Battle for the Internet

As the Internet becomes the public square and the marketplace of our world, it is increasingly becoming a contested terrain. Its potential for diffusing knowledge and subverting the traditional channels of information is tremendous. So it is not surprising that governments, corporations and even seemingly innocuous social networking sites all want to control and influence the way the Internet operates. It's easy to see why. Close to a third of humanity is linked to this system and the dramatic growth in Internet usage over the past decade is set to explode in coming years. So is its commercial promise. Latha Jishnu looks at events in the US following the WikiLeaks expos of its diplomatic cables, and in the hot spots of political turmoil across the world to understand the significance of the Internet in today's interconnected world and the threats it faces. Arnab Pratim Dutta explains the technology used to block access to the Net
Battle for the Internet

imageIdeas and ideologies, images and reports of events, both minor and cataclysmic, fly on the Internet, swirling through cyberspace, gathering resonance, metamorphosing and touching millions of lives in different ways. Many of the ideas—and visuals—could be banal (as they very often are), some dangerous, others bringing promise of change. Some have the power to subvert, helping to stir and stoke the smouldering embers of political and social unrest as recent uprisings in north Africa, West Asia and Asia have shown. To many, the Internet is the rebel hero of our times, subverting conventional media and leaking news and information that governments would like to censor. Even a village in the remote reaches of Odisha’s Malkangiri district which may have no electricity is in some way linked to cyberspace through smart cell phones because mobile operators are increasingly turning Internet service providers (ISPs) and bringing the worldwide web to the conflict-ridden forests of central India.

It is about the power and reach of connection, unprecedented since people first began communicating with each other. The Internet, therefore, is turning into a conflict zone with everyone seeking control of it: governments, corporations and social networking sites, all of whom have different agendas. Social networks may seem innocuous but they are as much a hazard as the others to Internet freedom. Surveillance of “netizens” is becoming commonplace, whether in democracies or in totalitarian regimes, through a host of new laws and regulations ostensibly aimed at strengthening national security, cyber security or protecting business interests.

imageWhile most governments are seeking to filter and block specific content, in extreme cases, as in Egypt, the Net has been blacked out using what some experts say is the “kill switch” (see ‘The Egypt shutdown’). This could emerge as the biggest threat to the Internet since other regimes could be tempted to go the Egyptian way. Most governments, however, prefer not to use it, not even the censorship-obsessed Chinese and Saudi regimes because the Internet is also about business—commerce of increasing significance is being routed through its sinews. Take one small example: In January alone, Britons spent a whopping £5.1 billion online, recording a 21 per cent jump in e-commerce revenues over January 2010, according to the latest edition of the IMRG/CapGemini e-Retail Sales Index. It is the kind of figure that stops authorities from reaching for the kill switch.

  Popular whistleblower website was unavailable for some time in December 2010  
In the case of China, e-commerce transactions hit 4.5 trillion yuan (US $682.16 billion) in 2010, up 22 per cent year-on-year, according to China e- Business Research Center and CNZZ Data Center. Of this, online B2B or business-to-business deals accounted for the bulk: 3.8 trillion yuan (US $576.05 billion). And retail sales are expected to zoom, too, pretty soon with e-commerce websites selling directly to customers growing to more than 18,600 last year. Thanks to a dramatic spike in the rate of Net penetration and impressive growth of online business.

But the world has a long way to go before the Internet becomes ubiquitous or an all-encompassing global commons. Currently, just two billion people are linked to the system (see above: ‘Big picture’), which is less than a third of the world’s population. And the reach, as the chart shows, is rather patchy. India may be in the top five Internet user nations with a total of 81 million users but penetration is an abysmal 6.9 per cent, the worst in the list. Blame that on our pathetic education levels and poverty. China, however, is the undisputed leviathan with 420 million users in 2010—some estimates put the figure closer to 500 million now—who account for more than a fifth of the world’s Internet users. No other country’s growth in this sector matches China’s either in speed or drama.


