Tag Archives: Censorship

New Course on Digital Democracy (Updated)

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, my colleague Joshua Goldstein and I are teaching a new full-semester undergraduate course on Digital Democracy. The course is being offered as part of Tufts University‘s interdisciplinary Media and Communication Studies Program.

The course will address the following topics:

  • Introduction to Digital Democracy
  • American Democracy
  • Global Democracy
  • Media and Democracy
  • Guest Speakers: Digital Democracy
  • Bloggers Rights
  • Digital Censorship and Democracy
  • Human Rights 2.0
  • Digital Activism
  • Digital Resistance
  • Digital Technology in Developing World
  • Class Presentations

The course wiki along with the syllabus is available here. We regularly update the syllabus so do check back. Feedback on the syllabus is also very much welcomed.

We are particularly keen for suggestions vis-a-vis recommended material (websites, online videos, links, books, papers etc.) and in-class activities.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Digital Media & Repressive Regimes: Media Tactics

The second panel focused on the media tactics of regimes and opponents. Xiao Qiang gave the first presentation which addressed Chinese digital media controls and access to public expresssion. Rebecca MacKinnon presented the findings of her research on China’s censorship 2.0: how companies censor bloggers. The third talk, by Mahmood Enayat, focused on resistance 2.0: power and counter-power in Persian websphere.


“In china,” says Xiao, the digital battle “is about controlling information space, both via censorship and propaganda.” The Internet is not just a medium, it’s a social space where netizens organize into communities, share, etc. The Chinese government seeks to control the “main melody” via censorship and disinformation. So Chinese cyberspace is a control space.

How do some Chinese seek to circumvent this control? A number of official Chinese journalists actually lead double-lives; working for the state-controlled media during the day, and blogging or participating in BBS forums at night. Political satire (“eGao”) is also used in response to Chinese media control. There is also an important gap in control between local and central authorities in terms of implementing censorship rules; there is also a timing factor that contributes to the control gap.


Rebecca MacKinnon is a leading China expert, having been posted with CNN in Beijing for 9 years and now teaches in Hong King. “There are different kinds of Internet censorship,” says Rebecca, reminding us as well that the Great Firewall of China which filters websites outside China was coind by bloggers. In addition to filtering, Chinese authorities are known to delete websites, shut down domestic sites as well as data centers. Multinational Companies are complicit in Chinese internet censorship.

Rebecca and her team decided to test just how censored China’s different blogging websites really are. Using paragraphs with sensitive political language, they manually tested 15 blog hosting websites to test what content  were being filterred. The team used 108 different types of content and found huge variation in blogging platforms censoring, from one site filtering 56% content to another filtering only 0.9%; of the same content. There is also evidence that the filtering is not always automatic and indeed includes manual intervention.

In one interesting example, Rebbecca mentions a blog post by a former high-level Chinese political adviser. The post, entitled: “Letter to my Son: wishing for multiparty democracy in China.” The blog was highly political but did not use inflammatory language and therefore was not filtered. Out of curiousity, Rebecca copied and pasted articles from the main state-owned media, Xinhua, and found that some of the state’s own articles would get censored!

So why do we see so much variation in Internet filtering within China?

  • Instructions to companies from city or provincial state council inforation office internet section, interpreted diffently;
  • Different methods desvised for implementation;
  • Relationship between company management, investors and regulatory bodies;
  • Manager/editor’s relationship with local state council;

In conclusion, the Great Chinese Firewall is only part of Chinese Internet censorship. Domestic censorship is not centralized. Domestic web censorship is outsourced by government to the private sector. Censorship is inconsistent and it is usually possible to post your content on one platform, for at least a while.

What are the implications of this study? We need larger scale studies of domestic web censorship (including chat rooms, social networking sites, instant-messaging, mobile services, etc.). Unlike automated filtering tests, these tests require manual testing and constant analysis by Chinese speakers with contextual knowledge. We need surveys of web service company employees; also of users and bloggers about their experience.

Implication for activism: circumvention is important but its not the solution to the whole censorship problem. We need to educate bloggers and netizens about strategies to deal with censorship.


