Imagine that your country's government decides to switch off the web. They may well have their reasons – communism, coup d'etat, imminent thermonuclear war – maybe all three in some cases. Regardless, let us assume that they have a misanthropic intent such that The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. How would one go about one's everyday twittering in the face of such a disaster? This Entry looks at two examples of a country separated from the Internet and the way its people responded.
Late at night on 27 January, 2011, the Egyptian government cut off almost all Internet traffic in and out of the country, using legislation to force the four main providers to pull the plug1. This followed two days of anti-government protests demanding the removal of President Mubarak, Egypt's incumbent leader for 30 years, inspired by a successful revolt in Tunisia just weeks earlier. Hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets, leading the government to block the social websites used by the protestors. Though this forced the sites to be reached by circuitous routes (such as smartphone applications and diverts from other sites), it achieved little else. Cutting off all access was probably an act of desperation – a good example of slamming the stable door once the horse has bolted. It did, however, have some interesting results as Egyptians quickly found a multitude of ways around the blockade.
Due to the need to keep businesses and the Egyptian stock exchange connected to the wider world, not every line had been blocked. Back in the days of dial-up, these remaining connections would have been difficult to share. Now, however, an abundance of wireless routing equipment makes it easy for just about anyone to share broadband across the local area. Those with passwords protecting their home or business networks were encouraged to remove them and share whatever access they had.
Those making use of these connections had another problem to overcome. The government had also shut down the country's Domain Name Servers, which have the vital role of converting web addresses into the numerical locations of servers. Disabling the DNS system forces web users to type in the numerical locations themselves; however, such information was easily passed around and later made its way onto unofficial servers which took over the job.
Meanwhile, old technology also found a role. While broadband and mobile telecom providers were being leant upon to shut down, Egypt's landlines remained largely unaffected. With the help of net activists, snatches of audio from phone calls from Egypt found their way onto Twitter, and Google soon followed with a 'speak-to-tweet' service. Lists of international phone numbers that connected to dial-up modems also began to circulate, with some Internet providers in other countries waiving their fees to help Egyptian protestors keep in contact. Another anachronism, the fax machine, began to play a similar role. One European organisation campaigning for Internet freedom went a step further still, offering to transcribe any ham radio messages it received, be they in spoken word or Morse code.
Overall, the Internet blockade failed to curb the protest and, though the uprising and clashes between pro- and anti-government groups were continuing, Egypt's Internet access miraculously reappeared on the morning of 2 February, 2011.
The People's Republic of China is well known for censoring its population's Internet access to a degree that is tantamount to blockade: only government-friendly material is available and access is tightly controlled. This censorship has even been supported by various multinationals – a US Congressional hearing in 2006 admonished Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Cisco for their complicity. Raids on the email accounts of human rights activists nearly led Google to withdraw from China and led to much criticism from the USA; however, the Internet giant stayed and now provides Chinese users with a link to their uncensored Hong Kong site. Yahoo, on the other hand, were accused of providing Chinese authorities with details leading to the arrests of web activists, and in 2007 ended up settling a lawsuit brought by the activists concerned.
And the acts of western companies form just one aspect of a huge operation to control information. Internet cafés in China are licensed and fitted with standardised surveillance equipment. Both individuals and corporations are expected to self-censor their web output or face serious repercussions. Websites carrying references to Falun Gong and Tibet are permanently blocked, and any topical coverage of contentious issues is also conveniently unavailable. Flickr and Youtube both went offline in China shortly before the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
All this is part of a huge operation, known variously as Operation Golden Shield and 'The Great Firewall of China'. There are five main Internet connections between the People's Republic and the world at large, and all five are monitored closely for content using keyword detection software. Tens of thousands of 'Internet police' monitor emails and websites. Anyone would think that it would be nigh on impossible to bypass such a system... and they'd be wrong.
Naturally, some of the tricks used in Egypt also apply in China: text messages, fax machines and ham radios are under less scrutiny than the web. However, a high-tech fightback is also underway, thanks in part to the proxy server. Proxy servers allow users to access and upload content indirectly, with the server acting as a waypoint between the user and any parties interested in silencing them. Software now available to Chinese web users goes much further, fragmenting and encrypting data before sending it out of the country via a multitude of servers. The result is uncensored web access, and the freedom to speak up without fear of imprisonment. Not only is such software difficult to defeat: it's also continuously improving thanks to inside help. With such a large force working on Golden Shield, it's not surprising that some disagree with its goal. Some of China's Internet police even use the software to defeat their own blockade whilst browsing at home, so it's no surprise that they're helping the software engineers stay one step ahead in the arms race.
So, what does it take to survive an Internet blockade? A modicum of sharing, a mixture of old technology and new technology, and help from outside forces keen to maintain your access to free speech. Beyond that, it's worth noting that the world existed and tyrants were overthrown for a long time without the Information Superhighway – despots and dictators should bear in mind that while the Internet might be stifled, the human spirit is something else entirely.