October 8, 2007
You block Blogspot, I block Boing Boing
In Ethiopia, you start suspecting your website has been blocked when it suddenly disappears from your screen. Your suspicion grows as you try to log on from different internet connections at different times of day, during weekends, public holidays - and the site is still gone. You don't bother phoning Ethiopian Telecommunications Corp (ETC) to ask what has happened because you know what the monopoly operator will say - the official position remains that there is no online censorship in Ethiopia. You never really know for certain that you've been blocked because - given the state of ETC's overloaded circuits - who knows, it might still be a technical glitch. But over time, as your site fails to reappear, you gradually accept that your site has been blocked. (At least this was the situation when I left the country earlier this year. Has anything changed?)
In Sudan, you know you site has been blocked when a big message fills your screen saying: "Sorry, this site has been blocked by National Telecommunication Corporation" (see image). It even gives you links to follow if you want to protest about the blockage or, better still, suggest other sites that deserve to be blocked. As censorship systems go, it is pretty open.
So why the difference?
The most obvious reason is that the two countries are blocking for different reasons.
The OpenNet Initiative (ONI) recently identified Ethiopia as the only country in sub-Saharan Africa to carry out widespread blocking (although Zimbabwe seems to be joining in now as well). In a report on the region it said:
ONI research has found that Ethiopia focuses its filtering primarily on political bloggers with oppositional views by blocking two major blog services, blogspot.com and nazret.com. This blanket ban of these blogging domains results in extraordinary overblocking, filtering thousands of Weblogs that have no relevance to politics or Ethiopia. In addition, the government blocks Web sites of opposition parties, sites representing ethnic minorities, sites for independent news organizations, and sites promoting human rights in Ethiopia.
Sudan, on the other hand, is one of a large collection of North African and Middle Eastern countries that blocks for cultural and religious reasons before political ones. According to OpenNet:
Most of the sites targeted for blocking are selected because of cultural and religious concerns about morality...Iran, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen ... not only extensively filter political content but also pervasively block content that is perceived to be religiously, culturally, or socially inappropriate.
Political blocking is something you do in secret - it is almost always a covert attack on your opposition enemies to undermine their support. That is why state-run Ethiopian Telecoms, despite open ridicule, sticks to its story that the disappearance of opposition blogs is just a very targeted "technical problem".
Religious blocking is something you do out in the open - it is almost always a proud and principled stand against what you see as corrupting influences on the internet. That is why Sudan's telecoms regulater practically boasts about its blocking.
So, one more puzzle. Why is the light-hearted and non-corrupting uber-blog Boing Boing blocked in Sudan (see pic), while it is open to all readers in Ethiopia?
That is to do with another difference between the two countries - a difference in the techniques they use to block websites.
Ethiopia, according to OpenNet, used a pretty ham-fisted approach. It goes to its servers and tells them to block access to websites linked to certain words like 'blogspot' or 'nazret'. It is easy for ETC to do this. As the only operator in the country, it controls the only telecoms pipes in and out of the country. But the technique is a blunt instrument and very easy to circumvent. All you have to do is to move to another blogging platform - Wordpress for example - or buy your own web address. Ethiopia has to keep up with you by blocking each new name you choose. Boing Boing has survived so far simply because no one in ETC headquarters has thought of adding it to the list of blacklisted websites.
This software allows ISPs (internet service providers), often acting on the behest of governments, to filter lists of pages updated by the company, by category.
The trouble is that these filters are only as sophisticated as the people who set them up - i.e. not very. Here is Boing Boing itself on how it got blocked by Secure Computing's SmartFilter product:
At fault in most of these cases is a US-based censorware company called Secure Computing, which makes a web-rating product called SmartFilter. But SmartFilter isn't very smart. Secure Computing classifies any site with any nudity -- even Michaelangelo's David appearing on a single page out of thousands -- as a "nudity" site, which means that customers who block "nudity" can't get through.
Last week, Secure Computing updated their software to classify Boing Boing as a "nudity" site. Last month, we had two posts with nudity in them, out of 692 -- that's 0.29 percent of our posts, but SmartFilter blocks 100 percent of them. This month, there were four posts with nudity (including the Abu Ghraib photos), out of 618 -- 0.65 percent.
In fact, out of the 25,000+ Boing Boing posts classed as "nudity" by SmartFilter, more that 99.5 percent have no nudity at all. They're stories about Hurricane Katrina, kidnapped journalists in Iraq, book reviews, ukelele casemods, phonecam video of Bigfoot sightings (come to think of it, he doesn't wear clothes either), or pictures of astonishing Lego constructions.
So you picks your country and you takes your choice.
If you want to read Boing Boing's posts on ukelele casemods, Bigfoot sightings, Lego constructions, vaginas and lobotomies, you're fine in Ethiopia. If you want to keep track of opposition politics in Ethiopia, you had better stay in Sudan.
At the end of the day, it is good to know that those anonymous men, fine-tuning their servers in the back rooms of ETC and Sudan's National Telecommunication Corporation, are out there protecting us from one kind of online nasty or another.
Posted by aheavens at October 8, 2007 8:11 AM