Mahmood Enayat from the Oxford Internet Institute gave an entertaining presentation on the use of digital media in Iran. (NB: my notes for this section self-deleted, don’t ask). In any case, Mahmood’s presentation was engaging. He discussed the role of underground music one the one hand and the use of YouTube. My apologies to Enayat for this being so short.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Iran: Mullahs Impose Restrictions on SMS

Mobile phone users in Iran who wish to use the SMS feature on their mobile phones will now be required to apply for security clearance by the Ministry of of Intelligence and Security.

Sending SMS deemed contrary to national security will be punishable by law. Any change of address by the subscriber of the service must be reported promptly to the relevant authorities. It is the security agents who decide which SMS are in breach of national security .

In October, A number of senior officials of the Iranian regime’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), the main body for imposing censorship, have expressed its deep concern over the use of SMS messaging by the Iranian Resistance’s network inside Iran (source).

Some 20 million text messages are sent every day in Iran according to some sources. Will the new regulation have a significant impact on that number? If so, will the regime care at all about the loss of revenue?

Patrick Philippe Meier

Gold Medals for Beating the Chinese Firewall

And the gold medals for beating the Chinese Firewall go to:

  • Witopia for securing your wireless communications.
  • WASTE again for allowing you to create a decentralized and secure private mesh network using an unsecured network, such as the internet.
  • Off-the-Record Messaging for enabling you to have private conversations over instant messaging by providing encryption, authentication, deniability and perfect forward secrecy.
  • Freedom Stick for providing you with a flash drive pre-loaded with software which will secure the communications of any computer it is slotted into. The drive uses the TOR network to cloak your connections, routing traffic around the world through anonymous computers, thus avoiding detection.
  • da Vinci for inspiring this clever circumvention of the Chinese Firewall.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Zimbabweans turn to Blogs and SMS

The Associated Press reports that Zimbabweans are increasingly going online and using SMS to “share stories of life and death in a country where independent traditional media have been all but silenced, and from which reporters from most international media have been barred.” Zimbabwe’s bloggers are mainly opposition activists who “provide valuable independent information and can even make the news.” Some additional excerpts of interest:

Harare-based Kubatana is a network of nonprofit organizations that runs a blogging forum. The forum relies on 13 bloggers in Zimbabwe, who e-mail submissions to an administrator who posts them to the site. The network also reaches beyond the Web by sending text messages to 3,800 subscribers.

In late June, the “This is Zimbabwe” blog started a letter-writing campaign against a German firm that was supplying paper for the sinking Zimbabwean dollar. After about a week, the international media picked up the story and the company, Giesecke & Devrient, announced it would stop dealing with Zimbabwe.

Another typical posting simply lists names of victims of political violence, each accompanied by one sentence on how the person was beaten to death.

In many cases it’s impossible to tell who is doing the postings because the risks are so great. Government eavesdroppers are believed to be roaming the Web and intercepting cell phone calls, especially after a law was passed last year allowing authorities to monitor phone calls and the Internet. Deputy Information Minister Bright Matonga said the legislation was modeled after counter-terrorism legislation in America and the U.N.

Only the state-run TV and radio stations and The Herald, a government newspaper, provide daily news in Zimbabwe. There are no independent radio stations broadcasting from within the country. Journalists without hard-to-come-by government accreditation find it hard to operate.

For those who are online, near-daily power outages, followed by power surges, can make the Web an inconsistent means of communicating and gathering information. Cell phone service is also inconsistent at best; it can sometimes take hours to send text messages.

SW Radio Africa, a station based outside London that broadcasts into Zimbabwe, sends texts to 25,000 listeners a day, and they are adding about a thousand numbers each week. And it’s not just one-way. The radio station has a local phone number in Zimbabwe so listeners can send text messages or leave voicemail messages without long distance charges, and then someone from the station can call them back. Radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe from outside are forced to broadcast on multiple frequencies to avoid being jammed by the government.

A recently imposed import duty on newspapers charges a 40 percent tax for independent voices like the newspaper The Zimbabwean, published abroad and shipped in and available on the Web. Weekly circulation has recently dropped from 200,000 to 60,000 and the paper has stopped publishing its Sunday edition.

