net.wars: Forbidden fruits

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 September 2002

It's been a good week for "look what those repressive foreigners are doing" stories.

Wendy M Grossman

First, there was the bit about the Greek government banning online games in public Internet cafes because it was the only way they could think of ban their real target, online gaming, that is to say, gambling.

Then the news came out that the Chinese government had blocked Google and Altavista as part of its effort to keep citizens away from sites it deemed inappropriate.

It sounds like a smart strategy: if you block the search engines, no one will be able to find anything, and they'll all get so bored and frustrated that they'll go back to watching government-sponsored television. But according to ComputerWire, the thinking seems to have been more subtle than that, in that the objection to Google and Altavista's services were the areas in which they behave as proxies, making it possible for users to access sites they couldn't have seen otherwise.

In Altavista's case, the target seems to have been the translation engine, which sits between the user and the site, and in Google's case it was the incredibly useful caching facility. (If you've never clicked on "cached" under a link to material that's been removed, you should - they can often retrieve it.) The odd thing is that neither of these services was designed to defeat would-be censors, unlike Lance Cottrell's Anonymizer or the Free Haven Project . Or elgooG , the Google mirror site into which you type backwards (and get rather outdated results, if my own name is anything to go by). You knew there was a usefulness to being fascinated by writing backwards as a kid, didn't you?

China has apparently lifted the ban on Google now, but this may well be only a temporary solution to a permanent problem: can a government control what its citizens see online given a Net full of geeks trying to defeat those efforts and a world full of kibitzers criticizing its every move? Arguably, the answer is yes - provided that the citizens themselves support the effort.

What's more worrying is the role that the increasingly large and dominant commercial services are likely to play in such an effort. Yahoo!'s Chinese subsidiary and other Chinese Internet portals, for example, agreed in July to remove or block content that the Chinese government deemed unacceptable. It seems a dangerous pledge to sign, as it seems to commit Yahoo! to being a content policeman, something you'd think a commercial service would want to avoid. If you're not policing the content, it's easier to say you're not responsible for it.

In any event, those of us in the Western world should avoid being too smug. We may manage to avoid government censorship -- child pornography excepted -- but we're likely to be as much or more at risk from corporate censorship. In The Future of Ideas Lawrence Lessig has written about the dangers of content-based routing that will allow cable companies to give preferential access to their own content. As all of the entertainment industry, from TV networks to record labels, seek increasingly to turn the Net into a tightly controlled broadcast medium of the kind they understand and profit from, we should be concerned that the tools a government can develop can be deployed with far greater efficacy by commercial organizations.

At the moment, the opposite of search engines is the newer P2P services. I've been fooling around for the last week or two with a kind of moral file-sharing system, the Digital Archive Project . Moral, because although the trade is in copyrighted material, the rule is that anything that is being commercially released for purchase is removed from the system. The software DAP depends on - eDonkey - is interesting because unlike Gnutella downloads, which depend on a single stream, eDonkey wanders around looking for bits of the file you're looking for and slowly assembles it. It can take many days to download a single 350Mb DivX file, but it's nonetheless effective: I now have 36 half-hour episodes of the sitcom Newsradio on my hard drive. I don't know where they came from or really how they got there. I know they're valid because the system includes a hashing facility so you can check the files.

P2P services of this type will be much harder to block because they're so diffuse. Napster was easy: centralized server. Take it out (or make it police its content), and gone. Gnutella is a little less easy, but still doable: the targets are going to be the people with the biggest libraries of shared files, something you can see by browsing a host via whatever Gnutella software you have up and running. From there, it's a matter of getting an ISP to identify (from all those logs Europe is going to make it retain) that user. EDonkey-style P2P is much more of a moving target, despite the central Web site and IRC channel that clue in new users.

The difficulty is that the Net gives such large organizations - governments, the entertainment industry - so much motivation to keep finding better tools to suppress content. I mean, truthfully, the answer for the owners of Newsradio is to put the damn thing out on DVD so we can all buy it. The answer for the Chinese government is much harder. It's their country, after all. What Westerners should maybe be embarrassed about is that the information we want "illegal" access to is so ... trivial.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).