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Protesting

Twitter and Facebook Help Protestors Connect

While Tor and Proxy Let Them Hide

Protestors, journalists and bloggers take great risk of going to jail or worse in repressive countries like China, Iran and Moldova. Tech savvy dissidents are considered a threat to the governments because they spread news, organize protests and mobilize international support using the Internet. However, these governments heavily monitor and censor all Internet activity – who’s sending what information and their exact physical location – according to the Internet Protocol address (IP).

So how do they avoid being caught? They evade government censors using software that scrambles their e-mails, hides their physical locations and overrides web sites that have been blocked.

In Iran, Twitter took off during protests calling the recent election unfair and supporting the opposition candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. The protests continue despite riots and police brutality at rallies. Twitter is a great tool for them because the site is not web based, so blocking access to Twitter.com doesn’t keep people from tweeting like it would a regular site.

This is a plus for developing countries, where it is often easier toaccess the Internet from mobile devices like cell phones than it is from computers. At a recent convention on Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ethan Zuckerman – the head of Global Voices, a web site that collects and translates blog posts and news from around the world – said his smart phone works better in Ghana than in the U.S.

In Moldova, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites were used to communicate with one another, spread news and organize rallies.

According to Hamid Tehrani, a blogger for Global Voices, Twitter can be a huge source of misinformation and isn’t very useful in local organizing. Its value comes from the way it quickly spreads news and messages from protesters and political leaders (Mousavi’s campaign has 30,000 followers). Twitter creates pools of information and gets the attention of news outlets around the world.

In Moldova, Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites were used to communicate with one another, spread news and organize rallies protesting the Communist Party’s victory in April’s national election. Protests have died down recently, but the opposition movement successfully got the attention of the rest of the world.

Today China’s government is allowing the foreign media greater access to the current ethnic violence and deadly riots between Han and Uighur in the Xinjiang province. However, the media inside China is tightly controlled. During the first week of July the government blocked the use of Twitter and most recently Facebook. In June, in most parts of China its people were barred access to many of Google’s services – including Gmail, Google apps and Google Talk, according to TechCrunch.

China continues to deny access to certain political sites. Technology news site Daily Bits ranked it first among countries that censor the Internet, saying it has “the most sophisticated censorship system in the world.” For a while, China held the record for jailing the most journalists, however it was recently surpassed by Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

China’s great firewall works through a huge number of servers that monitor Internet use by tracking the individual users. Still, there are limits to China’s censorship. Zuckerman says Tor can be used to get around the firewall and that not all people who try and access forbidden information in China are punished because the population is just too large to control.

Individuals can use Proxy.org servers to hide their IP addresses. This allows web users to visit sites without revealing their computer’s online identity or their own real-world location. Tor also masks the location and identity of Internet users from government officials by transporting information through random pathways from one computer to another until the information reaches its intended destination, allowing people to communicate sensitive information or publish a web site without revealing its location. Tor isn’t invincible (people can analyze the timing of online communication or other methods to get around it) but it allows access to forbidden web sites.

During the first week of July the [Chinese] government blocked the use of Twitter and most recently Facebook.

Dissidents can also make use of a number of downloadable programs that scramble e-mails of sensitive information or video footage or protests to friends abroad, hide IP addresses in html code (directions in computer language), and otherwise undermine the censorship.

Twitter users anywhere can set their location to Tehran, Beijing or Chisinau (the capital of Moldova) and the corresponding time zone to confuse officials looking for local protestors.

Anyone can download Tor and help censored Tor users reach the network remotely by extending the reach of the software. Proxy servers are also widely available to use (try Proxy.org); you’ve probably seen someone use one of these to get around X-Stop on web sites to which school districts have blocked access.

Freer nations are also indirectly helping government officials in repressive countries monitor Internet use. Absolute Software is a Canadian company that provides computer tracking software originally meant for finding stolen computers that reveals a machine’s IP address. China and Iran are now using it to find dissidents.

We can’t tell what the future of digital subversion is, but it’s clear that electronic communication has come a long way from the WWII code-breakers. Dissent and censorship will continue to outpace each other; as long as there have been codes, there have been code-breakers, and people who have created more complicated codes in response.

Disclosure: The writer is an intern at John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which sponsored the M.I.T. conference and has given grants to Global Voices and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

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By Claire Austin

 


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