This is one reason Washington frequently raises the issue of China’s policing of the Internet in different fora. The most recent was on February 15 when secretary of state Hillary Clinton made the second of her rousing speeches on safeguarding the Internet from all kinds of government interference. Speaking at George Washington University in Washington DC, Clinton pointed out that the attempts to control the Internet were rife across the world but singled China for repeated attacks.

“In China, the government censors content and redirects search requests to error pages. In Burma, independent news sites have been taken down with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. In Cuba, the government is trying to create a national intranet, while not allowing their citizens to access the global internet. In Vietnam, bloggers who criticize the government are arrested and abused. In Iran, the authorities block opposition and media websites, target social media, and steal identifying information about their own people in order to hunt them down. These actions reflect a landscape that is complex and combustible, and sure to become more so in the coming years as billions of more people connect to the Internet.”

imageThat seemed a fair assessment of the trends but the irony is that even as the secretary of state was speaking, the Department of Justice was seeking to enforce a court order to direct Twitter Inc, to provide the US government records of three individuals, including Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s Parliament, who had been in touch with others about WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange last year when WikiLeaks released its huge cache of US diplomatic cables.

A commentary in China Daily noted with asperity: “The Assange case reveals such rhetoric is just so much hypocrisy. It is apparent that when Internet freedom conflicts with self-declared US national interests, or when Internet freedom exposes lies by the self-proclaimed open and transparent government, it immediately becomes a crime.”

The Assange case more than anything else has exposed how vulnerable the Net is to political meddling and control. In December last year, Amazon said it stopped hosting the WikiLeaks website because it “violated its terms of service” and not because the office of the Senate Homeland Security Committee chaired by Joe Lieberman had questioned Amazon about its relationship with WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks had turned to Amazon to keep its site available after hackers tried to flood it and prevent users accessing the classified information. Few people were willing to credit Amazon’s feeble explanation for cutting off WikiLeaks and the general surmise was that Lieberman had put some kind of pressure on the webhosting platform. According to one analyst, the simple reason is that the US government is one of the company’s biggest clients. According to a press note issued by the company: “Government adoption of AWS (Amazon Web Services) grew significantly in 2010. Today we have nearly 20 government agencies leveraging AWS, and the US federal government continues to be one of our fastest growing customer segments.”

As Amazon abandoned WikiLeaks, Paypal, Visa and MasterCard had also dumped WikiLeaks. This set off a fullscale cyber war in which a fourth party made its presence felt: Hackers/ ‘hacktivists’ who unleashed operation payback for what they deemed unfair targeting of WikiLeaks and Assange. This involved a series of (DDOS) attacks on Paypal, MasterCard, Swiss Bank PostFinance and Lieberman’s website.

So while governments in many parts of the world block sites, jail or kill dissidents for expressing their views on the Net, threats to the freedom of the Internet come primarily from the paranoia that governments suffer and from badly crafted policies they implement to protect business and other interests.

  US enforcement agencies shut down 84,000 sites, falsely accusing them of child pornography  
The US, the ultimate symbol of liberal democracy, is no less uneasy about the power of the Internet. A slew of laws are making their way through the Senate, laws that will give the administration sweeping powers to seize domain names and shut down websites, even those outside its territory, and laws that strengthen the powers of the president in the time of a cyber emergency, including the use of a kill switch. In September, the US Senate introduced the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, which would allow the government to create a blacklist of websites that are suspected to be infringing IP rights and to pressure or require all ISPs to block access to those sites. In these cases, no due process of law protects people before they are disconnected or their sites are blocked.

In India, in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, Parliament hastily passed amendments to the Information Technology Act, 2000, without any discussion in either House. The December 2008 amendments have some good points but they also allow increased online surveillance. Section 69A permits the Centre to “issue directions for blocking of public access to any information through any computer resource”, which means that the government can block any website.

