegate, small enough to carry on a flash drive. It takes a surfer to an overseas server that changes I.P. addresses every second or so, too quickly for a government to block it, and then from there to a banned site.

Freegate amounts to a dissident’s cyberkit. E-mails sent with it can be encrypted. And after a session is complete, a press of a button eliminates any sign that it was used on that computer.

The consortium also makes available variants of the software, such as Ultrasurf, and other software to evade censors is available from Tor Project and the University of Toronto.

Originally, Freegate was available only in Chinese and English, but a growing number of people have been using it in other countries, such as Myanmar. Responding to the growing use of Freegate in Iran, the consortium introduced a Farsi-language version last July — and usage there skyrocketed.

Soon almost as many Iranians were using it as Chinese, straining server capacity (many Chinese are wary of Freegate because of its links to Falun Gong, which even ordinary citizens often distrust). The engineers in the consortium, worrying that the Iran traffic would crash their servers, dropped access in Iran in January but restored it before the Iran election.

“We know the pain of people in closed societies, and we do want to accommodate them,” Mr. Zhou said……. (more from the New York Times)