Centre for Internet & Society
Growing cyberspace controls, Internet filtering

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on Internet freedom and democracy at George Washington University, Washington DC, on February 15.

OpenNet Initiative investigates, analyses filtering and surveillance practices, writes T Ramachandran in this article published in the Hindu on Sunday, February 20, 2011.

Growing cyberspace controls, Internet filtering

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks on Internet freedom and democracy at George Washington University, Washington DC, on February 15.

Governments in many parts of the world have been aggressively adopting a new generation of controls aimed at filtering and controlling information flow on the Internet, citing concerns such as cyber security, crime and terrorism, according to the OpenNet Initiative.

The OpenNet Initiative, which says it “investigates and analyses Internet filtering and surveillance practices in a credible and non-partisan fashion,” in its updated study released last year titled, “Access Controlled: The Shaping of Power, Rights, and Rule in Cyberspace,” said that it was fast becoming the global norm to control information flow on the Internet.

The OpenNet is a collaborative partnership between the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and the Ottawa-based SecDev Group.

Asked whether the trend was likely to become more pronounced, given the recent developments in the Middle East, one of the contributors to the study, Ethan Zuckerman, a senior researcher at the Berkman Centre, said, “In general, we see governments becoming more aggressive and more overt about their Internet filtering.”

The OpenNet has described the recent Internet blackout in Egypt as ‘just-in-time-blocking' - when information flow is brought to a halt during critical times such as political crises, elections, or social unrest. Discussions have resurfaced about the deployment of 'Internet kill switches,' a way in which nations could snuff out the Internet when such a crisis occurs.

“For all the talk of Internet kill switches, turning off the Internet is a relatively easy and unsophisticated thing to do. What is hardest to do is filtering on finer, more granular levels,” Mr. Zuckerman told The Hindu.

The first-generation controls were deployed primarily at Internet “choke points,” places in the network where Internet addresses that had been blacklisted by the authorities could be filtered and blocked. These were mainly the gateways run by the Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The number-based IP addresses connected to particular websites or domain names could be used for the blocking. Keywords could also be used in weeding out proscribed sites or pages.

Reports of watchdogs such as the OpenNet and Freedom House indicate that though not pronounced, selective filtering has been a part of the Indian Internet scene. Google's Transparency Report for the first half of 2010 also shows that India is among the nations from where a number of government inquiries for information about users and requests to remove or censor content emanate.

“As far as censorship of Internet goes in India it is still first generation in terms of blocking and filtering at the Internet choke points. However, the Indian government has made and is making several moves that continue to undermine privacy and anonymity on the Internet. This has a chilling effect on freedom of expression and information accessing behaviour on the Internet,” says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society.

Second and third generation techniques of Internet filtering, as described in Access Controlled, are “more subtle, flexible, and even offensive in character,” often using legal regulations to supplement or legitimise technical filtering measures, extralegal or covert practices. These include the use of viruses to infiltrate computer systems, the launching of distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks and surveillance at strategic points in the Internet and telecommunications infrastructure. The DDoS attacks involve directing traffic of such large volume at targeted sites during a particular period, in order to crash them, or keep them largely inaccessible. Counter-information campaigns could also be mounted, supplemented by policy measures and other strategies, including legal ones.

Governments have also been assiduously building up capabilities for monitoring and intercepting the large volume of information that flows on the Internet, including email, which mostly flows through the infrastructure of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Internet exchange points. In the Indian context, the I.T. Act “along with the ISP licences allows for blanket surveillance and also data retention,” says Mr. Abraham.

It is difficult to say if this sort of monitoring and interception is really effective in countering terrorism and other national security threats, says Mr. Zuckerman. “I don't believe trading privacy for security is a fair trade.”

Read the original news in  the Hindu