Pranesh Prakash of the Bengalurubased Centre for Internet and Society notes that while necessity or expediency in terms of certain restricted interests is specified, no guidelines have been specified. “It has to be ensured that they are prescribed first, before any powers of censorship are granted to anybody,” said Prakash in an analysis of the amendments. “In India, it is clear that any law that gives unguided discretion to an administrative authority to exercise censorship is unreasonable.”

Civil rights activists say the section has broadened the scope of surveillance and that there are no legal or procedural safeguards to prevent violation of civil liberties.

As the battle for keeping the Internet is joined by netizens who are aware of the power of connection, governments, too, are ramping up command and control measures. Among the risks to an open, democratic Internet are the following:

Threat to universality

The basic design principle underlying the World Wide Web is universality, and, according to its founder Tim Berners-Lee, several threats are emerging. Among these are: cable companies that sell Internet connectivity wanting to limit their Net users to downloading only the company’s mix of entertainment and social networking sites (see ‘Hidden dangers of Facebook’).

Another is by pricing Net connectivity out of the reach of the poor and allowing differential pricing. Berners- Lee, warned at a recent London conference: “There are a lot of companies who would love to be able to limit what web pages you can see...the moment you let Net neutrality go, you lose the web as it is...You lose something essential—the fact that any innovator can dream up an idea and set up a website at some random place and let it just take off from word of mouth...”

Actions against piracy

The nub of such operations lies in the US Department of Homeland Security, whose Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) have been seizing domains because they are suspected of hawking pirated goods. The first seizure was in November last year when 82 websites selling counterfeit goods ranging from handbags to golf clubs were taken out.

Last month, there was another raid on the Internet. According to TorrentFreak and other Internet monitoring sites, the two agencies wrongly shut down 84,000 websites that had not broken the law, falsely accusing them of child pornography crimes. After the mistake was identified, it took about three days for some of the websites to go live again. The domain provider, FreeDNS, was taken aback. “ has never allowed this type of abuse of its DNS service. We are working to get the issue sorted as quickly as possible,” it said.

Earlier, DoJ and ICE had seized the domain of the popular sports streaming and P2P download site Rojadirecta. What is shocking is that the site is based in Spain and is perfectly legal. Two courts in Spain have ruled that the site operates legally, and other than the .org domain the site has no links to the US.

Internet freedom could easily become the biggest casualty in the illconceived and poorly designed procedures adopted by developed countries— France, the UK, South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand have similar laws—to protect intellectual property from counterfeiters and pirates, primarily at the behest of the film and music recording industries.

There are indications India may be planning to follow suit (see ‘India’s three-strikes policy’), although civil rights groups say it could amount to a form of deprivation of liberty.

Surveillance technology

The problem with the use of technology in keeping the Internet safe cuts both ways. With increasing number of cyber attacks on both official and public websites from an array of hackers and malware, governments are reaching for ever more sophisticated high-tech surveillance systems. For instance, computer systems of the US Congress and the executive branches are under attack an average of 1.8 billion times per month, according to a recent Senate report. The result: more spyware. One such is deep packet inspection technology. It is a tool that protects customers from rampant spam and virus traffic. Experts say the Internet could not survive without this technology and yet, it helps authorities to keep a close watch on what people are doing on the Net. In the US, ISPs are required to have this technology.

So what can be done? Keep close tabs on government involvement in the Internet and ensure that its intrusion in both the content and the engines of this system is kept to the minimum.

China’s most famous blogger, author of best-sellers and race car driver, Han Han, took a jab at his government last April after he was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine. In his blog twocold he wrote, “Other Chinese nominees include sensitive word, sensitive word and sensitive word.” His post, referring to China’s web censors’ habit of blocking even commonplace names from web searches and blog sites, struck a chord with his readers. Within days, more than 20,000 commented on his post, most echoing Han’s exasperation with the Chinese censorship of the Internet.

imageChina has one of the most advanced web monitoring and blocking systems. The system can be likened to a check at the airport. Every piece of luggage, coming in or going out, is put through a scanner. If any one of them contains weapons or narcotics, the scanner detects it immediately and the articles are impounded. Web filters work in a similar way. They scrutinise and block websites which could range from websites on free speech and democracy to ones on pornography, depending on the country using the system.