See my post here for information on the Dial-Up Radio project in Zimbabwe.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Beating the Chinese Censors: da Vinci redux (Updated)

This piece, “Chinese Bloggers Scale The ‘Great Firewall’ in Riot’s Aftermath,” published in the Wall Street Journal, got little attention in the usual suspects of blogs, so I’ve decided to flag it since it also speaks directly to the notion of iRevolution. Following recent riots earlier this month, government censors deleted all online posts that provided information related to the unrest and deactivated the accounts of those authoring the posts.

So bloggers on forums such as Tianya.cn have taken to posting in formats that China’s Internet censors, often employees of commercial Internet service providers, have a hard time automatically detecting. One recent strategy involves online software that flips sentences to read right to left instead of left to right, and vertically instead of horizontally.

China’s sophisticated censorship regime—known as the Great Firewall—can automatically track objectionable phrases. But “the country also has the most experienced and talented group of netizens who always know ways around it,” said an editor at Tianya, owned by Hainan Tianya Online Networking Technology Co., who has been responsible for deleting posts about the riot.

I find this particularly insightful vis-a-vis my dissertation research in which I basically ask: which side—state or society—is likely to win this cyber game of cat-and-mouse? Beijing can impliment all kinds of sophisticated (and expensive) censorship tools—courtesy of US companies such as Cisco—but these can so easily be circumvented by simply doing what Leonardo da Vinci did 500 years ago, i.e., writing backwards. To this end, I would argue that digital activists do have an asymmetric advantage in the information race.

Indeed, some digital activists in China also used Twitter to share information, which “delivers information more quickly than censors can block it,” to post information on the riots. There are other ways to circumvent Chinese censors:

Mr. Zhou also has posted recordings of interviews with rioters and local residents on his blog, which is hosted on a server outside China. He also hosts alternative links to his site that use technical loopholes to get around blocks placed on accessing his site inside China.

San Xiao, the online name of a reporter for a local newspaper in Guizhou, said he decided to post reports online that censors wouldn’t allow in the newspaper. On Monday, he wrote a blog post titled, “Let’s see how far the post can go before it gets censored and deleted,” which collected details about the riot from several different sources. By Tuesday, his original post on the Chinese Internet destination qq.com—plus many copies on other sites—had been removed.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to get this information out, and I will try all means,” he wrote in an email.

The Chinese government is likely to be equally resolute given the stakes. Question is, who is likely to win this digital arms race? Will the Information Revolution give way to countless mini iRevolutions the aggregate impact of which will lead to more democratic and transparent governance? I hope to have an answer when I complete my dissertation.

Update: See this follow up post by Global Voices on why the Wall Street Journal got it wrong. GV argues that traditional media has a much stronger role than an individual blogger.

Patrick Philippe Meier

China, Olympics and Satellite Imagery

Will international attention on the Beijing Olympics impact the government’s policy on censorship? Some argue that the Olympics create a unique window of opportunity for digital activists while others maintain that Beijing’s grip on information communication is more effective than ever. The recent 2008 study, Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering, states that “China institutes by far the most extensive filtering regime in the world, with blocking occurring at multiple levels of the network and spanning a wide range of topics.” Little surprise then that neither Chinese Google Maps nor Microsoft’s Chinese Virtual Earth include high resolution satellite imagery of China.

I was therefore amused to learn from Stefan Geens that China’s national broadcasting television (CCTV) is inadvertently providing full access to high-resolution satellite imagery of China via a website that maps the location of football stadiums for Euro 2008.

As Stefan concludes:

Once you’re zoomed in on an Austrian stadium, there is nothing keeping you from heading on over to China and zooming in on your house or keeping tabs on the People’s Army.

In other words, the Chinese state’s own broadcasting organization thinks that the state-mandated censorship of maps is useless and in need of circumventing. This example also illustrates the ease with which such circumventing can be achieved, and the long-term futility of restricting access to mapping tools from behind the Chinese firewall.

