September 28, 2006
A little late in the day. But here is the full text of an article I wrote for the BBC's Focus on Africa magazine about the (alledged but denied) great Ethiopian blog blockage.
It was written just before the Blogspot blogs re-appeared. And quickly adjusted just afterwards. The version that made it into the October-December issue was, inevitably, a little squished.
One day Ethiopia had one of the busiest and fastest-growing blogging scenes in the whole of Africa. The next, more than two-thirds of its online journals simply disappeared.
The missing websites were a mystery for the thousands of Ethiopian internet users who logged on every day for the regular helpings of irreverent commentary from the likes of ethiopundit (www.ethiopundit.blogspot.com), Weichegud ET Politics! (www.weichegud.blogspot.com) and CoffeeChilliSun (www.coffeechillisun.blogspot.com).
When they typed the familiar web addresses into their browsers from late May onwards, all they got was a server error or a blank screen. Without warning or explanation, their favourite reads had just gone.
For the disappearing bloggers themselves, however, it was less of a puzzle as all the sites remained visible to internet users outside Ethiopia.
They started up their computers and fired out a series of diatribes accusing the Ethiopian government of purposefully blocking them from computer screens inside the country.
Ethiopia, they said, had joined a small but growing list of states – chief among them Tunisia within Africa and China without – that had resorted to using cyber-censorship to control dissident voices on the internet.
The Ethiopian government itself was quick to deny the claims. "There are no websites that have been blocked in Ethiopia," Zemedkhun Tekle from the Ministry of Information said. "If there is a problem accessing websites it is a technical problem, and I can't comment on that." No-one was available for comment from Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC), Ethiopia's state telecoms monopoly.
But the angry messages from Ethiopia's bloggers soon attracted attention from international internet experts who started looking into the claims.
One of them was Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School in the United States and co-founder of the Global Voices (www.globalvoicesonline.org) – a project that tracks blogs internationally.
"Colleagues of mine in Addis ran experiments to check their connectivity to websites around the world," he said.
"I've reviewed the data from the trace routes they've run. The best explanation I can find for the data is that Ethiopia's internet service provider, ETC, is blocking access to certain internet addresses for Blogger's Blogspot service and for several prominent Ethiopian political blogs hosted on their own servers.”
"It's very unlikely that a ‘technical problem' – as ETC claims – would prevent access only to these politically sensitive sites."
Another leading organisation giving the situation its full attention is the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), backed by the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Toronto as well as Harvard and dedicated to documenting internet content filtering by countries and corporations worldwide.
OpenNet experts were half way through a comprehensive scan of Ethiopia's web infrastructure as Focus on Africa went to press. In its African investigations so far, ONI has confirmed pervasive online censorship in Tunisia. Other countries on its watch list include Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Sudan – and now Ethiopia.
"We are finding more and more people that are doing it," said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based ONI researcher.
"Over the past couple of years, Western companies have been exporting the technology to filter the internet more and more. In the future we are going to see more countries swapping the expertise. China, for example, recently gave filtering support to the Sudanese.
"In the long term, these countries are fighting a losing battle. When there is a blockage, people will always find a way around it."
Yet the ONI report on Tunisia concluded that its filtering efforts are “focused and effective” and that "the state employs the SmartFilter software to target and prevent access to four types of material in particular: political opposition to the ruling government, sites on human rights in Tunisia, tools that enable users to circumvent these controls, and pages containing pornography or other sexually explicit content”.
Countries use a variety of methods to stop controversial content reaching their citizens. Some force managers of internet cafes to install commercially available filters. Others set up blockages in the central servers and routers that funnel internet traffic into the country.
The motivations behind cyber-censorship also vary. Some states have ethical problems with pornography or websites promoting race-hate and terrorism. Others with less-than-perfect human rights records want to stop internal access to relevant reports from organisations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.
Back in Ethiopia, the writer behind the blog Carpe Diem Ethiopia (www.carpediemethiopia.blogspot.com) had no idea which methods were used to keep his words off Ethiopian computer screens. But he said he could guess the motivation.
Carpe Diem was one of a large number of Ethiopian blogs that took a strongly anti-government line after last year's controversial elections. They were won by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi's party, but were followed by bloody street fights between armed police and protesters that left more than 80 dead.
"If Meles has done his homework, he would know his blog-blocking venture would be tantamount to placing a band-aid on a shotgun wound,” he said.
“Given the negligible gains blog-blocking brings him, he should conclude his cyber censorship is more harmful to his regime's image than the trouble worth going through.”
The virtual disappearances, his blog entry continued, were a way of reminding online commentators of who was in control.
"Our take on why they're doing it? To show you, the editors of news sites and bloggers as well as our readers that they could. It's simple as that. It says, ‘I can reach you.' It says, ‘You're put on notice: I f***ing hate you'.”
* More than ten Ethiopian blogs hosted on the popular Blogspot platform suddenly reappeared on Ethiopian computer screens as Focus on Africa went to press – three months after their initial disappearance. At least seven well-known anti-government websites, however were still missing. Ethiopian internet users had a lot of reading to catch up with after finding that the resilient Blogspot bloggers had kept on writing through the blackout. As the Ethiopian government had always denied that the blogs were blocked in the first place, there was no official explanation for their re-appearance.
Posted by aheavens at September 28, 2006 5:12 PM