Internet sites can be blocked at different levels.

Censoring begins at home

The most basic form of censorship is the one parents employ at homes to prevent their children from browsing adult content. This can be done by altering a file called the host, which is a text document. The host file is like a contact list in your mobile phone where each name has a corresponding coordinate. It guides domain names to their respective Internet protocol (IP) addresses. Every device (computer or mobile) connected to the Internet has a unique IP address. Tweaking the host file ensures a user will not be able to access the desired website even when he has typed the correct domain name. Names of websites to be blocked can be added to a list in this file and directed to the loopback IP, a reserved IP address used when a programme needs to access a network service running on the same computer. When the user types the name of a website, the loopback IP will bring it back to the user’s machine, showing an error on the screen.

When blocking has to be done on a larger scale, like at the corporate or national level, all computers are routed through an intermediary device called a proxy server. These servers work as a front for a group of computers that connect to other network servers. Filters in these servers scan content as well as uniform resource locators (URLs). URL blocking is simple. The proxy server has a database of URLs called a black list, that it will block. It also contains a white list of URLs that can be browsed. Proxy servers’ URL databases are updated through web-based subscription services just like an anti-virus software.


Proxy servers have a database of URLs divided into black and white lists. All sites in the black list are blocked. Proxy servers block content in a similar way
Content blocking uses a similar design like the URL blocking wherein blocking is based on keywords or the category to which a website belongs. In China, for example, websites containing key words and phrases such as democracy, Dalai Lama and Chinese occupation of Tibet are scrutinised and blocked. If a government bans the category called social networking, then all popular websites like Facebook and Orkut are likely to become out of bounds.

Denial of service

Popular whistleblower website wikileaks. org was unavailable for some time in December 2010. As on February 17, 2011, typing the domain name wikileaks. org would lead to a mirror site or an alternative site called But typing the IP address,, would open This was because the website was subjected to a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack through a Domain Name Service (DNS) provider. DNS is an Internet service that translates domain names into IP addresses. When a new domain name is registered, the registrar enquires where the website is to be hosted.


Virtual Private Network (VPN) creates a virtual tunnel through which data is sent in encrypted form to a remote server/computer which decodes it. Anonymiser websites act as proxy servers, shielding client’s identity and information
Once the website is hosted at a specific IP address, the server is linked to the domain name which the public uses to access the website. So, if a surfer types, the DNS will connect it to But if there is disconnect between the domain name and IP address, a browser will not be able to access the website. After the US cable leaks in 2010,, a DNS provider, withdrew its services to wikileaks. org. Result: most people could not access the site.

How to avoid scrutiny

An easy way to circumvent censors is to use a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN uses public Internet infrastructure but the content is only visible to the person sending the data. It is like a private tunnel that piggy rides a public set up. Data is first encrypted and sent to a remote server or computer which decodes the packets. Since VPN is used for secured corporate communications and remote desktop assistance, and not solely for Internet browsing, governments tend to ignore such networks.

  Methods used to circumvent governmentsponsored Internet censorship are not 100 per cent foolproof  
However, VPN networks are not absolutely filter proof—a procedure called deep packet inspection can analyse layers of information in an encrypted message.

Another way of avoiding detection is using an “anonymiser” website. Many websites allow anonymous browsing by making browsers invisible to Internet activity. The net-users’ traffic is routed thorough a tunnel created by the anonymiser website, in many ways mimicking the VPN network.

It acts as a proxy server, and shields the client’s computer and personal information from the server it is trying to communicate with.

