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Internet Censorship and Nose-Thumbing
Ethan Zuckerman, 30 Jul 08

There’s understandable outcry about revelations that reporters covering the Olympics in Beijing will be using censored internet connections which block access to sites on sensitive topics, like human rights and Falun Gong. In classic fashion, a Beijing Olypics spokesman, Sun Weide, offered statements that verge on self-parody: “I would remind you that Falun Gong is an evil fake religion which has been banned by the Chinese government… I said we would provide sufficient, convenient internet access for foreign journalists to report on the Olympics…”

Andrew Lih points to another major constraint on internet access - the cost. His wife is staying in the Media Village in Beijing, and discovered a pricing structure for ASDL connections that beggars belief:

* 512/512 it costs 7712.5 RMB (1,131.20 USD);
* 1M/512 it costs 9156.25 (1,342.95 USD);
* 2M/512 it costs a whopping 11,700 RMB (1,716.05 USD).

Those costs are for a single month’s worth of access. I guess if you’re planning on uploading videos from the games, you’re making a pretty serious investment in your filtered bandwidth. As Lih points out, not a big deal for the NBCs of the world, but tough for smaller entities.

I’m sitting in a conference room at Microsoft right now and remembering just how much filtered internet sucks. I realized that most filesharing ports were blocked when I tried to download footage from the last day of the Nagoya basho - no go, without tunneling through ssh or via Tor… not something I really wanted to do. This morning, as we tried to set up a backchannel via IRC, we discovered those ports were blocked, so folks are now IRC’ing via Mibbit.

The temptation in these cases, I think, is to find creative ways to break the filtering and thumb your nose at the authorities. At the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia - ludicriously held in a nation that extensively censors the Internet - a favorite game was to use proxies to evade censorship, then photograph the evasion with a WSIS backdrop visible. The photo above is of me loading the (censored) website of Citizen Summit, held by a Tunisian human rights organization in opposition to the summit with the map of the WSIS booths in the background. (I don’t think there’s any utility at all to this sort of nose-thumbing, but it does feel really good when you’re frustrated by a situaltion.)

I’ll be interested to see what sorts of creative nose-thumbing press folks in Beijing will engage in. For folks heading to Beijing, BoingBoing has a lovely list of possible circumvention strategies, a few of which will work on the Great Firewall. CitizenLab’s guide to Circumvention is probably the best single resource on the topic - it’s available as a PDF. To offer a very quick piece of advice - if you work for a news organization that has even a minimum of tech resources you want to either set up an instance of Psiphon or learn how to tunnel your net connections via a SSH connection.

Happy nosethumbing.

This piece originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's excellent personal blog My Heart's In Accra.

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