World Walled Web: the national firewalls shutting out the internet
Image credit: Nadia Adhout
In just two decades the internet has gone from being a symbol of ‘no borders’ utopianism to a place where nationalist-inspired ‘cyber-space sovereignty’ is being robustly asserted by countries keen to cordon themselves off from the rest of the world – and the trend is unlikely to peter out any time soon.
When the internet first burned itself into the consciousness of the general public in the mid-1990s it was as an object of globalist wonder. Those strange boinging and hissing noises emanating from your dial-up connection may have sounded ominous, but they were a prelude to a world of awe. The awareness that every computer in the world could be linked up with every other one, transcending time zones and language barriers, made inconveniences like distance and borders seem trifling. We would all soon be gaily surfing on an international superhighway of information, to use the clichés of that time. As for the nation state, it seemed doomed to fade into gradual obscurity now the World Wide Web was here.
Well, it has not worked out like that. Increasingly, netizens are finding their freedoms to move through the web’s silky strands curtailed by robust checkpoints and red-hot firewalls. There have even been warnings that the whole spidery edifice could be knocked badly out of joint as nations strike back by asserting their sovereignty over their particular patch of cyberspace or creating their ‘own internets’. So much for the World Wide Web; in 2018 it better resembles a ‘splinternet’ – a fractured and fragmented online landscape.
“The Freedom Online Coalition (FOC) expresses deep concern over the growing trend of intentional state-sponsored disruptions of access to or dissemination of information online,” a multilateral coalition of governments championing internet freedom declared in a joint statement last month. The group proceeded to condemn “measures intended to render internet and mobile network services inaccessible or effectively unusable for a specific population or location”.
Soon after, a prime example of what they were warning about hit the headlines. Amid noisy public street protests across Iran, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace tightened its already strong grip over that nation’s communications networks.
Twitter and Facebook had already long been banned, and ‘halal’ censorship was the norm, but earlier this year Iranians woke up to find that a swathe of other popular social networks and video-sharing platforms had been newly blocked by the powers that be. They could no longer access Instagram or Telegram, the encrypted messaging app suspected of having become one of the key tools used to coordinate unrest. Downloads of the Tor, or ‘Onion Router’, browser – which cleverly uses layers of encryption and round-the-world relays of data to defend against surveillance and bamboozle the censors – skyrocketed.
The regime responded by slowing down the internet locally by throttling connection speeds, while also barring access to the Tor project’s website and various other sites from which location-masking ‘virtual private networks’ (VPNs) could be obtained. The Supreme Council of Cyberspace also pressured internet service providers to prioritise traffic to government-approved social networks and bump international traffic off the ether.
With enough will and computing nous, it was possible for a few canny activists to find ways around such obstructions, but the regime was never going to be greatly bothered about the computer whizzes who succeeded in circumventing its controls; if enough people were put off so that the protests fizzled out, the operation would be deemed a success. Anyway, one can always round up troublemakers, such as web activists and local cryptographers, later to send a strong message to future miscreants.
“It’s a bit of a cat and mouse game,” Dr Steven Murdoch, a University College London computer science expert who works on the Tor project, told E&T around the time that the protests were in full swing. “There are people in the Tor project whose job it is to come up with new ways to avoid blocking.
“The way that censorship resistance works is that there’s no way to stop someone cutting anything off. What organisations try to do instead is to increase the amount of collateral damage that arises from that. One mechanism for bypassing censorship is to disguise Tor traffic or other types of traffic within normal connections to Google.
“You can block all of Google, all Google services, and that will block access to this mechanism. But that will also cause a lot of people to be unhappy, and the point of governments trying to suppress protests is that they don’t just want to suppress protests, they also want not to create new protests from people who are unable to get their work done.
“Countries can disconnect themselves from the internet, but then they end up being like North Korea and their economies will suffer.”
Countries can indeed disconnect themselves. Josh Mayfield, a cyber-security professional who works for American firewall management company FireMon, believes it is relatively easy for a country like Iran to shut down parts, or even all, of the internet within its borders. He warns it is “not out of the norm” for authoritarian regimes to behave like this.
“If I want to get on a plane and fly to New York, I have to go through security clearance to get on that aircraft,” says Mayfield. “The US government is controlling my access. It’s the same principle here, just they [the Iranian government] are using data packets and deep packet inspection – and whitelisting and blacklisting – to control access.
“What some users will do in response is to set up their own proxy [server]. That way the proxy will communicate outward into another system. But what if the government controls all the proxies? When the state runs the entire infrastructure, there is no alternative for you to circumvent their protected measures.