Anonymiser websites are good as long as they are not identified by censors. They can be blocked using firewalls that moderate Internet traffic by filtering URLs, keywords and categories (see diagrams above).


Our world is increasingly held together by the network of digital communications networks we call the Internet. Business, government, politics, science and the arts have all been fundamentally transformed by the fact that everyone’s connected to everyone else, everywhere, and no one needs to get permission to collaborate, trade, or create.

imageUsed at its best, in freedom, the Net can abolish ignorance and free the full power of human creativity and genius. Used at its worst, under forms of state control that well-intentioned public officials around the world are calling for, it can eradicate the very possibility of human freedom. What happens will depend entirely on what the citizens of democracies like India demand.

Governments are threatened, both rightly and wrongly, by what happens when everyone’s connected to everybody else. Rightly, because dangerous people will conspire, and anti-social and destructive acts will be undertaken that might otherwise be impossible to accomplish. Wrongly, because political dissent and legitimate movements for social change are enabled by the Net, like all other valuable forms of social expression, and governments will inevitably try to control such movements in ways that amount to tyranny.

Today, all around the world, governments are using their legitimate concerns about terrorism and crime as an excuse to control the Net. States as different as the US, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UK, France, as well as India, are trying to exercise unprecedented levels of power over the Net. They want to be able to conduct comprehensive surveillance of every packet passing through the Net, within or even outside their borders. That means the equivalent of listening to every telephone call, reading every email and SMS and recording every transfer of money or business transaction. But given the way we use the Net, it also means the equivalent of monitoring everyone’s television to see what they are watching at all times, as well as spying on everyone while they are reading every newspaper, magazine or book, noting every page they read and how long they spend reading it. Soon, as every mobile device has GPS inside, it will mean tracking every human being’s movements, too.

No government has ever had such control over the lives of its subjects in the history of the world. But every government that is currently seeking to be able to “wiretap” the Net is actually asking for technical facilities to be created, for ‘backdoors’ and holes to be opened in the facilities that make the Net, so as to permit all this monitoring, surveillance and control to be exercised anywhere, throughout society, at any time.

  If Net is state controlled, society risks conversion to totalitarianism if wrong forces gain power  
The way we secure privacy in the Net is to use “encryption”, which means to employ mathematical transformations to data that constitute emails, voice conversations, video streams and monetary transfers so that they can only be understood by their intended recipients.

All the governments that are now claiming, as the Government of India is claiming, the right to force breakage of encryption, so as, for example, to see the email and messages exchanged by corporate BlackBerry users, are literally demanding that nothing ever be private in the Net again. That no one will ever do anything anonymously, including read, speak or spend money. That there never will be secrets anymore.

And when government demands that encryption schemes be deliberately compromised, to facilitate government listening, it also means weaknesses are created that can be exploited by terrorists and hostile governments. In the end, government controls designed to fight terrorism, crime and international aggression will wind up furthering those evils as well as impeding them. Nothing will have changed. Except that freedom will be actually, or potentially, extinct.

We believe in the rule of law because it makes tyranny so much harder to achieve. Creeping despotism can be resisted, and even a state ruled by an unaccountable military can be forced to acknowledge the power of an independent judiciary. But once the Net is controlled, even by a legitimate democratic government, society risks an instantaneous conversion to totalitarianism if wrong forces gain power. It is useless for good governments to ask us for power to control the Net, promising us they will never misuse the power. Once gained, the power can be misused throughout society so terribly, and to such effect that the resulting despotism will be impossible to dislodge.

Rulers like the Chinese Communist Party, that unapologetically seek to ensure themselves a permanent monopoly of power, see clearly that they must control the Net. Citizens of every free society must just as clearly learn the opposite lesson: even if you approve of your present government, you must not give it control of the Net, because somewhere in the inevitable future a bad government will use the Net to destroy freedom in your society.

Eben Moglen is professor of law at Columbia University and chairperson of Software Freedom Law Center

Down To Earth