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The End of Internet Freedom?

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Some governments are trying to stem the free flow of information.

A global decline in Internet media freedom is accelerating, according to a report from watchdog organization Freedom House.

Credit: The Spectator (U.K.)

A basic and longstanding assumption about the Internet is that it promotes the free flow of information. Although a few countries have imposed strict controls over their infrastructure (China and Cuba are among the most glaring examples) a heavy-handed approach has never taken root.

However, times, and thinking, are changing.

According to a 2018 report from independent watchdog organization Freedom House, which examined 65 countries covering 87 percent of the world's Internet users, a global decline in Internet media freedom is accelerating. In the past year alone, Freedom House reported, the free flow of information declined in 26 countries, while only 19 made gains, most of them minor. In addition, 18 countries have increased their use of surveillance technologies over the past year, often by limiting independent oversight and weakening encryption.

For example, in November 2019, Iran imposed massive Internet shutdowns in response to political protests. Five months earlier, Russia introduced a "sovereign Internet" law that fundamentally reshapes its network infrastructure, enabling tighter state controls and allowing Russia's Internet to operate even if it's cut off from the rest of the world.

"There is world-wide increase in government-imposed Internet control and censorship," observes Sergey Sanovich, a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University.

Adds Roya Ensafi, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan and founder of the Censored Planet Lab, a research lab at the University of Michigan that investigates different types of privacy and security violations on the Internet: "Governments are using new and more advanced methods to invoke censorship."

Online Iron Curtain

Russia's sovereignty law is a prime example of how the Internet is changing. Although the initiative is designed to provide greater autonomy and protection to Russia during a domestic or foreign-based cyberattack, it also could be used to quash political dissent. "On face value, the program has technical merits, but it also has the potential to cause significant harm to the rights of individuals," says Alp Toker, executive director of NetBlocks, a private organization that tracks digital rights, cybersecurity, and Internet governance.

Russia now requires all local ISPs to route traffic through special servers managed by Roskomnadzor, the state-run entity that regulates the country's telecom providers. These servers can then act as kill-switches and disconnect Russia from external connections while re-routing Internet traffic inside Russia's own iInternet space, Runet. "The question," Toker says, "is what Russia does with the infrastructure and what happens beneath the application layer."

Last August, authorities in Russia restricted some mobile access for several hours. This made it difficult for political dissenters to connect to networks and share words and images of alleged violence perpetrated by authorities, Toker says. Although the technical challenges of electronically walling off Russia are huge because, unlike China, the country didn't build an insular Internet from the start, the law clearly supports greater central control and censorship.

"Although Russian leaders have stated that they intend to use the sovereignty law as more of a doomsday device in case Russia is cut off the Internet from the outside, the tools for internal control are now in place and it's not unusual for bureaucracies to expand and blacklists to grow with them," Sanovich says.

Out of Controls

The digital cat and mouse game that revolves around countries imposing controls and trying to evade detection grows daily. Governments increasingly tap data poisoning techniques to intentionally alter packets; SNI, DNS, and other types of filtering and manipulation; deep packet inspection technology (DPI), and AI techniques to spot encrypted data. "The tools have become widely available and cheap to deploy," Ensafi says.

Organizations like NetBlocks and researchers such as Ensafi closely monitor events. They perform regular Internet-wide scanning for specific behaviors such as the RFC 862- Echo protocol, analyze the timing and location of disruptions, detect when down sites go live again, and rely on human feedback to detect network manipulation. Not surprisingly, the task grows more challenging as countries, like Russia, assume greater control of their infrastructure.

The Internet controls a country imposes typically mirror traditional information controls, Toker says. "If a country has a legal framework that allows authorities to censor radio transmissions for short periods of time, or block out part of television transmission, that will also reflect in the way the country temporarily throttles or shuts down the Internet at the physical layer. If a country seeks to permanently block online media sites and restrict access over extended periods, they are more likely to rely on targeted censorship techniques such as DNS poisoning or SNI filtering."

The ability to control and censor the Internet will certainly grow in the months and years ahead, experts say. Already, governments are deploying more censorship tools on decentralized networks, Ensafi says. In addition, she expects to see more countries establish mechanisms that force takedowns or allow governments to collude with server sites to block content, along with a greater use of client-side spyware to spot and block specific traffic, including encrypted data.

Concludes Sanovich, "Governments are looking for ways to expand their power and influence. They realize that the Internet is the most efficient way to assert their authority. It extends beyond censorship. They're developing more powerful offensive and defensive weapons to expand their capabilities."

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR, USA.


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