“From a technical point of view, it’s relatively simple when you own an infrastructure to then turn on and off certain controls that prevent things.”
Research by Oracle Internet Intelligence suggests there have been many dozens of instances of national internet shutdowns in countries across the world every year over the past three years. The organisation’s director of internet research and analysis, David Belson, says Iran is at “significant risk” of internet disconnection as there are fewer than 10 service providers at the country’s international frontier.
The more providers there are at a nation’s border, the more resilient the internet connections in that country are deemed to be. Countries with more than 40 providers at their borders are considered resistant to internet disconnections.
Nation states assessed as being at significant risk of losing their internet connections, whether that be by accident or design, include Belarus, Iceland, Bolivia, Algeria and Morocco. Countries deemed to be at ‘severe’ risk – the highest of four risk levels set by experts – include North Korea, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Central African Republic and Greenland. All these states have just one or two service providers at their international frontiers and are politically or geographically isolated. North Korea notoriously restricts internet access for its residents and operates a limited and nationally specific web system cordoned off from the internet as a whole. Essentially, this acts as a kind of national-level intranet.
Meanwhile, Russia, which is judged to be resistant to net shutdowns, is increasingly articulating its own, peculiarly Russian form of internet culture.
Its Federal Assembly recently voted to require all social-networking sites operating inside Russian territory to store data about Russian citizens on Russian servers. Russia also announced last year that it was developing its own “independent internet infrastructure” – a move designed to quarantine it from possible external threats.
According to Kremlin-managed TV station Russia Today, President Vladimir Putin has set 1 August this year as the date by which this feat must be accomplished.
American predominance over many of the systems underpinning the functioning of the global web is said to have been a spark for the Kremlin’s push to build new digital defences akin to an internet Iron Curtain.
Security researcher Lee Munson explains: “The issue is to do with ICANN [the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers] and the named servers that basically control how the internet works. That’s sort of being babysat by the Americans at present, and the Russians are very keen to get their hands on it. If they don’t, they want to kind of set up their own secondary internet.
“Ownership of this free global tool is very much up for grabs at the moment. Whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends very much on your point of view.”
Emphasising national boundaries and differences in the hitherto globalist world of the web is not necessarily a bad thing, according to some. Mike Barton, one of the UK’s most senior police officers, told E&T last year that democratic nation states should consider “reasserting sovereignty” over the internet within their territories. He argues that the idea of the internet transcending national borders can undermine jurisdictions’ legal systems, subvert democracy and thwart police investigations.
“I think the concept of the World Wide Web without frontiers needs to be challenged,” says Barton, citing concerns over end-to-end encryption provided by WhatsApp and warning that the giants of Silicon Valley are too “remote” to respond to requests from UK law enforcement agencies with sufficient vigour.
Munson, for his part, believes Western countries will, for better or worse, mimic parts of the behaviour of authoritarian states in a bid to ensure their local laws can be effectively enforced and citizens protected.
“It’s already happening,” he says. “There have already been talks between governments and tech companies about blocking access to extremist material. I think blocking people from accessing that is a good thing, but where do you draw the line? Where does the censorship stop?”
Josh Mayfield, speaking from his office in the US, says it was always misguided to think of the internet as a truly worldwide, shared cultural domain. Though the technology might have facilitated internationalism and a blurring of national boundaries, underlying cultural and political differences between countries never went away.
“The internet is a World Wide Web in the same sense that weather is worldwide,” says Mayfield. “Its inflection and its application in specific geographies is contingent. In terms of the internet, it’s contingent on certain political regimes and what they will allow.”
According to Steven Murdoch, the situation is complicated by the fact that different things are illegal in different places, but the organisations actually doing internet blocking are global, and the blocking itself can have global repercussions.
“Currently these organisations follow the laws of the countries they are based in, but they are also to some extent forced to follow the laws of the countries that they have some sort of presence in,” he explains.
The authorities in the US and UK already routinely block or take down some sites, like malware disseminators and those hosting child sex abuse images or selling counterfeit goods. South Korea has taken to preventing underage gamers from playing certain online video games at certain times of the day, while some African countries have blocked access to social media sites in a bid to stop students from cheating in their end-of-year exams by looking at leaked exam papers. For some, even this is a step too far. However, there are fundamental differences between the conduct of governments in relatively open societies and the high levels of interference practised by autocratic regimes.
