Filtering on the Fly

By O'Hara, Carolyn

It used to be that when a country wanted to block the Internet, it faced an all-or-nothing choice. Pick something offensive, and block it all. The worst offenders-think China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia-spent years building broad, permanent filtering systems. But that kind of wholesale approach might be falling from favor. Eager to avoid the label of Internet pariah, as well as the economic and political costs of sustained blocking, many authoritarian countries are turning to more subtle solutions. This shift may give the appearance that less of the Internet is being filtered. But, experts warn, it really just means that filtering is becoming increasingly difficult to detect-and perhaps even more effective. "[We're] moving to a situation where filtering is done on a much more ad hoc, on- the-fly basis," says John Palfrey, a professor at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Web access in places such as Bahrain or Belarus may be relatively open most of the time. But governments are developing capabilities that allow them to flip the switch on the content they wish to censor. In some cases, governments simply order state-run Internet Service Providers to block sites. This was the case for media and opposition sites in the run-up to recent elections in Bahrain, Tajikistan, and Uganda.

Some regimes, however, are developing far craftier tactics, contracting out the censorship they desire. It appears that many governments are paying hackers-for-hire to overload sites they do not like. Such "denial of service" attacks render the sites dead, yet allow governments to shield themselves from blame. It is, says Ron Deibert, director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, "a much more sophisticated method in terms of strategy, because it allows you plausible deniability."

Just after former Russian President Vladimir Putin anointed his political successor last December, the Web site of Russian opposition leader Carry Kasparov was hit by such attacks for nearly two weeks. This type of blocking frequently happens just prior to elections. Many experts, for example, suspect that Kirgiz officials arranged for such services in advance of the country's 2005 parliamentary vote. Similarly, experts are suspicious of hacker attacks on blogs, media sites, and opposition forums in the weeks immediately before and after the 2006 presidential election in Belarus. The attacks were echoed in April, when the Web site of Radio Free Europe was brought down just as coverage of the 22nd anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster was going online. These attacks, of course, occurred anonymously, and the culprits are nearly impossible to trace. It seems getting snared in the Web has never been easier-or harder to spot.-Carolyn O'Hara

Matt Siegel is a staff writer at the Moscow Times. Lucy Moore is a researcher and Carolyn O'Hara is a senior editor at FOREIGN POLICY.