I’m waiting to hear back from a colleague based in China to find out whether the map is still fully accessible within the country.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Block it Like Beijing

A good friend of mine works as a professional jazz singer in Shanghai. She recently tried to access my iRevolution blog but without success. However, she did note that Wikipedia is finally accessible as well as other blog sites. The Great Chinese Firewall appears to be filtering my blog. Shucks. In better news though, I successfully defended my dissertation proposal today, so I can finally get back to blogging on a more regular basis.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Bringing the Tech Back In

During one of today’s panel Q & A sessions at the Politics 2.0 conference, I suggested that coercive states were becoming increasingly savvy in their ability to monitor, control and censor information. I added that the technology for Internet filtering, to cite one example, was becoming more effective and widely used as confirmed by the Berkman Center‘s recent empirical study on internet filtering. The response from the panel: technology is not as important as the underlying motivation behind the uses of technology.

I understand the point, but am nevertheless concerned that technology is being swept under the Web 2.0 rug so easily, just like the role of the coercive state has not made a strong appearance at the conference as per my previous blog. Again, participants at this conference are necessarily a self-selected group. Few of us, however, have a background in software engineering and computer science. This may be why we all too easily dismiss the significance of technology in our presentations.

The Berkman book entitled “Access Denied” includes a chapter on “Tools and Technology of Internet Filtering” by Steven Murdoch and Ross Anderson. In this chapter, the authors identify the following techniques:

  • TCP/IP Header Filtering
  • TCP/IP Content Filtering
  • DNS Tampering
  • HTTP Proxy Filtering
  • Hybrid TCP/IP and HTTP Proxy
  • Denial of Service (DNS)
  • Domain Deregistration
  • Server Takedown
  • Surveillance

This should give us pause before we minimize the impact of technology on state-society relations. What is also lacking from the panel presentations is the perspective of the private sector and the profit-motivated interests in the technologies that implement techniques listed above. Cisco and other companies are catering to increasing demand for data security. As long as there is a market, the tools will be enhanced accordingly.

Of course, there is also a market for technology and software to counter monitoring and censorship. However, this only goes to show that technology in and of itself does matter. This in no way implies technological determinism, it simply suggests that scholars of Politics 2.0 should become more familiar with existing techniques and technologies if they are going to make sweeping statements about technology.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Politics 2.0 Conference: Bringing the State Back In

Finally a panel at the Politics 2.0 conference that brings the state back in: “Surveillance, Censorship and Democracy.” The panel included three papers, two on Singapore and one on Russia. This was for me the best panel of the conference thus far as it was more balanced. The presenters were also very well informed about the ability of the state to control the social web. In addition, the arguments presented by the respective panelists were intellectually satisfying as they were not limited to simply scratching the surface of Web 2.0.

Sarah Oates from the University of Glasgow presented her paper on the Internet and Democracy in Russia. Sarah is an expert scholar on Russia and speaks the language fluently. Her wealth of knowledge about the country was readily apparent in the quality of her presentation. Sarah was very clear that the Russian state is using the blogosphere as another method of media influence, control and co option. In fact, in the run up to the most recent elections, a widespread number of pro-government messages appeared on numerous blogs. She concluded her presentation with the following comment:

The Internet is not changing Russian politics; rather, Russian politicians are subverting the Web for their own interests, which parallels the state’s influence on traditional media in Russia. The Web is not colonizing Russian politics but rather the other way around.

The two presentations on Singapore were also superb, critical and well-informed. Cherian George of Nanyang Technological University made compelling arguments to demonstrate that governments like Singapore were more effective in their control of information by using calibrated coercion. By that, Cherian means employing a strategic self-restrained use of force, which is a crucial factor in consolidating authoritarian rule. He noted that the means of state coercion vis-a-vis the control of information has become less visible over time.

While physical force and state control of the media have been the traditional means by which repressive regimes have sought to maintain a grip on the information revolution, today’s tactics are predominantly focuses on technological fixes such as filtering and also on economic incentives. Cherian gave a fascinating example of the latter tactic as used in Singapore. The government has demonstrated that a state does not necessarily need to own, or directly control, the media. Instead, the government of Singapore simply ensured that media companies were publicly listed and had a large number of shareholders. This in effect forces company directors or CEOs to focus on profits as opposed to editorial content. “A newspaper that focuses on profit is by definition a conservative newspaper,” Cherian argued. His paper is available here.

The third presentation was on the blogosphere in Singapore. As I have already blogged on the application of social network analysis by internet and democracy scholars here and here, I’ll leave it at that.

Patrick Philippe Meier