“It’s possible for the UK government to block WhatsApp [the encrypted messaging service], but they don’t exercise that capability,” explains Mayfield. “The US is much more fragmented, so it’s even more difficult here for Washington to control what users are able to access, and there’s probably even less of a political appetite to do so.
“You can see why the intelligence community would really prefer communication that is not encrypted that they can scoop up and readily database, analyse and use to thwart threats. In the US, of course, we have a constitution which has that First Amendment, which says Congress shall make no law interfering with freedom of speech.
“The government may be disinclined to have its citizens use encryption, but they are prevented from stopping them doing so in a free society. In a dictatorship or a theocratic regime like Iran, citizens don’t carry with them those inherent rights to communication.”
He adds: “I see this as a specific instance of authoritarianism. If you wind the clock back 40 years, the Soviet bloc prohibited emigration, and we see that still in certain places like North Korea. This is just a special instance of inhibiting movement, but instead of physical bodies it’s intangible ideas and words and statements. Authoritarian regimes that control everything are going to prevent that too. They’re just doing what they’ve done for decades.
“The difference in western Europe or the US is the control is all about inbound traffic. Any regulation is to keep out the bad stuff, but what is happening in more authoritarian regimes is they’re trying to keep communication from leaving.”
Which brings us to China. No article about walling off parts of the internet would be complete without mentioning China. The world’s most populous country’s Great Firewall is now almost as famous as its Great Wall. The Financial Times has called the web defence “the world’s biggest non-tariff trade barrier” because of the way it shields Chinese IT companies from global capitalist competition.
“Essentially, they’ve ring-fenced their entire country’s internet connection – both inbound and outbound. The firewall is there as a wall against anything from the outside, and sometimes from the inside too,” one expert on firewalls told E&T.
Firewalls are preconfigured with a set of known algorithms for ‘bad’ types of network traffic. The Great Firewall of China is not a firewall per se. It’s not a discrete device or a piece of software designed to block traffic through a single node; rather, it is a suite of technology linked to every one of the country’s internet interfaces.
Western news media, social networks such as Facebook and sites built on user-generated content, pornography and violent content are among those that are blocked.
China’s already strict stance on the internet has been hardening. Vendors of VPNs used to leapfrog the Great Firewall have reportedly been arrested. Chinese social networking giant Weibo Corp last year caved into government pressure to shut down accounts that had unsettled the one-party state’s rulers in Beijing. Unlicensed television and film content, as well as videos longer than 15 minutes, have also been banned on Weibo’s platforms. China’s ruling Communist Party is now said to be considering obliging ordinary web users to act as censors and police online discussions themselves. If web users taking part in a discussion via WeChat, a Chinese social media app, fail to censor discussions to the authorities’ satisfaction, they could be held legally liable for the content of their joint discussions.
“We’ve seen censorship with very basic online functions such as Google in China,” says Dr Daria Kuss, a cyberpsychology expert from Nottingham Trent University. “Those kinds of restrictions, of course, pose quite a number of questions when we think of human rights.
“In some instances, where people are not able to access information on the internet, their human rights are being compromised. I’m very much in favour of people being able to access information – as long as that information is reasonable information.”
However, in an acknowledgement that the right to free expression is finite, she adds: “Things such as censoring child pornography on the internet are very reasonable. Censoring extremely violent and sexual content for children is also reasonable.”
Ultimately, China’s bid to cut itself off from the World Wide Web could prove to be an act of self-harm. When firms are deprived of the convenience of using a frictionless international communications network, the economy takes a hit. Walls can protect but also impoverish.
“Every media organisation is aware there are always challenges with false information or incomplete information and so on, but it’s never the right answer to completely shut down information,” says Melody Patry from international internet advocacy group Access Now.
Asked whether she believes there is ever a case for curtailing or limiting people’s access to the internet, she replies: “There are different opinions, including in the digital rights community, on this. According to one of my colleagues, the only instance when authorities could justifiably shut down connectivity and access to the cellular network and the internet is if they’ve got confirmed intelligence of an explosive device that would be triggered by a phone call or a text message. But that should always be very targeted, local and proportionate – and very timely in its implementation. And the authorities should always be very transparent about this particular shutdown and why it was implemented.
“Obviously as a digital rights organisation supporting freedom of expression we would always be very cautious about any kind of shutdowns, especially those done in the name of security or public order.
“What we have noticed in the past two years is an increase in shutdowns worldwide, and security and order were among the top justifications used – sometimes to cover attempts to silence dissent.”