By: Kwami Ahiabenu, II
Control of communication is power. To preserve their status quo, many major institutions-state and non-state actors - are using their power to interfere with citizens’ communications. At times they prevent users from freely using email, social media, telephone, messaging services, broader Internet access, and more. Censorship of electronic communication differs from country to country, however it is more common in undemocratic countries than in open and free societies.
According to freedom house https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-reports/leaping-over-firewall-review-censorship-circumvention-tools, “Internet censorship poses a large and growing challenge to online freedom of expression around the world. “Censorship circumvention tools are critical to bypass restrictions on the Internet and thereby to protect free expression online.”
Electronic communication censorship can happen at several levels. At the individual level, a parent can control access in order to prevent minors from accessing inappropriate content. Companies or organisations can set up filters so that their workers cannot access Facebook at work. An Internet café can prevent its users from accessing certain online services, which are considered a drain on bandwidth.
Governments can monitor, filter or shut down certain electronic communications services for a number of reasons including national security concerns, maintaining law and order, preventing dissent, and otherwise controlling citizens’ behaviour. Some states prevent evidence of human rights abuses from getting out to the larger world by censoring electronic communications or in some cases prevent scrutiny of their electoral processes.
State-level interference can occur within a country’s legal and constitutional framework, or in blatant infringement of its laws. For instance, USA Freedom Act (https://judiciary.house.gov/issue/usa-freedom-act/) while Ghana is promulgating a new law “Interception postal packets and telecommunications bill, 2016” with provision not only for monitoring postal and electronic communication but undertaking some levels of censorship as well.
Now that we know that restriction of electronic communication is commonplace in our world today, what can we do about it?
During Uganda’s February 18, 2016 elections, Uganda Communications Commission blocked the use of social media and mobile money. However, some citizens were able to access social media using circumvention tools such as proxies and Virtual Private Networks (VPN).
When you communicate online, your message gets broken up into little packages of data, called packets, which are reassembled when they arrive at their destination so the recipient can understand what you have said. Circumvention tools bypass communications filters that try to prevent you from communicating.
Sometimes they work by finding alternative paths for those data packages; imagine that you are sending a parcel to another city and the main road is blocked, so the parcel-delivery service uses a different road or mode of transport. Circumvention tools may also disguise the communication so censors can’t decipher what is being said. Circumvention tools are not a perfect solution, but they can offer practical help.
Here are some of the key technologies in the field today.
A proxy is an intermediary destination on the Internet. It gets data traffic from a browser in a place where censorship is occurring, and sends it to the destination the user wants; the traffic comes back via that same intermediary location. The location of a proxy is usually in a different country from the one facing censorship, which prevents it from being subjected to censorship there. Some proxy services find ways to use alternative routes if the first one gets blocked.
https://www.torproject.org is a free service that requires downloading and installing software compatible with most operating systems. It works to provide anonymity for online users, protect users’ privacy and defend them against network surveillance and traffic analysis. Psiphon https://psiphon.ca grant users open access to the Internet when information controls and limitations are arbitrarily imposed within any given country.
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) uses a public network to connect remote sites or users together via "virtual" connections routed through the Internet from one private network to others or a remote site. If a government is blocking your Internet access, you may be able to use VPN to circumvent this by assuming a different geographic location. In other words, I could be using my computer in Accra but by using VPN, I can block my location and assume another geographic address, therefore my computer will not be found in the pool of users in Accra, thereby guaranteeing anonymity and privacy. It is important to note, however, that some governments are skilled at blocking VPNs; China is especially tough on these bypasses.
Another important tool to circumvent prying eyes is the use of encryption, whereby users enhance the security of a message or file by scrambling the contents during transmission. When it comes to mobile messaging and voice, there are a number of apps which enable calling and texting encryption, including Signal (https://whispersystems.org/blog/just-signal/), which works on android and apple, easy to install and use.
Governments are not sleeping
In spite of all these circumventing tools and apps, complete circumvention is difficult. Governments are increasingly developing the capacity to block anti-censorship tools but this is an arms race. Some governments even have access to the source codes powering some of the circumvention tools. It is, therefore, important to evaluate tools carefully before making use of them.
Evidently, censorship is of great importance today even in democratic states, because some leaders are falling to the temptation of monitoring and controlling electronic communication of their citizens outside the legal framework. Collectively, citizens must voice their concerns about this negative trend, advocate for laws which will balance security concerns with the right of citizens to express themselves without fear. It is critical for all and sundry to understand key issues surrounding electronic communication censorship, and more importantly learn and invest in tools which can enable them to circumvent these censorship tools when they are deployed to cow them into submission.
The writer is the Executive Director of Penplusbytes.org - you can follow him on twitter at www.twitter.com/kwamigh; WhatsApp : 0241995737